Dream Practice

By Jane Weston

Jane Weston has been a Buddhist for over forty years and is a long term student of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. She trained in Mindfulness of Dream and Sleep and Lucid Dreaming with Charlie Morley, a leading teacher of dreamwork worldwide. Based in the UK she regularly runs courses in Mindfulness of Dream and Sleep and Conscious Dreaming.

A key reason that I originally joined the Dzogchen Community was that I was inspired by Rinpoche’s writings on Dream Yoga. I loved reading about his amazing dreams of clarity.

I joined workshops with Michael Katz, who is the only one of his students who Rinpoche authorized to teach his dream practice. I remember attending a teaching where Michael gave us an exercise: he asked us to leave Lekdanling and observe very closely what was going on around us. When we saw anything a bit weird or unusual we should seriously consider whether we were in fact inhabiting a dream at that very moment. Something peculiar in the dream environment can alert us to the fact that we are dreaming as we are dreaming, so it pays to train in close observation of everything going on around us in the everyday waking state. The idea is that this habit then carries over into REM dreaming sleep.

As soon as I got out into the street I saw a tall guy, dressed as a bunny rabbit, with long floppy ears, jogging past me as if this was the most normal thing on a Saturday afternoon in east London. I conducted a quick reality check (to establish whether I was dreaming or not). A reality check is where you try to do something that is impossible in the everyday waking state, like flying or stretching one finger of your hand out to two feet in length by pulling on it. If you are awake nothing happens, but if you are in a dream very strange things can and do happen. Nothing happened, so I concluded that although the manbunny was very odd, I was not dreaming him.

I have never forgotten this minor urban drama. Michael had taught us a valuable modern dream practice technique and the bunnyman had provided a great opportunity to try it out…

Having laid the foundations of a dream practice in the Dzogchen Community, some years ago I began studying with Charlie Morley. Charlie’s root teacher is Lama Yeshe, a well-respected Lama in the Karma Kagyu tradition (and a cousin of Akong Rinpoche, former abbot of Samye Ling monastery).

What attracted me to Charlie is how he combines the philosophy of Buddhism with modern psychological techniques and practices from other spiritual traditions, and applies them specifically to the area of sleep and dream. He also emphasizes scientific validation of ‘sleep knowledge’, which I consider important.

Since the 1970s sleep scientists have increased our objective understanding of how our brain sleeps a great deal. Neuroscience can also help us understand why modern students often struggle with both peaceful sleep and practising mindfulness meditation.

There are two opposing aspects of the human nervous system – the parasympathetic system and the sympathetic system. The popular names are “rest and digest” and “fight and flight”. These systems evolved over millions of years of human prehistory to enable our ancestors to react effectively in both safe and unsafe situations in their environment. When stressed, our system responds by pouring noradrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream which makes us both highly alert and prepared to go into action. After the threat has gone, the parasympathetic mode – rest and digest – takes over and relaxation becomes dominant.

This evolution over millions of years was all very adaptive. The problem arises when too much stress for too long without any switch-off periods results in a nervous system which exists in a state of low level (or even high level in the case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) arousal all the time. The result is a human being with sleep disturbance and problems with anxiety. In the long term, this has a negative impact on the physical body.

So, we need to help ourselves sleep better and relax more deeply and here I am guided by Charlie Morley’s methods. I teach simple breathing techniques, Yoga Nidra (from the Hindu tradition), mindfulness meditation and progressive muscle relaxation to get people more familiar with the feeling of being deeply relaxed. This is the necessary prelude to becoming more aware in all the different brain states of the day/night cycle, as identified by neuroscience. There are probably a great number of these but I’m just going to identify a handful:

Everyday waking state (I don’t call this “waking reality” for obvious Buddhist reasons!).
Hypnagogic – as we fall asleep we encounter this stage where there is often visual imagery, muscle jerks and a feeling of very relaxed wakefulness (Stage 1 sleep according to sleep science). This is the drowsy place between full wakefulness and full sleep.
Light sleep Stage 2.
Deep sleep Stage 3.
Rapid Eye Movement Stage 4, which we commonly call dreaming.
Hypnopompic – the transitional state between sleep (or dream) and full wakefulness, often characterized by a spacious dreamy thinking where profound insights are possible.

Tibetan Buddhist Dream Yoga has something to say about all the stages of sleep and dream that I listed above. The aim is to develop awareness seamlessly throughout all states of consciousness 24/7. Very highly realized Lamas have been able to attain this but it is far beyond the reach of most ordinary people. There is a reason why this practice is considered so important – the idea is that if you can develop this level of practice, you can maintain awareness not only throughout all stages of sleep but also in the bardos of death and dying. During the death process, by reliably recognizing the base luminosity when it manifests, the practitioner achieves full enlightenment.

