Dreaming While Awake,
Waking in the Dream
We know there is such a thing as a daydream because most of us do it. We do it, however, mostly without awareness—although every now and then we catch ourselves red-handed—triggered by an exotically beautiful person or a critical situation in which we behaved suboptimally and now are correcting our ineptitude. We tell off the critical employer or relative; we give the bully what he or she deserves; we approach the person we found attractive. It is satisfying and vindicating to do so—at least for a little while—while the daydream lasts.
The prototype of this wish-fulfilling or compensatory daydream is found in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, wherein James Thurber shows how an ineffectual Walter Mitty compensates his wimpy character in real life by grandiose episodes of adventure and conquest. Our daydreams may enact this kind of compensation for real-life failures, or more practically, rehearse us with the ideal put down or clever strategy that defeats the bully next time. It is a truism that the more bland the outer environment, or the more ineffectual our capabilities, the richer the daydream—or the more introverted or passive the character, the more brilliant the imagined solution. But sometimes such creative daydreaming is the response to an unasked question, as when Einstein gratuitously rides a rainbow and looks at the speed and flow of light. It is clear that all of us, even the most creative, may benefit (or suffer) by dreaming while awake.
Less well known is the idea that waking consciousness may penetrate the dream, as in the lucid dreaming taught by the Senoi dream teachers or Stanford’s Stephen LaBerge. Can we wake up in the dream without rupturing the fabric of the dreaming? Can we inhabit this other world that visits us at night with something like our daytime consciousness? It is not hard to find immediate uses for such mingling of the different forms of consciousness. If dreams are creative, can we question them on the spot, as it were?
Think of Elias Howe’s invention of the modern sewing machine, where the dream put him in a situation in which he was about to be parboiled and eaten by dream cannibals unless he discovered the riddle (of how to make a working sewing machine). He became lucid enough to notice the king’s guard’s spears, with a perforated tip, and realized that contained the right answer for his dilemma—put the “eye” at the tip of the needle. He had to wake up a little to realize that the richness and creativity of the dream put the answer right before his (dreaming—but potentially awake) eyes. If he had stayed lost in the dream, he would have drowned in the fear of the cannibal-king’s pot and not noticed that the answer he sought in the waking world was twinkling right in front of his dreaming gaze.
And yet, there are dangers that the ever-egocentric waking mind, or ego, will misuse or endanger the natural wildness of the dream unfoldment by intervening or destroying its pregnant-with-meaning quality, or polyvalence, with conscious fundamentalism, or self-centered, well, egocentricity.
By considering both species of these minglings of waking and dreams, we are suggesting that they are complementary and available to all of us who wish to surf the Internet of consciousness—that is, the wave forms of waking-dream, dreaming-wakefully, or both.
by Stephen Larsen, Ph.D., and Tom Verner © 2017 Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com
Stephen Larsen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of psychology at SUNY Ulster and the author of several books, including The Healing Power of Neurofeedback and Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind. The founder and director of Stone Mountain Center, he lives in New Paltz, New York.
Tom Verner is a practicing psychotherapist and professional magician and was a professor of psychology at Burlington College for 35 years. The founder, with his wife Janet, of Magicians Without Borders, he lives in Lincoln, Vermont.