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The Paradox of Lucid Dreaming

As far as we can fathom, humans have been forever fascinated by their dreams. Amazed by them too, and confused, amused, haunted, disturbed, even driven insane by them. Their function and meaning, however, continue to elude us. Indeed, the very question of whether our dreams might possess either of these qualities is viewed at best as unimportant within the dominant Western scientific paradigm. Dreaming is therefore widely regarded, much like consciousness itself, as a mere epiphenomenon of the brain, office admin for ordinary minds at the end of each unremarkable day.

At an individual level, however, we are often moved by a profound sense of meaning arising from the swirling seas of our subconscious. We awake in wonder, from worlds experienced with complete conviction, into the cold light of everyday existence which soon wipes our night-time insights from memory like so many secret symbols scrawled in sand. Dream research continues, of course, but until some mega-corporation somehow manages to monetize or — heaven help us — weaponize the dream domain, mapping the labyrinth of our inner lives may remain the province of neuroscientists, psychologists, and sundry psychonauts. In recent years, however, renewed interest in one striking form of dream experience has begun to offer an entirely new perspective. Lucid dreaming — attainment of waking-state abilities within a dream — may present unparalleled opportunities to explore the depths of the human psyche and, ultimately, the very nature of reality itself.

In his recent book The Paradox of Lucid Dreaming — A Metaphysical Theory of Mind, Dr Rory Mac Sweeney, a dental surgeon of Irish extraction now living in London, paints a radical new picture of this phenomenon and, based largely on his own experience, develops an equally-striking metaphysical framework on which to hang it.

“I got involved with martial arts around the age of ten, and physicality was my first step in to personal exploration; to assume the role of the proverbial athlete as defined by Carl Jung’s Stages of Development. I spent a long time getting into various martial arts and competing internationally, eventually realizing the futility of that in terms of what it was I was trying to find. Somewhere prior to the conclusion of my sports career I managed to pick up a professional career and became a dentist. It might seem a little innocuous with regard to personal exploration, but it gives me a grounding in biology and science in general. Things began to get a little more colourful in my thirties when I got involved with more peripheral ideas. I say ‘peripheral’ — peripheral to normal society — specifically ways to alter my mind. I looked at traditional sleight of hand magic for a while, psychology, parapsychology… anything that would alter my consciousness to a degree I was curious about, and that’s when I came across lucid dreaming. When I first came across the idea that one could assume the same degree of insight during a dream state that we ordinarily have in waking consciousness, to me it was the ultimate expression of magic. I turned my focus to that and for the last ten years I’ve been practising, modelling, and trying to create some sort of abstraction of our world from the dream state in relation to the waking state, and ultimately trying to build some sort of metaphysical essay around that.”

Although lucid dreaming is much discussed in alternative media, it will be useful at this stage to establish a basic working definition.

“The simplest definition is that it is a dream during which we become aware of the fact that we’re dreaming. We have the same kind of intellectual insight as we have in our waking state of consciousness which is that we can enter into an internal dialogue in our own minds, reflect on our circumstances and ask ‘Is this a dream?’ We can then test the dream environment to ascertain its nature. One, for example, would be to stick your index finger through the palm of your opposing hand. This should be possible because in a dream it’s possible — not always but mostly — to pass matter through matter. Another test might be to lean forward and see if you float off the ground gently. This is the fundamental difference between a lucid dream and a regular dream. There’s something in-between which we’ve probably all experienced where we’re kind of aware we’re dreaming but we haven’t stopped, asked ourselves, and concluded using a reality check that we’re absolutely dreaming. We might call this semi-lucid or pre-lucid. There’s a spectrum from lucid but tied up in the dream narrative, to lucid but very aware of something you planned to do in the dream, right up to the stage of being absolutely pin-point awake within your dream.”

While many of us will have experienced what feels like conscious decision-making during dreams — choosing one door rather than another, turning left or right, and so on — such choices in themselves aren’t the hallmark of a lucid dream.

“This is a really important point to distinguish because hundreds of times I’ve described lucid dreaming to people to be met with ‘I lucid dream every night!’ We’ll all have some degree of lucidity during our lifetimes and maybe some spontaneous lucid dreaming without any training or even attempt to lucid dream, but what you’re describing is not what we would typically describe as a lucid dream. The reality check is the proverbial definition of the lucid dream, and although one doesn’t have to perform it, a particular level of intellectual insight prompts you to ask if you’re dreaming and to actually test it. Whether specifically by performing a reality check or something a little more peripheral like looking around the room and recognizing that it’s a dream. People will sometimes talk around these experiences like lucid dreaming is something trivial but it’s not. It’s an intense experience. If someone has to wonder if they’ve had a lucid dream then they haven’t.”

