Andrew Holecek: Dream Yoga, Part 1
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Andrew Holecek. Andrew is an author, spiritual teacher, and humanitarian. As a longtime student of Buddhism, he frequently presents this tradition from a contemporary perspective, blending the ancient wisdom of the East with modern knowledge from the West.
Known as an expert on death and dying, in 2013 Andrew released the book Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from the Tibetan Buddhist [Tradition]. With Sounds True, Andrew has created an audio learning course on Dream Yoga as well as [having] written a new book, Dream Yoga: [Illuminating Your Life Through Lucid Dreaming and the Tibetan Yogas of Sleep].
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Andrew and I spoke about the foundational practice of dream yoga, which is learning to lucid dream, and three important aspects of the training: clarifying one’s motivation, improving dream recall, and working with lucid dreaming induction techniques. Andrew also shared with us his best tips for successful lucid dreaming, including learning about our natural sleep cycles and daytime practices that we can use to help us awaken in the dream. Finally, Andrew spoke about why some of us would simply prefer a good night’s sleep to engaging in a new form of spiritual practice at night, and what he calls “our passion for ignorance.” Here’s part one of my conversation on Dream Yoga with Andrew Holecek:
Andrew, in your new book on Dream Yoga, you introduced lots of spiritual practices that I’ve never tried, and lots of spiritual insights [and] discoveries from those practices that I’ve never experienced. I thought, “Wow! What a deep-end book [that] you’ve written and that you’ve brought forward. So, I want to begin by just acknowledging that and thanking you for the publication of Dream Yoga.
Andrew Holecek: Well, thank you, Tami. Coming from you, that means a lot to me. Thanks for sharing that. It was fun! I had a great time doing it.
TS: I wonder if you can begin by introducing our listeners, if you will, to a map of what you cover in the book. There’s so much there, and I want to give people a sense—and part of it is I think a lot of times on the spiritual path people have this idea of, “Been there, done that. What is there [that’s] new for me to find out?” I’m like, “Well, check out dream yoga. There’s something new.” So give them the map of—let’s go all the way to the deep end of what you cover.
AH: [Laughs.] Well, the book does cast a wide net. The overarching approach is to really show people how much is available in the darkness of the night. As I portray in the book, we really do spend close to a third of our lives in a state that for most of us is pretty much oblivion. I try to introduce Eastern practices augmented by Western science that allow people to transform a period of time that would otherwise be—sure, biological nourishment and replenishment of the body, that sort of thing—but to show people just how much is actually available.
So, in charting this book, what I do first of all is throw the javelin as far as I can and say, “OK, what is it that actually constitutes these so-called nocturnal meditations?” Of course the first one is the platform of lucid dreaming, which is when you wake up to the fact that you’re dreaming and you still remain in the dream. There’s a rich, colorful literature—really [a] wonderful contribution of the Western psychological and scientific traditions. It really supports what is yet to come. With some proficiency, lucid dreaming as a platform can mature into dream yoga, which we can talk a lot about. That’s where one engages the lucidity one has in the dream state for psychological and spiritual evolution.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s yet another step that in particular the Tibetans, but not exclusively so—in yoga nidra, in the Indian tradition, the Taoists, and other traditions work with maintaining lucidity and deep, dreamless sleep. For most people, that’s almost incomprehensible, it’s an oxymoron. How can you be awake and asleep at the same time? There are scientists these days, and I’m involved with some research projects that are trying to now prove—lucid dreaming has been proven by the scientific community, and now there are some heavy-hitting scientists that are in fact engaging us in studies trying to prove that such a thing as lucid sleep occurs.
Then there’s that one final step for those who are more interested in the Tibetan approach, which is largely the view that I take in this book. That is that in the Tibetan Buddhist approach to the nocturnal meditations, both dream yoga and sleep yoga came about largely as a way to prepare for death. There’s a small section at the end of the book about how one can use the darkness of the night to prepare for the darkness of death.
Then around that, of course, there’s techniques—how to initiate, how to trigger lucid dreams, daytime practices. A substantial part of the book creates an onramp because these practices are in fact subtle. They’re practices that are designed to match the subtlety of the mind as it unfolds in sleep and dream. So, the practices are quite subtle, and that’s why I spend a great deal of time—step by step—encouraging the reader, showing them how to really do the preparatory work so that by the time they actually get to the practice, it’s more fruitional. It can actually happen.
TS: You said something that I’m interested in—that it’s now been proven that lucid dreaming really happens. How do you prove something like that?
AH: Yes. They’ve done some very clever experiments—Keith Hearne in 1975 in England and then Stephen LaBerge in 1977 at Stanford. In sleep laboratories, they hook the people up with what are called EOMs—Eye-Monitoring Devices—and EEGs. You can tell by these instrumentations where people are in the sleep stages. That’s one of the things that I do explain in the book—the different stages of sleep and how to engage them.
What both Keith and Stephen did [that] was extremely clever was that when you go into REM sleep—[which is the] acronym [for] Rapid-Eye Movement—that’s where most of our dreams take place. Stephen arranged in advance that he would signal—they can tell when you’re in the dream state because there’s a type of paralysis that takes place with your voluntary muscles, interestingly enough, to keep you from acting out your dreams. It’s nature’s way to protect us from ourselves, which is very interesting.
So, scientists can tell when you’re in that state, and what Stephen did was he was able to move his eyes in a type of Morse code—because the eye movements are not frozen in REM sleep—and therefore signal to the scientists that, “Yes indeed, here I am. I am awake in my dream.”
I’m helping some scientists use that as a platform to mark the pre- and post-possibilities of lucid sleep, because sending a biological marker from a deep dreamless state seems extraordinarily difficult to do. We’re trying to figure out ways to mark the descent into dreamless sleep and then the ascent out of it, and then do measurements in-between, also collaborated by a first-person—what scientists would call a phenomenological report; like, “What [I am] experiencing in this state.”
So, the possibility of actually proving deep, dreamless, lucid sleep I think is really there. If in fact—or when that happens I should say—that could pose a real revolution to the cognitive scientists and all sorts of the dream world. So, it’s a very exciting time.
