Sunday, May 11, 2014

Dreams of Darkness: Explorations into Extended Reality

This is the text of one of three presentations I will be delivering at the June, 2014 IASD conference. This presentation will be part of a panel on lucid dreaming, in which Craig Webb and Dale Graff will also make presentations.

Journey into the Darkness: Explorations of Extended Reality
G. Scott Sparrow
About five years ago, I had my first dream of being in total darkness. It was as follows: I am walking along an ancient, sunken cobblestone arena. I realize that the arena has recently been rebuilt for the third time. There is a cave in a hillside at the end of the road, so I go inside. Looking up, I see a man with a golden body crouching on a ledge atop a stone wall. He leans over the edge and hurls a hammer toward the stone floor beside me. It hits the ground a few feet away with resounding impact, and the earth begins to shake.  I sense that an earthquake has been set in motion, and will soon open a hidden chamber in which some treasure has been hidden for a long time, but I leave the cave, hoping to avoid the collapsing walls. As I walk away, I encounter a being who is half deer and half man. Feeling his power, I skirt him respectfully and pass through a doorway into a pitch-black setting. I grope forward blindly, and awaken.
Most would probably agree that this dream signifies an auspicious new phase in my life at the expense of considerable upheaval, and accompanied--as usual--by a requisite degree of ego resistance. My marriage was going downhill at the time, and I was divorced within 18 months of the dream, to give you some idea of the outward events of my life. But regardless, dreams of darkness have continued into a relatively stable and harmonious period of my life. Indeed, this dream was the first of dozens of non-lucid and lucid dreams in which I have found myself trying to find my way through darkness. 
At first the dreams of darkness concerned me, and I thought that they might signify a physical problem, even a foreshadowing of death. But given the passage of time since the first dream, I have come to see the darkness as a transitional state of unknowing leading to a new phase in my life. As Dante said in his opening lines of The Divine Comedy, “In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood, and the true way was wholly lost.” I’ve a spent a great deal in that dark wood. Further, I believe that from to time, I must re-enter the darkness and lose my way before finding it again. I have come to accept it as part of the deep journey.
In the next few minutes, I want to describe the current state of my exploration of “extended reality,” of which the experience of darkness has been one feature. I prefer this term “extended reality” because the lucid dream and out-of-body experience labels reflect different paradigms, as I suggested in my little book, Lucid Dreaming: Dawning of the Clear Light back in the late 70s. The term “extended reality” remains true to the experience without implying, as much, a constraining paradigm.  
I experienced lucid dreams as often as several times a week as a young man, but the frequency began to fall off in my 30s and 40s, and nearly came to halt in mid-life.  But recently, in the context of a harmonious marriage and a relatively stress-free work life, I have resumed the spiritual practice that had been an almost nightly observance when I was in my 20s--that is, the practice of meditating in the middle of the night, and then returning to sleep. I soon discovered that, once again, middle-of-the-night meditation would catalyze deep, often lucid dreams. But I also discovered that the combination of ingesting the supplement galantamine and engaging in middle-of-the-night meditation resulted in an even greater frequency of lucid dreaming. In fact, the combination results in an experience of extended reality nearly 100% of the time--that is, if I get enough sleep ahead of time, and spend enough time in meditation.
For those of you who are not familiar with galantamine––which has become known as “the lucid dream pill”––it is an over-the-counter supplement derived from the snow drop lily, and increases the availability of acetylcholine, a necessary neurotransmitter associated with cognitive processing. Older brains tend to be deficient in acetylcholine, so supplements like lecithin––a source of choline––and galantamine, both of which increase the availability of acetylcholine, have been shown to help older people recover some of their original cognitive processing power. Not surprisingly, it is used as a treatment, especially in Eurpope, for mild to moderate Alzheimers disease. A poster presentation at last year’s conference, by Stephen LaBerge and Kristen LaMarca, reported that galantamine resulted in approximately five-fold increase in lucid dreaming. However, very little research on galantamine has been conducted to date.
While speculating on why galantamine catalyzes experiences of extended reality is beyond the scope of this presentation. But suffice to say that I believe a wealth of discovery awaits us in the simple premise articulated by Ebon Alexander at last year’s keynote address in Virginia Beach––that the brain is a reducing filter. If the brain effectively degrades reality to make it possible to deal with physical life, then boosting the brain’s processing power with meditation and galantamine may be a way to come into alignment with higher frequencies, and thus extend our perception into ordinarily obscured dimensions of experience. But that’s a topic for later!
