Reclaiming Shamanic Dreaming From the Roots of Western Culture

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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 analogs 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 to reject the idea that dreams can contain wisdom, leading to a loss of this important ability, which is still practiced today in small pockets around the world, especially in Indigenous societies.

But the writing is literally on the wall. Archaeologists and classicists have 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.

RS How Dreams Can Reveal Your Personal Myths 3

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 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 is 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 headrest, 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 the 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]

RS How Dreams Can Reveal Your Personal Myths 2

How to Set Up a Lucid Dreaming Sanctuary

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 a 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 setup of the room but also in 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 phone in the room to clear the electromagnetic 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 I the summer months is another refreshing way to get ready for bed.

Post Guards

If you 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 at 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.

RS How Dreams Can Reveal Your Personal Myths 4

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 of relaxation and positive expectations, 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
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.

[vi] Laughlin,
C. and Loubser, H.N. (2010). Neurognosis, the development of neural models, and
the study of the ancient mind. Time &
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

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The Amazonian brew, Ayahuasca has a long history and wide use. Read our guide to learn all about the tea from its beginnings up to modern-day interest.


Ayahuasca and the Godhead: An Interview with Wahid Azal of the Fatimiya Sufi Order
Wahid Azal, a Sufi mystic of The Fatimiya Sufi Order and an Islamic scholar, talks about entheogens, Sufism, mythology, and metaphysics.


Ayahuasca and the Feminine: Women’s Roles, Healing, Retreats, and More
Ayahuasca is lovingly called “grandmother” or “mother” by many. Just how feminine is the brew? Read to learn all about women and ayahuasca.

What Is the Standard of Care for Ketamine Treatments?
Ketamine therapy is on the rise in light of its powerful results for treatment-resistant depression. But, what is the current standard of care for ketamine? Read to find out.

What Is Dissociation and How Does Ketamine Create It?
Dissociation can take on multiple forms. So, what is dissociation like and how does ketamine create it? Read to find out.

Having Sex on Ketamine: Getting Physical on a Dissociative
Curious about what it could feel like to have sex on a dissociate? Find out all the answers in our guide to sex on ketamine.

Special K: The Party Drug
Special K refers to Ketamine when used recreationally. Learn the trends as well as safety information around this substance.

Kitty Flipping: When Ketamine and Molly Meet
What is it, what does it feel like, and how long does it last? Read to explore the mechanics of kitty flipping.

Ketamine vs. Esketamine: 3 Important Differences Explained
Ketamine and esketamine are used to treat depression. But what’s the difference between them? Read to learn which one is right for you: ketamine vs. esketamine.

Guide to Ketamine Treatments: Understanding the New Approach
Ketamine is becoming more popular as more people are seeing its benefits. Is ketamine a fit? Read our guide for all you need to know about ketamine treatments.

Ketamine Treatment for Eating Disorders
Ketamine is becoming a promising treatment for various mental health conditions. Read to learn how individuals can use ketamine treatment for eating disorders.

Ketamine Resources, Studies, and Trusted Information
Curious to learn more about ketamine? This guide includes comprehensive ketamine resources containing books, studies and more.

Ketamine Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
Our ultimate guide to ketamine has everything you need to know about this “dissociative anesthetic” and how it is being studied for depression treatment.

Ketamine for Depression: A Mental Health Breakthrough
While antidepressants work for some, many others find no relief. Read to learn about the therapeutic uses of ketamine for depression.

Ketamine for Addiction: Treatments Offering Hope
New treatments are offering hope to individuals suffering from addiction diseases. Read to learn how ketamine for addiction is providing breakthrough results.

Microdosing Ketamine & Common Dosages Explained
Microdosing, though imperceivable, is showing to have many health benefits–here is everything you want to know about microdosing ketamine.

How to Ease a Ketamine Comedown
Knowing what to expect when you come down from ketamine can help integrate the experience to gain as much value as possible.

How to Store Ketamine: Best Practices
Learn the best ways how to store ketamine, including the proper temperature and conditions to maximize how long ketamine lasts when stored.