TS: Now, are you able yourself to experience being awake in deep, dreamless sleep?
AH: Yes. I’ve had such great, good fortune, Tami, over the last 40-plus years of engaging in sustained meditation practices including the Tibetan Buddhist three-year meditation retreat, which is where I really engaged in dream yoga and sleep yoga with tremendous enthusiasm. I have had some experiences there. Lucid sleep onset is extraordinarily difficult; in other words, maintaining full lucidity as one goes from waking consciousness to the deep dreamless state. That’s—in fact, His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that’s one of the very highest accomplishments of a yogi.
I do tend to lose it there, but there are ways to use—and this is what’s so provocative—to use the lucid dream state as a platform. In other words, the way to really work with lucid sleep is develop a little bit of stability with lucid dreaming, and then once that’s accomplished there are a series of techniques and practices one can do from the lucid dreaming platform that allow one, you could say, to descend into lucid sleep.
So, using that kind of halfway house of the lucid dream state with the practices I received from the Tibetan tradition, it’s a practice that does become increasingly available to one as one becomes more familiar with—either in the daytime or in the nighttime—these really subtle states of mind. It is something that the spiritual contemplative traditions the world over have explored and talked about for millennia. Just like with mindfulness and other practices now becoming popular in the West, the West is now catching up to some of the potentials that the East has been discussing for thousands of years.
TS: Let me ask you a more direct question about all of the different states and practices that you introduce in Dream Yoga. Are you writing about things only that you’ve experienced, or were you willing, in writing the book, to write about things that are referred to in the tradition but that you may not have experienced yourself?
AH: Yes. Well, most of what I write about in the book—and this is why I had such a joy in writing it—really does come from my experience. The one that doesn’t, of course, is the very last chapter on what’s called bardo yoga, which is the death experience. I haven’t had that yet.
TS: That’s understandable, Andrew.
AH: [Laughs.] I have not had a near-death experience. So, that is one that I can’t speak with first-person authority on.
But the other practices, yes. Again, I’ve been working with these things for decades, and a large part of my enthusiasm comes from the excitement I have in exploring these dimensions of my own mind, and doing so for so many years that I feel the time is right. There’s such an atmosphere and environment these days for exploring mind through mindfulness meditations and the other traditions that are gaining purchase in the West.
I figured, “Why not take it a step further? Why not show people what’s really available?” Again, these practices have been flying below the radar screen for a very long time. There’s enough material out there in the lucid dreaming literature and some dream yoga books now as well that I really kind of created a platform for me to say, “Let’s see how far we can go with these, and see if in fact people resonate with these practices.”
They’re not for everybody; there are people that really just don’t want to have their sleep interrupted with these types of approaches. But for those who are interested in taking full advantage of this precious light—this precious life—what I call really engaging in the night shift, or going to night school—why not dip your toes into these potentially really profound waters and see, “Wow, I never realized that these potentialities were even available to me.”
Then, as I try to convey throughout the book, it’s not just what you do in the darkness of the night that can be so compelling, but really—this is one of the things that differentiates dream yoga from lucid dreaming—the entire purpose is to use the night, the dream state, the sleep state as a kind of laboratory of the mind where one can perform these so-called experiments or meditations. Then you take the insights that you glean in that venue and then you extend them, you transpose them, you extrapolate them into your daily life. It really can be a profoundly transformative way to change the way we relate to every moment of conscious experience.
I think this is worth mentioning: in the West, we have this kind of unconscious prejudice—what researchers call this wake-centric bias. We simply assume waking consciousness is it. According to the Eastern traditions, that’s just a third of it. The Eastern traditions derive their views, their philosophies, their theories, their outlooks on life and death not just from the waking state, but from all three states of consciousness. Really, in the Brahmanic or the Hindu tradition, they refer to deep, dreamless sleep as “causal” or “sleep consciousness,” the implication there being that that is in fact the source mind. And the Tibetans certainly agree.
The extraordinarily radical conclusion is that if one can maintain lucidity or awareness—consciousness—through all these different states, one actually comes to discover that what we call the so-called “waking state” where we see the world as solid, lasting, and independent (i.e. dualistic), from a spiritual perspective that’s actually the most asleep. We are the most spiritually asleep in so-called waking consciousness. If we can maintain lucidity as we descend into the deep, dreamless state—which I call from the Tibetan Buddhist approach the “clear light mind”—that’s actually when we’re the most awake spiritually; that is the nondualistic state.
That’s one reason we don’t recognize it, because we’re so familiar with the duality that when nonduality is revealed to the dualistic mind, it blacks out. But with training, we can start to pull away from this fallacious way of looking at the world, and this of course is what the Buddha did. Buddha etymologically literally means “The Awakened One.” Well, what did he awaken from, and in fact what did he awaken to?
These nocturnal meditations are really integral to the Buddhist approach. They just haven’t really been articulated in the West very much. I think the time is really ripe for this type of exploration.
TS: Andrew, how is it in your life that you fell in love with night school? What happened?
AH: Well, I’ve always had a very rich dream life. Really, as far back as my memory goes, I’ve always had really rich, colorful dreams. Some people just have naturally spontaneous dreams, and in fact it’s really—as I try to put forth in the book, if the mind rests in its natural state, lucidity is a consequence. Lucid dreams are actually the natural expression of that mind. Non-lucid dreams are actually the aberration.
I’ve always had a propensity for the dream world, for altered states. But, there was one experience in particular that I relay in the introduction—or actually the preface—to the book. It was a shapeshifter for me when I was in my early twenties. I was considering what to do for graduate school, so I took a year off and I worked as a surgical orderly and also in a maximum-security prison.
To make a long story short, I had a really profound before-and-after experience where for a period of about two weeks, I was kind of thrust into this spontaneous, dazzling, kaleidoscopic reality where my waking state became highly dreamlike, illusory, fragmented, and my dream state became pretty much spontaneous lucidity—constant lucid dreams. As I relay in the book, it was just beyond profound for a young man like myself in my early twenties to be thrust into a world where I really couldn’t tell much difference between waking and dreaming consciousness. They really kind of bled together. Then really what happened was because the experience in retrospect was a bit premature—I didn’t have the psychic structure to really contain it—I started to panic.
