Are you dreaming? Or are you awake?

This last weekend, we attended a “Mindfulness of Dream and Sleep Retreat” with Charlie Morley at the tranquil retreat centre of Bodhi Khaya, outside Stanford, just past Hermanus in the Overberg.

We had previously attended other retreats at the centre (see Finding Peace and Tranquility and A Tribute to Chef Nina at Bodhi Khaya), including two/three previous lucid dreaming retreats with Charlie, and were really looking forward to spending some time in those peaceful surroundings, marveling at the beauty of Mother Nature, and soaking up the teachings of an inspiring spiritual teacher.

Charlie recently (last year) published his first book, Dreams of Awakening: Lucid Dreaming and Mindfulness of Dream & Sleep, with Hay House; it is a brilliant guidebook for any aspiring oneironaut (lucid dreamer) who wishes to learn how to be more mindful, more aware, and more kind, in their waking, sleeping and dreaming life.

(If you are an aspiring oneironaut, please feel free to share your experiences and tips in the comments!)

Bodhi Khaya - and beyond!

Bodhi Khaya – and beyond!

What is a Lucid Dream?

A lucid dream is defined as a dream in which we are actively aware that we are dreaming while we are dreaming.

It seems that many of us may have spontaneous lucid dreams; this is particularly common in childhood, although we may not have known what it is called or what it is. But deliberately initiating or precipitating a lucid dream can be frustratingly elusive. It requires dedication and determination in order to prepare the ground, so to speak, for the awareness of the fact that we are dreaming to arise. We also learned that it is not something that can be forced or controlled: it needs a light and gentle touch.

According to Charlie, the lucid dream state often feels extremely real, solid, and surprisingly detailed:

“Essentially, during a lucid dream the mind is creating an incredibly detailed three-dimensional projection to form the functional reality of the dreamscape, while another part of the mind is consciously interacting with this projection in real time. So, in a lucid dream we are both the creator and the created, the projector and the projected.”
(Charlie’s book: page 6)

This doesn’t mean that we can control or arrogantly manipulate the dream however we want. It’s as though the conscious or lucid part of our mind is like a sailor steering a boat across the ocean of the unconscious – we can’t control this ocean, which is far deeper, more vast and more powerful than we could ever imagine. But if we become friends with it, treat it with respect, and listen to the insights that arise from its depths, then we can become co-creators.

Hadeda at dawn

The cry of the hadeda at dawn

What can we do once we are in a Lucid Dream?

As Charlie’s approach to Lucid Dreaming is anchored firmly within the Buddhist tradition of Dream Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation, there is an emphasis on using our lucid dreams for spiritual practice, such as reciting mantras, meditating within the dream, or healing various ailments, for instance. We can also get to know ourselves better, by engaging directly with aspects and projections of our own psychology or our inner archetypes, such as our Inner Child, our Higher Self, even our Shadow.

Or we can simply have fun!

We can imagine ourselves flying, walking through walls, acquiring new skills, learning a new language, or rehearsing activities we find challenging in our waking lives, such as public speaking, or facing our fears of spiders or heights. We can even train in certain sports, like running, acrobatics, swimming, horse-riding, tight-rope walking, yoga, or martial arts… By engaging in all these activities in our dreaming state, we create a body memory that we can call on in our waking state: “Hold on, I know I’ve done this before, I remember that this is what I need to do…”

Because all the characters – and even the things – that populate our dreamscape are actually projections of our own mind, it is important to treat them with acceptance, friendliness and kindness. This applies particularly to the characters we don’t like, or that make us feel uncomfortable, or that trigger unpleasant emotions.

“Hug everyone and everything you meet in your dream!” Charlie urged us. “Even – and especially – your Shadow.”

Our Shadow is made up of all the parts of ourselves that we have rejected, denied, disowned, that we are afraid or ashamed of, and that we do not want to show to others. Normally, we would want to turn or even run away from our Shadow, but when we have the opportunity to turn and face it in a lucid dream, the integration that occurs can be profoundly healing:

“… try and stay with it, fearless in the knowledge that it is part of you, a mental projection of aspects of your own psyche.” (Charlie’s book: page 160)

Although we have several dream periods every single night, we may only recall a couple of these dreams. Some of them may be very short snippets, whereas others may be long, complicated narratives with lots of changes in scenery and peopled by numerous characters. Even when we go to bed with the clear intention of clearly remembering our dreams and recognising them while we are dreaming, deliberately initiating a lucid dream is not as easy or predictable as we may hope!

