When the state of dreaming has dawned,
Do not lie in ignorance like a corpse.
Enter the natural sphere of unwavering attention.
Recognize your dreams and transform illusion into luminosity.
Do not sleep like an animal.
Do the practice which mixes sleep and reality.
-Dream Yoga and the Practice of the Natural Light, p. 36
Lucid dreaming is a universal human ability with great applicability in spiritual practices. Dream yoga has been practiced in some Tibetan Buddhist lineages for many centuries, and in various forms has been a part of other spiritual traditions as well. As with the western approach to this practice, the two basic approaches to cultivate conscious or lucid dreaming on the dream yoga path are 1) falling asleep consciously; and 2) waking up within the dream state. However, in the Buddhist dream yoga approach, lucid dreaming is always placed securely in the context of a spiritually transformative path; it is not experience per se which is valued, but the depth of consciousness realized by the practitioner.
In the Buddhist view there are three types of dreams:
1) ordinary samsaric dreams – these arise from personal karmic traces;
2) dreams of clarity – these arise from transpersonal karmic traces;
3) clear light dreams – experiences of nonduality.
The first two categories may be lucid or non-lucid; the third type is intrinsically lucid and beyond subject/object duality but is the most difficult to attain, becoming more common as one advances on the spiritual path.
Dream yoga offers many benefits. Chief among these is considered preparation for the dying process and the ability to navigate in the after-death bardo; as the Dalai lama notes, “a person well trained...can recognize a strict order in the four states of falling asleep, and is well prepared to ascertain an analogous order in the dying process.” It is believed that if you are solidly grounded in lucid dreaming, you will be able to exercise control in the bardo realm and use it as an opportunity to choose a favorable rebirth or even attain enlightenment.
Dreams can inspire and motivate you, indicate your degree of progress on the spiritual path, and reveal where you need to do further work. Training in lucid dreaming enables you to take advantage of the freedom from the normal constraints of physical reality and use that freedom in the service of spiritual transformation. The dreamer may seek teaching from enlightened masters and travel to other realms of being - indeed, many of the practices done by Tibetans for centuries have their origin in dreams, such teachings being referred to as “mind treasures” or “dream treasures.”
Intention is of paramount importance – the practitioner formulates and reinforces the intention to wake up in a dream, and as the process unfolds, gradually creates and strengthens a “special dream body” which is formed from the mind and prana (vital energy) within the physical body. The intention is reinforced until it permeates your dreaming mind; one way to do this is to firmly think to yourself, as frequently as possible, “tonight I will realize I am dreaming.” Another technique involves seeing the dreamlike nature of all things while you are awake; eventually this carries over into the dream state, and you will begin to awaken within dreams. As you spend more time dreaming lucidly, the special dream body becomes more stable, growing like a thought form in a self-reinforcing process; and as this unfolds, the practitioner will be increasingly able to separate from the physical and travel elsewhere.
In lineages which teach dream yoga, many specific practices are given to initiates. However, once established in lucid dreaming, a powerful introductory exercise for the solitary practitioner is to visualize Chenrezi (the embodiment of compassion) during dreams and recite the associated mantra OM MANI PADME HUM. Many images of Chenrezi are available on the web – and of course one could also adapt this type of exercise to their own path by visualizing another bodhisattva such as Tara, or any other inspiring spiritual figure, and saying an appropriate mantra or prayer.
Exercise: Falling asleep consciously (from Living, Dreaming, Dying p. 46)
On a night when you are not so tired that you are likely to fall asleep immediately and your belly is not drum tight with food and drink, lie in bed and relax.
Focus on the flow of images and impressions that come to you as you relax with your eyes closed.
You may find yourself looking at a succession of faces that change as soon as they take form. You may see a series of childlike drawings or photographs, falling as fast as autumn leaves in a high wind.
When you see something that catches your fancy – a face, a scene, a picture barely formed – try to hold it in focus. If you can, hold your attention on the image...follow it into a full-fledged dream, while retaining awareness that you are dreaming.
1. Namkhai Norbu, Dream Yoga and the Practice of the Natural Light (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2002)
2. Surya Das, Tibetan Dream Yoga: A Complete System for Becoming Conscious in Your Dreams [cd set](Boulder: Sounds True, 2000)
3. Tenzin Wangyal, Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1998)
4. Dalai Lama XIV, Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: an Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1997)
5. Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: Revised and Updated (New York: HarperCollins, 2002)
6. Rob Nairn, Living, Dreaming, Dying: Wisdom for Everyday Life from the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004)
7. Malcolm Godwin, The Lucid Dreamer: A Waking Guide for the Traveler Between Worlds (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994)
8. Chang, Garma C.C. The Six Yogas of Naropa (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1963)
9. Richard Linklater (writer/director) Waking Life (movie, Twentieth Century Fox, 2001)
This article was written and contributed by Arthur Gillard.
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