The very idea of possessing waking-state cognisance within the dream space poses exciting possibilities. Is this the key to the candy store of creation, the motherlode of manifestation? Walking through walls, travelling through time, untold riches, fame and fortune? Sadly not. However, in The Paradox of Lucid Dreaming, Rory builds upon the popular notion that ‘we create our own reality’ in an important and perhaps unique way. Although it’s way too deep to dive into in the space we have here, we can at least set out a starting point.

“When you’re in a lucid dream and you’re trying to make something happen, most people think you click your heels three times and say ‘I want such and such to appear!’ If you go onto lucid dreaming websites or books or whatever, there’s lots of stories of ‘I wanted this to happen so I just crossed my fingers and it happened’ and a lot of the stories are just total horse shit. The fact of the matter is that manifesting things in lucid dreams is quite difficult and this means we don’t understand the mechanics of it. When people say lucid dreaming is all about intention, it’s not like that. Intention is a part of it but there’s something else to it, and that X-factor is what I’m trying to allude to — the idea of storytelling, of constantly creating a narrative construct and planting narrative seeds, nudging the dream towards what you’re trying to manifest.”

The Paradox of Lucid Dreaming reaches far beyond any ‘how to’ manual. In fact, it’s not a manual at all, preferring instead to energetically push the boundaries of thought and imagination to place lucid dreaming — and dreaming in general — at the heart of collective evolution. In conversation, Rory is restless in the best possible sense, ever keen to move our story forward. As he himself is fond of saying, “Reality is a story we are telling ourselves” wherein, he believes, lie the true keys to creation. If we are indeed the authors of our own fate, then we may re-write the script should we choose to. And the lesson of the lucid state is clear: waking and dreaming are dual aspects of a reality that is fluid, not fixed. Fortunately, no sages, mages, or mystery schools are called for should we wish to test reality for ourselves. The Internet is awash with lucid dreaming resources, although one would be wise to exercise cautious due-diligence and apply the usual caveats. Even such lucid dreaming starter kits, however, may not be necessary.

“For most people, even reading this is enough to trigger in their minds the possibility of having a lucid dream. The most important piece of technology you need is the language to understand what a lucid dream is. To know that it’s possible can be enough to have it happen. Otherwise it’s almost impossible to stop within a dream and ask yourself if you’re dreaming. We’re so conditioned to believe that we can’t be self-aware within dreams. Sometimes when people briefly become aware that they’re dreaming the first thing they want to do is wake themselves up, as if it’s naughty, something we shouldn’t be doing. I used to do that, but why would you want to wake up? So stop trying to wake up and try to stay in it — that’s the first thing.

“In terms of formally training for it, there’s a lot of stuff out there, from NLP-type techniques where you’re visually rehearsing cues and starting to look for signs that you’re dreaming, to more hands-on approaches where you’re interrupting your sleep during the night, trying to hijack your optimal dream chemistry. There are also technologies developing in this area, specifically one that’s been around for about thirty years; a device that you place over your eyes which sends LED cues through your eyelids and eyes to the dreaming brain. These flashing lights lead to a certain kind of imagery within the dream which give a cue that you’re dreaming. It’s fascinating and it does work because I’ve tried it. Something else is oneirogens which are supplements which can also be very effective.”

Beyond the awareness that one is in fact dreaming, Rory’s observations of the lucid state draw together seemingly separate states of consciousness with dramatic and even disturbing implications.

“I mention in the book that what struck me about lucid dreaming was not how different it was from waking reality, but how similar. When I was running in the dream, I could feel my feet pounding the ground and I could feel the sensation of my body shuddering. I remember realising I was dreaming but that I could feel everything and it felt real. At the back of my mind I was thinking it felt real because it was real, but then what was reality now? At that moment it was so apparent to me that dreaming and what we call the physical world were woven from the same fabric. Up until then I was convinced that dreams are something that happen inside your head, but that model of reality is a crock of shit. What you’re experiencing when you’re dreaming is reality in the same way you’re experiencing it right now, and we need to build a whole new model to accommodate that.”

