“The Importance of Situated and Non-situated Awareness
In the Experience of Healing, Ecstasy and Light in Dreams”
to be presented at the 2013 Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams
Gregory Scott Sparrow, Ed.D., Professor
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Faculty, Atlantic University
As background to my presentation, I got involved in the study of lucid dreaming at the age of 19 when I experienced my first lucid dream. But what really cemented by interest in lucid dreaming was the experience of light that accompanied that first lucid dream, and many more that followed. At the age of 23 and dozens of lucid dreams later, I completed a master’s thesis titled “Lucid Dreaming as an Evolutionary Process,” in which I hailed the evolutionary benefits and potential hazards of lucidity, comparing it with the emergence of the ego in the primitive world. Since then, I have viewed the lucid dream as a platform for experiencing the highest states of awareness, but also as an alluring trap––or to put it in Wilber’s terms, as an Atman Project that can support the ego’s singular aim of preserving itself at all costs.
First, let’s take a moment to reflect on dream function, which alone constitutes a significant area of dream research. To grossly simplify for the purposes of this presentation, I believe that theories of dream function can be reduced to 1) discharge, to which Hobson and his colleagues have contributed, 2) information/learning processing and problem solving, to which the cognitive theorists have contributed 3) rehearsal, to which Revunsuo and Valli have contributed, and 4) integration, to which Jung and Hartmann have contributed, albeit from different paradigms. There are other views, but I think this broadly captures the main threads, even though the proponents might scream at this simplification.
What many people do not realize is that Van Eeden may have been the first to propose that dreaming facilitates integration, and that lucidity greatly accelerates that process. He said that in lucid dreams, “...the reintegration of the psychic functions is so complete that the sleeper remembers day-life and his own condition, reaches a state of perfect awareness, and is able to direct his attention, and to attempt different acts of free volition.” As far as I know Hartmann has not introduced lucidity as an “accelerant” into his integrative model of dreaming, even though without something to account for why some people integrate trauma quickly, while others remain severely arrested, the theory suffers. I believe it would supplement Hartmann’s model to treat dreamer reflectiveness, or metacognition––which can be seen as a continuous variable in dreaming––as an accelerant of integration.
As a Jungian, and as a lifelong lucid dreamer, I embrace the integrative paradigm of dream function, and have observed personally and clinically that reflective awareness in general, and lucidity in particular, can greatly accelerate the process of integration and individuation, which then many culminate experiences of inner light. But there’s more to the picture, which the subject of my thesis today. If integration is our greater goal, and the Light signifies the consummation of that goal, then we might ask, what besides reflectiveness/lucidity should be considered in constellation of factors that facilitate this goal? Or to put it in Tracey Kahan’s language that she voiced last year at Berkeley, What are the elements of “mastery?”
In this brief presentation, I will propose a simple model of mastery based on the presence of two condition in the dream: 1) non-situated awareness and 2) situated engagement. Non-situated awareness, otherwise known as dreamer reflectiveness or metacognition is the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking, access facts relevant to the current context, to reflect on past events, to contemplate alternatives, and to consider future courses of action. Lucidity enables a high degree of non-situated awareness, but dreamer reflectiveness is present in most dreams, to some extent, as first noted by Rossi, and confirmed empirically by Kahan and her associates. In contrast, “situated engagement” is the dreamer’s immersion in, and responsiveness to the dream context. I shall define “mastery” as the balanced expression of these two conditions, which can then facilitate integration, healing, and light experiences.
Because I am limited in the time I can spend developing this thesis, I’d like to build it around a dream that I experienced several years ago.
I become aware that a group of hunters, of which my stepfather and father are members, have come upon a Native American man in the woods. Thinking of him as no more than an animal, they killed him and beheaded him, keeping his head as a trophy. I am horrified and convinced that the crime must be reported. While most of the hunters express no remorse whatsoever, my father wears a pained, confused look about what they have done. As I talk to him about our need to take action, it is as if he slowly awakens, and finally acknowledges the truth. Then I call the authorities and tell them what has happened.
As I hang up, I become aware that a cougar is making its way into deep South Texas — passing through the King Ranch, skirting the towns, and moving into the area near the Mexican border where I grew up. I am hopeful that it will thrive there.
I look up and see a red plane that is engaging in impressive aerobatics in salute of my efforts to report the terrible crime. The plane’s maneuvers are so impressive, in fact, that I realize it’s not really possible. Then, suddenly, I am aware that I am dreaming. I walk through a meadow and look up to see a beautiful, dew-covered red hibiscus hanging over my head. I look down, take a few more steps, and then affirm that when I look up the next time, I will see the Holy Light. I lift my eyes and behold a huge orb of white light surrounded by a delicate, lattice-like corona that takes up most of the sky.
