The following is excerpted from Dreams of Awakening, published by Hay House Publishers. 

‘The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.’ –Hegel

It’s just gone 8 a.m. on a rainy spring morning at Hull University, 1975. Psychologist Keith Hearne is hunched over a recording apparatus charting the eye movements, muscle tone and EEG brain activity of his sleeping subject, a 37-year-old lucid dreamer named Alan Worsley. Although he doesn’t know it yet, Worsley is about to make history.

When Hearne decided to tackle the scientific verification of lucid dreaming, the concept was still scoffed at by the scientific community as being a ‘paradoxical impossibility’. Regardless of thousands of years of first-hand reports and an entire arena of Buddhist teachings on the subject, most sleep and dream researchers considered the idea of conscious awareness within dreams a flaky new-age delusion. Hearne’s contemporaries realized that the only way to verify lucid dreaming scientifically would be to get data that proved two things simultaneously: first, that the dreamer was dreaming and not partially awake; second, that the dreamer was consciously signalling to the outside world from within the dream world. But how to send such a signal without waking up? During dreaming sleep the body is paralysed – with the exception of the respiratory system and the eyes. Hearne had a hunch that the eyes could be used to send that all-important signal.

Before falling asleep, Worsley was instructed to try to become lucid and then engage in a set of smooth horizontal eye movements (very different from the random flitting and rolling of REM sleep). These signals would then be picked up by the eye-movement recorders in the lab, while the EEG machine would keep track of his brain activity.

The night passed with little success, but in the final hour of Worsley’s sleep cycle his periods of REM became more frequent. Hearne had been watching Worsley dreaming for about half an hour when something remarkable happened.

‘Suddenly, out of the jumbled, senseless to’s and fro’s of the two eye-movement recording channels, a regular set of large zigzags appeared on the chart,’ Hearne recalls in his book The Dream Machine. ‘Instantly I was alert and felt the greatest exhilaration upon realizing that I was observing the first ever deliberate signals sent from within the dream to the outside world.’ The ‘impossible’ had finally been proved.

Around the same time that Hearne was pioneering the scientific verification of lucid dreaming in the UK, in the USA a bright young lucid dreamer was starting work on his PhD in psychophysiology at Stanford University in California. This prodigal dreamer was Stephen LaBerge, a name that would become synonymous with lucid dreaming across the globe. Working at Stanford, LaBerge set out to prove for the first time in history the existence of lucid dreaming – or so he thought.

How could he not have known about Hearne’s results?

Although Hearne did deliver a paper to a conference on behavioural sciences in 1977, then published his PhD thesis a year later, ‘the scientific establishment resisted accepting his results’.

The upshot was that his proof was simply never widely circulated, peer-reviewed or disseminated across the Atlantic. When LaBerge finally got similar results using similar methods, he naturally believed that he had broken new ground. This proved a useful illusion, as it fed his determination to spread the news when all the top journals (including the esteemed Science) refused to publish his research. Eventually, in 1981, a lesser-known scientific journal, Perceptual and Motor Skills, published his findings. This, along with a primetime lecture spot at the Association for the Psychophysiological Study of Sleep’s annual conference, was the start of an epic career that would make LaBerge the pioneer of lucid dreaming in the West.

LaBerge’s passion for the subject and his notable aptitude both for lucid dreaming and for teaching it to others have relegated much of Hearne’s impeccable research to a footnote in the history books. However, without LaBerge’s tireless work over the last three decades in both the public and scientific spheres, lucid dreaming books might still be on the back shelf next to texts on alien abduction and Victorian superstition. To both Hearne and LaBerge, we would do well to doff our hats.

 

Beyond the Imagination

Since those initial experiments in the days of disco, scientific research into lucid dreaming has thrown up scores of weird and wonderful new discoveries, with one conclusion and its implications standing out from the rest.

Using EEG machines, eye-movement and muscle-tone monitors, with experiments that involved activities like singing [1] and mental arithmetic within the actual lucid dream state, it was discovered that lucid dream actions elicited the exact same neurological responses as actions performed while awake.

Further research found that the same correlations existed for a whole range of lucid dream activities, such as holding the breath, estimating time (lucid dream time and waking time feeling roughly the same) and even sexual function. The implications are huge – our neurological system doesn’t differentiate between waking and lucid dream experiences. In other words, for our brain, there is no discernible difference between lucid dreams and waking life. Dreaming lucidly about doing something is not like imagining it – it’s like actually doing it.