This cuts to the heart of reality itself. Our dreams appear to be individual, inconsistent, and entirely subjective, whereas the ‘real’ reality of our waking state appears to be consensual, consistent, and entirely objective. Furthermore, we are told that any dream experience, no matter how delightful, distressing, or profound, is not ‘real’. In a sense, it did not happen. The dreamer may visit other planets, become a beast of the air or sea, meet the love of their lives, or wake screaming from re-lived memories of war, and yet going to work and paying your taxes in the five-sense field is apparently the alpha and omega of human existence. But what if we allow reality to be more than simply that which we all — or most of us at least — agree upon?

“Is reality inherently consensual? Do we have to have a group of people experiencing it together for it to be real? Most people would say ‘yes’ and I didn’t disagree with that in the book but I took a very unique loophole with psychedelics where we can have consensual reality, subjective reality, and a group of observers having a shared experience, a group encounter of a reality that might not be consensual to everybody and might be described by some as a hallucination. So then we have a subset of reality not apparent to everyone in our current state, which then opens the door for a single person to have a single experience which would be equally valid and allows us to talk about reality as a single subjective experience and not exclusively consensual as defined by empiricist materialist reductionists. They don’t have the last word on reality. People sometimes confuse Western science or materialist reductionism for fact. It’s not a ‘fact’ but a way of looking at reality. We need to build a model of a world that is subjective and apparently objective at the same time, and that’s the paradox we’re dealing with.”

If the lucid state can demonstrate properties normally associated with the waking state, can the opposite, then, also be true? If, as Rory observes, “dreaming and what we call the physical world” are “woven from the same fabric”, then we should, under certain circumstances, be able to map at least some common ground. Throughout time, much has been said about the sometimes dreamlike quality of the waking world. Indeed, the idea that the entirety of our apparently solid, five-sense existence might in fact be a dream is not new. One way to approach the possibility is to consider that we believe this particular collective dream to be ‘real’ simply because we have awoken within it. Many of the World’s creation myths have at their core a story in which the Creator himself awakens within his own creation, or dream, and in doing so, forgets that he is dreaming. And when lost in our own nocturnal reverie, who amongst us remembers the then far off world of work and taxes?

“At this very moment, wherever you are, you’re dreaming. Although this life is real, it’s a different kind of reality than what you think it is. Of course, you don’t think it’s a dream because you’re awake. What I’m suggesting is that when you realise that the life you’re living is a dream, then you’re awake. Awake in the dream of life. But likewise, for people who think they’re awake, they’re dreaming — dreaming this experience, and experiencing it the same way we normally experience a dream, which is, we take it for granted. We don’t normally enter the world of dreams and question that reality. We experience dreaming by simply accepting the circumstances as they unfold, bizarre as they may be.”

Of the many questions posed in The Paradox of Lucid Dreaming, perhaps the most important is ‘Why?’ If dreaming is no mere curio of consciousness, then what is its purpose, if not ‘office admin’ for the mind? Rory believes that dreaming — and lucid dreaming in particular — may have advantages for each organism and the planet as a whole. One of its key functions seems to be to reveal to us the true nature of reality. In this sense, dreaming can serve as an advanced behaviour disruptor, conferring evolutionary advantages upon the dreamer. Rory rightly points out that our “self-reflective awareness is a double-edged sword” and that “the thing that makes us so incredible is the thing that makes us so impoverished.” Indeed, although the answers to our most profound questions have been staring us in the face for thousands of years, we continue to ignore, resist, and deny them, choosing instead to use our apparently unique consciousness to create wastelands and to construct walls and ever-more destructive weapons of war. Some believe that the current crises of civilization are in themselves an acute form of evolutionary pressure being brought to bear on us, challenging us to grow or die. Could it be that an advanced understanding of dreaming and conscious engagement with it in its lucid form might help us navigate the turbulent times ahead?

“Is dreaming a by product of nature or does it have a specific purpose? It appears to me that things that happen in nature tend to happen for a reason and I believe there’s a reason why we lucid dream. In order to understand or at least investigate why we lucid dream I think we need to revise our position and have a paradigm disruption. When you wake up in this dream of life, nothing actually changes, except that everything changes. It’s a paradox. Things still look and feel exactly the same but the difference is that somewhere in your mind you realise that all of these things that appear to be separate are really you. This place you call here is actually there and what you thought was then is actually now, and that everything is happening in this eternal moment and it’s you. It always has been and always will be. Not you the physical body, but the eternal awareness that holds it all together. That’s what we’re each trying to understand in our own individual ways.”

Originally published in New Dawn magazine, November / December 2016.