You-Sheng Li: Taoism and Lucid Dreaming

You-Sheng Li, Guest Writer | Taoism in the 21st Century

When I was a child, my father was a family physician. Occasionally he talked about dreams with his patients or neighbouring peasants. Having overheard their chat, I joined in one day, saying, “I dreamed of walking on the street but I was aware that I was dreaming. So I was looking for some kind of bed to go back to sleeping. It was a frustrating experience trying to find a bed in the streets of a village. I finally came to a large dark stone with a smoothly polished flat surface. I fell asleep or out of the dream even before my body touched the stone.” They were all surprised by my dream, since lucid dreams are much less common for adults than children.

In a lucid dream, the dreamer is aware of the dreaming status. He or she therefore participates in or even manipulates the outcome of the dream. In my case, I wanted to end the dream, and eventually I did. A false awakening, in which the dreamer dreamed of getting up to work or to go to the washroom, is likely a lucid dream. A daydream may also be a lucid dream, if the dreamer goes far away from his waking state of mind and is unaware of his physical and social environments.

Since a lucid dreamer can often manipulate the imaginary experiences in the dream environment, lucid dreams can seem extremely real and vivid, depending on a person’s level of self-awareness during the lucid dream. Recently, various techniques have been developed to induce lucid dreams. Such techniques apparently reduce the frequency and severity of nightmares.

Both Buddhism and Taoism have long been known to introduce lucid dream experiences in order to calm down the believer’s mind. One sect of Buddhism goes further to classify the human mind or consciousness into seven levels of awareness. There are degrees of wakefulness or awareness, and both lucid dreaming and normal waking experiences lie somewhere towards the middle of this continuum (or hierarchy) of awareness. In this context as the Buddhist believes,  there are therefore states of wakefulness that are superior to normal waking awareness, such as Nirvana, which Buddhists pursue in their religious practice. In such superior awareness, the reality of our ordinary world becomes illusory. Buddhism holds the view that life on earth is bitter in nature.

Closing his famous essay All Things Being EqualChuang Tzu says, “Chuang Tzu once dreamed that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there, going wherever he pleased. He was totally unaware of Chuang Tzu. A sudden awakening left nothing else but Chuang Tzu himself, who did not know anything about his being a bufferfly. It is therefore unknown whether it is Chuang Tzu who dreamed of being a bufferfly or if it is a butterfly who dreamed of being Chuang Tzu. The butterfly and Chuang Tzu are completely different entities, and it is called transformation when an entity becomes another.”

The same essay starts with a master who leaned on his armrest while sitting lost himself in meditation. Like Buddhists, Chuang Tzu and his followers apparently mastered the techniques of lucid dreams. In the essay, Joyful Free Wandering, Chuang Tzu starts with a legendary bird, Peng, which has a body and wings that cover hundreds of miles. It can fly three thousand miles high. Even this gigantic bird has to rely on air or wind to fly. It is far away from Chuang Tzu’s joyful free wandering, in which one goes to a vivid lucid dream at will, and relying on nothing else but himself. The dreamer can go anywhere he pleases. His dreaming experience is so vivid and real that lucid dreams are not different at all from reality as far as personal experiences are concerned. Buddhism pursues a superior ideal realm, Nirvana, which lies far beyond reality. Taoism holds the view that life on earth is so wonderful that it has to be prolonged to eternity. Taoists use lucid dreams to extend their enjoyment of life beyond the limits of reality.

Children slip into lucid dreams more easily than adults. Similarly prehistoric or primititve people have more lucid dreams. Further, Erika Bourguignon, from her study of almost 500 societies has shown that the frequency, accessibility and quality of religious experiences, correlate inversely with the complexity of social structure. In the simplest and most egalitarian societies, ritual trance states tend to be voluntary, conscious and accessible to most people who desire them. Scientifically “trance” is often termed as a transformed state of mind. It describes lucid dreams and different levels of awareness in Buddhist terms.

Levy-Bruhl’s book “Primitive Mentality” was influential for Julian Jaynes, an American psychologist, who believes that all humans lived in a hallucinatory state more than three thousand years ago. Levy-Bruhl writes: “In comparison to modern society, a greater number of individuals in primitive societies experiences hallucinations, experiences them more frequently, and the hallucinations play an important role in their day-to-day lives.” Levy-Bruhl states: “To them the things which are unseen cannot be distinguished from the things which are seen. The beings of the unseen world are no less directly present than those of the other; they are more active and more formidable. Consequently that world occupies their minds more entirely than this one, and it diverts their minds from reflecting, even to a slight extent, upon the data which we call objective.”

Both Levy-Bruhl and Erika Bourguignon indicated that hallucination was more common in ancient primitive people. But it only employed part of the idle mind in the primary society while it became the divine voice, in Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism, to dictate that the people should obey their rulers in a secondary society. When rational thinking reflecting on objective data establishes itself in modern society, hallucination or bicameralism remains only in psychotic patients.

Buddhism represents a religious tradition based on secondary societies, and so it teaches people how to retreat from the traumatizing reality by lucid dreams. Taoism is a religious tradition based on the primary society, and so it teaches people how to enjoy life more without any efforts by lucid dreams.

About the Author

You-Sheng Li is a practicing Taoist and author of the website, 21st Century Taoism.

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  1. hermes antico

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