In the last few years since doing my first retreat with Charlie, most of my (very rare) lucid dreams have been very short – profoundly impactful and memorable, but frustratingly short. The first few times, on realising that I was lucid, I would get so excited that I’d wake myself right up! Or something in the dreamscape would draw my attention and sweep me along, and I would drop back into a non-lucid dream. I also remember having one dream where I was so surprised to find myself lucid, that I didn’t know what to do first! Engage in healing? Call for my dream guide? Say a mantra? Fly?? All too soon, in my joyful excitement – “Oh my god! I’m lucid!” – I woke myself up.

These experiences have made me realise that it is really important to have a clear dream plan beforehand, and to re-affirm this to myself as I am falling asleep. It helps to have an open accepting mind, though – depending on the dreamscape in which we become lucid, we may have to engage an alternative dream plan. For instance, if our dream plan is to ride a horse along the beach, with the waves crashing on the sand, but we find ourselves in the middle of a forest, dancing in a circle with elves and unicorns, it’s best to go with the flow! After all, who wouldn’t love dancing with elves and unicorns?!

Vivid reflections

Vivid reflections

What can we do to have more Lucid Dreams?

During our retreat, Charlie gave us a whole toolbox of techniques, from which we could choose the ones we wanted to experiment with. For instance, we learned about the Weird Technique (in which we look out for anything odd or weird that happens in our waking lives) and the Columbo Method (in which we engage very closely with our reality, paying close attention to the textures, smells, and tastes of the things in our surroundings). The idea is to practice these techniques in our waking lives until they become habits, and so that we are more likely to engage in them during our dreams.

My favourite was the Wake Up, Back to Bed Method (which entailed setting our alarm clocks for an unearthly hour, like 03h30, staying awake for an hour, and then falling asleep again as mindfully as possible).

During this period of wakefulness, we can read about lucid dreaming, remind us of our dream plan, meditate for a while, or do yoga or tai chi, or some other relaxing form of exercise. We can also do something mundane like wash the dishes, tidy up a room, or do the laundry. As it is the left or logical side of our brain that we want to awaken in the dream state, doing a crossword puzzle or a Sudoku or building a jigsaw puzzle, for instance, may be helpful too. But answering work emails, or mindlessly watching the telly, is probably not helpful, because it will make us feel too alert and too distracted, and thus unable to fall asleep mindfully and peacefully.

All of these techniques, though, are based on a couple of strong pillars: Dream Recall, Dream Diary, Dream Signs, and Reality Checks.

A curvaceous reclining lady

A curvaceous reclining lady – I wonder if she is dreaming too?

Dream recall

In order to engage in the practice of lucid dreaming, we need to improve our dream recall, by remembering as much as possible of our dreams; sometimes, we may only remember an image or a feeling, but when we start asking ‘what was I doing before then’, or ‘where was I before then’, more fragments of the dream may resurface. To me it often feels like I have a partially unraveled tapestry in my hands, and by gently teasing out the different threads, a fuller picture gradually emerges. Or it’s like sitting in front of a puzzle, with pieces missing or moved to the side; I start putting them back together again, until the fragments coalesce into a clearer picture. As we go to sleep, it is helpful to affirm to ourselves repeatedly:

“Tonight, I remember my dreams. I have excellent dream recall. My dream recall is getting better and better.”

Evening meditation session in the hall

Evening meditation session in the hall

Dream diary

We can write down our dreams, draw or paint them, create mindmaps or spider diagrams, use bullet points, or just note down main feelings and thoughts. The point of documenting our dreams is that we become familiar with the landscape of our dreams, and the people, animals or things that we encounter there:

“the more conscious you are of your dreams, the easier it will be to become conscious within your dreams”
(Charlie’s book: page 69)

A shaded path - where does it lead?

A shaded path – where does it lead?

Dream signs

As we improve our dream recall and begin to document our dreams, we may start to spot dream signs:

“A dream sign is any improbable, impossible or bizarre aspect of dream experience that can indicate that we’re dreaming.” (Charlie’s book: page 70)

Dream signs can be certain things that appear just once or repeatedly; when people, animal or places appear repeatedly over a period of time, then they are powerful dream signs.

They can be quite mundane or familiar things, like family members, friends or colleagues whom we know in real life, strangers we meet in the street, or snippets or elements of daily life that filter into our dreams.

