After we fall asleep, there is a period of time when we are completely unconscious, and then we begin to dream. Ordinarily, when we dream, we are not aware that we are dreaming. Instead, we believe that what is happening is real, even when it is illogical and outrageous. Of course, when we wake up, we are immediately aware that the dream was just a dream.
Sometimes, we become lucid, aware that we are dreaming. Usually, the dawning of lucidity is accidental. During a dream, it dawns on us, “Oh. This is a dream.” Oftentimes, we only become semi-lucid: we are aware that we are dreaming, but we still interact with the dream as if it is real, like an interactive movie. In any case, lucid or not, most of us agree that the reality that we experience while dreaming is less real than that which we experience while we are awake.
When we are lucid during a dream, instead of following along with the content of the dream, we have the opportunity to do a variety of useful and insightful kinds of meditation practice. Doing meditation practice while dreaming is particularly interesting because of how quickly and responsively our mental states are reflected in the content of the lucid dream. Also, after doing dreaming meditation practice, it is possible to recognize the similarities between dream reality and the real world. This correlation serves to reinforce our experiential understanding of the transitory nature of form and the flexibility of mind.
Preliminary Dreaming Meditation Practice
Some of us become accidentally lucid while we are dreaming. Whenever that happens, right away, try to do the dreaming meditation practices described below. Lucidity is a rare and precious mental state, so take advantage of the opportunity whenever it arises. In order to increase our chances of becoming lucid, we can do these preliminary practices. Preliminary dreaming meditation practices help to encourage us to become lucid more often while we are dreaming.
The concept behind the preliminary practices is quite simple: We tend to dream about things that are frequently on our minds during the day, so if we repeatedly bring lucid dreaming to mind during the day, we are more likely to remember it when we are dreaming.
My favorite way to do this is to tell people that I’m doing a lucid dreaming practice. People are quite curious about it, so we tend to end up having a conversation about it. That way, I’ve had an interaction with someone and we’ve talked about lucid dreaming. The more we talk about it and think about it, the more likely we are to dream about it.
Another simple exercise is to periodically say, “This is a dream,” out loud throughout the day. If you’re with company, you can also say it in your mind, although out loud works better. Similarly, you can repeatedly tell yourself, “I’m doing a lucid dreaming practice. When I dream, I’m going to become lucid.”
Lastly, for a more radical and direct approach, we can wake ourselves up with an alarm every hour during the night. Once awake, we reaffirm our intention to become lucid, and then fall back asleep. This practice gives us many opportunities to move through the transition from awake to total unconsciousness, and then either directly into lucidity or into a dream in which we may become lucid. Of all of the practices that I’ve done, this one produces more lucidity more quickly than any other. Surprisingly, I still feel quite rested in the morning.
For most of us, lucid dreaming is very inconsistent, and increasing its frequency requires a lot of preliminary practice. We tend to dream about things that are important to us, happen repeatedly, have a strong emotional component, and are associated with other people. For this reason, we need to commit to doing the preliminary practices for several months, especially talking about lucid dreaming with other people. This way, the practices have a cumulative effect that is more likely to produce lucidity. It is very unlikely that we will become lucid on the first try, or even for the first month or three.
The Lucid Dreaming Meditation Practices
Once we are lucid within a dream, we have a very short window of opportunity in which to do our practices. Oftentimes, we are semi-lucid. That means that while we are aware that we are dreaming, we still believe in and interact with the dream content. It is possible to do some lucid dreaming practices while in the semi-lucid state. Sometimes, semi-lucidity becomes full lucidity, sometimes we slip into the dream and lose our lucidity altogether, and sometimes we wake up when the lucidity becomes too clear. The tendency to slip out of lucidity for one reason or another is the reason why we have such a short window of opportunity to do the practices.
In a semi-lucid state, it is possible to alter the content of the dream. For example, we may be able to fly, conjure up people, and manipulate the dream in any imaginable way. Oftentimes, people use semi-lucidity to alter or stop unpleasant dreams. In speaking with people about lucid dreaming, I’ve found that many of us are semi-lucid all of the time, meaning that we regularly alter the content of our dreams. That’s a very fortunate situation. Others of us have never been lucid, and will need to work on the preliminary practices for a while first. Once we become semi-lucid, it is both fun and interesting to practice altering the dream content to suit our curiosity and desire. I love flying so much that I’m often willing to sacrifice my precious lucid time for a quick trip into the stars. I really like flying into space.