The spectrum of phenomena that I have encountered during this new exploration into extended reality includes: the arousal of energy and sound in the state between waking and sleep, a felt sensation of separation of from the body and passage into a fully conscious state, flight through total darkness, contact with a companion who holds onto me as we pass through the darkness or appears as I emerge from it; and finally exploring a vivid and brilliantly lit phenomenal realm.
Even before I resumed my middle-of-the-night meditations, I started noticing upon awakening in the night an old friend: a sound that I’d heard a lot when I was a young man. As I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and moved my head from the pillow, I would hear a “whoosh,” as if something was lagging behind the movement of my body. I recognized the sound as the precursor to my early out-of-body experiences, and I surmised that the door to extended reality was beginning to open again.  The sound is the probably the same phenomenon referred to in the Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines as “the gift waves,” which have been traditionally associated with the presence of the guru.It is simply the sound of hissing or wind that initially comes in waves, but may become a sustained sound and vibration. In my own experience, meditation intensifies it to the point of flattening out and becoming a constant roar. At that point, it sometimes surges into a full kundalini awakening and white light experience; but that’s not as common as it used to be. Regardless, the presence of the energy literally makes it hard to stay in my body. Robert Monroe in Journeys Out of the Body said that this energetic phenomenon was a necessary prerequisite to his OOBEs, and many other writers have confirmed this link. 
Let me recount a series of extended reality experiences that began about a year and a half ago. It my hope that these experiences may contribute to mapping out of some of the universal elements of the extended reality experience. While my experiences surely bear idiosyncratic features, I think that there are common elements and themes that may assist others in understanding their own journey into extended reality. 
In one experience, which was the first in which I encountered a “companion,” I had taken galantamine, and then meditated for over half an hour. After returning to bed and drifting in and out of sleep, I suddenly heard the gift waves and began to meditate on the energy. It intensified I endeavored to let it have its way. The intensity of the energy perfectly mirrors my state of surrender, so no matter what happens I learn something from its response to my efforts. In this instance, it gradually flattened out into a sustained flow of energy and sound, and my vision started to brighten. Suddenly, I felt someone or something grab me from behind, and hold onto me. I couldn’t see who or what it was, but I turned my head slightly and said truthfully, “I am not afraid of you.” I heard a voice respond, but I couldn’t make out the words in the midst of the hissing sound. I then reached over my shoulder and grabbed the presence, and pulled it onto the floor beside the bed. I fell onto the floor, as well. I looked up, and saw the vague outlines of a dark being in the darkness, who immediately disappeared. 
This experience bears the earmarks of what happens during the sleep paralysis nightmare, as reported in Ryan Hurd’s book, Sleep Paralysis. But I wasn’t paralyzed, nor was I afraid. In retrospect, this experience seemed to represent a test of sorts, because my absence of fear seemed to permit the subsequent experiences to evolve further. About a week later, I was again meditating on the “gift waves,” but lost consciousness and entered a non-lucid dream, in which I was in a primitive village surrounded by a forest. Soon, I realized I was dreaming, so I flew up into the air and headed south, looking for the master. I entered an old abandoned castle, and finding no one, I passed through the walls and found myself in emerald green-tinted darkness. I couldn’t see an inch ahead of me, but I flew into the darkness, feeling warm wind as I moved ahead. I held my arms out in front of me, praying for the master’s presence. Again, I felt no fear. Suddenly, I felt someone’s hands grab my arms. The darkness receded, and I found myself face to face with a woman dressed in a blue jump suit, standing between me and my sleeping wife, Julie. 
I asked, “Who are you? Why are you here?” The woman said her name, and then told me that she was from another star system, and had come to earth to arrest a destructive trend. I asked her if I could go with her and visit her home. She said, “Your work is here, and it’s best to stay here for now.” 
