Lucid Dream / Ensueño (En- Sue -Nho): To Lucid Dream, To be Awake in the Dream, Yogi Sleep
“Pituitary and Pineal Tonic – a relaxing botanical blend steeped in rich historical context, particularly due to its nervous system decompressing properties”. Current marketing trends suggest that there is no shortage of demand for colourful floral remedies that leverage ancient principles. A quick search for ‘Lucid Dreaming’ enlists an endless array of tips, tools and soothing nightcaps to suit the modern-day oneironaut.
Lucid dreaming, also known as visionary sleep, is the process of becoming conscious within the dream. Many techniques and tinctures aim to assist the body in deeply relaxing, while remaining lucid and aware as the mind transitions into sleep. This allows consciousness to witness itself slumber and enter a deep, relaxed state.
Never has something so intangible been so paradoxical in its roots – to be ‘lucid’ is to ‘have the ability to think clearly, especially in intervals between periods of confusion or insanity’. Digging deeper into the etymology reveals its links to ‘shining and light’. So how did such clarity of consciousness come to be associated with the night?
Man has been both consciously and unintentionally altering the way in which he slides up and down the spectrum from ‘sleep’ to ‘wake’ since the very moment of his birth. It seems apt then, that the field of lucid dreaming would so beautifully capture the focal points where polarities seem to meet. This ultimately manifests in the debate between the ‘supernatural’ and the ‘super natural’ – spiritual or religious phenomena that may be linked to the neurobiology of the human species.
In our symbiotic relationship with the earth, plant allies have been an ancient adjunct to nervous system modulation. For example, Kalea Sacatechichi native to Central America, Kava Kava native to the Pacific Islands, Passionflower traditionally used all over Latin America, and Blue Lotus in Ancient Maya and Egypt, have been ritually used to enter deep meditative trances and ignite visionary states.
Bobinsana is native to the Amazon Basin and has been used for countless generations to heal the body and to enhance intuitive abilities. A revered plant for lucid dreaming, it has long been prescribed by curanderos for matters of the heart, emotional trauma, muskoloskeletal pain and uterine disorders. Recent research also indicates the plant contains COX-inhibitors, which provides pain relief for the symptoms of arthritis (1).
In a practice known as ‘soul retrieval’, Bobinsana is said to aid practitioners in dissolving the barriers of time, travelling back to the moment trauma happened, and healing wounded hearts. While the ‘Master Plant Teacher’ alone does not create hallucinations, in combination with ayahuasca, it can facilitate connections to the ‘spirit world’ in ceremony.
Cross-cultural research on shamanism also demonstrates the use of trance or ecstacy-altered states of consciousness to interact with ‘spirits’ and heal (2). These interactions are often referred to as ‘soul journeys’, ‘out of body phenomena’ and ‘astral projection’. Such abilities are said to be acquired when the initiate has undergone a ‘death rebirth experience’ and acquires animal allies and spirit powers.
A New Neurotheology
Dr Michael Winkelman is an anthropologist well versed in medical cultures. He describes shamanism as an ancient healing practice within the context of “neurotheology” – an idea that reflects the notion that spiritual experiences have a biological basis. While the term is reasonably new, it scientifically reframes concepts that have been around for thousands of years.
Dr Winkelman argues that shamanistic experiences share fundamental similarities around the world because they reflect innate brain processes. These findings place shamanism in the context of human evolution and suggest that it could have been a key element of the evolution of modern humans some 40,000 years ago (3).
Shamanistic practices helped people acquire information about themselves and the wider world, and develop new forms of thinking. It provided the mechanisms for healing and personal development, building alliances and creating group solidarity. In this way, the collective consciousness was altered.
A movement that was supposed to have disappeared with the development of modern rationality – the persistence and resurgence of such practices may be part of a desire for more autonomy in one’s own healing process. According to Winkelman, “shamanism was the original self-healing practice, a form of self-empowerment”.
As in many Buddhist and integrative psychology circles alike, people have reported being able to establish contact with intuitive powers, manifested in visual symbols. The brain’s serotonin, opioid and cannabinoid neurotransmitter systems are also stimulated by shamanic traditions.
These practices are able to enhance overall feelings of health and wellbeing by ‘turning on’ the body’s own feel-good chemicals, forgoing the need for artificial induction through a reliance on Prozac and other SSRIs.
It is arguable that our societal problems with addictive behaviours (whether it be substances, sex or shopping) stem from the loss of these innate healing traditions. The current most popular and successful treatment approach to alcohol misuse in the US is in fact ‘alternative’ (4).
