I’m floundering in a mucky stream, grasping to move upwards on the slippery, wet slope. There are others around me doing the same. We are looking up at a modest peasant-style wooden house on the hill above us. We are all struggling to get to this house, making little headway. It’s nothing really worth struggling for, but everyone is doing it. Finally, I think, ‘why am I struggling up this muck? What happens if I stop struggling? What if I just let go?’ And so, I do. I bumble downwards and the water becomes clearer and clearer. It’s cool and cleansing as I wash downstream, until finally I’m emptied into a crystalline pool. I float in silence and peace. Why was I struggling for mediocre when this space was so much more beautiful and peaceful than I could have imagined?
This was a dream from some time ago, but I remember it vividly. I awoke sensing the profoundness I just witness, yet I couldn’t help but to laugh at how simplistic the message was. In the dream I was able to sense and feel what was going on, and the message was loud and clear – I just needed to let go in order to find more exquisiteness than I could have ever imagined. It wasn’t just an image passing through my head, it was an emotional and spiritual understanding.
Dreams have much to teach us, if we let them, but many of us in the western world treat dreams as nothing of significance. We navigate through life believing they are merely a bi-product of the brain as it randomly runs through images, sounds, scenarios and stories. We believe that we create these dreams with the subconscious mind, and they don’t really mean much of anything. As a child, whenever my sister would ramble on about a dream, I used to say…” you know, dreams are only interesting to the people they happen to.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I stopped saying that phrase when I experienced one of the most profound dreams of my life in my early university years. In my dream my vehicle was rolling over in slow motion. I held onto the steering wheel and rolled with it. Upside down and right side up in my dream. I woke up with my heart pounding, but I knew I survived. The morning after my dream, I drove up to the mountains. The road was slick with frost and ice. When my car hit an unassuming patch of black ice, I fish tailed out of control and rolled off the side of the road. As it was happening, I knew it was my dream manifesting as my reality, and I moved through the brief horrifying event with a strange sense of calm, knowing I was going to be OK. I rolled three times and my car was totaled, but myself and the two passengers in the car walked away without a scratch. That was the moment that I knew dreams were more than just images floating through the mind.
Shamans from indigenous cultures have always used dreams to consciously navigate the subconscious realms. They hold the belief that the embodied and waking world isn’t the only reality, but that dreams are a connection to the spirit realm, which is just a real as the material world. Indigenous people are taught at a young age to remember and share their dreams every morning. Elders will ask a child “what did you dream about last night?”, and in doing so, each child develops dream recall at a young age. As they get older, they learn to navigate through their dreams, looking to them for answers to questions, or tidbits of wisdom. Amazon sages speak of learning to dream with open eyes. “Sages point out that the enlightened person is fully awake even while asleep, while the unenlightened person is fully asleep, even while awake” says Alberto Villoldo in the book he co-writes with David Perlmutter, Power Up Your Brain, The Neuroscience of Enlightenment.
In a shamanic context the word “dreaming” can mean a number of things, including what most of us think of when we hear the term, which is the fantasy land you experience while you are sleeping. But it can also mean having a vision, going on a shamanic journey, or receiving information in a trance state. Shamans believe that spirits can use dreams to communicate with us. While it may be our own higher spirit communing with us, it can also be another spirit that has stopped by us to teach us something. They believe that nightmares can be warnings, but they can also be the energy of a visiting spirit that is suffering.
When we learn to change our sleeping dreams, we can begin to change our waking dreams. We can dream, both awake and asleep. In our western world we are scolded for idly squandering our time with daydreaming, but shamans believe that all dreams contain messages from spirit.
The shaman has three dream practices; lucid dreaming, bringing awareness into dreamless sleep, and bringing your dreaming skills into your waking state to understand that you are dreaming the world into being at all times. While I won’t go into the more advanced phases of shamanic dreaming because I’m personally not there yet, I can share a few techniques that have helped me to work with dream recall and journeying over the years.
Keep a notebook by your bedside to take notes throughout the night (I don’t want to disturb my husband, so I wake up in the morning and immediately go to my computer to document my dreams). You can also keep a recorder by your bedside. It’s sometimes easier to stay in the dreamy state when you talk instead of trying to turn on a light and write. With dream documenting and journaling you will begin to remember more of your dreams as you consciously think about all the details of them. Do your best to remember sensations and details, colors, textures, or the look and feel of the place you are in. If you tend to have many dreams in the night, pick and choose ones that feel important or profound to you. I have a lot of scattered and haphazard dreams, so I don’t document all of them, just ones that I feel might have some meaning or depth.
When you go back and re-read your dream journal, you may find that you can step right back into the dream, remembering details and sensations months later, even though you would have otherwise forgotten. Start to notice patterns with your dreams. Do you often dream of the same person or situations? Are you dreams showing you your faults or strengths? Do you have a dream about a specific place or event and then notice corresponding patterns in your waking life? Ruby Warrington in her book Material Girl, Mystical World describes coming to the realization of having dreams of tidal waves before major life events.
I realized more recently that I’d like to admit that lucid dreaming is simply being aware that you are dreaming in your dream. I had the misconception that lucid dreaming was a very, very clear dream and you could control whatever was happening. While a more advanced dreaming technique is to guide the dream or be in conscious control of the outcome, it doesn’t mean that’s the best tactic. Sometimes it’s actually good to have your subconscious take the helm instead of following the controlling egoic mind. In that sense you can connect to whatever your spirit guides or your higher self might wish to say to you. Although I had no idea at all that I was actually a lucid dreamer, as I track back in my dream journal, I realize that more often than not, I’m aware that I’m dreaming. I regularly ask characters in my dream who they are and why they are there. When I have reoccurring people in my dreams, I often ask them why they keep visiting me.
If you’re completely lost in your dreams each night, here’s a few techniques to begin to bring subtle awareness into the dream.
Start to work on a few techniques during the waking hours to test yourself that you’re really awake. Examples can be reading the same sentence twice in a row, if it says the same thing both times, you’re awake. Bring awareness to your fingers, try to extend pointer, middle and ring finger while counting one, two, three. We often have a hard time with hand movement (if any hand awareness at all) in our dreams. Hold your nose closed and cover your mouth and try to breathe. If you can breathe, you’re dreaming. Ask yourself throughout the day, “Am I awake?” “Am I dreaming?” If you don’t question or test yourself in your waking life, you aren’t likely to question yourself in your sleeping realm.
Just the other night I got into my dream, and I immediately queried myself, “Am I awake?” and I realized I was dreaming. That set the stage for my dream, opened the doors for a more creative landscape. I didn’t have to behave or abide by any societal rules, because, well, it was a dream, and you can do whatever you want!
The trick is to have fun with it. If you aren’t having fun, you probably won’t keep up with the practice. You’ll start to notice some subtle differences in your waking world when you tune into your sleeping realm. We are asleep for about 1/3 of our lives, so why not bring some conscious awareness to that state of being?