We may also notice things that are peculiar or weird in some way, even though they make perfect sense within our dreams. For instance, we may have a really profound conversation with a dead relative, or we may do something weird, like harnessing a couple of horses to the front of an old car that’s run out of petrol, or we may see a vaguely familiar cat sleeping on a soft sheepskin blanket inside a tumble-dryer, or we may be taught how to dance by a baboon with the head of a lion and the wings of an eagle… all of which may feel quite normal and acceptable within the dream, and only look weird once we remember and write them down in our waking state.

The idea behind noticing these dream signs, especially if they are recurring ones, is to engage prospective memory by telling ourselves, for example, “The next time I have a conversation with my deceased grandmother, I will know that I am dreaming.”

The lily pond exudes peace and tranquility

The lily pond exudes peace and tranquility

Reality checks

In order to know for sure that we are dreaming while we are dreaming, it is helpful to do some sort of reality check. We practiced these throughout the retreat, in our waking state, with the intention of creating a habit that would filter through into our dreaming state.

The simplest one is to look at our outstretched hand, before flipping it over and back again, with the expectation that it will change in some way. It is best to do this whenever anything odd or weird has happened, so that we get into the habit of doing this in our dreams, when we recognise one of our dream signs, for instance. Another reality check involves mindfully reading a bit of text, glancing away and re-reading it, with the expectation that the words or letters will change the second time.

The reasoning behind this is that, when we are dreaming, the right, creative, side of our brain will be highly active; the left, logical, side of our brain will be almost switched off. When we thus do the hand-check, or try to read some text, or flip a light-switch on and off, the right side of the brain finds it difficult to re-create accurately a complex pattern. The more deliberate and mindful we are when we do these reality checks in our waking lives, the more deliberate and mindful we will be when we do them in our dreams.

I have had several short lucid dreams triggered by doing exactly these reality checks – and was stunned each time that my hand really did change – I’d see a few extra fingers, or it would turn into an amorphous blob, or it would become transparent…

And once we are aware that we are dreaming, it is time to engage our dream plan!

A spider's web has captured the moon in the morning mist

A spider’s web has captured the moon as the morning mist rises from the water

Combining mindfulness meditation and lucid dreaming practice

Charlie is an enthusiastic and energetic teacher; over the years of presenting this course, he has grown in confidence and experience. He has a way of making us feel that lucid dreaming – and by extension lucid living – is within our reach, and a skill we can master: We need only follow the path. His confidence and passion are contagious. And, for many of us at the retreat, his feedback and comments, whenever we shared our dreams, our joys and our frustrations in the various dream circles, offered comfort and reassurance – and some amazing insights.

Every morning, and every evening, we also engaged in a session of mindfulness meditation, guided by meditation teacher Dave Tyfield. In his soothing and calm voice, he carefully explained the principle of this meditation practice:

“Mindfulness meditation is knowing what is happening, while it is happening, without preference.”

This approach to meditation practice created a sacred, peaceful space, where our chattering minds could gradually come to rest. It was a gentle, slow, process of becoming calmer, more peaceful, more accepting, and yet more aware.

During our first meditation session, I was surprised at how active my mind was; thoughts would arise, seemingly out of nowhere, command my attention and I’d start following the train of thoughts…. until Dave’s voice would bring me back to the present. It happened again, and again, and again. Dave reminded us that, each time we noticed that we were thinking, we were automatically returning to the present moment, and that our minds would gradually become calmer and more settled, as we continued with this process, gently and softly bringing ourselves back to the present. As the days passed, I noticed that this did indeed become easier.

The combination of Dave’s calming mindfulness meditation and Charlie’s enthusiastic teaching sessions was absolutely perfect.

The meditation hall, decorated with colourful Tibetan prayer flags - and the slackline outside challenges us to improve our balance - symbolically helping us to become better at walking the tightrope between non-lucid dreams and wakefulness

The meditation hall, decorated with colourful Tibetan prayer flags – and the green slack-line outside challenges us to improve our balance – symbolically helping us to become better at walking the tightrope between non-lucid dreams and wakefulness

Our daily programme

We had a very full programme every day, starting with breakfast, then a mindfulness meditation, followed by a teaching session before lunch. After a bit of free time, we met in the meditation hall for a guided group nap, followed by another teaching session, with a mindfulness meditation to end off the day.

In the morning, we separated into our dream circles (we had been allocated to one of 4 groups), to share our experiences and dreams of the previous night. In the evening, we again separated into our dream circles to verbalise our dream plans, and what techniques we wanted to try that night. These dream circles were a wonderful way of connecting with each other, as, gradually, connections were created and strangers became friends, travelers on a similar spiritual path.

