“Lucid Dreaming: A Path of Transcendence or Transformation, or Both?”

Gregory Scott Sparrow, Ed.D., Associate Professor
University of Texas-Pan American
Faculty, Atlantic University

Presented at the IASD PsiberDreaming Conference, 2011


I would like to share one of my dreams that captures the essence of this presentation:
I am lucid and looking for the light. Everything around me is glowing, but as soon as I concentrate on a particular glowing object––hoping that the form will dissolve into light––the object loses its luster, and appears in its ordinary physical state. As I grow progressively frustrated at my inability to see through the forms of the dream, a woman walks up to me and says simply, "You must first learn to love the form in order to see the light within it."

When I wrote my Masters' thesis on lucid dreaming 38 years ago, there were few published sources. Supported largely by Jungian theory, I hypothesized that lucidity represented an evolution in consciousness in the dream state that paralleled the emergence of ego awareness in the waking state several thousand years ago. I suggested that lucidity conferred the same advantages and vulnerabilities.

After Stephen LaBerge and Keith Hearne independently established lucid dreaming as an observable phenomenon in the early 1980s, lucid dream research became a field of its own. LaBerge pioneered induction studies exploring ways to increase frequency; Jayne Gackenbach led study of lucidity's relationship to personality variables; and spiritually oriented, personal explorations were represented by my own book and by Ken Kelzer's
The Sun and the Shadow.

A controversy soon arose. One school espoused a values-free, experimental approach, assuming that the dream was "self created": the dreamer alone should decide what to do in the privacy of the dream state. This approach offers great freedom and creativity.

The second school raised questions about the wisdom of promoting lucid dream induction without considering a variety of concerns. Anecdotal accounts indicated that lucidity could be destabilizing, at least for some. From a psychodynamic standpoint, dream content could be viewed as the embodiment of repressed memories and/or emergent archetypal forces, direct exposure to which could destabilize ego integrity. Tibetan Buddhist literature on lucid dreaming as a powerful, accelerated path of yoga seemed to agree: lucidity stirs the powerful kundalini energy to life, thus requiring the oversight of a guru.

In the December 1987 issue of
Lucidity Letter, Gackenbach responded to reports of unsettling experiences by suggesting that researchers and authors provide information about potential risks. LaBerge asserted that Gackenbach was being unnecessarily alarmist. In the following issue, researchers including myself continued the debate. Linda Magallon chided Gackenbach and me for operating "out of fear," while Kelley Bulkely stated that LaBerge had failed to adequately consider ethics. LaBerge's fiery response to Bulkely's blistering assessment left an impact still felt today.

Recent voices of caution include Ryan Hurd's book
Sleep Paralysis, describing a high correlation between lucidity and sleep paralysis along with a range of disturbing, even terrifying phenomena. While Hurd shows how embracing the challenge of the "lucid nightmare" leads to deeper and more sublime levels of consciousness, he soberly acknowledges its compelling realism.

The other day a well-known researcher told me, "I would like to write a book for intermediate and advanced lucid dreamers. But I'm afraid it wouldn't sell – because people don't want to hear that lucid dreaming can precipitate disturbing experiences." I asked, "Like real life?" He laughed, and agreed.

Works such as Robert Waggoner's
Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self (2009) offer a multi-leveled view of dream characters on a continuum from mere "thought forms" to beings with independent agency. I would like to offer a perspective which may supplement such work toward an integrative view.


I propose we consider the debate within a bigger picture. From the perspective of my Masters' thesis, lucidity represents a more evolved level of self awareness, an immensely positive development. The lucid dreamer is more clearly bounded and distinct as an individual, able to access memories and facts usually not available in ordinary dreams and to pursue creative alternatives to the dream drama. Thus lucidity transcends ordinary dream awareness, allowing us to challenge the authority of the dream content and to pursue individual goals.

Whether discussing waking or dreaming states, various theorists say that further differentiation in consciousness, while highly beneficial, also runs risks. Ken Wilber argues that the ego structure has wrecked havoc in Western consciousness by becoming increasingly dissociated from the body's immediate, spontaneous feelings and suggests that the function of each new level of consciousness is to differentiate from the earlier level
without dissociating from it. Jung proposed that in expanding consciousness the ego may move too quickly, and become inflated and destabilized by the powerful forces of emergent archetypes.

