The Dark Side of Lucid Dreaming
Every night we close our eyes and enter a world devoid of common sense. The laws of physics are cast aside. The impossible becomes suddenly possible. The Browns are Superbowl contenders. Donald Trump says something factual. You get the idea.
And yet, despite their obvious absurdity, we don’t recognize dreams for what they are. This is a mystery. It’s no less mysterious, however, than our subjective experience of daily life. Since we haven’t yet explained waking consciousness (the Hard Problem), how can we expect to understand dream consciousness?
Science has given us some clues. For example, certain parts of the brain governing self-recognition are less active during REM sleep. Stimulating these areas, in fact, can induce consciousness in dreams. But we needn’t strap on electrodes to drag our awareness into the night. Rather, we can train our minds to wake up inside our dreams.
This ancient practice - known as lucid dreaming – allows us to access the yawning chasm of the unconscious from a first person perspective. In the past, I’ve written about my positive lucid dreams: healing an illness, searching for my deepest interest, and encountering a shimmering being in outer space. I’ve had more fun in these dreams than a NASCAR fan at a Trump rally.
But I haven’t yet talked about the dark side of lucid dreaming. It should be no surprise that these experiences can go sour. Most dreams, in fact, have a negative tone. What’s more, lucid dreams are both more intense and more memorable than normal dreams. This is a potent combo. If the lucid dream is pleasant, one might feel transcendent euphoria. But if not – as in my following dream - the effect can be deeply disquieting:
Standing near Grandma’s old house, I become lucid. Before I can get my bearings, an eerie rattle fills my ears. I turn and a pale figure - head lolled back like a zombie - has sidled up to me. I fly away, cross the street and burst into a dilapidated house - but the rattling apparition follows! I turn again and am suddenly sucked back with tremendous force. The sinister spectre fills my visual field. He mouths words silently as we tunnel backwards. I have no control. I wake with my heart pounding.
To start, my helplessness seems odd. Since I was lucid, shouldn’t I have been able to control the dream? Not necessarily. An analogy will illustrate.
“No sailor controls the sea,” writes lucid guru Robert Waggoner. “Only a foolish sailor would say such a thing. Similarly, no lucid dreamer controls the dream. Like a sailor on the sea, we lucid dreamers direct our perpetual awareness within the larger state of dreaming.”
The hapless lucid dreamer, according to this construal, merely aims her attention within the roiling realm of the unconscious. There is no real control.
The same is true, in many ways, of our waking experience. We feel “in charge,” but this is merely a symptom of not attending to the nature of thought itself. It’s possible, in fact, to notice that thoughts seem to arise out of nothing. They drift in and out of consciousness like clouds in the sky. Nobody initiates them.
And nowhere is our lack of control more obvious than in REM sleep. In this state, our brain creates entire worlds without any active direction. And dream characters – projections from the unconscious - often appear acutely aware. When I’ve met these beings in lucid dreams, the result has been both intriguing and intimidating:
Aware that I dream, I notice a TV and begin to flip through channels using telepathy. Every station shows an idyllic ocean scene. As I prepare to portal through the screen, something touches my back. I turn abruptly to find a young man with spiky black hair behind me. He’s shirtless and seems smug. I try to jump into the TV, but his grip holds me fast. I ask who he is. “An inorganic molecule,” he replies. He says there will be no teleporting right now. I feel helpless in his presence. His name is Josh.
I’ve since struggled to make sense of this dream. Perhaps I’ve read too many Carlos Castaneda novels*, but I’m not ready to discount this experience just yet. The truth is - a character from my unconscious seemed, well, conscious. What’s more, Josh had absolute power over the conscious “me.” I was the Toto to his Dorothy. I don’t recommend it.
In lucid dreams, waking life, or otherwise - most brain activity occurs in the dark. Is it possible that, somewhere in this darkness, there are mischievous forces that possess intelligence? And if so, to what extent are they active during our daily lives? I’ll ask Josh next time I see him.
*Castaneda encounters “inorganic beings” – formidable, inhuman, forces from his dreams - in the Art of Dreaming. In my lucid dream, Josh called himself an “inorganic molecule.” In my defense - he was one tough molecule.