TS: Did you think you were losing your mind?
AH: I thought I was losing my mind. At first I thought I was enlightened—of course what a ridiculous thing to even think. But then, my thrill of being awake was replaced with the panic of, “Perhaps I’m just going insane.” My sense of reality was slipping. I could no longer find or reestablish the sense of ground, which was originally so exhilarating but then became increasingly panic-ridden. Where did my safe, constructed reality go?
So, I shut the experience down. But it was such a transformative transmission—kind of a bleed-through experience—that I slowly started to tiptoe back into that world. I became a voracious reader, just reading everything I could about dreams from a spiritual perspective. There wasn’t much back then, some almost 40 years ago. Reading Jung and Freud and all the psychologists and whatever little science was available—virtually nothing on lucid dreaming at that point.
My real passion was ignited during that transformative period, and it really took full root for me when I stumbled across the Buddhist tradition. Of course, being tickled by the fact that Buddhism really comes from a root that means “awakened”—that automatically spooked me. But then what I realized—here is an amazing, thousands of thousands of year-old tradition that had established meditations to work with dreaming and sleeping, and a state that I had stumbled upon somewhat serendipitously. So, to me, there was a tremendous sense of confirmation that I wasn’t really just losing my mind. I had perceived a dimension of reality that is of course available to all of us, but I didn’t have the proper grounding to really work with it in a healthy way.
Slowly, because of my [increasing] familiarity with what the Buddhist tradition had to approach in terms of working with mind and the waking state, and the dream and sleep state, I realized I’d found my home. This really spoke to me. It was the first thing I’d ever come across that was really able to explain my experience. As you know, that’s pretty powerful. When something comes along and you just find yourself nodding your head all the time, it was like, “Yes, this is it.” Ever since then, the nocturnal meditations have become one of my principal practices. There’s obviously many ways to summit the apex of the spiritual and psychological path, but for me these nocturnal meditations have been particularly powerful.
TS: You mentioned this two-week period in your early twenties, and I’m imagining, as you describe it, what it would be like in my daytime life to feel like everything’s a dream and at night to feel like everything’s intensely real. I wonder what it’s like for you now. Here we are, we’re sitting together—you live locally here in the Boulder area. So, we’re sitting together in the studio. Is this dreamlike for you?
AH: Yes, great question. You know, now it’s just an exhilaration—it’s a joy, it’s a delight. As Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche says so beautifully in relation to his teachings on dream yoga, which I resonate with so completely—he says, “This is a dream. I am free. I can change.” So really, your question is a great one, Tami, because it begs, “OK, why should I bother with this stuff? How is it going to help me during my day?”
Well, I think if we look at our experiences—certainly my own experience—I suffer in direct proportion to how solidly I take the contents of my world. I mean, if I take the contents of my mind to be really heavy and solid and real, that’s going to cause me a lot of unnecessary anguish. If I see my external world as really solid, lasting, and independent in this heavy dualistic way, I’m going to suffer in direct proportion to how much I solidify—or the word is “reify.” The more I reify or make solid my reality, the more I imbue that reality with a kind of power that it doesn’t inherently have. So, if I freeze a world that is inherently dreamlike, that is fluid, that is malleable, that is open to plasticity and change—if I freeze this fluid, dreamlike reality into concrete and steel, which I unwittingly do, then that reality can come back and hurt me.
But if I realize—and again, this is a really interesting segue into some of the potential dangers, because if you don’t do this appropriately, one of the near enemies of this approach is, “Oh, it’s all just a dream, who cares? It doesn’t matter.” Then you slip into this near enemy, what’s called “spiritual bypassing.” And there are some definite—as there is with any noble experience, there are always shadow side, ignoble aspects.
But for me, very practically speaking, when I flash onto this view of the world being dreamlike, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t appear. That’s a nihilistic—again, that’s another near enemy. Everything still appears: my thoughts still arise, my emotions still appear, you’re still sitting here in front of me. But if I don’t take these experiences as solidly as I previously did, then for me the relationship I have with my world is much more—it’s lighter, it’s more playful, it’s more childlike because the world hasn’t been so endarkened.
We live—to play on the word “enlightenment,” which is one of the most beautiful words in the English spiritual literature—we live as “endarkened” beings. The endarkenment really is when we take this world to be so bloody solid. So when we see through it—and physics can help us here, the cognitive scientists can help us here—there’s a lot of other disciplines, not just the spiritual armamentarium that can show us that if we take a good, close look at reality, it ain’t what it appears to be.
That’s truly what “illusory” means in this tradition; it doesn’t mean things don’t appear, it means that in essence, things are different from how they appear. So when we say the world is “dreamlike” in this regard, we don’t say it doesn’t exist. We simply say, “Look closely and you will see that in essence, it is different from how it seems.” Is this not what a great deal of psychotherapy is about? We get all caught up in our neuroses and our relationships because we can’t see—we can’t separate out appearance from reality. That’s what causes so much suffering.
So for me, the great delight in these practices is that it literally makes my experience of myself and the world much lighter. Everything is more ventilated; it’s more free, it’s more playful. That’s no small thing. All these burdens— I still feel them, but in a certain sense, I don’t really give them a place to land anymore. They don’t have that type of weight.
It’s a weight—by the way, as I interjected earlier—it’s a power that I project onto the world that is not inherently there. I’m the one that freezes this dreamlike, malleable world into concrete and steel. So, if I can de-reify, illusify—there’s no such word, but you get the idea—if I can melt this world back into a more dreamlike quality, then freedom and really what the traditions talk about is enlightenment, is a natural consequence of that levity, you could say.
TS: You made this very interesting comment about how in our culture, we’re very daytime-centric.
AH: Isn’t it?
TS: We’re very awake, daytime-centric. I’m thinking about dreams I’ve had—and I’m sure other people have had similar kinds of dreams; I don’t think it’s very unusual—where it feels more real than real. Someone’s touching you and—
AH: Hyper-lucid dreams.