The idea I present today is this: Lucidity confers the capacity to
transcend the dream content, but this is an interim solution. The deeper purpose of dreaming is the integration of repressed psychodynamic conflict and emergent potential into an evolving structure of consciousness, and lucidity best facilitates this through relating to dream content as an independent "other."


Evidence that the lucid dreamer should not dismiss dream content can be found in feedback from the dream itself. My own initial lucid dreams were full of light, ecstasy, and limitless hope. I was entranced by consciously seeking to experience the light in the dreamscape, which I often experienced inwardly as well. From The Tibetan Book of the Dead I learned that the light is often present in the after-death phenomenal experience, but usually overlooked or avoided by the deceased soul; learning to recognize the light in our dreams is regarded as a way to commune with the source during our lifetimes, and prepare to be fully present and aware after death. Thus I set about on a headlong transcendent quest.

However, some of my lucid dreams were also deeply disturbing. I began to realize that lucidity and the quest for higher consciousness can provoke greater awareness of unresolved psychodynamic conflicts and powerful archetypal forces. A Jungian analyst, after hearing about my ambitious exploits in the lucid state, said simply, "I hope you have your circle of fire around you." This dream occurred about a week before my 21
st birthday:
I dreamt that it was time to reveal my purpose in life to my parents. Just before dawn, I beckoned to them to follow me out onto the driveway of my childhood home. I raised my hands over my head and began to chant. Lightning arched across the dark sky, and when I lowered my arms, it struck the ground nearby. I repeated this dramatic gesture several times, becoming lucid as I did, and all the while wondering to myself what I was up to! Meanwhile, my parents (who bore no resemblance to my actual parents) were cowering behind me, obviously disturbed by the demonstration. Suddenly, my father hurled a lance into my back, and I dropped to the ground dying. They came up and bent over me with fear and alarm in their eyes. I said, "I was really your son. But I am the son of the unborn son, who is still to come."
Years later, I came to see the dream as describing the dark night of the soul articulated in Underhill's classic, Mysticism: the newly awakened mystic's inevitable fall from ecstasy into psychological turmoil and real-life conflict. While it feels like a curse, it enables a more stable and complete integration.

I believe there was a paradigm clash in the controversy of the 1980s. Consider my "lucid nightmare" in my 1975 book
Lucid Dreaming: Dawning of the Clear Light.
I am standing in the hallway outside my room. It is night and hence dark where I stand. Dad comes in the front door. I tell him that I am there so as not to frighten him or provoke an attack. I am afraid for no apparent reason. I look outside through the door and see a dark figure which appears to be a large animal. I point at it in fear. The animal, which is a huge black panther, comes through the doorway. I reach out to it with both hands, extremely afraid. Placing my hands on its head, I say, ‘You’re only a dream.’ But I am half pleading in my statement and cannot dispel my fear. I pray for Jesus’ presence and protection. But the fear is still with me as I awaken.
I presented this dream to argue that lucidity can be limited in its capacity to deal with powerful, autonomous forces in the unconscious: “If the dreamer wishes to avoid such upsetting and possibly dangerous experiences, he must realize that his pursuit of lucidity can set in motion a deep, inner process, but he must then await rather than force the natural unfoldment of his inherent capacity.”

LaBerge and Reingold quoted this dream in their 1990 book,
Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, to argue a different point: the problem wasn't in the power of the dream, but in the fear of the dreamer. “If, upon reflection, Sparrow had recognized that a dream panther could not have hurt him, the thought alone should have dissipated his anxiety. Fear is your worst enemy in dreams; if you allow it to persist it will grow stronger and your self-confidence will diminish.” (p.231)

We all can agree that fear in the dream state tends to escalate the perceived threat, and that using lucidity to deal with one's fears is an interim solution. However, LaBerge's and Reingold's basic assumption was that the dream is self-created. This cannot be proved. Just because a dream occurs in the confines of sleep doesn't mean that the dreamer is exposed only to his or her own subjective creations. From that unsupported premise they conclude that the dream figure cannot hurt the dreamer, which also cannot be established.

From another standpoint more congruent with the dreamer's subjective sense of alarm, it is parsimonious to say that the dreamer encountered something that he felt to be more powerful than he. Holding this view of the dream respects the dreamer's phenomenological experience, and acknowledges the limits to our knowledge even as we counsel a less fearful and more inquiring response. More importantly, it permits what Martin Buber would call an I-thou relationship, as opposed to I-it, between dreamer and dream.

