Intentional dreams and lucid dreams
Shamanic work in the dreamworld
The Wider Web of Life
Lucid dreaming is a state where we are ’awake’ and conscious whilst we are asleep and dreaming. Although it has lately been adopted by contemporary teachers all over the world, it is in origin a shamanic skill, a method of heightened awareness in the dream, which allows shamans, healers and medicine people to access energetic powers, information, insight and help as well as the power to work within the dream state with the aim of manifestation. It is a state in which both perceptions — our normal waking awareness and our dream-state perception — begin to meet and we can therefore create within our dreams.
As with many ancient practices, we have adapted intentional lucid dreaming in a way that is more geared up to our Western desire to control and influence, although this is only part of how it is used in many shamanic cultures. In most forms of traditional shamanism (there are exceptions), lucid dreaming mainly focuses on accessing and surrendering to the forces, messages, visions and guides within the dreamscape, learning, receiving information and gaining power, and only secondly on controlling or changing the dream with the aim of manifestation. For example, the elders of the Beaver clan of the Canadian Arctic still practise ’hunting dreams’ in which they ask to be shown the location of animals in their dreams before the hunters locate the game in waking life and make the kill. The elders don’t dream with the intent of forcing the animals to be in a place convenient to the hunters; they use the intentional dreaming to find the place where the animals will naturally be. The same applies to the dream initiation and prophecy accounts we have from indigenous shamans such as Black Elk. He didn’t try to change anything in his lucid dreams, some of which were extremely frightening and led him to the brink of death, but accepted whatever he experienced as visions and messages from spirit.
Traditionally, lucid dreaming with intent is a skill which requires long practice and training, especially when shamanic work is undertaken within the dreamscape for the community, and ’dream shamans’ or ’dream walkers’ are often called to this task by spirit.
Ruby Modesto, a medicine woman of the Desert Cahuilla, received her call during dreaming. She describes the mastery of 13 levels of dreaming in her book Not for Innocent Ears: Spiritual Traditions of a Desert Cahuilla Medicine Woman.4 For her, the first two levels of dreaming are quite ordinary and the ’real shamanic dreaming’ begins after that. She describes how, ahead of the dreaming, she decides where she wants to go or what she wants to experience or be shown, then, whilst dreaming the first lucid dream, she plans what she wants to dream in the second dream. In the second lucid dream, she plans the third dream, and so on. She explains that it takes great skill to keep track of the levels of dreaming and describes how she was comatose in the morning at one point during her learning, because her soul, which had travelled through the different dream realms, was lost within them and she couldn’t find her way back into her body.
Even on a much simpler level, lucid dreaming is acknowledged in all strands of shamanism as a very powerful tool. The contemporary Native American healer and dream walker Rolling Thunder, when interviewed by Stanley Krippner, suggested that lucid dreaming was a more reliable source of visions than mind-altering plants, provided the dreamer knew the intent and direction of the journey.5
In contemporary circles, lucid dreaming is used for reasons similar to those described above. The shamanic practitioner might ask for a dream to show them what is needed to heal a client; they might ask for a prophetic dream, or for insight into an issue, or to meet and be taught by specific spirits, teachers and guides. They might ask for a dream about a lost soul, which they will guide to other realms; they might use lucid dreaming for shapeshifting or prophecy or to counteract negative forces, which they will encounter in the lucid dream state and transform or eradicate.
My own experiences with lucid dreaming are limited. It is a skill that I have only lately began to practise consciously. However, the few big lucid dreams I have had over the years have been remarkable, and all of them have involved travelling out of my body. The first one, which confirmed to me that I was indeed in my energy body, was when I experienced hovering over my sleeping body and looking down on it.
Another one occurred when I asked which decision was the right one when I was at a crossroads in my life:
The dream involved being at sea in a storm, on a big vessel that had lost its captain. I was required to steer the ship, which of course I didn’t have a clue how to do. The moment the ship was keeling over and it became clear that we would all die, I suddenly realized that I was dreaming and could change the dream.
To cut a long dream short, I changed the setting of the steering wheel to ’automatic’ and the ship steered itself. Once I had done this, a voice said: ’It is only when you take responsibility that you will find out that the ship of life steers itself.’
A profound short lucid dream happened during my time in Ecuador with an elder shaman. In accordance with the tradition, he always asked for dreams to be shared in the morning, but rarely offered an interpretation.
In this dream I found myself flying through space, which I enjoyed tremendously. At one point I became very thirsty. All that was on offer, though (from a hand belonging to a translucent woman with red eyes), was a glass of milk. I don’t like drinking milk at the best of times and in the dream I consequently refused to take the drink until I could refuse no more because my thirst had become unbearable. I finally took the glass and drank reluctantly.
When I shared the dream, the shaman looked at me and said, quite matter-of-factly, the following, which was translated for me from Quechua into English: ’Milk for you represents the blood of the shaman, the very power that is in your blood. When it is given to you by your ancestor, you refuse to take it. But when the thirst becomes unbearable, you have only two choices: you take your power or you die.’
I remember staring at him rather spellbound. He was so very right. I had always been a reluctant shamanic apprentice and was still very unwilling to be that which was in my very blood. I also knew that you had to follow your calling, as everything else would lead to soul starvation and to a slow inner dying, but I obviously needed to have it spelled out.
Whatever you believe you can do within lucid dreaming, and whatever level you reach, you can learn and practise the skill,6 and it is a worthwhile undertaking. You can meet spirit guides and teachers and receive instruction, you can learn how to work energetically in the dream state to manifest healing and change; you can begin to understand the journey your soul undertakes when leaving the body and more.
Working within dreams is a skill that, from a shamanic perspective, can only be acquired with a teacher. There are schools that teach how to work within the dream state, but, as with everything, don’t expect ’a quick fix’. As with all deeper teachings and tools, caution is also advised, as there are teachers who cannot teach you more than self-hypnotic techniques to achieve lucidity (which is the lowest level). But there are also those whose teachings are based on solid, long-standing systems, whose own experience in this area is outstanding and who have a vast knowledge of dreams and dream work.7
The real stuff is profound, although it takes training, perseverance and ethics. If you are interested, or already dream lucidly, this shamanic medicine might be right for you. It will certainly lead you into magical realms, increase your power and help you to be the co-creator of your own life.