By Ed Kellogg, Ph.D. © 2012
“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.” Buddha
On the night before Halloween in my sophomore year in college, I dreamed that a demon chased me. At first I ran from it in fear, but as I ran the panic subsided and I became lucid, at which point I turned around and faced the demon. It looked almost comically surprised and shocked. I felt not only lucid but confidant in my power over it, and in a turnabout, I started to chase the demon, but then woke up before I could catch it.
I went back to sleep, and had a dream where another monster chased me. Again I became lucid, confronted the monster, started to chase it, but woke up. This happened again and again, and each time I became lucid more quickly. After that series of dreams, which amounted to a type of training, I had gained a skill. If a monster shows up in my dreams, I almost always become lucid, just by reflex. Since then I have had other profound trainings that focused on dealing with fear – for example my “Sword of Damocles” lucid dream. (1)
Lucid dreams provide extraordinary opportunities to deal with fear. Studies have shown that people can end nightmares by working through them in lucid dreams. (2) In the following example, although my thinking still seemed a bit clouded, I faced my fear and triumphed over adversity. I remember this dream with great fondness, in that the choices I made had power, and depended upon my having an overt awareness of the dream state.
EWK 3/6/90 “... I see a huge (big as a house) steamroller, tank-car bearing down on me as I stand in the middle of the street. Knowing that I dream, I choose to face it and transform myself into a superhuman state: my forearms bulge whitely with strength, as I expand and densify – but the machine still dwarfs me. As the [machine] bears down on me I don’t know if I have changed enough to stop it, but I stand resolute, and tear a hole right through it to he other side, walking through the mass of metal as if I went through paper maché.”
Most lucid dreamers deal with fear as I did in this potential nightmare by choosing to believe, and then act as if, nothing that happens in a dream could possibly harm them. This technique has advantages and disadvantages. The mechanism and logic, of what I’ll call the “Just a Dream” technique, goes something like this:
- The dreamer experiences a scary situation and feels afraid.
- They realize that they dream.
- They then sequentially think:
a. “This is a dream”
b. “Dreams are unreal.”
c. “Nothing unreal can hurt me.”
d. “Therefore, I have nothing to feel afraid about, and I am perfectly safe.”
though this technique works well for facing fears in dreams, it seems a less useful technique for facing fears in waking life:
- The waker experiences a scary situation and feels afraid.
- They realize that they don’t dream.
- They then sequentially think:
a.”This is not a dream.”
b. “Dreams are unreal.”
c. “This is real.”
Of course, a devout Hindu or Buddhist, who genuinely sees the world as an Illusion, can use something similar to the “Just a Dream Technique,” which I’ll call the “Just an Illusion” technique, if they subscribe to that metaphysical point of view wholeheartedly.
However, if they have an attachment to their physical lives, this technique may not prevent fear of loss. Because even if they believe that they will wake up to a greater life, rather than ceasing to exist, death still means that their physical lives and their physical experiences will end, just as a dream ends when you wake up in the morning.
I should point out that although many people assume that nothing in a dream can harm them, that this remains just an assumption. Many people still believe that dreams occur “all in their heads”, and seem entirely subjective and imaginary, and as a result, almost entirely harmless.
Psi-dreaming research has shown that dreams do not occur all in one’s head, but in an intersubjective space. And of course mind-body research has shown that what occurs in the mind can have an effect on the physical body, for good, or for ill.
While the “Just a Dream” technique can minimize or dissipate fears, it does not actually seem a way of directly facing ones fears, but of defusing them through a denial of serious consequences, by replacing one set of assumptions about the nature of one’s experienced reality with another.
Even so, using this technique in lucid dreams can have positive effects in waking life, especially with respect to irrational fears, through desensitization. Some therapists use a similar approach in WPR using virtual reality set-ups – having someone with a fear of heights work through that fear virtually and so desensitize themselves.
Both lucid dreaming and virtual reality training approaches have helped people develop skills that have carried over to the waking state. As VR therapy has demonstrated, repeated exposures to simulations of a fear provoking situation in a safe setting can have dramatic positive effects. Similarly, someone with a fear of heights can transcend this fear by learning to fly – and even to enjoy flying – in lucid dreams.
But can one deal with fear without denying the possibility of serious consequences when confronted by a scary situation? Yes, by embracing an attitude of non-attachment.
In the following dream I’ll share an example of how I’ve dealt with fear using a non-attachment technique that has worked for me in dealing with fearful situations in both my dreaming life and my waking life:
“Cast Into the Pit”
EWK 11/16/99 ” . . . Semi-lucid, I worry a bit about E. (a participant in my lucid dream group, who later validated the earlier part of this dream as apparently mutual) who I saw earlier in the dream, but who went off on her own. I try to find her, and arrive at a sort of grimy cult building – used books piled outside. E.
May have gone into the building – I see the book she borrowed from me earlier in the dream on the pile. . . . I decide to find E., and use the chant/pulling technique. I arrive at a sort of gray concrete structure . . I look for E. again, using the chant locator technique, which draws me into a dingy gray area.
