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]

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Analyzing Chronic Responses
in Co-creative Dream Analysis


With the advent of the co-creative dream paradigm, which is based on the principle that dreams are indeterminate from the outset, and co-created through the reciprocal exchanges between the ego and emergent dream content, the analysis of the dreamer’s responses becomes an important new dimension in dream analysis. In this paper, the author develops the hypothesis that chronic dream ego responses can be traced to two sources in the individual’s prior experience: 1) trauma and loss, and 2) introjected parental and cultural ideals. The individual’s efforts to prevent trauma and loss from recurring accounts for “reactive adaptive responses,” and attempts to emulate introjected ideals results in “compliant adaptive responses.” Both of these types of chronic responses can be identified with the dreamer’s help in dream analysis, and facilitative alternatives can be formulated in dialogue with the dreamer. The author presents a sequence of steps that can be used as a standalone method, or incorporated into existing dream work methods.

Keywords: co-creative dream analysis, lucid dreaming, adaptive response, dreamer response analysis, imagery change analysis
Analyzing Chronic Responses in Co-creative Dream Analysis


            In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn says that “when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them," and that "scientists see new and different things when places they have looked before” (1962, p. 110). Thus, operating from within a new paradigm, a researcher will become aware of new phenomena, raise new questions, and be able to solve problems that have remained heretofore unsolved.
            Co-creative dream theory (Rossi, 1972, 2000; Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow and Thurston, 2010) represents a paradigm that accounts for the formation, development, and outcome of the dream experience.  It posits that the dream experience is indeterminate from the outset, and unfolds according to the real-time reciprocal interplay between the dream ego and the dream content.  Rossi captured the essence of this relationship when he stated, “there is "a continuum of all possible balances of control between the autonomous process and the dreamer’s self-awareness and consciously directed effort" (1972, p. 163). As for the purpose that this interactive process fulfills, Rossi (1972; 2000) anticipated Hartmann (1998) by suggesting that it serves an integrative function, but went further to assert that the dreamer-dream interactive process either facilitates or retards that aim.
            The co-creative paradigm has been slow to take hold in dream analysis, perhaps because until recently it has lacked a sufficient foundation in research to challenge the “deficiency hypothesis,” which holds that the dream ego is deficient in self-reflectiveness and volition (Rechschaffen, 1978), and that the manifest dream is “strictly determined” (Freud, 1900; Kramer, 1993). While the lucid dream phenomenon suggests that the dream ego can, at least in the lucid state,  reflect upon, and modify the dream content, the categorical distinction of “lucid” vs. “non-lucid” has continued to support the view that the non-lucid dream ego is largely deficient in higher mental functions. More recently, however, empirical studies have established the presence of waking-style metacognition in non-lucid dreams, as well (Kahan, 2001; Kahan and LaBerge, 1994, 2010;  Kasmova and Wolman (2006). Thus it is now reasonable to assume that the nonlucid dream ego continuously reflects upon, and responds to the dream imagery throughout the dream. Thus the most significant objection to the co-creative paradigm––that non-lucid dreamers are deficient in self-reflectiveness and volition––has been largely dispelled.
            While traditional content-oriented dream inquiry treats the dream imagery as “strictly determined” (Freud, 1900; Kramer, 1996) and proceeds to analyze the images apart from the dream ego, the co-creative paradigm looks at how the dream ego’s moment-to-moment responses impact the dream imagery, and vice versa, in a circular, synchronous exchange that results in one of many possible contingent outcomes. Family therapists have referred to this reciprocal process as “the governing principle in relationships” (Nichols,p. 8), but this level of assessment is relatively new to dream analysis. Once adopted, however, it leads naturally to a comparison of the dream’s interactive process with waking relationship parallels. Thus, in the co-creative model, the search for process parallels supplements the traditional search for content parallels, thus serving as an encompassing, relational lens through which one can analyze the overall dream experience.