How To Buy Ketamine: Is There Legal Ketamine Online?
Learn exactly where it’s legal to buy ketamine, and if it’s possible to purchase legal ketamine on the internet.

How Long Does Ketamine Stay in Your System?
How long does ketamine stay in your system? Are there lasting effects on your body? Read to discover the answers!

How Ketamine is Made: Everything You Need to Know
Ever wonder how to make Ketamine? Read our guide to learn everything you need to know about the procedures of how Ketamine is made.

Colorado on Ketamine: First Responders Waiver Programs
Fallout continues after Elijah McClain. Despite opposing recommendations from some city council, Colorado State Health panel recommends the continued use of ketamine by medics for those demonstrating “excited delirium” or “extreme agitation”.

Types of Ketamine: Learn the Differences & Uses for Each
Learn about the different types of ketamine and what they are used for—and what type might be right for you. Read now to find out!

Kitty Flipping: When Ketamine and Molly Meet
What is it, what does it feel like, and how long does it last? Read to explore the mechanics of kitty flipping.

MDMA & Ecstasy Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
Our ultimate guide to MDMA has everything you want to know about Ecstasy from how it was developed in 1912 to why it’s being studied today.

How To Get the Most out of Taking MDMA as a Couple
Taking MDMA as a couple can lead to exciting experiences. Read here to learn how to get the most of of this love drug in your relationship.

Common MDMA Dosage & Microdosing Explained
Microdosing, though imperceivable, is showing to have many health benefits–here is everything you want to know about microdosing MDMA.

Having Sex on MDMA: What You Need to Know
MDMA is known as the love drug… Read our guide to learn all about sex on MDMA and why it is beginning to makes its way into couple’s therapy.

How MDMA is Made: Common Procedures Explained
Ever wonder how to make MDMA? Read our guide to learn everything you need to know about the procedures of how MDMA is made.

Hippie Flipping: When Shrooms and Molly Meet
What is it, what does it feel like, and how long does it last? Explore the mechanics of hippie flipping and how to safely experiment.

How Cocaine is Made: Common Procedures Explained
Ever wonder how to make cocaine? Read our guide to learn everything you need to know about the procedures of how cocaine is made.

A Christmas Sweater with Santa and Cocaine
This week, Walmart came under fire for a “Let it Snow” Christmas sweater depicting Santa with lines of cocaine. Columbia is not merry about it.

Ultimate Cocaine Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
This guide covers what you need to know about Cocaine, including common effects and uses, legality, safety precautions and top trends today.

NEWS: An FDA-Approved Cocaine Nasal Spray
The FDA approved a cocaine nasal spray called Numbrino, which has raised suspicions that the pharmaceutical company, Lannett Company Inc., paid off the FDA..

The Ultimate Guide to Cannabis Bioavailability
What is bioavailability and how can it affect the overall efficacy of a psychedelic substance? Read to learn more.

Cannabis Research Explains Sociability Behaviors
New research by Dr. Giovanni Marsicano shows social behavioral changes occur as a result of less energy available to the neurons. Read here to learn more.

The Cannabis Shaman
If recreational and medical use of marijuana is becoming accepted, can the spiritual use as well? Experiential journalist Rak Razam interviews Hamilton Souther, founder of the 420 Cannabis Shamanism movement…

Cannabis Guide: Effects, Common Uses, Safety
Our ultimate guide to Cannabis has everything you want to know about this popular substances that has psychedelic properties.

Cannabis and Ayahuasca: Mixing Entheogenic Plants
Cannabis and Ayahuasca: most people believe they shouldn’t be mixed. Read this personal experience peppered with thoughts from a procannabis Peruvian Shaman.

CBD-Rich Cannabis Versus Single-Molecule CBD
A ground-breaking study has documented the superior therapeutic properties of whole plant Cannabis extract as compared to synthetic cannabidiol (CBD), challenging the medical-industrial complex’s notion that “crude” botanical preparations are less effective than single-molecule compounds.

Cannabis Has Always Been a Medicine
Modern science has already confirmed the efficacy of cannabis for most uses described in the ancient medical texts, but prohibitionists still claim that medical cannabis is “just a ruse.”

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