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For Healing and Health, Dream On

In Your Dreams

By Elaine Zablocki
WebMD Feature

June 25, 2001 -- We've all experienced dreams, the gateway into a chaotic territory of joy and embarrassment, exhilaration and fear. For centuries, Tibetan doctors have used dreams for diagnosis and healing. Tibetan dream yoga is said to be a preparation for death and a pathway to enlightenment. Today, Western psychologists and mental explorers are developing new ways to use dreams to unleash the creativity of the human mind.

Tibetan doctors ask patients about their dreams because it helps them understand the person's physical problems, says Nida Chenagtsang, a doctor of Tibetan medicine. Dreams must be combined with other diagnostic signs, but they offer valuable clues.

"For example, when a patient dreams of dirty water, this could be connected with kidney problems and the urinary system," Nida says. "The dream may signal problems on a energetic level, before those problems manifest on the physical level." Nida is co-director of the medical department of Shang Shung Institute in Tuscany, Italy, and teaches a course on dreams in Tibetan medicine.

Tibetan Dream Yoga

Many of us look at dreams for signals about what's going on in our lives, says Lama Tsering Everest. "However, Tibetan dream yoga isn't about the content of our dreams. In fact, dream yoga is really about our waking life. The Buddha said life is like a dream. Everything that appears so solid to us is really insubstantial, like the reflection of the moon on water. Rather than trying to manipulate the circumstances of our lives to produce happiness, we can find true fulfillment by working for the welfare of others." Everest, a westerner, has been recognized as a lama in the Nyingma Buddhist tradition, and is the head of Odsal Ling Meditation Center in São Paulo, Brazil.

While Tibetan Buddhism does include many specific methods of dream yoga, traditionally the details aren't discussed publicly, Everest says. "These advanced teachings are available only within a personal relationship with an authentic teacher of the tradition. In dream yoga, we use our dreams to understand the nature of reality. The first step toward using the methods of dream yoga is developing a sincere wish to help others."

Namkhai Norbu, in his book Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light, does reveal methods used in one dream yoga tradition. He advises people to fall asleep while visualizing a white Tibetan syllable (or English letter) representing the sound "ah." Men should lie on their right side, women on their left side.

"Awareness within the dream state becomes a way to develop oneself and to break one's heavy conditioning," he writes. However, Norbu too says that a personal relationship with a teacher is essential for a full understanding of the practice.

"When you read a book you can understand all concepts in an intellectual way," he writes. "If you receive a transmission from a teacher, you can have a different taste." Norbu is a retired professor of Tibetan language and literature at the Oriental Institute of the University of Naples, Italy.

Since 1992, Gabriel Rocco has been studying dream yoga and other Buddhist practices with Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep. Throughout the day he reminds himself that waking life is like a dream. Before sleeping, he reinforces his desire to be fully aware during his nighttime dreams and remember them when he wakes.

"This practice is tremendously helpful in coping with everyday life," he says. "We talk to ourselves all the time, creating emotional dramas. Dream yoga helps you cut through that and come back to the present movement. You may be upset because of a scratch on your car, or you may have an argument. Dream yoga helps you cut loose."

Tibetans believe dreams can be a useful way to prepare for death, since the after-death state resembles the dream state.

"Bardo is a Tibetan word that simply means a transition or gap. ... Of course, the bardos of death are much deeper states of consciousness than the sleep and dream states, and far more powerful moments, but their relative levels of subtlety correspond and show the kind of links and parallels that exist between all the different levels of consciousness," writes Sogyal Rinpoche in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. "For example, the way in which you react to dreams, nightmares, and difficulties now shows how you might react after you die."

Rocco hopes to use his dreaming experiences as a way to prepare for death.

"The first time I realized I was awake in the dream, I was so excited I immediately woke up. You have to get past that, to become relaxed, aware, alert, within the dream. The point of this practice is to become more familiar with the capacity of your own mind to create and alter your experience."

Lucid Dreaming

Today many Westerners are exploring similar mental territory through the practice of "lucid dreaming." The term was first coined in 1913 by a Dutch physician who spontaneously experienced alert dreams.

In a lucid dream your ordinary sense of self wakes up inside the dream, explains Steve Whiteman, DCH. One way to train for lucid dreaming is to look at something light, like a paper clip, and ask whether it's floating.

"Do this many times a day; make a habit of it. Sometime during the night the paper clip really will float, and you'll recognize you are now in a dream."

When people first experience a lucid dream they may experience a powerful energy and sense of freedom, Whiteman says. "Lucid dreams are more fluid. You have a nightmare, you may see a monster or a bear. When you realize you're awake inside the dream, you can ask that bear, Why are you here? The response will always be relevant. The bear may say, 'I've been trying to get your attention for years.'" Whiteman is a hypnotherapist in private practice in Atlanta and Clarksville, Ga., and teaches a class in lucid dreaming.

"Lucid dreams surprise you. Our habitual view of ourselves and our world is far too narrow," says Charles T. Tart, PhD, author of Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People.

Suppose you're having a conflict with someone. If you're able to dream lucidly, you can invite them into your dream and talk with them in a way you couldn't do in real life. "You get a different take on things," Tart says. "This isn't an instant cure. There are no guarantees. But so many of our problems persist because we see them in only one way and keep beating our head against the same wall. Lucid dreaming can be a way to open to new insights." Tart is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, in Palo Alto, Calif.

Martin Lowenthal, PhD, has personally experienced the way lucid dreaming can transform a nightmare into a joyous experience.

"I was in Canyonlands, Utah, when I had a lucid dream about falling. Inside the dream, I decided since I was falling, I might as well fly. First I flew through London. Then I realized I'd like to be at the canyon, and I was. After waking in the morning, when I hiked out to the canyon rim, it exactly matched what I'd already seen in my dream," says Lowenthal, director of the Dedicated Life Institute in Newton, Mass.

While lucid dreaming can be a valuable tool for self-exploration, Tart estimates less than 5% of psychologists use it in their practice. One who does is Cheryl Pappas, PhD. She's always been interested in dreams, and can remember dreams she had as a 3-year-old.

"I've always listened very carefully to dreams because they are a pathway to deeper regions of myself. Dreaming will unlock any mysteries about who you are and answer any questions you have. They are the language of your intuition. You don't need to run to dream books to interpret what a dream is about. There is no expert outside yourself. Once you turn on the equipment to listen, you usually find the dream is talking loudly."

She advises her clients to mentally invite the dream they'd like to have. While falling asleep, say to yourself, "I will have a lucid dream tonight and I will remember it," she advises. Put a notepad next to the bed and when you wake, don't speak to anyone until you jot down what you remember.

"To some extent we create our own experience through our imagination," says Pappas, a therapist and social psychologist who practices in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Our habitual thoughts are the gas in the tank of life. Unfortunately, most people affirm their worst nightmares over and over again, until they come true. They constantly think, 'I can never have this, I can never have that, everything will go wrong,' and those thoughts affect their actual experiences."

Pappas advises her clients to pay attention to their dreams and try to have lucid dreams because the world of dreams is so flexible, responsive, and changeable. It offers a laboratory to work with and change those habitual thought patterns.

"We all have imagination factories inside us producing dreams all the time," she says. "Learning to direct our dreams means we can fulfill our deepest longings, within the dream and also within our lives. Any answer you need is there inside the dream, if you listen for it, and honor and respect the dream."

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