The Emerging Importance of Dreamer Response Style
            In co-creative dream theory, it follows that the dream ego’s style of relating becomes an important new dimension in dream analysis. When analyzing the interactive process, the dream ego’s responses can be viewed as either facilitative or obstructive in an unfolding relationship with the dream content. LaBerge uses the term “adaptive response” to denote when dreamers respond in ways that facilitate psychological integration and overall health within the dream.
In general terms, health can be conceived of as a condition of adaptive responsiveness to the challenges of life. For responses to be adaptive, they must at least favorably resolve the situation in a way that does not disrupt the individual’s integrity or wholeness. Adaptive responses also improve the individual’s relationship with the environment. There are degrees of adaptiveness, with the optimum being what we have defined as health. (LaBerge, 2009)
            LaBerge also uses the term “maladaptive response” to signify reactions that impede the integrity and health of the individual. He says, “maladaptive responses are unhealthy ones and....any healthy response by definition leads to improved systemic integration, and hence is a healing process” (LaBerge, 2014). The adaptive/maladaptive dichotomy is a useful construct in co-creative dream analysis, but in practice it becomes difficult to determine if a particular dream ego response is adaptive or maladaptive without inquiring into an individual’s unique history. That is, what may appear to be “adaptive” may actually represent something that comes too easily for the dream ego, and which may actually arrest a developmental process. Conversely, what may appear to be destructive and harmful may represent a necessary expression of autonomy and power. For instance, LaBerge considered the following dream indicative of a significant positive transformation:
 Having returned from a journey, I am carrying a bundle of bedding and clothes down the street when a taxi pulls up and blocks my way. Two men in the taxi and one outside it are threatening me with robbery and violence. . . . Somehow I realize that I’m dreaming and at this I attack the three muggers, heaping them in a formless pile and setting fire to them. Then out of the ashes I arrange for flowers to grow. My body is filled with vibrant energy as I awaken. (La Berge, 2014)
             While the lucid dreamer seems to have asserted his or her own power, such “success” begs the question of whether true growth can proceed for long on the basis of merely destroying dream characters, and by implication suppressing whatever the dream imagery represented.  Commenting on the futility of destroying dream characters, Rossi flatly states, “Kill a man once and his physical body remains permanently dead; kill a fantasy image once and the battle has just begun” (1972, p. 47).   LaBerge acknowledges that while attacking threatening dream characters may be therapeutic for dreamers who have suffered at the hands of abusers, in most cases a more conciliatory, engaging response effects a positive, and perhaps more lasting transformation of the dream character. Drawing on Tholey’s (1983) work, LaBerge suggests that  ”when the dream ego looks courageously and openly at hostile dream figures, their appearance often becomes less threatening” (LaBerge, 2014). Citing Rossi (1972; 2000), I have suggested that the dream ego’s responses can be viewed on a developmental continuum, whereby flight, expressing power, or even destroying dream characters, can serve as interim achievements that may progress eventually to dialogue and reconciliation (Sparrow, 2014).  Clearly, one’s attempts to identify adaptive and maladaptive dream ego responses should proceed on the basis of a careful and sensitive consideration of the dreamer’s psychodynamic and interpersonal history.  In practice, a dream worker can assist a dreamer in discriminating between adaptive and maladaptive responses by determining whether a specific response represents a habitual response, or a creative departure from the status quo, and  “at least favorably resolve[s] the situation in a way that does not disrupt the individual’s integrity or wholeness.” (LaBerge, 2009, p.107-108).

The Development of the Theory of Chronic Adaptive Responses

            It is useful, in and of itself, to help dreamers identify chronic responses and to encourage the formulation of new ones. However, such efforts are even more useful if the origins of the chronic responses can be understood, as well. By tracing the dream ego’s responses to their origins, and developing an empathic understanding of how such feelings, thoughts, and behaviors may have once fulfilled an adaptive function in earlier contexts we can conceivably assist the dreamer in considering whether such responses are still useful in contemporary contexts.

