Photo by Ryan Brohm via Iowa State Daily
Author, artist, psychologist and lucid dreamer, Michael Katz teaches Tibetan Buddhist dream yoga to the international Dzogchen community. The LDE welcomes Michael.
I recall meeting you briefly in June of 1995. I was in Manhattan, attending my first Association for the Study of Dreams conference. One evening, I agreed to be the “gatekeeper” for the main presentation on psychodrama, and keep unauthorized people from entering. When you arrived with a friend, I asked your name. Since I recognized your name as the editor of Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light, I opened the door and let you both in for free.
How did your interest in dream yoga develop?
Time passes quickly Robert, that was more than 20 years ago. Thank you for the free pass. What goes around comes around!
I recall that conference well. In addition to attending workshops with Robert Bosnack and Robert Moss, I presented a mini-workshop which included an induction for lucid dreaming and a subsequent psychodrama exercise.
There is one thing about that conference which I confess to feeling guilty about. After my presentation I sold out of my books and took money from a few participants intending to mail them a copy at a later date. Unfortunately, I lost the list and I was unable to follow through. If you are one of those people, I have a copy of my new book The Royal Road to Enlightenment for you!
I guess you could say that starting in the early 70s, I became something of a dreamwork junkie. I read the collected works of Carl Jung while I was in college and continued to study dream work during graduate school in psychology.
I made efforts to understand the contributions of seminal figures like Sigmund Freud, Fritz Perls, and J.L. Moreno.
I also avidly read the Carlos Castaneda books, as well as all the early books on lucid dreaming, and I read the Tibetan Book of The Dead. This famous book includes explanations of the transition period from our present life through the intermediate stages, or bardos, of death and, ultimately, rebirth. Another book famous amongst practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, The Six Yogas of Naropa, includes some explanations of dream yoga as well as clear light meditation from one sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Collectively they helped acquaint me with the Tibetan Buddhist perspective and sparked my interest in dream yoga.
By the late 1970s I had met my first Tibetan teacher, Chögyam Trungpa. At my first interview, as I sat across from him in silence for a few moments, I felt a very palpable magnetic pull. I began to lean forward towards him and I noticed that he was also leaning forward towards me. Closer and closer our foreheads came until we were barely inches away from each other without having said a word. Suddenly, my mind kicked in and I thought how inappropriate and rude of me to be doing this and I pulled back. Certainly he and other lamas that I have met have sparked unusual meditative experiences and inspired me.
I read that in 1978 you traveled to France to meet a renowned Tibetan lama, Dudjom Rinpoche. Did you connect his teaching on dream yoga with the Western idea of lucid dreaming? In basic terms, how does lucid dreaming connect with dream yoga? And in basic terms, how do they differ?
The late 1970s and early 1980s were unusual in that many great lamas from Tibet were making their way to the West without many contacts and often with no money. I met many of my most important teachers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of them, Dudjom Rinpoche, was considered to be the teacher of teachers, and many of the younger lamas came to New York City to study with him.
A small apartment that I had in the East Village became a crash pad for many of these expatriate Tibetan lamas, particularly of the Nyingmapa sect. Incongruously, my small apartment in the East Village, which was then known as Alphabet City and a magnet for punk rockers, was occasionally the place of extraordinarily profound teachings. Although the lamas who visited me were unknown at that time, eventually they all became famous in their own right.
As many of the lamas who crashed at my apartment were also Dudjom’s students, we attended many of his teachings at his center in upstate New York, and also in the Dordogne region of France, together. It was at one of these retreats in France that I had my first experience and direct teachings on dream yoga and the practices of the night. After one of his teachings I attempted to apply his instructions and I found that I had unusual awareness and other meditative experiences.
After attending this great teacher’s retreat, both my understanding of the dream condition and life was truly transformed. His teachings on the bardos helped me to understand the big picture. According to Buddhist philosophy, we human beings have been reborn and died a multitude of times. This is called the wheel of existence. Depending on our karma, we may be reborn in any of the six realms of existence.
These include the realms of: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell. Going to sleep at night and waking in the morning mirrors the experiences of birth and death. Most importantly the time of sleeping and dreaming, rather than simply being a time of blissful ignorance, affords an extraordinarily important opportunity to exit the wheel of these countless rebirths and actually provides an opportunity for total enlightenment.
Dudjom’s teachings were radically transformative in that he introduced the possibility of developing a state of awareness that one might carry through the day and night and, ultimately, through the transition of the bardos. At or around this time I understood for the first time that, in regards to development within the sleep and dream states, there are two paths.
One path, dream yoga, is ‘with the mind.’ What I mean by ‘with the mind’ is that this path requires effort and the application of techniques. The second path, the path of natural light, is beyond the limitations of the mind. This path is also cryptically called the path of no meditation. Subsequently, my understanding of these two paths was greatly enhanced by Dzogchen master Namkhai Norbu.
Dream yoga, which is synonymous with lucid dreaming, corresponds to the path with the mind. We can apply many techniques towards becoming lucid in the dream state. Applying these techniques require some sort of effort, either intellectual or otherwise. For example, the technique of searching for your hands, which many people recall from Castaneda’s books, is an example of a technique which entails effort. In contrast, the practice of natural light refers to awareness beyond the mind. This path is also sometimes referred to as a path of total relaxation—again, implying there is no effort.
