Reclaiming Shamanic Dreaming from the Roots of Western Culture


Fly through the heavens, make love with beautiful honey-skinned goddesses, and impress friends by folding a city on top of itself a la Inception.

These are the familiar advertisements for lucid dreaming; we know them well. Sure, these things can be achieved in dreams in which we are self-aware, but they are weak analogues to the shamanic context that our ancestors and cultural forebearers provided for dreams and visions.

Dreaming can be more than a reflection of our fears and desires. Actually, dreaming is a shamanic technology. The skills to dream for healing, guidance, and power -- the classic domains of shamanism -- lay hidden in our own Western culture.

Where we are headed today: eerie springs and caves concealed under Christian temples that once served other gods. It is here, amongst the numerous ruins of the most popular mystery cult in the Hellenic Age (the first three centuries of the Common Era), that the full potential of dreams and night visions is revealed.

In thousands of temples built specifically for dream incubation -- the ritual calling of a dream -- ordinary people claimed extraordinary cures, visitations by healing gods and goddesses, and renewal from the kinds of psychosomatic illnesses that modern medicine still does not adequately address except by numbing us further: chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, and spiritual malaise.


Dream Incubation In The Ancient World

Dreams can be called. Known as Dream incubation, this skill is about mindfully and ritualistically inviting a dream into your life for problem solving, healing or a renewal of life force. The term comes from the Latin incubare, which means to lie down upon, or as we say today: just sleep on it.

While dream incubation is largely a lost art, many people have participated in dream rituals by attempting to have a lucid dream. Lucid dreaming can be thought of a specific form of dream incubation in which we are not looking for a dream message, but a specific form of dream cognition.

As it turns out, lucid dreaming cognition is characterized by the synchronization of the frontal lobe (waking consciousness) and older brain structures (dreaming consciousness). This integrative mode of consciousness, as anthropologist Michael Winkelman terms it, invites the classical markers of visionary awareness, such as abstract geometric imagery, encounters with animal-human hybrids, emotional catharsis and ecstasy, and finally, experiences of white light and nonduality.[i]

A reliable gateway to his realm has always been right in front of us, hidden by camouflaging beliefs like "dreams are meaningless" or, at the least, "dreams are irrational."

The practice of dream incubation is well documented throughout the ancient world. Over the centuries, as the Church rose to power and supplanted pagan social structures, spiritual leaders began pulling away from the idea that dreams can contain wisdom, leading to a loss of this important ability that is still practiced today in small pockets around the world, especially in indigenous societies.

But the writing is literally on the wall. The work of archaeologists and classicists has reconstructed the Western practice of dream incubation based on ruins, documents and statues.

During the Hellenistic era all across the Mediterranean, the practice took place in temples that were staffed by priest-physicians. In fact, dream temples made up the single most popular spiritual healing institution in the Mediterranean world, more popular than the Jesus cult. As it has done with hundreds of native cultures, the early Church ended up incorporating the healing imagery of dream temples into the Jesus myth.[ii]

These restful sanctuaries were designed to produce dreams that provided healing wisdom -- and also instant cures -- if we are to believe the boasts of ancient graffiti. Successful cures were honored with inscriptions on the walls of the sanctuaries, acting as advertisements as well.

The dream healers of ancient Greece were also surgeons and herbalists, teaching their young doctors the art of empirical observation coupled with an environment of safety and spiritual cleansing. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, learned from his dream healing mentors to make empirical observations rather than simply following untested beliefs. Hippocrates is also cited as writing a medical dream dictionary that focused on a number of common dream symbols that indicate bodily ailments, although many scholars attribute the work to his disciples.


Aesclepius: Greek God Of Healing

The figure most often associated with these dream temples is Aesclepius, the Greek god of healing. Up into the 1960s, new doctors pledged the Hippocratic oath and thanks to Aesclepius and his daughters. Aesclepius was commonly depicted standing with a large staff with a snake curling up it, identifying his origins as an earth spirit related to healing and the animal powers.[iii]

From the very beginning, Aesclepius was also associated with caves and springs, cementing his identity as a chthonic -- or underworld -- power.

In Greek mythology, Aesclepius teaches that healing is holistic. Vitality in life comes through exercise, proper diet, spiritual practice and mindful study. In some tales, he carried two vials of Medusa's blood: one that healed, and another that killed.

Dangerous knowledge requires a strong ethical code: now the Hippocratic oath begins to come into focus. Healing powers can be used for or against our better natures. Psychotherapist Edward Tick suggests that the ambivalence of Medusa's blood highlights how important a secure container is for any exploration into our inner lives.[iv] This is true of lucid dreaming as much as it for psychotherapy, spiritual authority, and any secret body of knowledge.