TS: Yes. It’s just like, “Wow, they touched my face.” So, what I started wondering is: in your life experience as someone who’s spent so much time in night school and having been in a three-year retreat, is there a sense that it’s not like day and night as these separate worlds as much as it becomes more like a 24-hour experience without the same distinctions?
AH: Exactly. Beautiful. That’s why the traditions assert—and it’s such an incredulous assertion that I’ve asked so many Buddhist masters, some of the most realized people I know, when they say that the Buddha, the Awakened One—from any tradition, it doesn’t matter—when they say the Buddha doesn’t fall asleep, what does that really mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that they stay up all night doing things. It means that their mind remains conscious, even though the body may sleep and its restorative, nurturing process is taking place. So yes indeed, it’s exactly like you said. It’s a type of constant consciousness, 24-7, 7-11 awareness, where the mind just never really turns off.
You notice the equivalence, the equanimity—what the Buddhists sometimes refer to as “one taste”—that mind really has this particular quality through all dimensions of experience. It’s simply because we’re so excessively ensconced and over-familiar with the daytime state that we don’t really look and honor and respect what the nighttime has to offer. I mean, in the Western world, we dismiss dreams. Dreams have an either overt or covert negative, pejorative overtone. To say something is “just a dream” is pretty much a dismissive quality or a dismissive kind of adjective.
With these practices, what we’re doing is we’re trying to change the cultural approach to dreams, which many indigenous and sometimes what we call primitive cultures, they have a completely different way of relating to sleep and dream. The Senoi for instance—they honor their dreams. They wake up in the morning and the family talks about what they dreamt. Because the culture cultivates this type of conversation with our deeper, inner selves, then it’s almost like a dialogue is opened. There’s a ready conversationalist that’s waiting for you every single night. You just have to listen. You just have to open your eyes, your heart, and your ears, and listen to this extraordinary wealth of information that is imbedded within us.
By so doing, from a psychological point of view you bring unconscious processes into the light of consciousness. That’s a large part of what psychological liberation is about. Then even spiritually—then you go into what I refer to in the book as the super-conscious unconscious mind. This clear-light mind, the Buddha-nature mind, is always awake. If you can tap into that and bring that with you every morning when you wake up instead of your ignorance; instead of waking up into an endarkened state—seeing the world dualistically—you simply transition from the night into the day, bringing your enlightened realization from the night with you.
It changes absolutely everything. It’s a total game-changer. At that point, all states of consciousness are seen to be equivalent. We can ride between all states without losing consciousness. In fact, as the Buddhist and many other traditions put forth, that is one definition of what being awake actually means.
TS: You mentioned, Andrew, that lucid dreaming is the foundation. That’s where we start. And you dedicate the firs probably third of the book to really helping people begin to lucid dream. You talk about how there are three essential elements to beginning a lucid dreaming practice. You need to have a strong motivation, good dream recall, and practice induction techniques. So, I think we can briefly cover those three. First of all, the strong motivation. What is my real motivation to lucid dream?
AH: It’s interesting: the word “intend” comes from a root that means “to stretch.” Here, what we want to do through intention—and this is a play on the word “yoga.” Yoga in the terms of “uniting” or “yoking” to your truest self, and also yoga in a more colloquial sense of stretching. So here, what we do through dream yoga—which is a mental yoga, it’s a mind yoga—we start to stretch the mind with our intent.
We do this even now. For instance, if you have to get up to catch a plane and you’re someplace where you don’t have an alarm clock, and you really set that intent: “I have to get up at four o’clock. I have to get up.” More often than not, you’re going to do it. The power of intent—or in the Buddhist tradition, it’s called the power of resolution—is enormous.
There are all kinds of sophisticated ways in the Buddhist approach: using the laws of karma, when that’s engaged. But even in an over-the-counter sense, it’s basically putting your money where your mouth is. “I really—tonight, man, I really want to have a lot of good dreams.” This is one of the things I actually say every night before I go to bed as part of my, what I call “sleep hygiene,” my spiritual sleep hygiene approach. Every single night, I have a little off-ramp protocol that I engage in. One of them is that every night I say with as much passion as I can, “Tonight I will have many dreams. Tonight I will have good dreams. Tonight I will remember my dreams. Tonight I will wake up in my dreams.” That intention stretches into the night. It perfumes the way we go to sleep. That alone, that quality alone, is enormously helpful.
The second one, of course, is increasing dream recall. There are a number of ways to do that. In other words, just remembering more of your dreams. Once again, having the strong intention to do that is very pivotal. Having a journal by the side of the bed, which I do—where you start to write down snippets of your dreams—again, you’re putting your money where your mouth is, you’re starting to really lean into it.
Then, engaging in some of the other supportive approaches that I present in the book. There are some naturally occurring substances like galantamine that you can use, which are very, very effective in terms of heightening one’s dreams and thereby bringing about increased dream recall. I’ve had tremendous good luck with that particular naturally occurring substance.
Then the last one of course, perhaps the most important, are the dream induction techniques themselves. What I try to portray in the book—kind of a double-barreled East/West approach—is the subtle systems that the Eastern traditions bring about, in particular the Tibetan Buddhists. They have a very sophisticated way of working with the subtle body and the subtle energy system.
As we descend into the dream state, every aspect of mind has a correlative body. So, right now, waking consciousness is correlated most specifically with this gross outer body. But as we drop into the dream state, we drop below—we descend below this outer, coarse body and this outer, coarse consciousness into a more subtle inner body—which so many wisdom traditions talk about. Some systems target it for health, of course, via acupuncture and systems like that. A lot of spiritual traditions target the subtle body for spiritual transformation. So, when you’re working with the dream state, becoming familiar with the inner subtle body, that’s the body that supports the dreaming mind. So, you’re actually—when you go into these practices, it’s not just you’re going into your mind, you’re going into your body when you engage in these practices.