            I developed the theory of chronic adaptive responses through teaching group therapy to graduate counseling students, and conducting therapeutic groups in private practice. One might ask, what does group therapy have to do with dream analysis? Once one adopts the co-creative paradigm––with its emphasis on interactive process––then knowledge of relationship dynamics in other fields, such as group therapy and family systems therapy, can potentially shed light on heretofore unacknowledged relational dynamics in the dream.
            Specifically, it is widely accepted that therapy groups pass through an unstable stage of adjustment immediately following the initial meetings. This stage is called by various terms, including the "storming" stage (Bormann, 1975) and the "transitional" stage (Corey, Corey, and Corey, 2014; Gladding, 2012). Lasting until the group achieves sufficient cohesion to enable passage into deeper work, this problematic stage is characterized by an array of behaviors that come about, according to most theorists, as a way to resist the growing intimacy and interpersonal risks inherent in group work. Most of these behaviors are not disruptive in and of themselves, but become problematic over time as members resort to them again and again as idiosyncratic and predictable ways of responding to interpersonal challenges. For instance, a member may initially receive accolades for asking incisive questions of other members, but this same behavior may eventually provoke the group’s annoyance as they become aware of how the questioning behavior hides the questioner’s own feelings and thoughts.  Behaviors that are cited in the literature (Corey, Corey, & Corey, 2014) as resistive or disruptive include excessive questioning, advice giving, storytelling, hostility, peacemaking, silence, rescuing, monopolization, dependency, and superiority. But virtually any behavior that becomes repetitive over time can serve to veil a person’s authentic feelings and wider potentialities, and thus prevent greater intimacy.

