Thursday, March 17, 2016

Part VII: Lucid Dreaming with Tibetan Buddhist "Dream Yoga" Techniques

"A lot of our fears, traumas, and shadow aspects of our psyche that we have unconsciously rejected can get shoved into the recesses of our mind, often bubbling over during the day—causing panic attacks and anxiety—or emerging in our dreams at night. Lucid dreaming, however, gives us a chance to interact with those fears in a place where we know nothing can hurt us, and therefore allow us to heal that part of our mind.

If we are able to compassionately interact with the parts of our dreams that we find repulsive or terrifying, we are taking huge steps to relieve the anxiety that often gets replayed in our waking state. Sending love, hugging, being kind, releasing, and forgiving during the dream state can lead us to awaken feeling very different from the day before."
This is the practice of lucid dreaming (or dream yoga in Buddhism)—where we become awake within our dreams, and the conscious mind gets to play with the unconscious mind for spiritual advancement, self-discovery, healing, and fun.

For centuries Toltecs, Tantrics, Sufis, Gnostic Christians, shamans, Aborigines, and Tibetan Buddhists have practiced lucid dreaming. It is only recently, however, that the scientific community has started to accept—and embrace—the practice as being more than the “wild” claims of spiritual traditions.

In the late 1970s and 1980s scientific studies began to emerge confirming that there is a dream state that differs from REM—and one that looks as if dreamers may be awake while asleep. Since then, scientists and psychologists have begun to explore lucid dreaming and its potential for altering the waking experiences of the mind and body. Could a lucid dreaming practice reduce PTSD in returning soldiers, or help end addictions? Some scientists suggest yes. Dream yogis say absolutely. Could it also improve performance in the workplace or for athletes, dancers, and musicians? It’s a possibility say scientists. Practitioners say it’s a reality.

But of what use is to become lucid in a dream? According to practitioners of dream yoga, the lucid dream is where the conscious mind gets not only to explore but also to use the unconscious mind. Given that some neuroscientists suggest that as much as 95 percent of our brain activity is unconscious, a whole new world opens up.

“In Buddhism, dream yoga is an opportunity to explore emptiness, and to explore beyond the mind,” says Charlie. “Meditation is how we may do this in waking life, but the Tibetan Buddhists say just one minute of meditation in a lucid dream is the equivalent of a 30-day retreat.”

During lucid dreams our brain starts to exhibit gamma waves—one of the highest frequencies the human brain can emit—and the same waves that are exhibited by those in a deep meditative state. “You’re already in a very deep place when you are lucid dreaming,” he says. “Now imagine what it means to then meditate within that. You are on an accelerated path to accessing the unconscious mind and exploring emptiness... whatever your path, the lucid dreaming state can connect you to wisdom and result in deep spiritual experiences.”

There are many studies and examples where  visualized healing—such as when individuals see themselves healed with colored light—can help to reduce stress, enhance the immune system, and lessen pain in patients. Athletes and performers are also well-known for using visualization to improve their skills. According to Charlie: “These techniques are dependent upon our ability to visualize, but that’s something not all of us find so easy. In a lucid dream, however, the playing field is leveled, because a lucid dream is the most vivid and complete visualization we can experience.”

1. Keep a Dream Diary

“Start small and see if you can remember just one dream a night—or even an image—and jot down the main notes about the dream immediately upon waking. This practice starts to train the mind to become more conscious of the dream state,” says Charlie. It also will serve for our second step towards lucid dreaming next week in recognizing dream patterns.

2. Work With an Affirmation

Before falling asleep, repeat this affirmation: “Tonight, I remember my dreams. I have excellent dream recall.”

Charlie recommends the affirmation, I am healed of all non-beneficial disease, for healing. “Another favorite of mine for general psychological health is to call out: I am happy, healthy, and helpful in every single way—I am happy, healthy, and helpful every single day!” he says.

3. Prepare a Calm Environment

Avoid over-stimulation before bedtime and definitely avoid drugs. “The best thing to do is meditate for about 20 minutes before bed to get the mind prepared, but at the very least commit to winding down before bedtime, and turning off the phone,” says Charlie.

4. Increase Vitamin B Intake

Start increasing an intake of foods rich in vitamin B, such as leafy greens, bananas, and avocados. “If you’re into green juices, try drinking them closer to bedtime than to breakfast,” suggests Charlie. Studies show that folic acid and vitamin B6 increase likelihood of lucidity.