I approach the induction protocol from an Eastern approach, describing the anatomy and physiology of the subtle body so that people can become more familiar with it. Then I have to say in great candor, I truly believe—especially for Westerners, in my experience teaching this material for decades—that the Western approaches to lucid dream induction are more appropriate and—I wouldn’t say sophisticated, but they are certainly more applicable for the Western mind. Then there’s a whole battery of induction techniques I give in the book.
TS: Just briefly, why are the Western approaches to—?
AH: They’re more baby steps. They’re more baby steps. The Eastern techniques were—these practices were kind of unfolded by some of the most realized beings in the history of the world. Again, this is purely my understanding. Sometimes, I think they forget that mere mortals like ourselves might need some baby steps.
So, the subtle body systems are—they can almost be too subtle for their coarse Western mind. So these Western techniques—the ones that LaBerge and Tooley—and there’s so many really sophisticated thinkers and researchers these days that have come up with systems that I truly believe are more applicable for the Western mind. Smaller steps, incremental approaches.
For instance, if you look at the literature from the East, they’re not going to talk that much about increasing dream recall and that kind of thing. They go more directly: “Well, OK, here’s how you do it.” There’s a lot of assumptions that are made, I think largely because in the East, these practices are always held within a larger context of meditation altogether. So, the mind has already been processed, it’s been prepared, it’s been tilled and toiled so that when you introduce the subtle practices in the East, they go, “Yes, I have this onramp brought about by 20 or 30 years of meditation.” A lot of people in the West don’t.
These other Western techniques, I think, in a certain sense replace that. Instead of engaging in practices for 30 years—and as you know, countless studies have shown unequivocally—repeated studies—that meditators have more lucid dreams. I do want to say this because it again shows the applicability of these practices—that is that the reason we’re not lucid to our dreams is because we’re non-lucid to the content of our mind in waking consciousness. It’s like the poet Kabir once said of death that applies here: “What is found then is found now.” If you are non-lucid to the contents of your mind now—which one researcher has estimated that we’re non-lucid to about 98 percent of what actually takes place in our mind; we’re asleep to 98 percent of what takes place in our mind. For any meditator, especially initially, it doesn’t take too long to actually see the truth of that. You’re sitting in meditation and your mind is just distracted everywhere.
TS: So, when you say we’re not lucid to 98 percent of what’s happening in our mind, do you mean we are identifying with it?
AH: It means we’re lost in thought. We’re not present. A larger definition of lucidity—and again, I think this is a marvelous segue to the applicability of these practices because when we are talking about lucidity, of course we’re harnessing the term in a specific way for the nocturnal meditations. Lucidity in a larger scope really refers to awareness.
So, we’re talking about being aware in the dream state—being aware in the deep dreaming state. And the reason we’re not is because we’re not aware of what’s going on in our minds right now.
In a certain very real way, the thoughts that we have during the day are replaced by dreams at night. It’s virtually the same type of phenomena taking place in two different states. So, as you engage in good old mindfulness meditation, Vipassana, or insight meditations—as you become more lucid to [and] aware of the thoughts and the way your mind plays out during the day, you will automatically, naturally, “spontaneously” become more aware and lucid to that exact same mind as it’s revealed in the medium of the dream.
This is terribly exciting to me because it means that this mindful revolution that’s taking place in the West now—I have no doubt whatsoever that you will find an increased incidence in lucidity around the world because people are becoming more lucid to their mind during the day. So, as esoteric as these practices can sometimes appear—like, “Well, why should I engage in it?”—they fundamentally circumambulate the central project of increasing awareness. If there’s one curative, central ingredient for psychopathology—for spiritual pathology—it is in fact increasing awareness. What doesn’t benefit with more awareness?
That’s why these nocturnal meditations—when they’re supplanted, augmented with the diurnal practices—what we’re doing during the day—when you start to see what’s available between these two dimensions of mind, it’s as if you’re opening up a two-way street you didn’t even know was there. Then you can start to incubate your dreams, you can start to seed your dreams, you can cultivate a tremendous relationship to the creative powers of the mind.
There’s a reciprocity that takes place from the insights we gleam during the day. They come up, they start to inform the insights you have during the night. They come up, they start to inform your day. Then those insights from the day spin back in, they reinforce the night.
So, you develop this kind of—not vicious circle, but virtuous circle—of bi-directionality, which is the way the scientists talk about it. But, bi-directionality—where the insights from the dream, the sleep state, and the waking state—the traffic starts to open back and forth. This is monumentally important because as you know, so many creative thinkers, artists—I could name dozens of them—some of the greatest insights occurred to them in these spontaneous dreams where the mind is free. Why not cultivate that type of relationship now, more volitionally, so it doesn’t just happen by accident? It’s not just a serendipitous event.
So, these practices—again, they have so much creative potential, so much transformative potential. One other [kind of] pep talk around it in terms of why one might be interested in engaging in these meditations is that when you work with dream yoga, let alone sleep yoga, you’re working with the tectonic plates of your experience here. I mean, you’re working with the strata of your entire being in these dimensions of mind. Just like when you shapeshift something—even colloquially—the earthquakes that happen now, if you shift the tectonic plates on this physical earth, the ramifications on what happens on the surface of the planet are enormous. We’ve had earthquakes just these last two days in Ecuador and Japan. Using that analogy, you’re working with the tectonic plates of your experience with these practices.
The amount of transformation that takes place down in this deeper strata of your mind can have profound transformative implications and applications in your daily life. The literature is replete with stories of people going to sleep and having a single, transformative dream—you probably have had friends who shared these [experiences]—that can change your entire life. One dream can shapeshift your entire life.
So, I think that’s another reason I get so passionate about this topic—is that when people start to realize just how much is available to them every single night when they go to sleep, it can provide a real avenue for growth and development psychologically and spiritually that I think really, at its apex, represents kind of a pedagogy of the future—this kind of night school where the amount of learning and transformation that can take place is almost limitless.
TS: A part of me is fully convinced, excited, and ready to sign up for night school. Then I also hear this other voice—and I imagine this is a voice that some of our listeners might be hearing inside. It says something like, “God, you know, each day I put out so much. I give so much.” I’m imagining other people who maybe have families, et cetera; “What I want to pray for when I get into bed is just a good, solid, eight [hours] of shuteye. I don’t—this flying in my dreams and having spiritual experiences—I’d really like to get a good night’s rest. That’s my goal.”