Two Categories of Chronic Adaptive Responses

            In teaching group therapy to counselors in training, I was dissatisfied with the traditional view that “resistive” behaviors arise only in reaction to the group’s transitional stage. Not only did I notice members resorting to such behaviors from the outset, but I also observed the same behaviors occurring beyond the transitional stage, albeit in muted and more functional ways. On the basis of these observations, I concluded that individuals have stable, idiosyncratic responses to perceived interpersonal stress.  The traditional belief that these behaviors are uniquely tied to the group’s transitional stage obscured, in my opinion, the possibility that these behaviors have always been there, and have possibly served positive, adaptive functions in earlier life contexts. Given my observation that the responses were stable and evident throughout the group’s development, I began to examine the sources of these chronic behaviors by interrupting group members who were exhibiting them, and asking them simply to get in touch with the underlying emotions. To facilitate the exploration, I used an “affect bridge” (Christiansen, Barabasz, and Barabasz, 2009) to help members get in touch with the source of the emotions. That is, I asked them to get in touch with the feelings prompting the behavior as a bridge to its original context.
            Reactive Adaptive Response. When group members were given a chance to explore the origins, they typically discovered one of two underlying causes. First, some members traced their repetitive behaviors to past trauma or loss. When this was true, then such behavior represented a strategy for preventing similar painful interpersonal experiences from recurring. For instance, a 50-year old male client, whose alcoholic stepfather would periodically beat his frail mother, developed a tendency to crack jokes in order to defuse the tension at home. While the behavior worked in that particular context to distract his stepfather, it proved disruptive in later relationships––including his involvement in a therapeutic group where he would resort to humor without remaining sensitive to the unique demands of the moment. I began to refer to any interpersonal behavior, which is designed to prevent trauma and loss from recurring, as a “reactive adaptive response” (Sparrow, 2010; Sparrow and Alvarado, 2006). This type of adaptive response has a way of suppressing one’s direct expression of feeling and need in favor of protecting oneself from real or imagined interpersonal threats.
            Compliant Adaptive Response. In other cases, group members revealed that a particular chronic response could be traced to a desire to gain acceptance within one's family and culture.  Instead of preventing something terrible from happening again, this type of behavior was designed to win approval by emulating some introjected ideal.  For instance, a 31-year-old Hispanic male who wanted to gain his father's respect and win approval from others, grew up imitating his father's quiet, strong, and unrevealing personality, thinking that to do otherwise would render him less of a man.  Or a woman, who always offered to help others in the group even when it wasn't needed, was able to trace her reflexive caring responses to her mother, who gave herself tirelessly to her family's needs. To distinguish this type of behavior from the reactive type, I termed it "compliant adaptive response" (Sparrow, 2010; Sparrow and Alvarado, 2006). The consequence of the early parental/cultural programming results in a splitting of the self into acceptable and unacceptable aspects, thereby giving rise to what Jung has called the persona and the shadow split.
            After working with these concepts for several years as a counselor educator, I began to see that reactive and compliant adaptive responses occur in dreams, as well in the waking state, and become especially evident over the course of analyzing multiple dreams from the same client, or sometimes in single dreams with heightened affect. For instance, a 34-year married teacher and mother reported the following brief dream:
I am standing on the street outside a movie theater with my sister and a friend of hers. My sister is dressed in a beautiful blue outfit.  I want to go into the movie with them, but I recall that I have some school work that I need to attend to. My sister and her friend get in line to buy tickets. Meanwhile, I wait for a school bus to pass before crossing the street.
            When the dreamer shared this dream in my group counseling class, we focused principally on her decision not to join her sister and friend, since the dreamer's response is the centerpiece of co-creative dream work. At first, we did not know if the dreamer’s behavior was a chronic response, or a creative departure from her usual habit patterns. When she reflected on her pivotal decision to leave the other women and return to work, she said that when given a choice she almost always chose to work, because she felt that her family expected her to be successful and to do the responsible thing. She said that she had reaped a great deal of praise from having an especially beautiful home and a well-organized classroom, but that she often longed for more relaxation and enjoyment in her life. She said that her mother had been the same way, and was now regarded as a veritable saint by her husband, children, and friends. Her sister, however, had always put fun and self-interest on an equal footing with work. She realized that her sister and the unknown friend represented her repressed and unexplored shadow self, who was willing to put personal enjoyment first. So the dreamer helped us to identify the dream ego’s decision to choose work over play as a compliant adaptive response.
            Another dream of a 27-year-old man shows the impact of an internalized “vow of poverty” that the dreamer had learned from his father.
            I am at my childhood home, and a pickup truck full of gifts––outdoor sports items, in particular––pulls up in the driveway. A man whom I know to be God gets out and walks up to me. He says, "This is all yours." I struggle, feeling unsure of what to say. I then say, "I am not sure I can accept it." He then says, "Will you accept it for me?" I reply, "I don't know." I then sit down on the ground, struggling with the decision, and wake up before I can decide what to do.
            When I asked the dreamer to use the affect bridge to get in touch with the original conviction that he couldn't accept such generosity, he remembered countless times when his father, who grew up during the American Great Depression, would tell him stories of how hardship brought people together. His father was always mistrustful––even subtly contemptuous––of wealthy people, and he missed several opportunities to greatly increase his net worth over the course of his life by reflexively clinging to the “virtue” of self-denial. The dreamer realized that he had unwittingly emulated his father’s ideal of poverty, and had often failed to seize the moment when wondrous opportunities had presented themselves. So, in this case, the dreamer was also exhibiting a chronic, compliant adaptive response.