I believe LaBerge and I both initially pursued a "transcendent" agenda, discounting the independent agency of dream content, guilty of a solipsistic view which effectively rendered it unimportant to our respective quests. However, since I fell to earth rather quickly, I assumed a more cautious stance at a time when LaBerge and his associates were exploring greater heights.

Let us look at another lucid nightmare, not my own, but a centerpiece in my worldview.
I am in a cabin alone, and the door opens. Three figures enter and stand abreast just inside the doorway: Dracula, Werewolf and Frankenstein. I am alarmed, but the strangeness of event convinces me that I must be dreaming.... I say, "You are only a dream. Go away!" They disappear immediately. Alone again, I think to myself, "Maybe I should have surrounded myself with light instead." So I call out to them to return. The door opens again, and they come back in. I say to myself, "I surround myself with light." Instantly, a pinkish white glow envelops me. As for the figures, I can barely see them through the bright haze. Then I think, "Maybe I should invite them into the light." So I say, "Please come into the light." As they walk forward, the light fills me, and I experience an overwhelming sense of ecstatic love. Following the dream, I remained in a blissful state for several days.

Here the dreamer initially used lucidity to dismiss unwanted dream characters. He reacted as I had toward the panther, but succeeded, perhaps because less desperate. From the standpoint that the dream is self created, fear is unjustified; but from the standpoint of not really knowing the origin of the images, nor being able to ascertain their threat, his defensiveness is reasonable.

But the dreamer doesn't stop there. The successful exercise of power over the images gives way to finding a way to coexist by establishing a protective boundary. This may not have been possible had he held that they were "just a dream." His decision acknowledges them as imbued with independent power and agency. He clearly sees this as better than dismissing them.

Then, the dreamer goes even further: By inviting the characters to come into light with him, he affirms that they are not just powerful, but possess something
of value. There is a sense of compassion, previously overshadowed by the dreamer's alarm and self-protectiveness.

This change in the dreamer's stance came in stages. The following dream reveals the same progression––from alarm to lucid dismissal, to defensive coexistence, and finally to rapprochement and integration.
After my friend Benny's death, I began dreaming about him on a regular basis. In every dream, he would appear demonic, intent it seemed on hurting me or killing me. I would run from him, and often I would become lucid and try to awaken. I found it difficult to remain awake, as if the dream would pull me back into it. I would finally awaken in terror.
After several such dreams, I finally became lucid. He appeared in front of me, holding a knife. He said, devilishly, "I want to show you my new knife." Suddenly, I realized that I was dreaming! I knew what to do then. At least, I thought I did. I said, "You are only a dream. May the light of the Christ surround you." Nothing happened, and Benny crept closer. He was obviously amused by my ineffective tactic. Without wondering how I obtained a knife of my own, I began doing battle with him until I eventually disarmed him -- an unlikely outcome, since Benny was much larger and faster than I was in real life.
In the final dream with Benny, he had me pinned down, pummeling me with his fists. I knew that he would eventually kill me if I didn’t free myself. I managed somehow to free one arm. Instead of hitting him back, however, I reached up and gently stroked his shoulder. Looking back, I don't know why I thought this would do any good. But he stopped hitting me immediately, and he began to cry. His tears fell into my face, and he said, "I only want to be loved."

A view of dream content as essentially autonomous and meaningful may seem to presuppose a duality between dreamer and dream. However, respecting dream imagery as autonomous sets the stage for a meaningful
relationship between dreamer and dream.

In contrast, the belief that the dream is self-created hides a pernicious dualism that idealizes the presumed creator and disparages the creation. This is an age-old dilemma. Early Christians influenced by the gnostics who disparaged the world as evil were accused by the orthodox fathers as "blaspheming the creation." The subtle dualism inherent in treating the dream world as illusion leaves the dreamer alone, eliminating an “other” to whom he can meaningfully relate. It also sets him up for surprises, as the power of the dream content asserts itself.

For centuries, religion has struggled with whether the phenomenal world has any real meaning. Some hold that it is an illusion, and that knowing this can emancipate the soul. But the seeker is brought back to earth if he embraces this viewpoint at the expense of dismissing the importance of "real life." My Vedanta professor left class one day only to be knocked to ground by a disturbed and angry student who said, "This fist is real."

The quest for lucidity or the light, or anything higher or better, inevitably pivots off of what is considered less desirable – invoking a duality by leaving it behind. This, many teachers say, is the paradox of the spiritual quest. One can never arrive until nothing is left behind.