Although awareness of the clear light in the bardo of deep dreamless sleep is considered a highly advanced practice, we can all make some progress towards the address to which we are going (as Rinpoche called it). The first step on this path as far as I am concerned is to expand our awareness of some unfamiliar stages of sleep. The key to this is mindfulness, or paying attention to what is happening, as it is happening, in the present moment, within our own minds.

I teach people in small groups using a variety of techniques to heighten awareness.
First, we learn to relax more deeply. This might sound easy but modern individuals in industrialized societies, as I said before, are usually quite highly stressed and may live in a state of permanent nervous system arousal. It is no good telling these people to relax because put simply, they don’t really understand what this means, because their “normal” is to be permanently unrelaxed.

Next, we learn how to ‘hang out’ in the hypnagogic or Ensleepening state for much longer periods of time and become familiar with the subjective experience of this with much more awareness. Some people experience a lot of flashing visual imagery here, faces, landscapes and so on. Some hear noises. I myself have had an interesting vision or dreamlet which was pervaded by a smell. This state between waking and sleeping is readily accessible for many people as it has elements of waking consciousness and imagery surfacing from the unconscious mind at the same time. Some people need to engage with this state in order to dissolve the barriers to falling asleep, if they are struggling with disturbed sleep patterns. Others use it as a gateway into the dreamworld, or a space where they can engage their imagination to influence what happens later in full REM dreaming sleep. There are many possibilities.

Another brain state for beginners to start with is the hypnopompic or Upwakening state, as we come out of dream or light dreamless sleep and hover on the threshold of full everyday waking consciousness. Many people just rush through this and aren’t really aware of it at all but it is another distinct sleep phase, characterized on an EEG by its own unique pattern of brainwaves. Subjectively, it is quite different from being fully awake and there are many possibilities to become more aware here.

And then of course, there is REM itself where we are experiencing the full narrative, emotional experience which we label ‘dreaming’. The everyday waking state consciousness is largely suspended and we believe that what we are experiencing is ‘real’. To become lucid is to realize that we are dreaming, while we are dreaming. This is a really amazing experience in anyone’s book, as it opens a treasury of possibilities, from flying to walking through walls to performing enhanced spiritual practice.

Tibetan Buddhism in general does not pay much attention to the content of dreams – the content is considered to be very secondary to the ability to realize the empty nature of all the manifestations which we label ‘dream’. Traditionally, the emphasis is on the ability to become lucid because it really is the royal road to an understanding that what we perceive is not as solid, permanent and ‘real’ as we previously believed.

However, just as the modern individual is different from a Tibetan receiving teachings in a traditional setting in respect of her nervous system, she is also different in respect of her cultural context. In the West, we have developed a culture which constantly emphasizes the individual over the collective, the personal over the communal. Modern people need an approach that recognizes them as individuals and can give them some insight into their own personal experience.

I still find the approach of Tibetan Buddhism to sleep and dream in the form of Dream Yoga the most profound and sophisticated available, but the addition of scientific knowledge and some of the approaches to human psychology that were developed in the West in the early 20th century are also useful. I’m talking here about the psychoanalytic tradition mainly following the work of Carl Gustav Jung.

The study of dream in the West, pioneered by Freud and Jung, derives the significance of the dream as coming from the contents, which contain meaningful symbols which surface from the unconscious mind in the dream space like nowhere else. This is why Freud called dreams the royal road to the Unconscious.

So, in terms of teaching in small groups, when everybody has established deeper relaxation, we explore the significance of the imagery that arises in all the sleep states except 2 and 3. At this point, the concept of the Shadow is introduced. This comes directly from the work of Carl Jung. I find this by far the most profound approach to ‘meaning’ in dreams and can deeply inform people’s ability to integrate disturbing content surfacing from the unconscious in the form of nightmares or anxiety dreams.

The widely different approaches of traditionally Eastern and Western philosophies to the significance of dreams is hardly surprising when we consider that the cultures in which they evolved were themselves so different. In Asia, at the time that Buddhism began to spread and flower, there was far less emphasis on the individual and meaning was more communal and collective. In the West, the philosophical approach has been to focus on the individual and their personal experience to a much greater degree. Of course, this is a huge simplification, but I think it is important, and it is the reason that I think the exciting developments for the future in dreamwork are likely to draw on both traditions. Buddhism offers profound practices to expand our understanding of the real nature of our mind and the development of the psychoanalytic tradition offers deep insights into the workings of the individual and collective unconscious. These strands can converge to inform our journey into the future of dreamwork.

My path into dreamwork began with all that I learnt from Rinpoche and his profound teachings on the subject and this remains the bedrock of my inspiration but I hope that we can widen the discussion to consider what our own culture has to offer. We need every resource of knowledge we can get, as we try to deal with the sheer level of suffering which we encounter as ordinary modern people, trying to navigate through an increasingly challenging and accelerating situation in our present world.

More information on Jane’s website https://mindfuldreamwork.wordpress.com/


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