Photo by Ryan Brohm via Iowa State Daily
Lucid dreamer, professor and researcher, Ted Esser, has a deep interest in lucid dreaming and spiritual awakenings for personal transformation. He directs the Spiritual Emergence Network, teaches at both Sofia and JFK Universities, and studied lucid dreaming for his PhD dissertation. Welcome, Ted Esser!
Can you recall your first lucid dream? Had you heard about lucid dreaming beforehand, or did you have a lucid dream and wonder, “What was that?”
The first lucid dream that I can remember happened when I was around five years old. I had a big fever that lasted for a few days and after I went to sleep at its peak in the middle of the night I dreamt that I was in an infinitely long hallway running from a dragon that was lucid from the very start. The floor and walls were black, with swirling, fiery colors on them. I couldn‘t see the ceiling. It was hot and I was running and running.
I finally turned to look at the dragon, he was absolutely huge and had the same swirling, fiery colors as the walls. He was coming for me, flying, gaining on me. The lucidity intensified and now I was in an absolute panic, running as fast as I could. The hallway kept on going and going as though I would infinitely circle an inner earth, the dragon always gaining on me, yet never quite catching me. I awoke with a yelp, in a momentary panic, covered in sweat.
I hadn‘t heard of lucid dreaming at that time nor am I certain that this was my first lucid dream, but it sticks out as one of the early ones. I had many positive, spontaneous out-of-body experiences throughout childhood, but I didn‘t cultivate them or talk about them with friends or family. They just seemed like a natural part of what happened at night.
When did you begin to use techniques to prompt you to become lucid? Or did lucid dreams occur spontaneously?
A friend gave me Stephen LaBerge‘s paperback book, Lucid Dreaming in 1987. Within about two weeks I was having between one and several lucid dreams a week on purpose for the next 25 years or so. Some would continue to happen spontaneously.
Did anything surprise you about the experience of lucid dreaming or those early lucid dreams? What did you make of that?
The early lucid dreams were generally spiritual in nature one way or another. For example, receiving mind training from guides that weren‘t visible to me. Again, these seemed natural. My spontaneous lucidity diminished in early adolescence. When I began to cultivate it on purpose in late adolescence, many of the dreams were sexual in nature—this seemed natural as well [laughs]!
In your chapter in the book, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (2014), you tell of a powerful lucid dream as a young boy which may have been prompted by concerns about traditional religious concepts. What happened in the lucid dream?
I was alone inside of a greenhouse located near where my grandmother lived. I made my way over to the other side of it where there was a double waterfall that slid down rocks from a small fountain near the ceiling down to the pool below. I went up the steps next to them and as I looked up I saw the sun shining through the glass ceiling. I immediately became lucid, knowing that I was seeing the Divine. I kept walking up the steps noticing the clear light within the sun. I was filled with wonder and was told telepathically that this was happening in response to my recent disillusion about the believing in God.
What did you make of this? And how did it serve to increase your interest in lucid dreaming and consciousness?
I woke up knowing both that my religious disillusion had a basis, but that there was a reality to the essence of the religious teachings as well. This dream was really a part of a lifelong process that either brought to the foreground or bubbled in the background of my waking awareness the fact that there was something amazing going on underneath day-to-day reality.
After going deeper into dreaming and lucid dreaming, something unexpected happened to you: an experience of kundalini. How did this affect you? Also, did this happen within a dream, lucid dream, or waking experience?
I was 23 years old and had been meditating before going to sleep for about five years. Kundalini‘s effect on me was really deep and pervasive. In this initial phase, my experience of heightened energy lasted for about three months—the first three weeks were the most intense. Kundalini was showing up in my dreams, lucid dreams and waking experiences. If I had to sum up one of the more life-altering aspects of it, I would say that I suddenly came to realize that my entire physical life before that moment was a kind of semi-lucid dream—with different rules than sleeping dreams, of course—but a dream nonetheless, and I was now waking up to that fact. It took me a few years before I read about Eastern and Western esoteric metaphysical explanations that exactly described this and other experiences that I had.
In what ways do you see a connection between lucid dreaming and kundalini experiences? Removal of energy blockages, perhaps? Or an inner access to inner knowing and energy?
All of these things, but the connection goes further, in that as time has gone by I have discovered experientially and through my research both with people and religious and spiritual texts that kundalini seems to eventually reveal itself as the full spectrum of life, both phenomenal and metaphenomenal, of The Dreaming Itself—meaning the entirety of both inner and outer reality—difficult or implausible as that may sound.
The transformation of energetic blockages that you mention seems often to be linked to past traumas that have had the capacity to block our perceptions of reality, creating the illusion of duality and separation that causes so much suffering.
As the current director of the Spiritual Emergence Network, originally founded by Christina and Stan Grof, you often deal with people who have sudden spiritual awakenings. Briefly, what characterizes a ‘spiritual emergence’ and what do you consider ‘caution signs’? Do kundalini events seem to spark more spiritual emergence issues than, for example, lucid dreaming?
One of the hallmarks of spiritual emergence is someone vividly experiencing a paradigm shift of some sort resulting from some category of spiritual experience or another, such as an unplanned out-of -body experience or having repeated precognitive dreams that throw into question how they thought the reality worked. This paradigm shift is often related to realizing that there is more to the nature of reality than what many mainstream scientists believe. There are many potential ‗caution signs‘ that might cause the experiencer to call it a spiritual crisis or emergency: from having ongoing heightened anxiety or existential uncertainty, all the way up to being diagnosed with mania, for example.
The more powerful kundalini events tend to cause more psychological issues for people because of their power, persistence and their lack of preparation for them. Lucid dreams comparatively tend to be much gentler on the spectrum of spiritual experiences that lead to spiritual crisis.
In your chapter, you note how you took your interest in lucid dreaming, kundalini and nonduality (which David Loy defines as an experiential unity of “seer and seen, subject and object”) and decided to do a doctoral research study on this. To some degree this built upon Fariba Bogzaran’s 1990 master’s thesis work, Experiencing the Divine in the Lucid Dreaming State. Tell us more about your study.
I had 75 research participants who reported that they experienced lucid dreams about three times a month over the last year on average. They answered questionnaires about their spiritual practices and experiences. In the last phase of the study, thirteen people were chosen to use a lucid dreaming protocol for two-weeks. Five of the thirteen had reported being in the post-awakened kundalini process for various lengths of time, another five were pranotthanically active (having pre-kundalini, heightened subtle energy feelings, etc.) for the past several years, and three of the participants had reported having had a variety of lower-intensity spiritual experiences.
Because the participants were frequent lucid dreamers, they didn‘t receive any suggestions for using any particular lucid dreaming induction techniques. The study‘s protocol involved having them incubate for ‘safe’ lucid dreams involving kundalini before going to sleep, meaning that they gently held this intent for twenty seconds to two minutes, then let it go—falling to sleep as they usually did.
The ‘safe’ part meant having them express the desire for kundalini to manifest only in a way that would not physically harm them or be beyond what they could psychologically or spiritually handle. In other words, if it wasn‘t an appropriate time for kundalini to safely appear, they did not actually want it to manifest. So, this was an intentional invitation, not an evocation and definitely not a demand.