In both cases, either the practice of dream yoga or the path of natural light associated with Dzogchen as presented in Tibetan Buddhism emphasize the need to use the sleep and dream states towards further spiritual development.
I recall that when I was collecting material for the first dream yoga book one Tibetan lama who I greatly respect pointed out that lucid dreaming or dream yoga should not be for the purpose of fun and games. Too often the emphasis on lucid dreaming has been for entertainment or to have a great adventure. There is nothing inherently wrong with having interesting experiences, but there is also the danger of greatly enhancing our attachment.
The Buddha in his teachings identifies grasping or attachment as being the cause of our suffering. We would not want to create more grasping by virtue of our attachment to lucid dream experience. The capacity to dream lucidly can be either a tool for practice on the development of true awareness or a great distraction.
In the original Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light book, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu emphasizes the point that development within the sleep and dream states should be for the purpose of spiritual development and even enlightenment. This is the most important message of the two dream yoga books.
In one of your books, you mention an early lucid dream, which I have placed below. What technique prompted you to become lucid?
‘On this particular night, I suddenly had the realization that I was both asleep and aware that I was dreaming. At the instant of the realization, the colors of the dreamscape became startlingly vivid and intense. I found myself standing on a cliff and looking out over a vast and beautiful valley. I felt relaxed and thrilled, and I reminded myself it was only a dream. I looked out over the lovely vista for a short time and then resolved to go a step further, literally and figuratively. If it was truly a dream then there would be no reason why I couldn’t fly.’
The dream you are quoting occurred when I was in meditative retreat in upstate New York. After looking out on the vista in my dream and knowing that I was lucid and within a dream, I took the leap. What happened next was a bit of a surprise in that, instead of soaring and flying around, I found myself in some sort of house and in a disembodied state. That is, without having a mental representation of my body I was, nevertheless, moving up a staircase. Later, I related the dream to the presiding lama, Shempen Dawa Rinpoche. I asked him what the dream meant and he replied in a rather tongue-in-cheek way that I had passed my driver’s test.
Subsequently, I have had many lucid dreams. However, considering the countless dreams in which I have been fully identified with the dream I am more than ever aware of my own limitations, as well as the extraordinary capacities of someone like Chögyal Namkhai Norbu.
Did anything surprise you about the experience of lucid dreaming? What did you make of that?
At night when we dream we are fully identified with the dream and believe that our experience is real. Once we awaken we discover that it was actually not real at all. The experience of moving from being fully identified to suddenly realizing that was actually just a dream is very important. It can be quite a shock to move from this fully identified state to lucidity.
Even more shocking is the possibility that our daytime waking life is also just like a dream, as the Buddha says. Once we begin to have experiences of lucidity in the dream state, realizing that what was considered to be real is actually illusion, this sense of unreality may begin to seep into our daytime. Diminishing our sense of attachment and helping us to not take things so seriously has immense spiritual value.
Later, you met Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and learned more about the Dzogchen practice of dream yoga. What impressed you about Norbu and the Dzogchen view?
Before I had met CNN I had already been practicing Tibetan-style Buddhism for some years. I had completed an arduous series of practices called Ngöndro. Although I had, in the course of these practices, literally completed hundreds of thousands of recitations and physical exercises, I look back on the experience as being of only a little benefit in regards to my understanding and spiritual development.
I could say in retrospect that my emphasis was more quantitative than qualitative. As a doctoral student I was very familiar with the route of credentialing. We used to joke that PhD referred to ‘piled higher and deeper’ or, as Dudjom Rinpoche colorful stated, ‘What is the value of shit wrapped in a brocade?’
CNN relates a similar story which changed his life. He had been recognized as an important reincarnation of a great lama at birth. He had subsequently been trained from an early age by many of the great lamas of Tibet. He had studied and memorized and practiced many techniques, but when he met his most important teacher all of it went out the window so to speak.
After having an important dream about this master, within which he had received a very special initiation, he had made great efforts to meet him in person, and then had requested a formal initiation from him. The teacher initially refused, and when CNN related his dream he responded by saying something like I already gave you that initiation why do I have to do it again. CNN did not accept this explanation because, after all, it had only been a dream, and so he insisted. Finally Changchup Dorje, the teacher, agreed.
Despite Norbu Rinpoche’s great dream, this teacher was initially a great disappointment. He seemed inept at conducting the formal initiation. The experience just dragged on and on and ultimately seemed to be a complete waste of time. He even paused numerous times to consult a kind of cookbook, which explained what steps to take next and which ritual objects to use in which way.
The young lama was completely frustrated by the time the so-called master had completed the initiation. At that moment, at the height of his disillusionment and frustration, Changchup Dorje began to explain the true meaning of transmission and initiation, which had nothing to do with ritual and words. At this moment he gave CNN a direct introduction into knowledge beyond the mind, and CNN realized that up until this point he had not had a clue as to what real knowledge was.
Great teachers such as CNN, Dudjom and others can through their skillful means point out true knowledge and give a qualified student a direct introduction into real Awareness and the nature of the mind.