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
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
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
The dream healers of ancient Greece were also surgeons
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
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
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
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
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
[v] Irwin, L. (1996). The dream seekers: Native
American visionary traditions of the Great Plains. Norman, OK: University
of Oklahoma Press.
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.
S. and Rheingold, H. (1991) Exploring the
world of lucid dreaming. New York: Ballantine Books.
[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, www.nytimes.com/2011/04/28/garden/28moby.html
© Ryan Hurd 2012 for Reality Sandwich
Image by Chiara Marra, courtesy of Creative Commons license.