5. Throat Chakra Meditation and Yoga

The throat chakra is the dream chakra in Tibetan Buddhism, and so to direct energy to this area as you are falling asleep or just before will raise your lucidity level. “Interestingly the brain stem is located at roughly the same place as the throat chakra, and neurologically it’s the brain stem that plays a large role in creating our dreams,” points out Charlie. So this week try incorporating throat chakra meditations or yoga asanas that work on the throat chakra such as MatsyasanaArdha Matsyendrasana, and shoulder stand into your regular yoga practice.

6. Look for Dream Signs

We’re going to continue with the dream diary, upping the ante to jot down notes in the middle of the night in addition to the morning to improve our dream recall. And now we’re also going to take a look at the content. We’re looking for “dream signs”—any improbable, impossible, or bizarre aspect of your dream experiences that can help indicate that you are dreaming.

In reading through your notes see if you can spot any recurring dream signs—be those themes, places, or characters—that seem to occur in your dreams. Perhaps the sign is an old friend you no longer see, a deceased relative, or a place from your childhood. Or maybe you dream regularly about dogs. Whatever the sign is, it could be a trigger in your next dream for you to realize—ah! I’m at school, so I must be dreaming. “Acknowledging our particular dream signs in the waking state will lead to conscious recognition of them within the dream state, thus triggering lucidity,” says Charlie.

7. Reality Checks

Now the fun really begins. We are going to start looking for weird things happening in our waking lives. Anything we experience that is slightly off—a peculiar person, déjà vu, synchronicity, unusual light—when we come across this we’re going to ask ourselves the question: Am I dreaming? and follow it with what is called a “reality check.” Remember the spinning totem in Inception? Well, it’s kind of like that.

There are many things our mind can rarely replicate in dream state. For example, the mind often struggles to look at our hands twice in succession without something about our hands changing. Another is reading the same text twice in a dream without the words altering. And finally, the dreaming mind finds it hard to use digital or electronic devices without them malfunctioning in some way. So during our waking life this week we will be keeping an eye out for anything unusual that happens, and then asking ourselves “Am I dreaming?” Followed immediately by a reality check: either turning the palms up and down twice to see if they stay the same; looking for text to read twice, checking whether it differs; or using our phone or computer to see if it malfunctions.

“By doing reality checks in the daytime, you’re creating a habit that will then reappear in your dreams,” says Charlie. “Only the result there will be that your hand will change or morph in some way and so you’ll realize you are dreaming.” According to Charlie the key is to carry out reality checks with focus rather than rushing through them.

8. Work With the Hypnagogic State

The hypnagogic state is the naturally hypnotic period just before sleep—that time when you start to feel very drowsy, imagery appears, and the body sometimes experiences involuntary jerks. The Buddhists, Sufis, and Toltecs all use this state to start sewing seeds of suggestion for lucid dreaming. Charlie suggests reciting an affirmation during this time such as: Next time I dream, I know that I am dreaming. Or: I recognize my dreams with full lucidity. Really feel the affirmation, and aim for it to be the last thing to pass through your mind before you fall asleep.

Lucid dreaming tends to occur in the REM cycle of sleep. The first four and a half hours of sleep are usually deep sleep with only short periods of REM, but after five hours of sleep we start to have much more prolonged REM periods, making those hours prime lucid dreaming time. The trick, therefore, is to wake up sometime during this latter period, and then plant the suggestion for lucid dreaming within the hypnotically-charged hypnagogic state. Charlie suggests setting an alarm, or simply giving yourself a chance to go back to sleep if you wake up early, so that you can practice in this peak lucid dreaming time. If you do find yourself lucid but are struggling to make it last, try simply asking in the dream for greater lucidity and stability.

 In addition to working with the hypnagogic state, you should continue keeping a dream diary. “That’s now part of your daily routine and should be the first thing you see in the morning and the last thing you see at night if you want to make lucid dreaming part of your life,” Charlie says. Reality checks, like repeatedly looking at your hands, should also be a regular practice. “If loved ones aren’t asking you what is wrong with your hands, then maybe you’re not doing enough reality checks!” jokes Charlie. 

But for lucid dreaming to become Tibetan Dream Yoga, or to become a conscious spiritual practice, we take it one step further. This step is to apply all the same spiritual practices of our daily lives, such as prayer, meditation, reciting a mantra, or practicing yoga postures, to our dream time. That’s a lot extra hours to work on our spiritual growth.

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