Entering The Inner Sanctum

In ancient Greece, thousands took pilgrimages to local temple sites, which are usually situated in a beautiful natural setting, often with a spring or a cave site built into the grounds. They stayed in the temple often for weeks, a time spent relaxing, walking in gardens, and attending to their bodies as they cleansed and reduced stress.

Finally, the clients were invited into the abaton, the inner sanctum of the temple, where they stayed until they had a healing dream, a process that could take three or four days. The incubation was short, but intense, and also saturated their every thought.

Key to the Aesclepian model of medicine is the patient's responsibility for his or her own healing. Rather than limiting the endogenous healing response (often called the "placebo effect" today), Aesclepian rituals were designed to heighten, refine and direct one's intention.


Elements Of Aesclepian Dream Practice

What made Aesclepian rituals so effective for bringing on big dreams and visions? The following elements can be leveraged today, thousands of years removed, because they are neurologically built into the human experience.

Sleeping practices. Clients slept on special ritual dreaming beds known as klines. More like a couch, the kline often included a stone neck or head rest, facilitating clients to elevate their heads and sleep on their backs.

These sleeping styles are known today to encourage lighter sleep, more awakenings, as well as longer experiences in REM sleep. Given the universality of sleep biology, it seems as if Aesclepian temples directly encouraged vivid dreams as well as realistic hypnagogic hallucinations.

Disruption of circadian rhythms. When those seeking healing crossed the threshold of the abaton, they entered an inner sanctum where sleep and prayer intertwined until a strong dream came. This pattern can also be seen in Native American vision quests, where disrupted sleep (and attempts at night-long vigilance) leads to powerful lucid dreams and waking visions often involving visitations with larger-than-life figures.[v]

Positive expectation. Clients hoped for and actively sought an interaction with a healing figure. This powerful intention is easy to achieve because we are neurologically primed for encounters with self-like entities.[vi] But the positive expectation turns the experience towards healing rather than terror, as is often the case in unanticipated hypnagogic visions in the modern world. Known today medically as sleep paralysis, in these terrifying waking nightmares we are more likely to be anally raped by aliens than healed by gods.[vii]

Priests and priestesses also whispered in the ears of the sleepers to encourage dreams of Aesclepius. Today we know that dreams can incorporate sounds and suggestions into the dream narrative, as well as smells. Lucid dream researcher Stephen LaBerge's wisdom here: Expectation creates dreaming outcomes.[viii]

Relaxation and cleansing. Before the intense dreaming incubations began, dreamers relaxed in baths, walked around the beautiful gardens around the temple, and took naps. They were removed from their everyday life in order to focus on healing. They also adhered to a cleansing diet while staying at the temples, further setting the stage for ritual purification in the final part of the healing process.

Good dreamsigns. Dreamsigns, a term coined by LaBerge, are elements that can alert us that we are not in ordinary reality. In classical times, snakes roamed the dream temples unmolested. As an ancient symbol of healing, snakes are at the center of the Aesclepian worldview. Dreams about snakes were taken to be dreams of Aesclepius himself. This is the perfect example of an effective dreamsign: one that is focused, meaningful and has an element of the bizarre.[ix]


How to set up a lucid dreaming sanctuary today

We don't have to travel to ancient Greece to re-establish the dream practices that bring lucidity, shamanic contact and powerful visions. Most of the work of establishing set and setting can be done in your own home. The ritual setting is simple, combining strong intentions with good social boundaries.

If you are looking for a quick and safe way to delve into the deep side of the dream realm, the following practical advice will get the process started. Powerful dreams start with the right kind of sleep, in which relaxation and mindfulness come together.

Where you sleep is the inner sanctum. Treat it that way by setting up your bedroom in a way that encourages relaxation and clarity. This is reflected not only in the physical set up of the room but also how you approach going to bed.

The physical boundaries here are essential. In the spirit of Aesclepius, create an inner sanctum that is truly a restful and protected space from the world.


Turn off the TV. Limit exposure to television, computer monitors and mobile media devices at least an hour before bed. The content is emotionally stimulating, and rapid fire light in the blue spectrum may prevent the release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin in the evening.

Dress for comfort. Sleep in clean, loose clothing, or nothing at all. Putting on your sleep clothes an hour before bed is another way of reinforcing your downward shift. It sends a message to others in the household too.