Then an elderly woman approaches from behind me. Her eyes tell me that she loves me. I reach out, put my arm around her, and kiss her forehead, knowing that she is Mary, the mother of Jesus. We turn back toward the Light and see that a second light has appeared to the left, and slightly below the white orb. The new light is a bluish-violet and — with delicate, hairlike filaments of light — resembles the blossom of a passionflower. I turn to Mary and ask, “Is that your light?” She nods.
I turn back and look again, only to see that a third light has joined the other two. It appears to the right and slightly below the white orb. It shines from the window of a tower whose base now stands only a few feet away from us.
“Whose light is that?” I ask.
Mary replies, “It’s Mary Magdalene’s light.”
Then I ask, “Do you want to go there?” Again she nods, so we walk forward and begin climbing the tower’s circular stairs.
During the first, non-lucid segment, the dreamer exhibits a significant amount of non-situated, reflective awareness. His view of the tragic event clearly takes into account a broader cultural, legal, and moral lens than the narrow, brutish mentality of the group of so-called hunters. But this reflective awareness is not so divorced from the situation at hand that it runs the risk of becoming untethered to the demands of the moment; that is, the dreamer feels no choice but to argue, to persuade, and finally to act. This level of immersion in the dream context is what I call “situated engagement.” Yes, the dreamer reflects broadly on the event, but he also must also take action that risks alienating himself from his own masculine legacy. The non-situated awareness informs the dreamer in such a way as to render effective the subsequent action taken. Without this awareness, the action might be unthinking and reactive, which characterizes a great deal of dreamer responses. But without the willingness to tackle the problem, the reflectiveness alone would arguably have little impact on the need for integration and healing.
If heightened non-situated awareness was sufficient in resolving traumatic memories, then a nightmare would simply disappear at the moment the dreamer became lucid and realized that it was only a dream. Sometimes it does, but I can share a dozen dreams (many of which some of you have heard me speak of before :) in which the lucid dreamer tried to dismiss threatening characters only to find that their aggression was redoubled. Non-situated awareness is important, even necessary, but it’s clearly not sufficient to thwart the process of necessary integration. More on that in a moment.
How does reflectiveness arise? From an evolutionary perspective, non-situated awareness must have represented a tremendous leap forward. Rather that trapped in a moment-to-moment survival struggle, human beings could strategize, or engage in contingency planning for the first time. To put it in terms of software development, humans could treat themselves as a subroutine within a larger program, a feat that was achieved with a computer in the 1980s with the development of LISP––the first computer language capable of recursion.
From a individual’s developmental perspective, reflectiveness plays a significant role in the multi-staged process observable in dreams, according to Rossi, which includes:
- an initial passive “single dimensional” awareness,
- a crisis precipitated by the awareness of the new within oneself,
- the desire to escape dealing with the new,
- the ability to gain power in the face of the threat,
- the willingness to dialogue with it, and
- the synthesis of a new identity comprised of the old and new
The first thing that we do, according to Rossi’s dream developmental paradigm, is try to reestablish the status quo, much in the way that a person who has been told that he has a terminal illness will react with denial. In spite of the fact that reflectiveness is enlisted as an ally in this initial defensive maneuver, sufficient reflectiveness is also necessary eventually to contextualize the new event within a larger frame, and eventually to accept it as something that needs to be dealt with. But too much reflectiveness can lead to dissociation from the task at hand. This form of extreme abdication is discussed in L.L. Whyte’s book, The Next Development in Man, in which he describes the “European dissociation” as a uniquely Western capacity to disengage from bodily feelings and impulses. Some of us are fully capable of “beheading” the problem, and leaving it behind. One of my clients, for instance, became lucid in her dreams every night, and in almost every case, would fly away from anything or anyone that put any demands on her. In her case, lucidity was simply enabling her resistance to change.
Returning to the dream now, it’s important to note that lucidity arises only once the crisis has been dealt with, and serves only to facilitate the dreamer’s perception of, and surrender to higher power. If it had arisen earlier in this dream, the dream ego might have still taken strides to draw attention to the crime, but at far less risk to himself by virtue of the awareness that the experience was “only” a dream. It is also conceivable that full lucidity would have precipitated a shift in the imagery as it often does, or a shift in the dreamer’s focus. Of course, we do not know what would have happened if the dreamer had become lucid, but no one would view this dream as deficient in any way because of its absence. Indeed, the dreamer’s courage and willingness to act would lose some of its meaning in a context in which there is no risk or real consequence. As a therapist, I would not want my client to be so aware in a dream that his or her need to act in relation to longstanding wounds was rendered less meaningful by the “nothing but a dream” thinking that can insinuate itself into the lucid moment.