AH: Yes. That’s a great, great comment. There are several ways to work with that. One is that we all become our own meditation instructors in these practices. We have to titrate our own experience. We have to see what works for us. If we don’t enjoy it, we’re not going to do it. I mean, if you’re tying yourself into knots trying to do these practices, at a certain point—and this is what I write about in the book; it’s certainly been my experience—at a certain point, these practices will in fact reveal your passion for ignorance. You will come to the point where you’re going to say, “Screw it. I’d rather be stupid.” That’s totally fine.
Again, you have to balance between—as you know, Tami, in the Buddhist meditative traditions, there’s this common maxim, “Not too tight, not too loose.” If you’re too tight with these practices, you’re going to tie yourself into knots, you’re going to try too hard, you’re not going to fall asleep. You’re just going to drive yourself crazy. If you’re too loose, you’re not really doing dream yoga, you’re just collapsing into your normal habitual state.
What does make these practices somewhat challenging and I also find somewhat provocative is that we have to become our own meditation instructors here. Nobody knows our mind better than ourselves. Of course, you can talk to other dream yoga practitioners; there’s not that many yet, but there will be. There are lucid dream forums that people can tune in to. But this journey is largely a very personal one, and we have to see really what works for us. That’s why parenthetically when I give all these different induction methods, the point isn’t to master them all. The point is to find one that speaks to you and then that becomes your ticket in. That’s one way—you just have to kind of find your way in.
The other thing that’s really helpful to understand is that the vast majority of the restoration that takes place when we sleep takes place in what’s called stage three or stage four Theta and Delta sleep. You’re not practicing dream yoga then.
The time to really ramp up your efforts for dream yoga is what I call “primetime dreamtime,” which is an hour or two just before you wake up. That’s when you transition mostly from the deep, dreamless sleep—the non-REM sleep, the restorative sleep of the first part of the night; which is why most of us don’t remember dreams in the first part because we’re not dreaming. We’re mostly in Delta, non-REM sleep. That’s where growth hormones is released, that’s where all the restorative functions of the sleeping process take place. So, we don’t mess with that. This is why understanding the stages of sleep are so important.
What you do toy with or experiment with are the latter stages of the night, just before you wake up. Primetime dreamtime. That’s when REM is really cooking. That’s not interfering with your rest. In fact, your brain is more active in REM sleep and actually throughout the night than it is during the day.
If you’re working with sleep yoga, that’s a different beast, and that’s why I don’t spend too much time with that in this book. That’s kind of like graduate school. Sleep yoga is in fact where you work with Delta, non-REM sleep, and that’s a whole different topic. But for those who are engaged in lucid dreaming and dream yoga, if you understand the way that the mind and the sleep stages unfold, you’re not really interfering with your rest at all.
With that framework said, what I say is [to] experiment with it over the weekends when you have a chance to sleep in a little bit more. Play with it, see what works for you. Once you understand the basic principles and tenets, you can start to tweak and adjust these things for your own setup. You can start to see what it is that works or doesn’t work for you.
Then by so doing, it becomes really something that you enjoy. It’s like, “Wow, I’m going to really explore this quality,” and then you do it in a way that really does fit your lifestyle and your schedule.
TS: You offer in the book your single best tip for lucid dreaming. This is what you write:
AH: Scientifically proven, by the way.
TS: “Set your alarm to go off two hours before you normally wake up.” OK, sounds painful, but, “Stay awake for 30 minutes and then go back to sleep.” So, help me know why that’s going to help me lucid dream.
AH: Exactly. That’s—like I mentioned, that’s primetime dreamtime. At that point, you’re 75 to—I don’t know what the exact percentage is, 90 percent—you’re in full-on REM sleep. And REM sleep—rapid-eye movement sleep—that’s when dreams are cooking.
Studies have shown that it’s a 2,000 percent—a 20-fold—increase if you just engage in that one technique of inviting lucidity. You set your alarm like you said, six hours or whatever—you’re sleeping eight hours, you set it for six hours. Get up for anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour; either do a little meditation, very light reading, maybe work with some induction things, and then simply go back to sleep. What happens during that period—and you will notice this even if you’re not engaged in dream yoga work—is that your mind becomes very porous during that time. You’re playing with the pre- and post-dream states that are called hypnagogic and hypnopompic.
The word is beautiful: “Hypnos” is the god of sleep, “gogia” means “to lead towards.” So you’re leading towards the god of sleep, leading away from the god of sleep. You’re working with these kind of—what the Buddhists would [call] bardo states between dreaming and waking consciousness where you’re not quite here, you’re not quite there. We’ve all had these experiences—you’re dipping in and out, you’re dipping in and out. And it’s during those times when you can really start—especially if you’re bringing a heightened sense of mindfulness to those states—you can really start to work with your awareness when you’re bobbing in and out of these sleep states.
There’s all kinds of things I mention in the book—ways to work very specifically with these hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, but basically yes, if you want to just try one thing, do that. A couple of hours before you’d normally wake up, get up, walk around, go to the bathroom, go back to sleep, and notice how your sleep will change by that one gesture alone, especially if you’re working with the induction. So you’re in there and you’re going, “Now I’m going to really have lucid dreams.” You’re really stretching at that point, you’re really stretching. You lie back down, you let the whole thing go, and then you simply see what happens. Be inquisitive, be curious.
The other thing I mentioned with these practices that I think is really helpful is that even though dream yoga has a very specific set of techniques and practices—which I do outline in the book—as a kind of gestalt approach, what these practices do altogether is they help us relate to the dream and sleep state in an entirely different way. The analogy I use, Tami, is that it’s like when you step outside into the dark from a bright room and you keep your eyes open. Initially, you can’t see anything—it’s just black out there. But if you keep your eyes open, sooner or later, as your eyes accommodate to the dark, things start to pop up. You start to see things—they were there, you just didn’t see them before. So, you simply keep your eyes open. You will start to see things you haven’t seen before.