The potential benefits of this finding are profound. In the waking state, if we imagine happy scenarios, we usually only induce a slight increase in neurologically measurable happiness.

In the lucid dream state, however, if we engage in an activity that bring us joy and happiness (whether it’s flying, swimming with dolphins or playing bass for the Beatles), the synapses in the parts of the brain associated with happiness light up and release feel-good chemicals in exactly the same way as if we were experiencing these activities while awake. To our psychophysical system, a lucid dream isn’t just a visualization – it’s a reality. This revelation opens up a whole arena for psychological healing and growth. For example, neural pathways can be strengthened and created in our lucid dreams just as they can while we are awake due to the function of neuroplasticity. [2] So, lucid dreamers who consciously engage in beneficial activities within their dreams are creating and strengthening beneficial neural pathways, which will then become habitually engaged in the waking state. This means that we can learn in our lucid dreams.

There is one tradition that learned of the benefits of lucid dream work a long time ago…

 

Buddhism: Teachings on How to Wake Up

I started practising Buddhism when I was 19. Since then I have received teachings from some of the leading meditation masters and most esteemed gurus on the planet. What knowledge do I have to show for it? Very little. What enlightened qualities do I now possess? None. So what do I have to show for over a decade of mind exploration? I am much friendlier than I used to be. Buddhism is all about friendliness. Unconditional friendliness towards yourself and towards others. Unconditional friendliness towards pain and towards happiness, towards joy and towards despair. For me, that’s the essence of the Buddha’s teachings – unconditional friendliness towards everything.

We can sum up the Buddha’s message as: ‘Do no harm, be kind and tame your mind.’ A Buddhist practitioner tries to engage in as many forms of wise, loving, compassionate action as possible, while avoiding actions that do harm to oneself or others.

Buddhism won’t make you more popular or more attractive but what it can do is to ‘help you cut through your confusion and your neuroses. Buddhism can help you understand yourself.’

This practical self-understanding is a recurring theme throughout the teachings, as are compassion and wisdom. Compassion without wisdom becomes blind sentimentality, which can often do more harm than good, but when coupled with insightful wisdom, it can be applied in a way that really works. Wisdom is the cultivation of insight into how things really are and the Buddha taught that one of the best ways to cultivate this insight was through meditation.

Meditation is a system of relaxed reflection and mind training that leads to awareness and insight. Meditating and reflecting bring us into direct contact with what is happening with our inner environment, so that we come to know ourselves better.

And the better we know ourselves, the better equipped we are to help others.

The Buddha didn’t set out to found a religion or to convert people to a belief – he simply taught a system of ethics, compassion and loving kindness towards all beings, which aimed to help people wake up to their own enlightened nature. He said, ‘Don’t blindly believe what I say. Find out for yourself what is true, what is real.’ His teaching tools were meditation techniques that tamed the selfish mind and practical guidelines on how to live joyfully with wisdom and compassion. These tools are as applicable today as they were 2,500 years ago, and in fact the more modern science discovers about the nature of the mind, the more the Buddha’s teachings ring true. Eventually they became ‘Buddhism’ – both a religion and a way of life that has spread around the globe. There are three main schools of Buddhism: Theravada (the teachings of the elders), Mahayana (the greater vehicle) and Vajrayana (the diamond vehicle). We will focus primarily on the Vajrayana, which flourished mainly in Tibet and was developed with two unique aims in mind: enlightenment within one lifetime and 24-hour spiritual practice.

 

Dreaming on the Roof of the World

Dreams have played a central role in Buddhism ever since the ‘conception dream’ of the Buddha’s mother, Maya. In fact, the notion of conscious dreaming was put forth by the Buddha himself. In the Pali Vinaya, the original rulebook for monks and nuns, the Buddha actually instructs his followers to fall asleep in a state of mindfulness as a way to prevent ‘seeing a bad dream’ or ‘waking unhappily’. So it seems that the healing potential of mindful sleeping goes right back to the source.