As I fly down one dingy lit corridor, I see two girls, one about E’s size. Seeing me, in apparent terror, they cry “Look! A Human Soul!” And race up some stairs. I follow, and enter into a large meeting hall – better lit, lots of chairs and people, but with a dingy puce green carpet and a very unpleasant feel. A man with a black suit – the leader comes up – a Mr. BMG. Uncomfortable in the restrictive atmosphere, and now fully lucid, I chant two Kabbalistic godnames. The people / beings / elementals keep their distance, but do not otherwise react.
The leader comes up to me, and tells me that as I come from Earth, they will have to operate on me, to remove the “untruth-false ideas” that I have, so that I will see things his way, “The Truth.” Otherwise, they will throw me in a pit I see on one side of the room. I tell him “If I have any defects, that I invite God to directly operate on me to remove the error.” All of them shrink back and hunch over when I say this.
I do not trust the man / being who styles himself as the Reverend BMG so when they move forward in a mass to force me into the pit, I grab the “Reverend” and pull him in with me. When he lands he becomes a pile of what looks like broken, rotten oranges. I feel in danger, but stay calm and fully lucid. I find myself in a dark room/tunnel/cave filled with ordure and filth. Bugs crawl all over everything in what looks and feels like a section of Hell. I chant WS to put up a shield of protection, and materialize a pair of gloves, but I feel that if I panic the possibility exists that I will not wake up, but will remain trapped here. I forge ahead, staying centered and confident in the invulnerability of my True Beingness and finally breaking out of the tunnel into the light.” RWPR.
In this case I dealt with my fear by disidentifying with that part of me that feared, the dream self, and by identifying instead with my knowingness, expanding into my True Beingness, the Source Self beyond time and space. Jack Schwarz called this process non-attachment, by which he meant detaching from the little conscious self that fears, while attaching to the Greater Self that does not. I originally learned to achieve this change in perspective by practicing the well known Neti neti (“Not this, not that”) meditation (3) in waking life.
In the “Cast into the Pit” dream I freed myself from fear, by achieving a state of indifference towards the possibility of harm, through consciously choosing to experience the situation from the perspective of my Greater Self.
As I see it, lucidity as a variable aspect of consciousness corresponds most closely with the increased freedom of choice that results from the overt awareness of previously unquestioned assumptions. When I become fully lucid, I overtly realize that “I dream this” also just seems an assumption. And I also consciously realize that even if I do dream, that I really don’t know what “dreaming” means.
In this dream I did not transcend fear by assuming that nothing in the dream could harm me. To the contrary, given what I know about mind-body effects, and realizing all that I do not know about dreaming, I assumed that it could. Because I even accepted the possibility of physical death in the dream, transcending my fears required that I connect/identify with a deeper aspect of Self, where fear does not exist.
I believe that learning to face one’s fears – and learning how to transcend them – constitutes one of the most important lessons that we need to learn in life. (4)
As Buddha said, “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.”
Understanding fear, the mechanisms through which it operates (5), and how our fears affect us personally and culturally (6), to me seems an essential study for those who wish to transcend their current limitations.
In alchemical lore, we learn that the fabled philosopher’s stone can change lead into gold. In a way, fear does just the opposite – it can change gold into lead, joy into misery, freedom into slavery, and victory into defeat.
Our fears serve as the bars of the cage that limits us, or as Morpheus described it in The Matrix,
” . . .a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison . . . for your mind.” To escape, you must “. . . let it all go . . . fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free Your Mind.”
Although our fears signal when we approach our limits, they also serve to enforce them, if we restrict In our actions to those that keep us in our habitual comfort zones. Learning what we fear can provide invaluable information, and by lucidly facing our fears we can learn a lot about ourselves. Years ago Patricia Sun gave this advice on how to deal with fear, that has stayed with me ever since:
“When you’re fearful, you notice you’re afraid, and you know that the reason you’re afraid is because you believe a lie about yourself. And you try to figure out what the lie is.” (7)
Lucid dreaming provides a valuable venue and many opportunities for exploring, recognizing, and transcending one’s fears. Rather than automatically giving into our fears, we can consciously choose to de-limit ourselves, to expand our horizons and our perceptions, and to learn how to see through illusions and to perceive deeper layers of reality beneath.
Because of this, lucid dreamers might want to consider consciously choosing to engage, while dreaming, in the sort of activities that bring them anxiety in the waking state. Lucid dreamers have abilities and potentialities not available to their waking selves, so that facing fearful situations, will often prove much easier to do in lucid dreams.
Success in transcending fears in dreams can have positive effects that carry over into ones waking life. As lucid dreamers and lucid wakers we need to face our fears, make informed and conscious choices, in order that we can move beyond them.
As Richard Bach wrote, “Overcome fear, behold wonder.”
- “Initiations and Trainings in Lucid Dreams,” E. W. Kellogg III, The Lucid Dream Exchange, 51, pp 17-19, June, 2009. http:// www.dreaminglucid.com/articles/Initiations%20and%20Trainings%20in%20Lucid%20Dreams.pdf
- For example, see “Lucid dreaming as a treatment for recurrent nightmares,” A. L Zadra and R. O. Pihl, Psychother Psychosom, 66(1):50-55 1997
- For a short description of the Neti neti exercise see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neti_neti
- Note: If you haven’t already seen it, the movie Defending Your Life does a great job of presenting this concept in a very entertaining way.
- For those who want to better understand the psychological mechanisms of fear, I recommend Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t–and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, Dutton, 2008.