In exactly the same way, these nocturnal meditations invite us to turn the lens of our mind and open our mind’s eye towards these dimensions of experience that are otherwise just total blackness. Simply keep your eye open; be curious, be inquisitive, and see what pops up. See what starts to become available to you in your experience. Dream yoga then starts to encompass an entire different attitude towards sleep and dream. It’s not just what happens in a lucid dream state; what happens is you descend into sleep, you’re more interested in what’s called lucid-sleep onset even though you may not succeed at it. There’s a natural, curious, contemplative approach into this otherwise descent into oblivion.
Likewise, as we go through the night—as I mentioned in the book—there’s all kinds of correlative experiences that can arise. One that I share in there that happens to me with some regularity is I’ll wake up in the middle of the night—especially if I’m traveling—we’ve all had this experience. You wake up and it takes a while to figure out, “Where am I?” You don’t even know where you are. There’s this kind of scrambling effect that takes place.
Armed with these kinds of nocturnal meditations, that becomes a very interesting kind of state where you can see how it is that your mind scrambles to reconstitute this narrative that brought you to this place. Even deeper, it even brings you into this sense of who you actually are because as you fall asleep, this egoic thing—Tami dissolves when you fall asleep; Andrew dissolves when I fall asleep. If you can maintain some dissolution, some awareness of this dissolution process and, of course, when you’re waking up, the re-integrative aspect—how it is that Tami comes back to life, how it is that Andrew comes back to life—you gain some intimations or some hints of how this process actually takes place throughout the day.
So, that’s the whole thing that makes this so exciting for me, is that it’s not just—you don’t have to get so hung up—that’s being too tight—about accomplishing every letter of these practices. The fanatics like me will do that.
But it’s basically about turning your mind’s eye in, keeping it open, acclimatizing to the dark, seeing things that have always been there—you’ve just never seen them before because you haven’t kept your mind’s eye open long enough. All of a sudden, this entire world that’s been described by so many wisdom traditions for thousands of years starts to become available to you.
TS: Andrew, we’re only talking about the foundation—the platform, as you put it—of lucid dreaming. I’m so happy that we’re going to have a chance to have this conversation be two parts because I really want to talk about the transition from the lucid dreaming process to the dream yoga process and what the difference is. But let’s not leave lucid dreaming quite yet because I want to have not just a passion for ignorance and a good night’s sleep—which clearly I’m quite invested in—but I’m starting to get quite curious about this lucid dreaming thing.
One of the things that you wrote about in Dream Yoga is that the average lucid dreamer has 14 minutes of lucidity when they’re having a lucid dream. I thought that was interesting because part of me is wondering, “How long am I going to be lucid for?”
AH: Yes, exactly. Lucid dreaming and lucidity—a great question, Tami. Lucidity, as you suggested earlier, covers a wide bandwidth both in terms of clarity, vivacity, and duration. So, as you mentioned earlier, we go from barely lucid—you’re not entirely sure. “Is this a lucid dream? I can’t quite tell.” [It goes] all the way to—as you suggested earlier—what the traditions refer to as hyper-lucid dreams, where as you know—and I’ve had dreams like this, where your dreams are more real than so-called waking reality. You wake up and this waking world seems diluted; this seems like the flattened kind of dream.
So, you have that bandwidth, from barely lucid to hyper-lucid. Then also you have a duration bandwidth. You have what I call “dreamlets”—for instance, earlier I was talking about this hypnagogic state, when you’re dipping in and out of sleep?
AH: That is a fantastic time to work with the super-short—the lucid dream might last just one, two, three, four, five seconds. They’re dreamlets. They’re phenomenally interesting states, where—and this is what I do regularly—it’s almost like you’re trolling. You’re watching your mind as thoughts manifest in your awareness. If you can very gently latch on, very mindfully tend to a thought, you can transpose it into the dream state and watch it inflate in front of your mind’s eye. You can watch that thought turn into an image, turn into a dream right in front of your mind’s eye. It transforms into—they’re like little bubbles coming up from the ocean. Small dreamlets of lucidity that last one, two, three, four, five seconds. That is a totally legitimate lucid dream experience.
The studies that you referred to—for kind of seasoned lucid dreamers—the average lucid dream—by the way, the type of time experience you have in a dream, studies have shown, is correlative to the time experience we have during the day. So the average, as you mentioned, tends to be around four minutes, but I have had numerous lucid dreams that last 50 minutes. That’s when you can really start to do the dream yoga practices that we’re going to talk about later.
I think this is really encouraging for people because again, it shows the bandwidth of lucidity and one of the key components of success in this practice is in fact celebrating the small successes. That’s really important because if you set the bar too high, which of course we all tend to do—we want the quick fix, give me the pill, give me the gadget, let me have my 50-minute lucid dream starting from scratch—it ain’t gonna happen, simply because we’re so trained in non-lucidity. Yes, we might have some occasional hyper-lucid long dreams, but that’s unlikely.
So, what we do is we celebrate. “Wow, I’m remembering more of my dreams. Man, that’s amazing. I’m having clearer dreams. Totally cool. Wow, I had my first lucid dream. It may have lasted five seconds”—in fact, usually what happens when we have our first lucid dream is we’re so excited that we had the lucid dream that that excitement actually—
TS: Let me ask you a question about that. What is the litmus test for, “Yes, this qualifies as even five seconds of a ‘lucid dream?’”
AH: Well, you’ll know. The litmus test is you know this is a dream. You’re not thinking, because you know you’re no longer—when you’re thinking, obviously thoughts have a different texture than dreams do. But you can watch thoughts transform into dreams; in fact, that’s kind of what happens when we go to sleep. The litmus test is simply knowing—there’s a knowing quality that takes place where you’re saying, “You know what? I am seeing this dream like I’ve never seen a dream before. I’ve never been awake to this type of experience, even though it’s only lasting five seconds. This is a short, vivid, micro-lucid dream.”
