Thanks to movies like Inception and Avatar, lucid dreaming has become a household word. Although definitions vary depending on your culture and the strength of your resistance towards the transpersonal, most call lucid dreaming the experience of dreaming with awareness, and sometimes dreaming with control, while the body sleeps. Everyone is now asking the same questions: Is dream control possible - or is it science fiction? Will technology ever let us share dreams like virtual reality? What fool-proof methods or pills can we take to wake up in our dreams?
The truth is, these themes were perfected thousands of years ago by our ancestors, and are still practiced today in dozens of indigenous cultures around the world. And this work is done without pills, headsets, VR goggles, and dream machines. Lucid dreaming is actually a shamanic skill, a method of heightened awareness in the dream that allows healers, soothsayers and medicine men access to information, insight and energetic powers. Lucid dreaming doesn't require technology: it is the technology.
But this is a far cry from how Westerners are taught about lucid dreaming. More often than not, lucid dreaming is discussed as a fantasy realm indulging private fantasies, seeking entertainment and pleasure. Not that there's anything wrong with this perspective, limited as it is. It's simply a marketer's dream seeking the lowest common denominator, neatly paralleling the adolescent cravings that drive the main engines of distraction and consumption in Western culture.
The father of modern depth psychology, Sigmund Freud, discusses dream interpretation as the work of culture to drain the swamps of the psyche to build monuments for the ego. On the other hand, Freud's younger colleague Carl Jung warns that, "Any efforts to drill (the unconscious) are only apparently successful, and moreover are harmful to consciousness." Unaware of this divide, but still caught in its net, many lucid dreaming books promise unlimited potential; explore, manipulate and conquer - the manifest destiny of lucid dreaming. This myth places the dreamer in the center of the world, the creator and arbiter of the dreaming landscape.
From a scientific perspective, REM dreaming has a pretty specific neuro-phenomenology. Activation of the limbic system brings strong emotions, and this is combined with an enhanced access to long-term memory - and a depression of short-term memory so we don't tend to question who or where we are. The parts of the brain that bring mental imagery are also actively firing away, creating symbolic structures for all this content. In a nutshell, dreaming is a potent mix of visual-emotional-linguistic metaphors that link to our deepest memories and experiences.
We don't have to be indigenous peoples to appreciate the shamanic aspects of lucid dreaming, but Westerners may need to let go of some destructive myths in order to participate at the deeper levels of imagination like those cultivated in dreaming cultures. Some of these myths include the idea that we as individuals are alone, we as a culture are owners of the lands we inhabit, we as a species are separate from nature; and that the universe itself is a dead, mechanistic realm of cause and effect. When we take these notions into the dream, the stages are set, the possibilities are limited and the anomalies are stamped out before they have a chance to speak up.
Dream control can be used to surrender and go with the flow. This tension between maintaining awareness and dancing with the unknown is the thin line that connects us to the source(s), leading us into a light brighter than our own lucidity. At this time in history, the ability of dreamers to tap into the wisdom of the ancients and to draw from the intelligence of non-human sources may be critical to our survival, at least for the dream's ability to make conscious what is happening in the world, in each of our communities, due to the ecological effects of civilization.