When consciousness draws on us in a dream, it is as if we materialized in the dreamscape. One moment we didn’t exist, the next we do. The transition is dramatic. The experience is very much like the Star Trek depiction of people who “beam” through space and who suddenly arrive on new and distant planets. The difference is that when we gain consciousness in a dream, we emerge into the sensory environment of the dreamscape. Prior to gaining consciousness, it is as if we did not exist in the dream at all, at least not in any present-tense sense of the word. But once we are conscious, suddenly we can see where we are—we are able to see our seeing, hear our hearing, touch our touching and feel our feeling. With consciousness we can be where we are. Consciousness is the doorway through which we enter the dreamscape.
If we wish to awaken our consciousness during dream sleep, we first must learn to awaken our consciousness while we are awake. Then we can teach ourselves how to bring consciousness into the dreamscape. The entire process is at once this simple—and this difficult.
Consciousness in Waking Experience
Consciousness, as we have explored, is a phenomenon of the mind that most people associate with being awake. Indeed, most of us assume that when we are awake, we are conscious. After all, when else could we be? It extends from this observation that most people also assume that consciousness is a continuous characteristic of waking experience—that when we fall asleep, we lose consciousness, but when we awaken from sleep, we regain our consciousness and are conscious again all day long. This seems obvious, but is it true?
If we keep in mind that consciousness refers specifically to our ability for reflectivity, then we need to reevaluate our assessment of consciousness in waking experience. For example, in many ways, thought itself if continuous. When we are awake, we always seem to be occupied with thinking about something. We think of one thing, then another; we think back to an experience we had, then out attention is summoned by a task in front of us, and so on. But these thoughts do not in themselves constitute consciousness.
Consciousness is our ability to observe our thought—to keep track of it, to watch its course of associations, and to see all of the ideas that either complement or compete with the primary thought. When we are conscious during these meanderings of our mind, we are aware of our thought experience as it occurs. Remember, the “as it occurs” part of this definition is vital; consciousness is a now experience. It is not looking back on a train of thought that we had a moment or two ago.
For example, have you ever been driving a car and suddenly realized you can’t recall the past five or ten minutes? It is a peculiar, but common, experience. What happens to us during these periods? Does our mind go completely blank? Clearly not, for the car remains on the road and we are still driving. What does happen is that for an extended period of time, we lose—and this is what causes the event to be significant to use—our reflective stream of thought. Our mind was “drifting” and we were being carried in the stream of voluntary thought. And we still were able to perform some very complex behavior. We handled a one-and-a-half ton vehicle at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour and maybe even changed lanes and passed other cars, all without reflecting on our experience at all. Pretty neat trick!
Or did you ever find yourself thinking about something unusual—some event long in your past—without recalling what prompted your thinking about it? The peculiar nature of the thought draws our attention to it. At this point we may be surprised and wonder how we got to thinking about it. If we are able to remember, we can trace our thoughts back to the original thought. But notice that, often as not, we are unable to recall what ticked off the association. If we can step back from ourselves, we can see that our minds were drifting and we weren’t necessarily watching what was going on. We were being carried along in a stream of voluntary thought. Notice also that characteristic lack of memory for these types of occurrences. Failure of recall for unobserved experience is extremely common; as a rule, we possess poor memory for unconsciously experienced sensations.
To develop your memory for dreams, learn to write them down. This means devoting five to ten minutes at the start of your morning to recording your dreams. Consider this habit a practical aspect of improving your dream life; however, be forewarned that this practical aspect is often the single most difficult hurdle to surmount. When you awaken in the morning, you need to be able to calmly; actively, and receptively peruse your mind for the fragments and memories that are still lingering with you. The process of dream recall demands your undivided attention. You need quite; you cannot be distracted—no television, no radio, no small talk about the day.
Recording dreams is the only way to learn more about your dreams. The process of writing makes you organize your thoughts, helps you focus on the events in the dream, and clarifies the sequence of events. As you write, you will recall more details. Writing improves your recall of dreams, even of dreams you think you remember fully. Associations pop into your mind as you write, and these associations are significant clues to the connection of events. They will help you identify how your mind associates some of the more confusing aspects of the dream. Writing is also the only way to retain the depth and richness of recall that you possess when you first awaken. Once you put a dream on paper, you can later, at your leisure, reflect on its meaning. Also, if you awaken in the middle of the night and do not write down the dream, it is almost guaranteed lost. By keeping a dream journal, you will later be able to review dreams that you otherwise would have forgotten. Without a hard copy, the overwhelming majority of our dreams are lost forever.
The association with stressful or frightening dreams and lucidity is longstanding. Many dreamers have taught themselves to be lucid as a direct result of negative experiences with nightmares. Nightmares, as we all know from personal experience, range from dreams involving persecution, where we dream we are being attacked or pursued by some person or thing who wishes to do us harm, to full-blown horrifying experiences, where we not only see, but feel and hear terrors we would not wish to view at a horror film. While nightmares most commonly afflict young children, they are by no means restricted to them.
Frightening or threatening dream experiences are familiar ways in which lucidity enters the dreamscape. We encounter something frightening or stressful in a dream, and this shakes us into a suddenly observant frame or mind. With our attention on the alarming circumstance or event, we correctly perceive that we must be dreaming. Unfortunately, upon making this recognition, people sometimes dismiss the validity of the aggression or conflict and seek to escape the situation.
Sophisticated Lucid Dreamers
When we are conscious in a dream, we are interacting with something quite spectacular—a full-blown sensory environment created by our unconscious mind. The dreamscape is richly decorated; it speaks a beautiful language of metaphors and collages. We should use the opportunity to learn more about our dreams and about ourselves. Ultimately this orientation to the dreamscape will prove far more psychically fulfilling.
If we merely perform in “minidramas”of our conscious direction, then ultimately we come away from the experience without having learned anything. In the long run, we have acted out a fantasy we already knew we possessed. This is not to say that there is not worthwhile satisfaction in acting out one’s fantasies, for there genuinely is. But if we take the time to attentively interact with our unconscious mind—to study it, to increase our ability to respond to whatever events arise in the dream, to try to learn from our dreams and understand them—I guarantee we will come away fascinated, intrigued, challenged, and proud to be in possession of such a wonder. Take time to explore the dreamscape! The sophisticated lucid dreamer is someone who wants to learn.
©1995 Charles McPhee. Excerpted from Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams: A Guide to Awakening Consciousness During Dream Sleep published by Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
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