Instead of altering content at random, or for the sake of fun and sheer creativity, we can do specific exercises that strengthen our lucid dreaming capacity. Traditionally, these include: (1) making small things big and big things small; (2) making near things far and far things near; (3) making one thing many, and many things one; and (4) transforming categories and elements, from plant to animal, from solid to light, from water to fire, etc. This exercise gives us greater command over our attention in the semi-lucid state, ultimately leading to the ability to dissolve the dream-state entirely to reside in pure, subjectless lucidity. Also, the exercises serve to reinforce our experiential understanding of the transitory nature of objects and the role of mental concepts in the framing of our experiences.
When transforming objects in a semi-lucid state, it is quite easy to become distracted by the objects themselves. At any moment, the dream may become so interesting that lucidity fades, and we are swallowed into the story and content of the dream. When this happens, it is very interesting to bear witness to the process, noticing the sensation of mind slipping into delusion. In the dream state, when we get caught up in a train of thought, the thought manifests as a compelling reality into which we are inexorably drawn. Then, during the waking state, we can come to recognize that same sensation as we slip into strong fixation on the content of our lives. At some point in the practice, it is possible that we will recognize that the experiences of believing in the dream and believing in the reality are exactly the same.
It is also possible to become completely lucid. In that state, there is no longer any dream content. The easiest way to become completely lucid is to begin by transforming the dream as explained above. After some practice, it becomes easier to willfully dissolve the content of the dream entirely. It is also possible to transition from the total unconsciousness of initial sleep into pure lucidity without ever entering into a dream with content. This kind of transition usually only occurs after several years of diligent lucid dreaming practice, although it is also quite possible that it will happen accidentally at any time. For some rare individuals, pure lucidity is the natural dream state. For most of us, pure lucidity will remain entirely conceptual. For a few people, myself included, pure lucidity becomes possible only after many years of diligent practice. Once we have developed the skill, it opens us up to a whole new world of experience.
To develop our capacity for complete lucidity, it is also very helpful to practice basic calm-abiding meditation while we are awake. In the calm-abiding practice, we let go of every thought as soon as we notice it has arisen. This letting go is exactly the same mental activity as letting go of the subject of a dream. When we become semi-lucid, if we are accustomed to that mental gesture of letting go of thoughts, we can do the same thing within the dream, and the content of the dream may indeed fall away. Personally for me, the familiarity of calm-abiding meditation practice that comes as the result of more than 20 years of practice seems to be the key for entering pure lucidity. I use the gesture of letting go of a thought to let go of the content of a dream.
When doing this practice, I have a funny little quirk. Many times, when I let go of the content of the dream, I find myself suspended in an endless purple fog – neither flying nor falling – just suspended. The first time it happened set the tone for every subsequent time, leaving me stuck in an absurd loop of this silly dream habit. It used to be that whenever I found myself in the purple fog, I would immediately start trying to escape. The problem was my method: I’d think, “Oh no! Not the purple fog!” and then I’d start trying to dissolve it. This is futile, because so long as my mind is fixated on dissolving the fog, it is fixated on the fog itself. According to the function of the dream-state, whatever is strongest in my mind becomes manifest. Thus, my attempts to escape the purple fog result in my total captivity in the purple fog. At this point in my life, when I accidentally show up in the purple fog, I just start laughing, and usually wake myself up. My experience in the purple fog serves to illustrate some of the ways in which lucid dreaming meditation practice reveals truths about the function of mental fixation.