One might ask, What value does lucidity have if it can undermine the dreamer’s situated engagement? Well, obviously lucidity can be used to embolden the dreamer to tackle difficult encounters. But unless the waking person has established ideals that are already in place at the moment that lucidity arises, there’s no guarantee that lucidity will support engagement and further the goal of integration. By formulating ideals ahead of time, then lucidity can support the willingness to tackle the later stages in the developmental process, as defined by Rossi––exercising power, engaging in dialogue, and synthesizing new identity. And instead of wishing for a high level of lucidity, one might pursue instead a “lower” level that keeps the dreamer tethered to the autonomous dream process.
There are several models that support the idea that sufficient immersion into a problematic context (i.e. situated engagement) is a requirement for healing, and for spiritual wholeness:
- The homeopathic concept known as the law of similars. The law of similars is based on the idea that the body has the capacity to heal itself, but that its ability has to be stimulated into action by the introduction of an innocuous substance that produces the symptom of the disease itself. As the body reacts to the symptom, it thus strengthens its defense against the actual disease. Unless the body is able to confront the symptom that the disease precipitates, it will not develop its ability to surmount the disease. The threat-rehearsal theory of dream function exhibits some parallel features to the law of similars.
- Modern treatment for PTSD. The importance of situated engagement can be seen by how the dream mechanism continually reproduces traumatic events. It is well known that people suffering from PTSD simply cannot escape repetitive distressing dreams, no matter how much they may try to resist sleep, medicate themselves, and find other ways to forget. It’s as if the integrative process requires engagement with and reprocessing of the original experience, and in the absence of that, the dream simply reproduces it. Treatment for PTSD-related distressing dreams all involve some for of reengagement and reprocessing of the original event. (IRT, EMDR, Dream Reliving). Again, unless the individual is re-exposed to the threatening event and armed with tools for reprocessing it, progress will be limited.
- The group therapy concept of the “corrective emotional experience.” A corrective emotional experience occurs in group therapy when an individual experiences an interpersonal event that awakens his or her memory of an earlier wounding experience. Instead of worsening the problem, the group interaction provides a context for developing a new and healthy interpersonal exchange, thus freeing the person from the burden of this unfinished business. Again, unless the group member is exposed to a situation that is similar enough to the original wounding event, but also equipped with tools for processing the new experience, then healing will be limited.
- Stories in spiritual traditions that underscore the value of embodied experience. I am reminded in particular of when Milarepa was sealed in a cave, and nearing the completion of his spiritual practice when he was seized by a desire to see his mother again. When he went home, he found that she’d died, and that her bones had been piled inside the family home. People were so afraid of him that they didn’t want to get involved in his mother’s burial. He slept on the floor beside his mother’s bones that night, grieving. Not yielding fully to that call to embrace his own humanity, he left that place, and retired to a cave, where he renounced the world. Living on an only a diet of nettles and occasional handouts from passersby, he found it difficult to complete his spiritual practice, and almost died. When his sister found him, she brought him food, which restored him sufficiently to allow him to complete his sadhana. He realized that eating well was part of the spiritual journey. Again, we see that spiritual progress is limited until a seeker can immerse himself sufficiently in the human condition.
If the dreamer needs to balance reflective non-situated awareness with situated engagement, how can we foster these tandem faculties in the dream, which may, at least in a preliminary sense, move the dreamer forward toward dream “mastery.” Are there tools available for fostering both capabilities?
I am aware of two! Mark Thurston and I have been involved in researching a tandem presleep induction strategy that is designed to foster lucidity alongside a greater willingness to engage the dream. Believing as we always have that lucidity should be the product of spiritual practice, rather than as a goal in itself, we have explored middle-of-the-night meditation as a way to foster non-situated reflective witnessing in the dream as the first part of the tandem induction regimen. The second part, designed to foster situated engagement is called Dream Reliving. It was originally tested as a lucid dream induction strategy in my 1983 dissertation research at William and Mary. It is, simply put, the practice of reliving a distressing dream as if one is lucid and responding to it in new, creative ways. I have since spoken at IASD functions on the anecdotal benefits of this tandem strategy. But Mark and I will be presenting the results of a pilot study in which we tested this tandem method’s effectiveness in fostering reflectiveness and situated engagement. I hope you will be there to hear about the model, and our results.
I will end a brief dream that demonstrates the value of non-situated awareness paired with situational engagement. In the dream, I am with a girl that I grew up with. I am standing in front of her, and without any evident provocation, she suddenly tries to slap me. I manage to block her blow, and then I say, “I am the thinking, the rational. You are the feeling, the intuitive. But together we serve the same father. I gently embraced her, and as I did, white light blinded me and I awoke in ecstasy.