However, the first integrated system of lucid dream work would only be created well over 1,000 years later, when Vajrayana Buddhism found its way into Tibet. There it encountered an indigenous form of mysticism called Bön, which had a long history of shamanic dream practices. Tibetan Buddhism thus developed out of a synthesis of this indigenous shamanic religion and Vajrayana Buddhist teachings. Both of these traditions practised dream work, so it’s not surprising that in Tibetan Buddhism we find dreams playing such an important role.

Tibetan folklore and the biographies of Buddhist saints are littered with references to dreams. In Tibetan Buddhism itself, dreams are indispensably significant insofar as they are used to find reincarnated masters, to predict future events and as mediums through which to receive spiritual teachings. The recognition of their significance led to the development of a systematic path of practice called dream yoga.

 

Tibetan Dream Yoga

It would be easy to say that dream yoga was a Tibetan Buddhist form of lucid dreaming, but that would also be lazy and inaccurate. Dream yoga is a collection of transformational lucid dreaming, conscious sleeping and what in the West we refer to as out-of-body experience practices aimed at spiritual growth and mind training. Lucid dreaming may form the foundation of dream yoga, but through the use of advanced tantric energy work, visualizations of Tibetan iconography and the integration of psycho-spiritual archetypes or yidams, dream yoga goes way beyond our Western notion of lucid dreaming. If we translate the Sanskrit word yoga as meaning ‘union’, we get a clue as to what dream yoga is about: the union of consciousness within the dream state. It is a yoga of the mind that uses advanced lucid dreaming methods to utilize sleep on the path to spiritual awakening.

Within Buddhism, illusion and ignorance [3] are seen as two of the most unbeneficial mind states and there are thousands of practices that aim to transmute them. One of these is dream yoga. Once we’re fully lucid in a dream, ignorance is challenged as we recognize that what we thought was real is in fact not real.

At the same time, illusion is shattered as we recognize that the entire dreamscape is formed from a mental projection. As ignorance and illusion dissolve, two highly beneficial states of mind can arise in their place: insight and wisdom.. Insight arises as we see clearly that we are dreaming, and wisdom dawns as we understand that our mind is creating our experience. Through dream yoga we can transmute ignorance and illusion while generating wisdom and insight, all while we’re sound asleep.

In some lineages, dream yoga was reserved for those on a three-year retreat and was only taught as part of the famous Six Yogas of Naropa.* These days, however, some of the veils of secrecy have been lifted, allowing it to become a practice that allows dedicated practitioners to extend meditative awareness throughout sleep and dreams, and subsequently throughout death and dying as well. Dreams and death are closely linked in Tibetan Buddhism, as we will explore throughout this book.

The Dalai Lama has said, ‘Dream yoga can be practised by both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike,’7 and that through dream yoga the lucid dreamer can now engage in spiritual practice while they sleep. So, I encourage you not to feel excluded from this esoteric-sounding practice just because you’re not a Buddhist.

Although some of the advanced dream yoga techniques should only be engaged in under the guidance of a qualified teacher, there are many techniques that can be practised on your own. We will explore some of these in Part II. Ultimately, it is the motivation behind dream yoga that is the most important aspect of all, fuelling the use of lucid dreaming as a path to spiritual development.

 

Bardo: The Place in Between

Bardo means ‘place in between’ and is used to describe any transitional state of existence. Just as dream is the bardo between falling asleep and waking up, life is the bardo between birth and death. However, what I want to focus on now is the after-death bardo, which describes the intermediate states between death and rebirth.

In the Buddhist tradition, sleep is not just a metaphor for death, as it is in the West; it is actually the prime training ground. The Six Yogas of Naropa [4] are a series of advanced tantric practices designed to bring the practitioner to full spiritual realization within one lifetime.

 

 

NOTES

[1] Interestingly, the first song to be sung in the lucid dream state by LaBerge’s research team was ‘Life is but a Dream’.

[2] Neuroplasticity describes the brain’s ability to rewire itself as part of a never-ending capacity for change. It shows us that old dogs can learn new tricks, and that it’s never too late to learn a new skill.

[3] Within Buddhism, ignorance doesn’t mean stupidity, it means ‘not knowing what really is’. So, a non-lucid dream is a dream of ignorance because we think it’s real and don’t know that it’s a dream.

[4] Naropa was a 10th-century mahasiddha who founded the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Image by Vinoth Chandar, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.