It is a wonder that lucid dreaming has been passed over by so many. For generations men and women have come and gone, struggling mightily during their time to wrest aesthetic visions from the raw materials of the earth. Whether it was through stone, pigment, sound, the body, or any other medium, the vison and creative power of these people was brought into the world and realized in a sensuous manner. But artists have not been alone! Philosophers are a group that we may with more justification expect to have stumbled upon the practice of lucid dreaming. Their province after all, is quite explicitly ‘the mind’ and ‘wisdom’ along with a whole slew of high flown ideas pertaining to self-mastery through intellectual mastery. How could have they missed the very practice whereby one undeniably masters the mind? -the practice whereby one harnesses the creative and aesthetic power of representation, and may manifest in the instant of a dream what would otherwise take years, or would not be possible at all?
Lucid dreaming is the ultimate aesthetic practice, it is a state in which every manifestation has meaning, and a state in which the intensity and clarity of awareness will literally bring heaven to earth, rend the cosmic veil, or bring the dawning of the clear light… Perhaps artists and philosophers have not been up to the challenge. Perhaps it is enough for these friends of ours to catch one or two golden threads and affix them to cultural memory… But what about psychologists? It is after all within psychology that we find the most sustained attempt to make the psyche in its entirety intelligible for us. The noblest aim of psychology is to facilitate communication between consciousness and all of the psyche that lies in semi-darkness, or inscrutability. Its greatest practices have been those that have helped us to understand the obscure communications between these fields, and the dynamics which connect them. Dreams, and dream interpretation is one such intersection. But even here -to our surprise!- the psychologists have missed the greatest discovery that they could have made, a discovery that would have mandated a total revision of their beginning theses, and consequently their methodology. What use is dream interpretation, the associative unpacking of incredibly obscure representations, when through practicing lucid dreaming one may consciously and while still within the dream ask a dream character what they represent? Even further, in the dream one may ask to see the deepest needs of one’s psyche, or ask for the highest possible vision. The lucid dreamer may, through a practice that resembles an ancient Taoist fable, collapse the dream into itself, consciously reconciling the opposites and tensions present in the manifestation (what is called the dream work, or latent idea) and in so doing arrive at the primordial emptiness and limpid clarity of the void.
Yes, these friends of ours, the psychologists, noble as many of their aims and endeavors are, seem to have missed as a discipline the highest psychic art, lucid dreaming: the manifest cure of the division between conscious and unconscious, the undeniable cessation of self-alienation, the cessation of unconsciousness. We may wonder about theologians, or monastics… Have they found lucid dreaming? Have they through some happy accident, perhaps during the unimaginable trials and vigils of contemplation, stumbled upon this miracle of being? No more than the above wayfarers, or understandably their realizations rested in their vows of silence. Theology, as you most likely will agree with me, is perhaps the most prostrate before its own spurious maxims. However, at this point we must break the rhetorical mold which we have so far used to motivate our story. So far we have confined ourselves only to western society, and the history of western knowledge and art. Even though this designation is fraught with complexities, we have used it here to show that lucid dreaming as understood in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions has not exerted an influence on the West until recently.
It is within Buddhism and Hinduism that the practice of lucid dreaming and its attendant phenomena have been incorporated into the human experience most extensively. Lucid dreaming in these traditions is incorporated into the aesthetic, moral, legal, social, and spiritual domains. We can find texts referring to the practice, its results and its supports, dating from at least 1,400 years ago, and presumably these were long codified practices and systems at that time. Even one of the most foundational suites of spiritual practices in Tibetan Buddhism, the Six Yogas of Naropa, has as one of its yogas the practice of lucid dreaming. Arguably a few more of the yogas could be considered forms of lucid dreaming, but this would require much more space to adequately consider. Nevertheless, the implications of the practice of lucid dreaming in these contexts, and the implications that it must have for us today, are quite different. We should not mistake medieval interpretations for the phenomena themselves, but we should in all earnestness endeavor to understand why it was these people, their beliefs and practices, which enabled lucid dreaming. Sociologically and historically this is quite the Gordian knot, but we do know that the solution is tied up in their practice of meditation. Strictly speaking lucid dreaming is meditation, and I think that in this connection we will also clarify some mysteries introduced above: it is the absence of meditation in the ‘the western intellectual tradition’ which has precluded it from explicitly discovering and incorporating lucid dreaming -as well as a few other things…
Our mold must be broken again, for there are exceptions, and today the exceptions are growing indeed. There are records that suggest lucid dreaming was known in the western world in ancient times, being mentioned by Aristotle, Galen of Pergamon, and St. Augustine of Hippo. In the mainstream philosophical tradition, there are even a few hints at the practice: there is an aphorism in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil that is undeniably about lucid dreaming, and there is a footnote in one of Freud’s books that mentions it as well. In line with this we must wonder if Carl Jung would understand our present conversation, but I do not know of any of his writings on the matter. In addition to these it has been shown that lucid dreaming had a presence in the western ‘occult’, theosophical, or otherwise fringe intellectual groups for quite some time. P.D. Ouspensky is a notable example, and the researchers Marie-Jean-Léon Marquis d’Hervey de Saint Denys, and Frederik Van Eeden are famous for studying lucid dreaming in the 19th to early 20th centuries. It is from the latter that we received the term lucid dreaming after all. Despite these examples, and even in the case of the last mentioned, it seems that the true profundity of lucid dreaming, its implications and its possibilities have still been missed. These older accounts all seem anecdotal, to be merely personal accounts, or are couched in strange pseudo-religious ontologies.