This was the first of several experiences of extended reality in which a stranger took hold of me in the darkness. Shortly after the “star woman” dream, I was returning to sleep following meditation and again became aware of the gift waves, but lost consciousness before separating from my body. The next thing I remembered, I was in a completely dark space. I groped my way through darkness, and felt a stone wall with a ledge about four feet from the floor. So I climbed onto the ledge and ran my fingers up the wall, only to find that the wall was open at the top. I stepped down from the ledge and laid down beside a woman in the darkness. We said nothing to each other: all we did was to lie quietly side by side. I felt an immense and knowing, as if we’d known each other since the beginning of time, and would be together for all eternity. The darkness receded, and I saw that she was wearing a black leather mask that was molded to her face. I could not tell what she looked like, but I didn’t care, because the feeling of connection was so profound. 
I left the room and began exploring the realm. Another woman, who was wearing a blue veil appeared, and she guided me from one scene to the next. I felt deeply connected to her, as well. At one point, she led me into a room that was filled with beautiful lights and radiant sculptures. She left me there to meditate on the light, but whenever I focused directly on a source of the light, it dimmed; so I turned away and meditated without looking directly at the light. I could see with my peripheral vision that the light was growing brighter. Eventually, I felt it against my head, infusing me.
Later I was alone, sitting among many people, thinking that the experience had gone on for at least an hour. The veiled woman reappeared. I asked her if the veil got in the way. She laughed and said, “No, I can still eat and I can still kiss!” At that point, the people around me begin singing a dirge-like song, and they became pale and gray. I knew the experiences was ending. The veiled woman bent down, kissed me on the lips, and said goodbye as I became aware again of my bed.
One might ask, who are these companions? And why are they veiled? Are they an extension of the dreamer--the anima, or a subpersonality? Or are they persons in their own right? I have long thought that we conclude too quickly that the characters that we encounter in extended reality are merely “parts of ourselves.” Taken to the extreme, believing that the dream is “self-created” denies the independent agency of those characters whom we encounter in extended reality, and we might fail to learn what they have to give us, and to experience the intimacy of a true “other.” But the other extreme also has its hazards. That is, believing in the independent agency of dream characters can lead to a disavowal of responsibility, and an idealization or demonization of the dream characters. 
My current position, expressed in a chapter I’ve written for Ryan Hurd and Kelley Bulkeley’s upcoming lucid dreaming anthology, is simply to acknowledge that there is no way to ascertain the ontological status of lucid dream characters. And, if I cannot verify that the dream character are parts of myself, then I must allow them the possibility of personhood, and treat them accordingly. This stance is not only true to the dreamer’s subjective experience, but it facilitates a serious dialogue between ourselves and the intrusive novelty of our dreams, and thus fosters deep experiences of intimacy, integration, and wholeness.
While there are errors attached to any one-sided perspective on the status of dream characters, I have found that the dream itself will “correct” or compensate for this one-sideness whenever necessary, as Jung would have predicted. Indeed, I have come to see the darkness, the veil over the companion, and the dimming of the light in the lucid state, are all related to a counterbalancing mechanism that prevents the over-externalization of the goal or destination. In one dream, for example,  in which I was searching for the light, only to have every light source dim upon inspection, I heard the words, “The light is in your eye.” This pithy message supports the idea that the phenomenal realm of the dream is a projection of the soul, which a premise close to the heart of Eastern philosophers, which by and large espouse a constructed or self-created view of reality. But in my dreams of the companion, the felt sense of love and intimacy has been nearly overwhelming at times. In one, I was meditating on the energy, and once again became aware that a woman was lying behind me. I turned in the darkness, and could smell the skin of her bare shoulder. A complex array of subtle scents awakened in me a profound sense of soulful, timeless connection. However, when I tried to see her, I could tell that she was hesitant to be revealed, as if her function had little to do with a personal relationship. Nonetheless, she consented to be seen, and the darkness receded to reveal an unknown dark-haired woman of nondescript features. We went on to spend about an hour in extended reality with a group of people discussing philosophical and spiritual topics beside a beautiful swift-running river. In time, however, I became concerned that the experience was so stable that I would not be able to get back to my ordinary life. Indeed, I had to separate from the group and meditate alone in order to reconnect with my physical body, after considerable effort. 
If Jung were alive and reviewed these experiences, he might marvel at the intensity of the encounters with the unknown feminine presence, but he might also caution me about forging a too-intimate relationship with her. Hence the importance of the darkness, the mask, and the veil. Robert Johnson builds on this cautionary theme in his explanation of the Tristan and Isolde myth in his book, We.  Johnson argues that the relationship with the anima (or animus for the woman) must remain forever chaste, or otherwise the ego will betray its commitment to incarnated life, and become subject to the destabilization that occurs when the ego is directly exposed to raw archetypal power.