Keep it clean. Fresh sheets, clean pillowcases, and a neat room create a relaxing space. Reducing clutter is crucial for creating mental space. On a related note, I recommend not keeping a computer or mobile phones in the room to clear the electro-magnetic field too.

Move the bed. Make sure the bed is not against a wall in which electrical outlets are near your head. Metal water pipes in the wall can also cause noises and may create subtle effects on consciousness too. Sleeping below a window also creates background anxiety.

Clear the air. If you can't get fresh air, have some fresh flowers in a vase, aromatherapy candles, or small dream pillows stuffed with lavender or mugwort. Bad smells can actually increase the likelihood of negative emotions in dreams.[x]

Shield the sounds. Erratic sounds are the worst. If you live in a busy house or neighborhood, turn on a small fan or invest in a white noise machine. Traffic sounds are particularly disturbing.

Darkness rules. I just read an article about how the musician Moby used to have a bedroom composed of walls of glass with fantastic views of Los Angeles. He ended up sleeping in the closet.[xi] The bedroom should be dark, with good light-blocking curtains for your afternoon naps. A door that latches also helps create feelings of safety in the evening hours.

Wind down for an hour. In general, create a ritual of winding down that incorporates relaxation, the dimming of household lighting, and the shutting out of information input (TV, computing, texting, etc). Read if you wish (storytelling is an old friend of nightfall) or listen to some relaxing music while you settle down with your dream journal.

Stay cool. The lowering of the body temperature is a further cue for the brain to release sleep-inducing hormones, so sleep comes more easily when the room temperature is slightly on the cool side. Taking a cool bath in the summer months is another refreshing way to get ready for bed.

Post guards. If you are draw inspiration from any of the faith traditions, you may also want to mark the boundaries of your room with sacred objects or images. Thresholds take new significance when we are the grips of sleep paralysis, or during a hypnagogic vision of an intruder. Mugwort under the pillow, a dark stone in the corner of the room to absorb negative energy, or guardian figures can facilitate feelings of safety and security. I keep a horseshoe over the front door of my home as well, honoring my Celtic roots. Other dreamers I know make use of Virgin Mary figures, dream catchers, crystals, and even small gargoyle statuettes.


The Ritual Context of Inviting Dreams Today

Setting up the dream chamber is only the first step towards inviting visionary dreams and visions, but it's the one that most modern dreamers forget. If you want to go deeper into the dreaming mind, you must protect yourself. That's why beginner lucid dreamers so often crash and burn. Like entheogens and vision quests, set and setting is key. 

Without the foundation in relaxation and positive expectation, you are unwittingly setting yourself up for sleep paralysis nightmares and other forms of uncomfortable states of consciousness.

Now the ritual context of lucid dreaming incubation is revealed. Once you have made your physical boundaries, the next step is focusing on intentions and combining these with sleep practices that bring on visionary REM, excite the frontal cortex of the brain, and induce relaxation.

Our neuro-shamanic heritage is revealed under these conditions, bringing visions, big dreams, as well as a more lucid life in general.

This article is adapted from my new multimedia ebook project Lucid Immersion Blueprint, a holistic guide to advanced lucid dreaming.

[i] Winkelman, M. (2010). Shamanism: a biospychosocial paradigm of consciousness and healing. Santa Barbara: Praeger, p. 141

[ii] Tick, E. (2001). The practice of dream healing: Bringing back Ancient Greek mysteries into modern medicine. Wheaton. IL: Quest, p. 133

[iii] Friedlander, W. (1992). The golden wand of medicine: a history of the caduceus symbol in medicine. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

[iv] Tick, p. 25.

[v] Irwin, L. (1996). The dream seekers: Native American visionary traditions of the Great Plains. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

[vi] Laughlin, C. and Loubser, H.N. (2010). Neurognosis, the development of neural models, and the study of the ancient mind. Time & Mind 3(2): 135-158.

[vii] Hurd, R. Sleep paralysis: a guide to hypnagogic visions and visitors of the night. San Mateo: Hyena Press.

[viii] LaBerge, S. and Rheingold, H. (1991) Exploring the world of lucid dreaming. New York: Ballantine Books.

[ix] Post, T. (2011). Lucid day dreaming technique.

[x] Schredl M., Atanasova D., Hörmann K., Maurer J.T., Hummel T., and Stuck B. (2009). Information processing during sleep: The effect of olfactory stimuli on dream content and dream emotions. Journal of Sleep Research, 18 (3), 285-90.

[xi] Wadler, J. (2011, April 27). A castle for the king of techno. New York Times,

© Ryan Hurd 2012 for Reality Sandwich

Image by Chiara Marra, courtesy of Creative Commons license.