Jul 272010

All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream – Edgar Allan Poe

inception-poster-2010 So I went to see Inception last night with most of the family. First a general review. It was an excellent and entertaining movie. It combined espionage, science fiction  and action with mind-bending psychological and metaphysical elements. I don’t generally go out of my way to see a Leonardo DiCaprio movie, but he seems to be getting better.

But my reason for commenting here is because of the use of the dream metaphor. Just as a warning, my commentary below may be considered a spoiler by some, so you may want to see the movie first.

The movie involves shared dreaming, dreams-within-dreams, and the strange phenomena that in dreams, we are often unaware that we are dreaming, and confuse dreaming with real life. As the characters struggle to avoid becoming lost in their multi-layered dreams and strive to wake up, a natural question arises – what if the waking world is actually yet another layer of dream, from which we need to awaken? In the film, this speculation is immediately and forcefully dismissed as pathological. But the director knows that he has planted a seed of doubt in our minds, and he subtly toys with that doubt right up to the end of the movie. Seeds of doubt are another theme that runs throughout the movie.

In fact, dreaming and waking have been used in various spiritual traditions for thousands of years as a metaphor for ordinary consciousness and enlightenment. In fact, the name “Buddha” translates as “the awakened one”.  In the Gnostic “Hymn of the Pearl” from the Acts of Thomas, the son of a King is sent on a mission to retrieve a treasure, but falls asleep and forgets who he is. His father sends a letter to remind him:

Awake and arise from your sleep,
and hear the words of our letter.
Remember that you are a son of kings,
consider the slavery you are serving.

Unenlightened consciousness is indeed very much like dreaming. We become entranced with the little details of our lives and the stories unfolding around us. We forget and become unconscious to a larger context around us. We forget our connection to our highest self and become attached to the particulars. Many enlightened teachers have confirmed that the process of enlightenment is like waking up from a deep and not very nice dream.

It’s interesting that several spiritual and psychological schools and techniques use dream work, dream journaling and lucid dreaming as tools for self-development. Ken Wilber suggests that dream work is one of the few resources we have for accessing our shadow aspects – which are normally invisible to the conscious mind.

Like the dream engineers in Inception, we need to become better architects of the dream world in order to become more conscious in the waking world – and ultimately – awake to the larger world of spirit.

Jan 302010

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Another insight from the new book Nurtureshock is that one of the biggest issues with children and teens today is that almost universally, the world over, cheldren are getting an hour less sleep every day than they did thirty years ago. This is the source of innumerable problems. For example, researchers were trying to correlate behavior such as TV watching with teen obesity. They couldn’t do it. Thin kids watch just as much TV as fat kids. But they DID find a correlation with overweight – and lack of sleep. Yes, lack of sleep can make you fat. The hormones that are required to properly burn fat are manufactured by the body during sleep. What’s more, lack of sleep produces the stress hormone cortisol, which causes fat to be stored. This stress hormone can also cause high blood pressure and heart disease.

For children, one of the primary problems with lack of sleep is that memory is processed during sleep. Our body uses that time to process and categorize memories. For children who are learning huge amounts of new information every day, lack of sleep can seriously interfere with learning and development. Some high schools that have experimented with starting school later in the morning resulted in a dramatic increase in student test scores.

Lack of sleep also compromises the immune system making us more susceptible to disease. Even cancer is associated with sleep loss.

Sleep deprivation also causes mood disturbances, depression, moodiness and the inability to concentrate. All of which are now cronic complaints of modern teens.  In fact, if we look at all the typical complaints of teenagers, they are a list of the symptoms of sleep deprivation.

For kids, lack of sleep is physically and emotionally devistating. But it doesn’t do the rest of us any good either. Our bodies are intended by nature to begin sleep soon after the sun goes down and awaken about when it comes back up. If we have so many commitments and activities that we can’t get good sleep time, we need to re-evaluate our priorities.

Sleep can also be a time for serious spiritual development. Take look at our articles on lucid dreaming, for example.

Oct 282009

lucid2What is lucid dreaming? Since I’m not written on the topic before, I should begin with some explanation. Have you ever been in a dream in which you suddenly realized that you were dreaming? Often this results in waking up. But sometimes, with luck or training, we can manage to stay “lucid” (clear-headed and conscious) in our dreams, and begin to control what occurs in them. With practice, this can become great fun. We can give ourselves super powers, or summon up great historical figures to talk to. We can visit other planets and destroy or befriend the monsters of our nightmares.

Not only is this tremendous fun, but many esoteric teachers believe it’s an important exercise. The Tibetans apparently believe that if you can develop the power to stay completely lucid in your sleep to its ultimate potential, the same consciousness and control we develop in our dreams stays with us after death. At the point of death, we find ourselves with the consciousness to understand what it happening to us and control it. We are then able to pass by the dangers of the afterlife that various “books of the dead” warn us about and ascend to higher realms.