It is probably true that our other half, referred to by the Greeks as the daemon is, as Plato believed, a spiritual being who watches over each person, and is his higher self. In some primitive myths, the self if split just prior to birth, and the incarnated half forgets the daemon, and has to recover this awareness through the journey of life. This view of the daemon corresponds to my phenomenological experience in extended reality. Indeed, in one experience while I was flying through the darkness, I suddenly came face to face with a woman, who took me by the hands and told me that I had lost my way. She escorted me to a nearby location, and left me there to continue on my journey. I have had other similar experiences where the companion assists me briefly before sending me on my way. And so, while I am intrigued by the power and intimacy that I have felt expressed by this inner companion, I am also sensitive to the need to look upon the face of the daemon, or anima if you prefer, with a certain respectful indirectness, in order to feel its power without becoming distracted by it, and attached to it.
What does the dream companion herself say about her ultimate nature? In my personal exploration, I have endeavored to ask her on a couple of occasions. In one recent experience, I became aware of the energy after returning to bed, and meditated on it to the point where I separated from my body. I flew into the warm darkness, and after a few moments, I felt the companion take hold of me from behind. I turned and saw her face--again, an unknown woman of mid-length black hair. We flew out of the darkness into a beautiful blue sky, and below I could see green hills and lush fields. We went down to the ground, and sat on a bench in a crowded village square. I finally turned to her and asked, “Are you part of me?” She nodded, and said, “Yes, kind of.” Then I asked, “Are my soul mate?” Again she nodded and said, “Yes.” But I could tell from her hesitant response to both questions that my words were inadequate to define her and the nature of our relationship. I then said goodbye and flew in the direction of my body.
Ultimately, my journeys into “extended reality” have raised more questions than answers. In a recent experience, I emerged from my flight through the darkness into a brightly lit room, where a woman was standing. I asked her, “Are you a real person?” She laughed and turned into a little girl with a white dress on, and with flowers in her hair, and she ran away with another little girl, laughing.
I am reminded of one of my favorite poems, the “Song of Wondering Aengus,” in which Yeats was similarly surprised. Yeats says, 
“I went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head, 
and cut and peeled a hazel wand and hooked a berry to a thread. 
And when white moths were on the wing, and moth-like stars were flickering out, 
I dropped the berry in a stream, and caught a little silver trout. 
And when I had laid it on the floor, I went to blow the fire a-flame, 
But something rustled on the floor, and someone called me by my name. 
It had become a glimmering girl with apple blossom in her hair, 
who called me by my name and ran, and faded through the brightening air.”
The sense of mystery remains unbroken in these experiences, and I consider that good. The energy, the darkness, the light that dims when sought, and the companions whose veiled nature cannot be ascertained. It’s all worth it, in my opinion; for where else can you find genuine mystery today that will lure you beyond the known horizons. Yeats’ final words of his poem captures a noble agenda going forward from midlife and beyond. 
“Though I am old from wandering through hollow lands and hilly lands, 
I will find out where’s she’s gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; 
And walk among long, dappled grass,
And pluck til time and times are done, 
The silver apples of the moon, 
The golden apples of the sun.”
I cannot say it any better than that. I hope to see you out there, or in there, or wherever the path is taking us. 
Thank you.

LaBerge, S., LaMarca, K. (2013). Pre-sleep treatment with acetylcholinesterase inhibitors enhances memory, cognition and metaconsciousness (lucidity) during dreaming. (Accessed 5/7/14)
Sparrow, G. S. (1976). Lucid dreaming: dawning of the clear light. Virginia Beach, ARE.
Sparrow, G. S., Thurston, M. A., Carlson, R.. (2013). Dream reliving and meditation as a way to enhance reflectiveness and constructive engagement in dreams. International Journal of Dream Research, 6, 2.
Sparrow, G. S. (2014). To control or not to control: The nature of dream imagery from the standpoint of lucidity. Refereed chapter for publication in Lucid Dreaming Anthology, Hurd, R. and Bulkeley, K. (eds.). New York: Praeger. Accepted, 10/13.
Yeats, W. B. The Wind Among the Reeds. New York: J. Lane, The Bodley Head, 1899;, 1999. [2014]

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