Today, lucid dreaming studies have undergone a comparative explosion and we must admit that at least a few public figures have grasped its psychological implications. The first resurgence can be identified as occurring during the counter-culture movement where alternate lifestyles, spiritual practices, and the use of psychedelic drugs was popular. Perhaps the most popular author from this time was Carlos Castaneda. Along with this strain there were also a handful of dream researchers who studied lucid dreaming. They established some basic scientific facts concerning lucid dreaming, established its certainty as a practice, have left us with detailed practice manuals, and even with personal accounts. Recently new books have come out detailing the practice in the Buddhist tradition as well as some new translations of ancient Buddhist texts that explicitly deal with lucid dreaming. Nevertheless, in the past twenty years or so, the internet has been the primary medium in which information on lucid dreaming has grown. Every year new forums, websites, and video channels on lucid dreaming crop up, and it would be interesting to try and figure out at what rate this mass of information was growing -in terms of text the internet presence of lucid dreaming has far and away eclipsed the printed material, and perhaps does so on monthly intervals.
The fact that lucid dreaming has seemed to emerge from the occultist manuals of old Europe and the traditions of Eastern religions to become widely known today is indeed a social-psychological riddle. How is it that lucid dreaming has arrived amongst us today? -that an ancient tantric art has become prevalent amongst electro-idolaters? Isn’t it strange that the flighty visitor of genius has come to nest in our vulgar consumer society? We cannot be sure why, but our answer may lie not in the continuity with tradition but with social ontology. Could it be the case that lucid dreaming is a symptom, or an emergent property, of electronic media’s interposition in our understanding? One thesis is that lucid dreaming is really an ontological art -and by extension so is meditation. Perhaps lucid dreaming has arrived in this unlikely place because we are undergoing a profound ontological dislocation. One could, if they granted themselves some permissions, say that humanity is ‘giving up the ghost’, that their beings, and more specifically their spatio-temporal-kinesthetic projections of themselves are being taken up into the electronic web of images. In terms of ‘knowing what is’, screens, electronic sounds, and electronic equipment are required. Not only does the screen interpose in the encounter with the real, but it serves as a substitute. When engrossed in viewing the spectator projects himself into the environment of the film or movie, using the normal faculties of phenomenological framing one subtracts the environment of the immediate space and instead applies their faculties to the screen. After hours, days, years, and even lifetimes of this, one’s own mnemonic continuity becomes inextricable from the electronic environments they have ‘lived’. Tourists, only see foreign cities through the screens of their cellphones, people mediate their communications through the consumption of entertainment, etc. Moderns have, in a sense, had their souls abducted by the incubi and succubae of the spectacle. To get to our explanation of lucid dreaming, perhaps it is in the interstices of this spiritual culling, that a shaft of light has broken through, and a fundamental ontological illusion has been rended, the kind that in previous, slower, and more boring times, took extreme mortification and discipline to effect…
Lucid dreaming and meditation may seem strange subjects to study in times such as our own. It is more obvious to study demographics, ecology, environmental systems engineering, climate history, and the long cycles of economic accumulation. We are experiencing the collision of human history and natural history, a collision which has already cost too much. Countless peoples, life-worlds, species, regions, etc. have been taken up in this movement, incorporated or cast out again and destroyed. We as societies externalize ourselves both socially and materially, and these externalized forms pass from one generation to the next, impinging recursively upon us. They condition us in turn, forming us as tenders to their systems, experts in certain technologies and trades, but also ideologically, and by extension experientially they shape us. We come to consciousness amongst this already formed social-technical system, and we need not understand its origins, intended purposes, or next development to reproduce it through our activity. In fact, it seems that to the degree we abandon the clichés, winnowed viewpoints, and routinized behavior of our inheritance, we may step outside of this Frankenstein’s monster for an outside perspective. Lucid dreaming liquefies ideology, and is a practice for illuminating the perennial forms of the mind, it may serve as our first step.
Every single lifetime is fragile, and incredibly limited. Existence as a species is fraught with danger, and fortune has been incredibly cruel to the creatures that have preceded us. There is no guarantee that we may rise to the occasion of our moment, collectively and especially individually. Technical understanding and symbolic production are emergent from mutations and selection, the development of history from our species character and the geography and biology of the landscape. In the collision of these forces, there is no harmonizing principle. Nothing will protect us from creating irreversible changes detrimental to our survival. We have collectively taken up the mantel of material development, and feverishly pursued activities that manifestly alter the life-support system of the species, yet we do not know ourselves nor our world sufficiently. Each one of us begins in a fog of narcissism and vulgarity -a great deal is required to even become ‘normal’, what if our survival now requires more? To climb higher, to learn more than previous generations… to break with the past.