Three Modes of Active Dreaming

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The following is excerpted from Active Dreaming: Journeying Beyond Self-Limitation to a Life of Wild Freedom, published by New World Library.

Here’s an open secret: dreaming is not fundamentally about what happens during sleep. It’s about waking up. In ordinary life, we are often in the circumstances of sleepwalkers, going through the motions, trying to keep up with preset schedules and to meet other people’s expectations and requirements. We let other people determine what’s important. We let them define who we are and what we are able and not able to do and become. Ruled by habit and the need to get through the daily grind, we forget that our lives may have a larger purpose.

Dreaming, we wake up to a bigger story. The moment of awakening may come in a sleep dream, when we get out of our own way and it is easier for us to encounter something beyond the projections of the trivial daily mind and the consensual hallucinations that weave much of our default reality. The awakening may come in the liminal zone between sleep and waking that the French used to call dorveille, which literally means “sleep-wake.” It may come in a flash of illumination during a walk in nature, perhaps at the moment when the sun rises above the mountains and opens a path across a lake. The awakening may be hard won. It may come at the price of illness, defeat, or despair, of events or recurring disappointments that push us down and back so hard we have to re-vision and revalue everything we once held to be given. We may have to go through a dark night of the soul before the sun shines at midnight, as ancient initiates described the moment of entry into the full experience of the Greater Mysteries.

The initiation may come in the way familiar to true shamans, when a power of the deeper life seizes us and tears us apart and consents, when we are re-membered, to become our life ally. Angels can appear as fierce as tigers, or as tigers. We don’t really need to hunt our power; our power is forever hunting us. To awaken to the guide in our lives, the one who does not judge us and is with us always, we don’t have to cross the desert and fast on the mountaintop, unless we have forgotten that the soul of the soul is always near, and is lost to us only when we are lost to it.

So what is Active Dreaming? The phrase is a provocation designed to shake us free from the cozy and constricting assumption that dreaming is a passive activity, something that happens when we go to sleep and that may or may not amount to anything more than random chemical washes in the brain or the processing and dumping of “day residue.” I am tremendously grateful for the gift of spontaneous sleep dreams, the ones we don’t ask for and often don’t want. They hold up a magic mirror in which we can see ourselves as we truly are, which can be embarrassing and mobilizing. They goad us to perform course corrections when we have gone badly off track. They serve as a voice of conscience. They preview challenges and opportunities that lie in our future, giving us the chance to make better choices on our life roads. Sleep dreams show us what is going on inside the body, diagnose developing complaints before medical symptoms present themselves, and show us what the body needs in order to stay well. We solve problems in our sleep and can wake with clarity, energy, and direction in a life project that we lacked the night before. And, as the First Peoples of my native Australia teach, our personal dreams may be a passport to the Dreamtime, which is far more than the Dumpster of the personal subconscious; it is the larger reality in which we can meet the ancestors and our authentic spiritual teachers.

It is the “all-at-once,” where the time is always Now, from which the events and situations of our physical lives emanate into the smaller world of clock time and linear sequence.

We say, “I had a dream,” not knowing a better way to speak. In truth, it would sometimes be more accurate to say, “A dream had me,” because certain dreams do come upon us, as the hawk comes upon the rabbit, talons outstretched. We receive visitations from a friend or family member who has died and who may come with an urgent need or message. We are overwhelmed by a great wave that may be a preview of a tsunami out there in a far ocean, or that may represent the immensity of the power of an emotion rising within us – and perhaps within our family or relationship – that could overwhelm our ordinary reason and balance.

I work with sleep dreams in all these varieties, and many more, and welcome them to work on me. But Active Dreaming is far more than a method for decoding sleep dreams. If you are new to this approach, let me invite you to set aside any prior conceptions of what dream analysis or dream interpretation is here and now, at the door. We are going on a journey to far more exciting places. While the techniques involved are fresh and original, they are also incalculably ancient. We are going to reclaim ways of seeing and knowing and healing that were known to our early ancestors and that kept them alive on a dangerous planet and enabled them to communicate with one another and with other forms of life in the speaking land around them.

Active Dreaming is a way of being fully of this world while maintaining constant contact with another world, the world-behind-the-world, where the deeper logic and purpose of our lives are to be found. It is a way of remembering and embodying what the soul knows about essential things: who we are, where we come from, and what our sacred purpose is in this life and beyond this life. When we lose the knowledge of these essential things, we are lost to our bigger story. Not knowing who we are or what we are meant to become, we can do unthinking harm to ourselves and others.

Active Dreaming is a discipline, as is yoga or archaeology or particle physics. That is to say, there are ascending levels of practice. In any field, the key to mastery is always the same: practice, practice, practice. Ask any musician. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell surfaces some interesting data suggesting that the difference between someone who is great at a certain activity and someone who is only good at it is that the star performer has chalked up no less than ten thousand hours of practice. That sounds about right to me. What’s that? You’re scared by the notion that you have to put in ten thousand hours to get great at this Active Dreaming? Relax: you can practice every night and every day, and those hours will mount up fast. It won’t feel one bit like “work,” because you’ll find it wonderful fun, constantly energizing, and capable of putting a champagne fizz of excitement and entertainment in the air in any environment whatsoever. And you are ready to start today, because the time is actually always Now and you have the material and the opportunity.

Active Dreaming offers three core areas of practice.

First, Active Dreaming is a way of talking and walking our dreams, of bringing energy and guidance from the dreamworld into everyday life. We learn how to create a safe space where we can share dreams of the night and dreams of life with others, receive helpful feedback, and encourage one another to take creative and healing action. We discover that each of us can play guide for others, and that by sharing in the right way we claim our voices, grow our power as storytellers and communicators, build stronger friendships, and lay foundations for a new kind of community. Indigenous dreamers maintain, wisely, that if we don’t do something with our dreams, we do not dream well.

Second, Active Dreaming is a method of shamanic lucid dreaming. It starts with simple, everyday practice and extends to profound group experiences of time travel, soul recovery, and the exploration of multidimensional reality. It is founded on the understanding that we don’t need to go to sleep in order to dream. The easiest way to become a conscious or lucid dreamer is to start out lucid and stay that way. As a method of conscious dream navigation, Active Dreaming is not to be confused with approaches that purport to “control” or manipulate dreams; it is utterly misguided to seek to put the control freak that is the ego in charge of something immeasurably wiser and deeper than itself.

Third, Active Dreaming is a way of conscious living. This requires us to reclaim our inner child and the child’s gift of spontaneity, play, and imagination. It requires us to claim the power of naming and to define our life project. It invites us to discover and follow the natural path of our energies. It calls us to remember our bigger and braver story and tell and live it in such a way that it can be heard and received by others. It is about walking in everyday life as if we are moving through a forest of living symbols that are looking at us (to borrow from Baudelaire, who saw these things with a poet’s clarity). It is about navigating by synchronicity and receiving the chance events and symbolic pop-ups on our daily roads as clues to a deeper order. Beyond this, it is about grasping that the energy we carry and the attitudes we choose (consciously or unconsciously) have a magnetic effect on the world around us, drawing or repelling encounters and circumstances. When we rise to this perspective, we are able to welcome the things that block or oppose us as opportunities for course correction or as tests that will confirm us in our calling if we are willing to develop the courage and clarity to pursue it.

As Stephen Nachmanovitch writes in Free Play, “we can depend on the world being a perpetual surprise in perpetual motion. And a perpetual invitation to create.” To live consciously is to accept the challenge to create, which is to move beyond scripts and bring something new into the world.

Teaser image by Sarah Kennon, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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