Would you like to add years to your life? How much time to you spend asleep and completely unconscious? If you can extend your consciousness to your dreams, it’s like living a whole new life in addition to the one you live while awake. And this life can be extremely fulfilling and useful.

Lucid dreaming is also extremely helpful for those who wish to learn astral projection. The most successful out-of-body experiences I have had began as lucid dreams. How do we develop lucid dreaming ability? There are a number of techniques, ranging from simple affirmations to complex machinery designed to “almost” wake you up at just the right moment. But the first order of business, if you don’t do it already, is to begin to remember and journal your dreams.

It’s a matter of scientific fact that everyone dreams. Many of us, however, don’t remember them. Several things contribute to our inability to remember dreams. First of all, we simply aren’t in the habit of remembering them. We have conditioned our minds to believe it isn’t important. Secondly, we may be used to waking up too abruptly. If we have an annoying alarm clock, or tend to jump out of bed abruptly, the fragile mental state with which we wake up (and which contains our dream memories) is dissolved. Within a few seconds of jumping out of bed, all our dream memories will be gone.

To begin to remember your dreams, then, put a notebook, a pencil (so you don’t have to sit up to write) and a light next to your bed. Make sure your alarm, if you use one, is gentle. Affirm to yourself several times as you go to sleep that you will remember your dreams. As you wake up, DON’T MOVE. Gently think back on what you remember from your dreams. When you have as much detail as you think you are going to get, grab your notebook and write it down. The first few times, you may forget and start to jump out of bed. Let the notebook on your bedside remind you, and write down whatever you remember. If all you remember are vague feelings, write that down. If you really don’t remember anything, take a GUESS at what you might have dreamed and write down the guess. Your mind will start to realize that you are serious about remembering your dreams, and you will remember more and more each day.

If you get up during the night, try to remember your dreams and write them down before you get out of bed. Some people have luck with setting their alarm for the middle of the night and recording their dreams at that time. In any case, if you are patient, within a short while you will remember more and more dreams.

Don’t slack. Write down everything you can. This serves several purposes. First of all, you can begin to use your dream journal for interesting analysis. Secondly, your consciousness will begin to develop itself. Soon you will start finding yourself being aware of your dreams while you are still IN them. This is one of the best roads to lucid dreaming.

There are a number of other techniques to increase your ability to have lucid dreams which I may write about soon, but dream journaling is, in my opinion, the most important.

Mar 052009

lucidIn the previous article I mentioned that remembering and journaling your dreams is a good way to begin lucid dreaming. Consciously remembering and writing down your dreams has the effect of programming your mind to stay more conscious during the dream state. Sometimes this exercise alone is enough, after some time, to start lucid dreams. But there are other tricks that you can use to hurry the process along a bit.

Some people find pre-sleep programming effective. You simply repeat to yourself,just before going to sleep and any time you awake at night, “I will be lucid in my dreams”. Repeating this for as long as possible before going to sleep will often help.

Another system that is successful for many, but requires some discipline and time, is to program a cue for checking your state of wakefulness. For example, you might wear a ring, and make it a habit that every time you notice your ring, you will ask yourself, “Am I awake or asleep?” This has to revolve around some sign that you will see several times a day. Once asking yourself this question repeatedly becomes an ingraned habit, you will begin to ask the question in your dreams. And when you do, it can snap you into the realization that you are dreaming and begin a lucid dream.

Anything that changes the sleep cycle seems to increase your chances of lucid dreams. Going to bed when especially tired, or when not really tired at all sometimes helps. Various herbs or suppliments which affect sleep, such as valarian root, kava kava, catnip, or B vitamins has been known to have an effect. In the home temple, gardina and jasmin essential oils, applied to the crown, forhead and throat chakras are used to incubate vivid dreams.

Finally, you can go high-tech with machines that will use cues, such as flashing lights or sounds, to partially awaken you when you begin to dream. If done properly, this can induce lucid dreams. The more expensive of these devices, such as the Nova dreamer, actually detect when you are dreaming by detecting your eye movements under your closed lids. You can also find information for constructing these devices yourself. Often the home-made versions forgo trying to detect dreams, and simply fire off at regular intervals. You can pretty much count on it eventually catching you while dreaming.

I’ve also tried a simple computer program, DreamScape, which is somewhat effective for me. You simply leave your laptop on near your bed, and the program will play a sound at a programmed interval, either through the speakers or (if you need to keep it silent) thorough earphones. It is a bit awkward to get used to having an earphone in your ear while sleeping, but eventually it works out.

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