There is a quality of knowing that does come about with that. That type of recognition and knowing should be acknowledged and celebrated. It’s a totally valid way to work. In fact, I read a recent paper from a researcher in Ireland where some of his data was showing that some of the more veteran lucid dreamers these days are in fact playing with these pre- and post-dream states—the hypnagogic, the hypnopompic states. They are transforming those states into their primary lucid dream work. I found that very interesting because that’s pretty accessible for people, especially in that primetime dreamtime when you’re waking up.
We do it all the time: you wake up on a Saturday morning, you don’t want to get up, you’re dipping in and out. It’s a beautiful state of mind. I like it—just languish in bed and it’s one of the great luxuries you give yourself with dream yoga. And you’re just—instead of caving in to what’s happening in your mind, now all of the sudden there’s a new, more contemplative relationship. It’s like, “Wow, hey, let’s see. This guy was talking about this. Let’s try that. Let’s see what happens when this thought arises. Can I in fact watch this thought transform into a dream?” That’s what LaBerge talks about—a wild, waking, induced lucid dream.
TS: OK. So let me try this on you to see [if] this qualify as lucid dreaming, because I’m still a little confused—lack of experience on my part. So, I go to take a nap. I go to take a nap. I know I’m lying on the couch napping, and I’m dreaming, and I’m sort of half in, half out. There are dreams happening and I know I’m lying on the couch, and I know I’m dreaming. Is that a lucid dream?
AH: Not necessarily. That could simply be a brief moment of recognition when you’re popping out of the dream, and you’re making exactly that type of comment. You’re going, “Oh wow, I was just dreaming.” That’s a retrospective awareness; you were aware that you were dreaming.
That, in fact—again, that should be celebrated. That’s like, wow, that’s really cool. That’s increasing dream recall, so don’t dismiss it, that’s already cool.
But that’s a retrospective lucidity. What we’re talking about here is a more subtle, internal lucidity. In other words, you are in the dream—it’s hard to do with daydreams, because the minute we’re aware of a daydream, we pop it. It’s somewhat similar to that; it’s as if you could allow your mind to run away into a daydream now, and yet you’re somehow aware of it. It’s not the strongest analogy, but it’s something to play with. So you’re talking more about a retrospective lucidity, which again is very valid; you’re starting to become more aware. Lucid dreaming is when you’re actually in it, and you go, “Wow.” There is a little bit of an excitement, like “Wow, this is cool. This is cool; I’m doing it.”
AH: And then—we could talk about this later—you can actually have that type of dream and not do anything with it. Those are what are called “witnessing lucid dreams. You’re simply aware that you’re lucid, but you prefer not to engage it. You can see and hear of course how this has a direct correlation to meditation; you’re aware that this is happening, but you prefer not to engage it. That’s a lucid dream called a witnessing lucid dream.
What we’re going to talk about later is when you’re having a really authentic, full-blown lucid dream and you go, “OK, I’m in it, I’ve transcended, so to speak, the limitations of lucid dreaming”—which is usually about self-fulfillment, that’s what makes it so sexy, that’s why it sells. Again, I’m not dissing that. My first decade of work was doing just that. I loved just doing whatever I wanted to do in the privacy of my own mind. There wasn’t a whole lot of transformation going on. It was like, “Yahoo! This is a gas!” But at a certain point—
TS: I’m not going to ask for any further details. That’s fine—that’s your business!
AH: [Laughs.] So yes, fill in the blanks. Again, parenthetically, here the moniker for dream yoga is “the measure of the path.” In the Tibetan six yogas of Naropa, which is where I really worked with these practices, the moniker is “the measure of the path.”
Dreams are truth-tellers; even psychologically, dreams are truth-tellers. Even the fact that I’m in the dream initially for a decade and just enjoying my runaway discursive samsaric mind, that’s a revelatory experience. It may be a humbling one, but it’s revealing something about how I want to work with my mind, which is basically—initially I just wanted to indulge it. I just wanted to be mindless in my lucid dream and just do whatever the heck I wanted. But at a certain point after many, many lucid dreams, I said, “You know, there’s got to be something more here. How can I engage this quality of mind—instead of self-fulfillment, how can I engage this for processes of self-transcendence?”
And that is in fact one of the key markers that I use to differentiate between dream yoga and lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming, in and of itself—lucid dreaming will not wake you up in the spiritual sense. In fact, it can become—[inaudible] Rinpoche talks about it—one of my teachers—as a kind of “super-samsara.” It’s just confusion added on top of confusion—literally called “the double delusion.”
If you just indulge your lucid dreams, they’re not karmically tax-free. Whenever intention is involved, karma is created. So, if you’re in a lucid dream and fill in the blank, you’re doing whatever the heck you want, there are karmic implications. Even the scientists talk about this using the medium of neuroplasticity. You are working with your mind—with your brain. You’re changing your brain by what’s happening in your dream state.
So, it’s not karmically tax-free. You can accumulate negative karma in a lucid dream. Dream yoga is all about purifying karma, which is basically what? Purifying bad habitual patterns. Karma in the West—the best colloquial translation for me is just “habit.” You’re just working with habit.
So [with] lucidity, it’s just like my habits were running wild. And I have to say, it was a delight for like 10 years. It was like, “Wow, terrific,” but then after a while it was like, “Hmm. Where is this really taking me? It’s a really great movie, but how many times can I see this movie?”
So, then I elected to—when I discovered dream yoga, it was like, “Wow, why not take this expression, this laboratory of my mind and use it for purposes of psychological and spiritual development?” That’s what we can talk about later—what do you do in the stages of dream yoga that transform it into a truly revelatory and transformative practice?
TS: I’m talking with Andrew Holecek, and this is part one of our conversation about a new book that he has just released with Sounds True, called Dream Yoga: Illuminating Your Life Through Lucid Dreaming and the Tibetan Yogas of Sleep. He’s also created an audio series with the same title, Dream Yoga, that takes you through many of the practices. In part two of Insights at the Edge, we’ll talk about this transition from lucid dreaming into dream yoga, and then also the yoga of sleep and bardo yoga as well.
SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey. Thanks for being with us.