Lucid Dreamers Exhibit Chronic Responses

            Reactive and compliant adaptive responses can be observed in lucid dreams, as well as in non-lucid dreams. While lucidity may seem to free the dream ego from reflexive responses, even lucid dreamers may be governed by unexamined reactions. Take, for instance, the case of a young female client, who would become lucid in her dreams almost every night. I was impressed by the frequency of her lucid dreams, but then I observed over the course of our work that she would almost always fly away from any stressful event. While she thought nothing of her reflexive response at first, she began to realize that flight was her primary strategy to prevent the kind of wounding experiences she had incurred at the hands of her parents. Flight had become her reactive adaptive response to waking and dream situations, alike.
            A therapist using co-creative dream analysis will help a client become aware of crucial junctures in which the dream ego’s response, however reasonable it might have seemed at the time, may have thwarted the intergrative process. Perls, whose approach to dream work foreshadowed co-creative dream theory, was well aware of the dreamer’s proclivity toward disavowal of responsibility when he said, "You prevent yourself from achieving what you want to achieve. But you don’t experience this as your doing it. You experience this as some other power that is preventing you" (1973, p. 178). For instance, a highly intelligent client of mine, whose anxiety had held her back from getting a college education, often dreamt of various true-to-life scenarios in which she had to bear the brunt of an authority figure’s anger because she was in a position of relative powerlessness due to her lack of education. As a substitute teacher, she would often dream that the teacher or principal would berate her, even though she knew she was not at fault. Not surprisingly, she would remain silent in such dreams thinking that there was no way she could risk provoking their anger. Over the course of several months, we identified this passive response as a reactive adaptive response. It had become her way to fending off the expected attacks of relatively powerful people. By identifying the dream ego’s chronic response, and eliciting the dreamer’s determination to respond differently in dreams and waking life, the dream work anticipated, if not also facilitated a significant breakthrough in a subsequent dream. In it, she was in church leading a congregation in song:
I am getting ready to lead the congregation in singing a new song when I realize that I don’t have the sheet music for the hymn. I rush to the back of the church and rummage through a sheaf of music, hoping to find the correct song before the pastor calls for it. Suddenly, I look to the front of the church and see that C.––the previous song leader––had returned and taken over my position at the microphone. Without hesitation, I hurry to the front of the church, and say, “This is my job now! You need to sit down!” I become aware that I have asserted myself in front of the entire congregation, and I’m aware of how they are seeing me in a different light than before.
This dream is good example of how a chronic adaptive response can change abruptly in the context of a dream, and usher the dreamer into a new view of herself. Such pivotal moments can become the proof positive that a client is making significant progress in overcoming lifelong habit patterns.

The Same Response Can be Either Type

            I have found that the same behavior can be reactive or compliant, or a combination of both. For instance, a 35-year old group member would reflexively offer verbal reassurance to anyone who was in distress. When another group member finally blew up at her for trying to rescue her when she didn’t need it nor want it, the helper tearfully admitted that her mother was dying of diabetes, and that she felt powerless to help her. Thus, what appeared on the surface to be a compliant adaptive response––rescuing––was actually a reactive adaptive response. That is, by trying to helping others, she hoped to mitigate the impact of her helplessness in the face of her mother’s decline. Such examples should caution a therapist, once again, not to make assumptions about the origins or the function of chronic waking and dream responses.
             A single dramatic dream will often signify the resolution of a lifelong chronic response. For example, I worked with 26-year-old woman, who had been abused as a young child by her mother, who would sometimes nearly suffocate her with a pillow in anger. Her mother had also done everything to prevent my client’s father from visiting her, and her father, in turn, had effectively deserted her by giving up trying to have a relationship with her. My client grew up expressing a firm resolve never to have children out of a fear of becoming like her mother, and would also abruptly cut off relationships with men for fear of betrayal. After two abortions, she turned to cocaine and alcohol abuse, and then entered therapy. At the end of two years of sobriety and three years of individual and group therapy, she had the following dream in which her chronic reactive adaptive responses gave way to a facilitative, integrative response. Her dream is as follows:
I am on the shoreline outside the restaurant where I work as a waitress. I see a large wave coming into the inlet from the ocean, which turns toward me. Out of the wave emerges the back of a whale. It turns and heads directly toward me, until its large head comes onto the sand, and stops a foot in front of me. It turns its head, and looks at me with a single large eye. I hold its gaze, and then it slowly backs into the water again, disappearing. I look down and I’m surprised to see a baby whale at my feet. I know that I am supposed to care for it, so I bend down and pick it up.
            Once this client’s reactive responses had been identified and traced to earlier abuse from her mother and desertion from her father, it was easy for her to recognize these behaviors operating in her contemporary waking and dream relationships. Such a framework provided the basis for her striving to do differently, which ultimately enabled her to enact new adaptive responses in her dream with the whale––that is, standing her ground in the face of the overwhelming motherly presence, and accepting the responsibility for parenting its offspring. She terminated counseling shortly after having this dream, got engaged a few months later, and eventually married and gave birth to her first child. Indeed, whenever a dreamer identifies and overcomes such lifelong tendencies, it becomes immediately evident in such dreams as the whale dream. While powerful imagery may indicate a momentous shift, co-creative dream analysis places the greater emphasis on the dreamer’s life-altering responses.
            Obviously, a great of time and struggle can ensue between identifying maladaptive responses and overcoming them. Fortunately, a variety of methods can be employed to accelerate the client's facilitative responses in both dreams and waking relationships. I have written (Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow, Thurston, & Carlson, 2013) about a methodology that I employ called "dream reliving," in which the dreamer relives in fantasy the dream as if he or she were lucid, and can exercise new responses to the situations that have arisen in distressing dreams. This practice can serve to attenuate the anxiety associated with past distressing dreams, as well to prepare for future ones.