When we are successful at dissolving the subject of the dream and residing in subjectless lucidity, then the meditation practice takes on a new dimension. First of all, there is the state of subjectless lucidity itself. Subjectless lucidity is for me the most clear and most profound mental state I have ever been able to generate and sustain during any meditation practice, awake or asleep. Residing bodiless, without objects of reference, in neither darkness nor light, only as lucid mind is the experience of the unification of pure restfulness with pure awareness – purely awake within the open spaciousness that is the precursor to being. Before the dreaming state manifests subject matter, there is lucid spaciousness, and from the emptiness of that space arises every dream. From that perspective, it is evident that unlike a dream with content, which is clearly more ephemeral than waking reality, lucid spaciousness is exactly the same whether we are awake or asleep.
In addition to residing in the expansive simplicity of subjectless lucidity, we can also contemplate the nature of reality. In the pure lucid state, such contemplations take on a clarity and depth of insight that I’ve only experienced a few times while awake. Similarly, we can conjure up the presence of our teachers. This seems to be different than ordinary dreaming, and different than semi-lucidity. I can’t say that my teachers actually come visit me in my dreams, but rather that the wisdom essence of my teachers that remains within me as an experience-memory arises in a pure way within the lucid state. In this way, spending time with my teachers while in a lucid state feels very similar to spending time with them in reality.
In this context, we are not contemplating the meaning, symbolism, stories or feelings of our ordinary dreams. Since these ordinary, non-lucid dreams arise more often than semi-lucidity and pure lucidity, it is useful to understand a little bit more about them from this perspective.
The content of our ordinary dreams can tell us something about the progression of our lucid dreaming practice. Ordinary dreams are divided into three categories. In the first category are dreams in which the content contains people, events and emotions associated with that day’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. For example, just before I go kayaking, I often think a lot and worry a little bit about my next day’s adventure. Because those thoughts and feelings are strong in me during the day, I often dream about them at night. This kind of dream is a perfect illustration of the function of the preliminary dreaming meditation practices: when we think a lot about something, we are more likely to dream about it.
The second category of dreams come from deeper memory and emotional impressions generated during important time periods in our personal development. These include dreams about long-term friends and family members, our childhood homes, and other important places. I often go back to high school, and almost as frequently end up cooking in a restaurant in North Carolina. This kind of dream is great fodder for psychological interpretation, but in the context of dreaming meditation practice it just means we need to increase the energy we put into our preliminary practices. So long as we are dreaming about the distant past, we are not calling our attention into the present dreaming meditation effort.
The third category of dreams are those that include nothing or very little of our familiar daily lives. For example, we dream of people and places we’ve never experienced, as well as surreal and magical situations that could never happen in reality. These dreams come from deep in our imaginations rather than from impressions that our experiences make on our psyche. While these dreams are similar to dreams of our past in that they do not contain current content, they are an easier gateway into lucidity. When we dream about something impossible or totally unfamiliar, it is easier for us to recognize that it is a dream. Flying, falling, and singing dreams are my favorite gateways into lucidity. Because I can neither fly to the stars, nor fall off of a cliff (I hope), nor sing like a pop star, whenever I find myself in one of those situations, it is an immediate gateway to lucidity. When a dream is so absurd that it must be a dream, the conscious mind can pick up on that, and become aware that it is a dream. Before doing lucid dreaming practice, I used to dread my falling dreams. They were so uncomfortable. Now, whenever I find myself falling, I immediately feel a wave of joy: “Yay! I’m dreaming.” I love dissolving my falling dreams into subjectless space. It feels like such a triumph over fear, and leads into a profound state of awareness.
The Overall Effect of the Lucid Dreaming Meditation Practice
Once we have developed our capacity for lucid dreaming, and especially the capacity to dissolve the subject matter of the dream, we have access to a universe where every mental inclination is manifest in pure form. When we choose not to manifest anything, but instead reside in subjectless lucidity, we have the opportunity to spend some precious time in the experience of pure mind. When we choose to manifest our teachers or contemplate their teachings, we have the opportunity to spend some precious time with the manifestation of natural wisdom. In either case, the pure lucid dreaming experience offers a rare and precious glimpse into the fundamental nature of the universe, where thoughts become form, either directed by our spiritual aspirations or by our emotional impressions and desires. After many such lucid dreaming experiences, the line between dreaming and not-dreaming dissolves, as we recognize that in both states, lucid, subjectless cognition is the basis of all experience.