"You must first learn to love the form in order to see the light within it” contains the seed of a worldview that honors the present form of our experience without accepting it as fixed and final. It captures the essence of what has been called alchemy in the West, tantrism in the East: the highest spirit co-inheres with all forms as energy and consciousness that can be experienced through embracing them with respect and compassion.

This radical position is honored in Jungian concern with healing the split in the Western psyche between spirit and matter. Finding in alchemy the premise that the ultimate substance co-inheres with the grossest forms of matter, Jung founded a psychology that respected the apparent dualism in the psyche, but alluded to its eventual synthesis through contemplation of the irreconcilable aspects of our natures.

R.M. Rilke espoused a similar view. In
Letters from Muzot, he says, “. . . we should not only refrain from vilifying and depreciating all that belongs to this our world, but on the contrary, on account of its very preliminary nature which it shares with us, these phenomena and things should be understood and transformed by us . . .Within us alone can this intimate and constant transformation of the visible into the invisible take place.”

Mahayana Buddhism expresses this in many different ways. In the doctrine of the five sheaths the highest spirit penetrates into progressively grosser forms of reality, leaving nothing beyond its reach, as in the Psalmist's exclamation "Lo, though I make my bed in hell, behold, thou are there." Perhaps its most refined expression is the doctrine of emptiness: the belief that everything is ultimately ephemeral, thus empty. Instead of a nihistic view, it promotes joyfulness, treating everything of equal value in the grand journey – including nirvana (the "blowing out" of karma or attachment) and its antithesis samsara (the wandering of the soul).

In our lucid nightmare examples, we see a basic philosophy of non-duality emerge from an initial dualistic stance. Dream characters are seen as imbued with independent power and agency, but offering an avenue to experiencing the highest reality.

Trying to become more lucid or rack up more experiences of ecstasy carries the taint of a dualistic perspective that dishonors the ordinary form of our dreams, and of our lives. Within a radically encompassing non-dual paradigm we relate to the particular forms of our dreams with respect and compassion, and use lucidity as a platform for what LaBerge beautifully calls "adaptive responses" to the dream. Thus the spirit inherent in all forms might be revealed, and the forms that manifest can evolve and transform. Our goal becomes meaningful engagement with ourselves and the world, giving way to a flowering of myriad creative possibilities.

I hope I have not appeared to create a straw man by taking an old quote from LaBerge as counterpoint to my own view. None of the principals in that early debate are where we were then, and no quote captures the whole person. I do believe that the conflict we addressed is still alive, a timeless debate wrapped up in the quest for any higher state of consciousness. I believe that the alchemical or tantric paradigm can resolve this. It supports lucidity as an avenue to emancipation and unattachment, while acknowledging the form of the dream as an embodiment of the spirit benefitting from our attention and compassion.

This model also supports therapeutic work. Most dreams that I hear are not lucid, but do contain the seeds of the highest potential, even in the worst dream scenarios. I can assist in "mining the dream for gold” until the dreamer has a breakthrough, facilitating the transformation of threatening dream forms through constructive responses.

After I had worked for several months with a client who had been molested as a child, she dreamt that she awakened and saw rats dropping onto the bed through holes in the ceiling. Terrified, she ran down the hall and up the stairs, then turned to see if the rats were following. One was climbing the step just below her. She looked closely and was suddenly intrigued by the texture of its fur. Drawn to its beauty, she reached down and touched it, and the rat became a beautiful snow leopard. Startled by its transformation, the dreamer awakened with a sense of profound peace, along with a deeper acceptance of her own sexuality.

New and better ways to circumvent or dominate chronic stressors in the dream state may be the initial, even necessary response of heightened awareness, a very good thing for someone who has never found his or her authentic voice nor been able to express adequate personal power. But this gives way to willingness to reconsider that which distressed the dream ego with an eye to its value, facilitating a transformation of dream content and making integration more likely.

If today we frame a meaningful dialectic in which the opposing arguments of the 80s are equally valuable positions, we may create a bigger tent for the lucid dream community––one that accommodates those who aspire to greater freedom and creativity, and those who advocate using lucidity to forge a more intimate and respectful relationship with dream content. Both orientations have become important in my own life. I am reminded of a dream I had years ago:
I am with my lover, and we both want to get to heaven. For her part, she knows that she must go inward and meditate in order to transcend the attachment to this world. For my part, I must complete a lonely journey through a dark, wooded area, and face a variety of challenges that would soon reveal themselves. As we part, I playfully wager that I will get to heaven first, and that I will be there to greet her when she arrives.