A paradoxical situation exists in the fundamental role of spirituality in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and the acceptance of this approach by mainstream biomedicine. The AA, an avowedly religious and spiritual approach to overcoming addictions, is the treatment of choice for what medicine tells us is a physiological disease.
The contradiction between the mainstream definition of addiction as biochemical and the predominant treatment modality based on spiritual healing, has some resolution in a framework that understands spirituality in neurological terms. Neurotheology is able to provide some links between altered states of consciousness (ASC) and the physiological dynamics of addiction (5).
Psychobiological perspectives on shamanistic healing and other natural forms of ASC indicate that they are useful both as a prophylactic against addictive behaviours, as well as potential treatment. They can provide an alternative source of transcendence, and facilitate smoother transition to the path of recovery.
Many forms of ASC such as drumming groups, shamanic circles and meditation also provide a like-minded social support group and set of activities to occupy the time and energy of participants. Creating a social reference group to change affect and sense of self is central to the self-transformations underlying recovery.
This may be why dreaming was once not such a solitary sport. The ancient Greeks constructed temples they named Asclepieions (after Asclepius, embracing the irrational side of healing and medicine), where sick people went to be cured.
It was believed that the cures would be affected through divine grace by incubating dreams within the confines of the temple. Similarly, the ancient Egyptians famously harnessed the Blue Lotus as a ceremonial sacrament in their arsenal of oneirogens.
This field is usurpingly controversial within the realms of a science that seeks to credit what it can repeatedly observe and measure, because it places individual experience (phenomenology) center stage. At its epistemological roots, science is after-all, a product of the false dichotomy between the lens of the observer (psychology) and the observed laws of nature (philosophy).
One of the best methods for ascertaining the value of such claims, remains trying it for yourself. While some of the feelings may be very real – lucid dreaming is not dangerous and there are minimal risks. It is not possible to become stuck in a lucid dream and episodes of sleep paralysis tend to be related to poor sleep hygiene, or the types of sleep practice being employed.
Spontaneous lucid dreams are rare and difficult to predict, but it is possible to cultivate this ‘hybrid state of consciousness’ using a synergy of the following:
- Reality Testing: frequently asking yourself whether you’re dreaming throughout the day may sound like a habit you never thought you’d have to build, but this can have many other benefits including initiating more presence, and paying more attention to your current state of waking consciousness.
- Good Sleep Hygiene: in order to lucid dream, you actually have to get some sleep – and it should be of the high-quality REM variety. This involves limiting the use of technology, alcohol and stimulants before bed and having a regular sleep routine.
- Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD): this employs the power of suggestion. Before you drift off to sleep, and if you wake up, repeat a similar affirmation: “tonight in my dreams, I will realize I am dreaming and become consciously aware”. It can also help to imagine yourself happily writing down your lucid dream in the morning.
- Keep a Dream Journal: research shows that people with good dream recall typically find it easier to become lucid in their dreams. One way to get better at this is to start practicing by keeping a dream journal. Write in it every morning instead of immediately reaching for your phone. Once you start recognizing recurring characters, you can also use them as prompts for regaining lucidity in dreams.
- Modified Castaneda Technique: similar to recognizing common dream characters, this technique asks you to identify an object in your waking life – such as your hands or the light switch, and to repeat an affirmation similar to “tonight while I am dreaming, I will see my hands and realize that I’m dreaming”. This can serve as a prompt that spontaneously pops up within your dream and allows you to become a lucid explorer.
While lucid dreaming can be both powerful and fun, those struggling with mental health issues should always seek advice from a practitioner first, as further blurring the lines between dream time and waking life can be disorientating.
It is clear that we are only just scratching the surface of this undoubtedly fascinating and third eye-opening experience. So, gather your intentions, set your affirmations – and become the dreamer of your dreams!
(This piece was originally commissioned for Reality Sandwich)
1. Cao, Hongmei (June 2010): Discovery of cyclooxygenase inhibitors from medicinal plants used to treat inflammation. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2860736/
2. Winkelman, Michael (December 1993): Shamans, Priests and Witches: A cross-cultural study of Magico-Religious Practitioners
3. Winkelman, Michael (August 2002): Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology. Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0002764202045012010
4. Laudet, Alexandre (January 2008): The Impact of Alcoholics Anonymous on other substance abuse related Twelve Step programs. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2613294/
5. Winkelman, Michael (March 2004): Shamanism As The Original Neurotheology. Retrieved from: http://www.public.asu.edu/~atmxw/zygon.pdf