Putting the Theory into Practice

            I have described elsewhere (Sparrow, 2013) a systematic, five-step approach to dream analysis––the FiveStar Method––that makes the dreamer’s responses to the dream content the centerpiece in a comprehensive approach to dream work. While one can adopt the FiveStar Method, one can also use dreamer response analysis as a standalone intervention, or as a step in any other systematic dream work methodology. Regardless, in order to remain true to the co-creative paradigm, one should also incorporate imagery change analysis (Sparrow, 2013) with dreamer response analysis, in order to explore the way that the dream ego and the dream imagery unfold dynamically in real time. This interventional framework––which is an elaboration of Steps 3-5 of the FiveStar Method (Sparrow, 2013; Sparrow & Thurston, 2010)–– can be used as a standalone intervention, or incorporated into existing systems. The steps are as follows:
Identify Responses––Locate the pivotal moments in the dream where the dreamer responded––emotionally, cognitively, and/or behaviorally––to the dream imagery.
Evaluate Impact––Engage the dreamer in considering how the dream ego’s responses impacted the dream imagery and the course of the dream, and vice versa.
Determine Effectiveness––Engage the dreamer in ascertaining whether the dream ego’s responses facilitated or thwarted the process of integration.
Explore Origins––If a response thwarted the process of integration, explore the origins of the response, by using an “affect bridge” (Christiansen et. al, 2009) to earlier experiences in the waking life.
Assess Type––Discuss whether the response is a reactive adaptive response or a compliant adaptive response, or both; and then assess what undesirable experience the response is designed to avoid, or what implicit ideal it serves.
Discuss Alternatives––Discuss alternative responses based on the dreamer’s ideals and preferences, and ask the dreamer to imagine how the new responses will affect the dream imagery during similar dream encounters in the future.
Relive the Dream––Engage the dreamer in reliving the dream in fantasy, in which he or she imagines enacting new responses to a similar dream scenario. Discuss the imagined new dream outcome.
Apply Dream Work––Consider parallel waking scenarios, and discuss whether the same new responses might be useful in those contexts, or whether they need to be modified to conform to waking rules and contexts.


            In summary, the co-creative paradigm shifts dream work to include an analysis of the dream ego’s responses; the impact of dream ego’s responses on the dream imagery; and the integrative process that is served or thwarted by these exchanges. Over time, dream analysis may reveal repetitive patterns of responding, the origins of which may be traced to two types of prior experiences: 1) exposure to trauma and loss, giving rise to chronic reactive responses, and 2) internalization of parental and cultural ideals, prompting chronic compliant responses. While this conceptual framework initially grew out of working with therapeutic groups, it becomes useful in analyzing chronic relational patterns in dreams, as well.  Taken together, dreamer response analysis (DRI) and imagery change analysis (ICA) can assist non-lucid and lucid dreamers, alike, who may wish to examine their characteristic style of responding in dreams in light of past, unexamined influences. Ultimately, troubleshooting and modifying chronic dreamer responses may accelerate the process of integration that is evident in dreams.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mandala Meditation

Here's a meditation based on a series of mandalas that I created and Ray Lynch's inspiring piece "Quandra," taken from his Sky of Mind CD with his permission. 

I would advise using this prior to meditation, and especially in the middle of the night, when the world is at rest. 