Each night, we had the option of setting our alarms at various times of the night, and trudging over to the meditation hall for a ‘group sleep’. Alternatively, we could set our alarms, and simply do the practices in our own rooms, which is what I did. On the previous retreats, I’d learned that I got almost no sleep during the group naps and the group sleeps, no matter how tired or exhausted I was.

Every morning until after lunch, we had ‘noble silence’, which meant that we did not engage in idle noisy chatter with each other. At our first breakfast of the retreat, we felt a bit awkward, and hyper-aware of the seeming loudness of crunching and chewing our food. But this soon softened into a peaceful, gentle, mindful state of mind. We could still smile at each other, and acknowledge each other’s presence, but we were not required to talk and fill the silence with words… and that was profoundly soothing. Even when we were allowed to talk again after lunch, this sense of peaceful coexistence and friendliness towards each other continued to permeate the rest of our day.

My favourite times of day were the early morning, when I would often go for a short, slow walk on my own before breakfast, allowing fragments or insights from my dreams to come to the surface. After breakfast, Richard and I would head off for another walk together in the coolness of the morning. And after lunch, we would go for another, though much shorter walk, before it was time for the group nap. I would have loved to have more time to spend out in nature, but I did not want to miss any of the sessions.

Since my first visits to Bodhi Khaya, I’ve felt a deepening spiritual connection to this place; it feels more and more like a sanctuary, an extraordinarily beautiful place with so many interesting habitats to explore – from the fynbos-covered ridges to the hidden meditation pool on the hillside, from the mysterious milkwood forest to the gushing waterfall, from the muddy paths through the reed-overgrown wetland to the mirror-like pools surrounded by weaver-bird nests.

This is definitely a place where the spirit can find peace and rest.

Click on any of the photos below to access the slideshow.


15 thoughts on “Are you dreaming? Or are you awake?

  1. oneironaut — now that’s a million dollar word !

    Wow Reggie, you have my admiration. As much as I like to think of myself as open and adventurous, somehow I find your retreat rather intimidating …. I wish I could just let go and be open to stuff like that. Not sure what fear holds me back.

    Thanks for widening my horizon.

    • Lol, you’re most welcome, Lady Sybil. The very short lucid dreams I’ve had so far have been really amazing, markedly different to ‘normal’ dreams. I really want to have more of them! 🙂 But it does seem to require a fair amount of commitment and forethought. Holding thumbs!

    • Hello Joy, thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed reading all about our experiences on the retreat. Having a deliberate or intentional lucid dream can be quite a transformative and healing experience; I’m very glad that we were able to learn and practice it in such glorious surroundings.

    • Oh, Paprika, you and Oregano would *love* it here at Bodhi Khaya. It’s a very special place – perfect for recharging one’s batteries and letting go of the whirlwind of responsibilities and duties and work and commitments that usually hold us captive. 🙂

    • Thank you very much, Liz. Charlie is an excellent teacher with a strong passion for his subject and for teaching something that can be a profoundly life-changing practice in a safe space. Getting to know oneself through one’s dreams like this is really powerful. Good luck with the practice.

    • Thank you, Truels. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Have you ever had dreams in which you suddenly realised you were dreaming? What did it feel like for you? I wish I had more of those kinds of dreams, as they feel soo different, and so much more awe-inspiring.

  2. What fun–that you did this, Reggie. I am smiling from ear to ear. Years ago I spent time trying to lucid dream and sometimes succeeded. Like your experiences, usually woke myself up or got so very excited. Am lately most interested in being lucid while awake, instead of lost in thoughts and stories and identification with the separate self. Sounds like perhaps your Charlie pointed in that direction, too, with the meditation and other focuses? What a really nice read this morning.

    • That is exactly what the retreat was about, Kathy – learning how to become more aware and ‘lucid’ in our waking lives, not only in our dreams. I think in some ways it is easier to become more aware in our waking lives, actually, as I seem to have long-standing habits of not being very aware in my dreams. It’s about creating new habits, new neural pathways, new ways of seeing ourselves, and where we fit into this vast and hugely complex world. Things like a daily spiritual or meditation practice, in whatever form you wish it to take, really help with that. Mind you, despite some diligent practice, no further lucid dreams have come my way yet! 🙂 Nonetheless, I shall persevere!

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