The dream of the master gardener

Last night, I dreamt of a master gardener who has nurtured an impossibly towering red oak in the Rio Grande Valley, along with huge pines and other non-native trees. I want to talk to him so badly, as if he's a holy man. I finally speak to him, and discover that he once considered becoming a monk (as I once considered) and I tell him, "Your life work has amounted to so much more as a gardener than as a monk." He, in turn, tells me that he I could not have become a farmer, because of the sheer physicality, and that I, too, have chosen my vocation correctly. At the end of the dream, I think of Carl Jung and how, just before his death, he dreamt of the tree falling with the gold nuggets entwined it its roots.  I believe it is every person's dream to believe that the choices we have made have been the right ones, and that we have made a constructive difference in this world.

Isn't it amazing the images that our dreams give us--full of so much meaning that cannot be reduced to words. I know that in the days ahead, I will remember looking up into those towering branches and feeling the same awe and pleasure that a tree of such majesty has survived and thrived in a place far from its home.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Deeply Healing Lucid Dream

You may wonder what the big deal is regarding lucid dreaming. I have to admit that sometimes it seems rather silly and pointless to pursue experiences beyond the body when physical life itself is so precious. But things can happen there that are simply beyond our reach in the waking state--things that are necessary and essential for our healing and development. I know you can relate to the idea that we all carry around memories of unfinished business relating to other people, and that it often seems impossible to revisit those relationships in order to work out whatever conflicts still seem to remain. We are often left to deal with such memories on our own, hoping that our prayers and our own personal growth will eventually take care of those lingering wounds. One of my mottos is to have no regrets, but frankly I have many, and most of them have to do with things that I have said or done or left undone in relationship to people who were once precious to me, but who have left my life.

 Some background to the lucid dream: Two days ago, I was managing my online stock account and discovered that my ex-wife's name was still on one of my accounts. Not thinking that I was about to set in motion a very upsetting sequence of events, I e-mailed the company and simply asked them to remove her name from the account. It was, after all my account, and her name was a mere artifact of having shared the account with her up to almost 3 years ago. Well, the next thing I knew the company had put a hold on the account, preventing me from accessing the funds. They said that I would have to submit I a notarized form from my ex-wife releasing her claim on the account. I'm usually a pretty cool guy, but this action really upset me. I could've emptied the account and opened a new one, but without realizing the consequences of my request, I effectively created a mess. I did not want to have to contact her and ask her for a favor, even though rationally speaking, I expected her to be kind and to help me. I have a hard time asking for help, but I certainly have a hard time putting myself at a disadvantage with people who might not feel charitable toward me. My fears were unfounded, and she quickly agreed to submit the form that was necessary. But the internal struggle that I experienced set in motion feelings that apparently set up a particularly powerful lucid dream encounter with my ex-wife's daughter, with whom I enjoyed a  good relationship until the very end of the marriage when things went south.

 Julie and I got to bed very late after watching a movie, and so my early morning meditation took place at nearly 6 AM. After meditating for about 40 minutes, I went back to bed, not sure that I would be able to get back to sleep. But eventually I drifted off.   This is what I experienced:

I seem to be in my own home even though it was unfamiliar, and I was moving things around in order to neaten up.  I was moving my fly tying equipment to a more out-of-the-way place when I noticed that S. entered the room.  It seems that Julie was nearby, but I'm not sure. I was surprised to see S.  after  the problems that we had experienced around the time of the divorce. I greeted her, and she walked up to me and we embraced. She began to cry, and as I held her I noticed a man who appeared to be myself sitting nearby. His head started to brighten until it became a luminous orb of violet light. Meanwhile, I felt very moved by  the sense of reconciliation and forgiveness that was coming over us as we embraced. Finally we parted, and I bent over, and wept. I wondered if Julie could hear me cry, or whether my tears were confined to the lucid dream. I drifted into physical awareness and saw that Julie was fast asleep, and I felt relieved and deeply healed. My eyes were moist.

All  my life I have yearned for something beyond my reach. My sense of spiritual purpose has always been profoundly evident in everything I do. (Just having fun can be hard for me.) Consequently, when there are interpersonal conflicts that I can't seem to fix, it distresses me to no end.  I'm not the kind of person who can simply blame the other person, even though they may have had a big part to play in our conflict. What I have found is that in my dream journey, I have opened up to countless experiences of deep, direct, interpersonal encounters, which have given way to immense relief and healing.  And so when people ask me, why do you seek to become lucid in your dreams, I have to remember such dreams as this one, when I might have reacted less openly if I had not been lucid. Without such dreams, we are left with far fewer options, and a much more difficult path toward healing and enlightenment.  One might ask,  Was the other person really present?  I have addressed this question in another entry to this blog, but suffice to say that my answer to this is as follows:  Since we can never know for sure, it is far better to believe that the other person is, at least in part, present in the embodiment of the individual dream character. By believing that the dream figure mediates the actual soul of the other person, it provides us a genuine arena for making interpersonal breakthroughs, and celebrating them with the conviction that the work has been mutually felt on some level. 

I believe it's interesting and confirming that I witnessed my own double sitting quietly and witnessing my exchange. Indeed, there must always be a part of us that witnesses the struggles and the breakthroughs-- a divine part of us that  celebrates and  literally lights up in joyful affirmation of our willingness to set aside pettiness and resentment. I am a much healthier person today than yesterday because of my lucid dream.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is it really you? The ultimate identity of a dream character

One of the most persistent and unresolved questions in the field of dream study is, "When I dream of you, is it really you?" Standard answers range from "No, it's a part of you," to "Yes, if there is a 'felt sense' that it's really you," to "Of course." Most psychotherapists are loathe to venture beyond the first answer, fearing that to do so would encourage a client to project onto others, who might already have a tendency ascribe his or her own issues to others. But in the case of lucid dreaming, the vividness and interpersonal "otherness" that dreamers often report challenges the strictly "internal" source of dream imagery.

A more sophisticated answer, which emulates the principle of indeterminacy in physics goes something like this: The image is a not an object, nor a symbol, nor an aspect of dream "content," but rather a mutable interface between the dream ego and the unseen, intrusive content that is surfacing in the dream. The source of the content can be "local" or "nonlocal," or a combination of both. That is, the
dreamer may be accessing a memory, or may be receiving information/essence beyond the boundaries of the self. In the act of perception, the dream observer sees clearly, or perceives through filters that distort the incoming content, thus co-creating an image that changes constantly as the perceiver's response to it shifts in real time. So that's where I arrive at the term "mutable interface" to describe what the dreamer actually sees. The image is a moment-to-moment vectoring of the dreamer-dream content interaction.

So the question, "Is it really you?" necessitates a deconstruction of the image into "projected" and "received" components. If the dreamer can say that he or she is open to the dream character, and has no distorting feelings that can be projected upon the person, then the essence of the person may be free to express itself through the mediating image. But this is rarely true. We almost always have impressions, biases, fears, needs, etc., that are projected onto the significant others in our lives. So the resulting image is likely to be a "cocreated" product that has to be analyzed as such.

I dreamt of my deceased mother in a lucid dream two nights ago. She appeared younger than she was when she died, and her face was lit up in a golden light. At first I felt that she was soulfully present, but then her face began to look less familiar, and so I concluded in the dream that her essence was fading away, leaving behind an inaccurate rendition of my mother's actual self.

But then again, who can ever know the answer to this question? Van Eeeden, the first lucid dream theorist ("A Study of Dreams,"1913--you can find it on the web), believed that a "felt sense" is the only way to know if a dream character's soul is manifesting through the dream imagery. But this criterion is highly subjective, and not likely to satisfy a more empirically minded researcher. Henry Fielding's words from his book Tom Jones come to mind: "Until they produce the authority by which they are constituted judges, I shall not plead their jurisdiction." In the domain of the soul, empiricists can never really compete, because there is no foundation upon which they can base their conclusions.

So is it really you? Only I can say.

  I've just launched a new podcast, titled DreamStar Institute Presents "Dreamwork with Dr. Scott Sparrow." My first episode i...