by David Shank
“…to sleep; perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub…for in that sleep, what dreams may come?”
– Hamlet Act III, Scene I
I recently had the opportunity to be introduced to ritual postures and have the “ecstatic alternate reality” experience induced via the method developed by Dr. Felicitas Goodman and taught at the Cuyamungue Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a fascinating and educational experience and something I wanted to learn more about and to experience again.
I have to admit that when I first learned about the work being done at the institute I was skeptical. You might say that in my “day job” I am a person very much steeped in modern science and law. It is a world of cold, hard facts and demands for verification and proof of every substantive claim. I have found that when confronted with claims that an event or experience is rooted in the mystical and mysterious that those claims often do not stand up in the light of rigorous analysis and a heavy, skeptical dose of critical thinking.
Experiencing the Cuyamungue Method thus presented me with a bit of a challenge. On the one hand there was no denying that what I had experienced in the was just what Paul Robear, the Institute Director, had promised and his use of the term “alternate reality” was certainly apt. On the other hand, my skeptical, analytical mind wanted to understand what lay beneath the experience. During the preparatory session before entering the kiva I was told that the experience was akin to a brain state called “Waking Dreaming.” So it was there that I began my quest to understand more about what had happened to me in that during my posture experiences. I was familiar with the term “Lucid Dreaming”, so I thought I would start there to look for connections.
According to the World of Lucid Dreaming web site, “Lucid Dreaming” is the ability to exert conscious and direct control over your dreams. As a result, dreaming while “lucid” can transform the normal dream state that we experience every night into a “living alternate reality” where all of your dreaming experience is transformed. “Everything you see, feel, hear, taste, and even smell is as authentic as real life.” Awareness of the phenomenon of lucid dreaming has been around for thousands of years and attempts to explain what happens during a lucid dream has been the subject of wonder and study for nearly as long. Across all cultures, history is replete with stories and explanations about what is happening during such dreams and why it happens. Let me tell you, these explanations run the gamut from the logical and sensible to the absolutely bizarre and amazing.
For example, one of the earliest references dates back to Sumeria in 2500 BC in the infamous Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s father was described as the god “Lilu” who was known to disturb and seduce women in their sleep. The companion goddess “Lilitu” was said to do the same thing by visiting men in their “erotic” dreams.
Even St. Augustine comments on the phenomenon of what was then thought to be demons called Incubi and Succubi. And 800 years later Thomas Aquinas weighed in on the subject of demons saying, in his book “The City if God” that children have been begotten from demons who assault women in their sleep. It was actually thought that the only way to protect yourself from the nighttime attacks of these demons was through sacramental confession, using the sign of the cross, and even moving to a far-away location. The catholic church claimed that these demons could not be “removed” via exorcism. These demons had no regard for the power wielded by the catholic exorcists. The good news is that modern science has done what it usually does in such situations and accomplished what medieval exorcists could not: it has banished these night visitors from the realm of demonic possession.
Today we understand the neuroscience behind the brain activity that is occurring during dream states and we understand what happens to transform a “normal” dream state into a “lucid” dream. Dreaming occurs during the REM sleep (REM is an acronym that stands for the phrase Rapid-Eye-Movement). Brain activity when we are awake is characterized in the brain as a “Beta State.” Beta state is brainwave activity oscillating at 15 – 30 Hz (cycles per second). When we are asleep and dreaming brain state is characterized as a “Theta State.” Theta state is brainwave activity oscillating at 4 – 7 Hz. In layman’s terms, you are in a different and much more relaxed brain state.
When I researched this background information I recalled that at the Cuyamungue Institute there was an orientation discussion prior to entering the a posture experience and it was there that I first learned that studies and shown that the Cuyamungue Method can induce a change in brainwave activity from Beta to Theta states. It appeared that my inner-skeptic was not hot on the trail of information that could “debunk” the such experiences. Rather, it was becoming more and more clear that the science of modern neuroscience was validating and supporting what I had experienced. So far so good.
As I dug deeper into the phenomenon I learned that there is absolutely no difference in the neuronal activity between experiencing something while dreaming and experiencing the very same thing while awake. For example, a scientist examining EEG brainwave activity associated with throwing a ball would not be able to tell whether the subject under study was throwing the ball in a dream or while awake. That was fascinating to me in and of itself – but is the subject for another day.
It turns out that, because there is not brainwave difference between activities experienced while asleep and dreaming and the waking version of the same activity, our brains have evolved the capability to shut down the body when we are dreaming. It makes sense if you think about it, if you are merely dreaming about running a marathon the last thing you want to have happen is for your legs to be churning through the night as a result. To prevent such physical responses to brain states occurring while dreaming, the brain shuts off the connection to the body while we dream. If you were to suddenly to raise your level of conscious awareness during such a dream state you would experience the phenomenon called “Sleep Paralysis.” Such paralysis is characterized by complete muscle atonia (muscle weakness).
Interestingly, it is the phenomenon of sleep paralysis that lies at the heart of the ancient stories and legends of demon possession by the incubus and the succubus. Subjects being studied during sleep paralysis report not only the inability to move (the paralysis) but also the phenomenon is frequently accompanied by a sense of an intruder in the room as well as a sense of fear or even terror. Modern scientific reports of incidents of claimed alien abductions often include reports of paralysis and a feeling of terror accompanying the feeling that there was someone else in close proximity. Such are the normal side effects when we become conscious during REM sleep – a time when we are not meant to be conscious and aware of what is happening to us physically. Scientists use the term “Hypnagogia” to describe the state between dreaming and wakefulness and the strange feelings and experiences that can occur when we are too consciously aware is called a Hypnagogic Hallucination.
As I dug a little deeper into what was becoming an intriguing scientific journey that started in my ritual posture experience, I found out that the phenomenon of Hypnagogia can involve a “loosening of ego boundaries and an openness, sensitivity and subjectification of the physical and mental.” Such were the very feelings I had experienced in the kiva and suddenly I was struck by what was becoming a scientific foundation for my experiences. In addition, Hypnagogia is marked by a state of heightened suggestibility, increased receptiveness, and readiness to incorporate external stimuli into internal mental states. Some have found that Hypnogogia includes a process called auto-symbolism where hypnagogic hallucinations can represent (without repression or censorship) whatever is on your mind at the time the experience occurs. Whatever you are thinking can be transformed from abstract ideas to a concrete image. You can gain insight into a particular problem you may have on your mind. The most famous scientific example comes from the discovery of the structure of the benzene molecule. Dr. August Kekule had been struggling on the molecular structure of benzene during an extended period of very intense work. Despite his hard work he was at a conceptual dead-end. He had finally just given up on the problem, conceding that he may never get what he needed. In despair he went home and son had drifted into a half-awake, half-asleep state of mind with his feet u near the fire. What you and I might call “drifting off to sleep” a scientist might instead call being stuck in the transition zone between wakefulness and sleep that generates Hypnagogic Hallucinations. It was there that Dr. Kekule “dreamed” of his beloved benzene molecules and watched as those molecules turned into writhing snakes and those snakes twisted and turned in a mass of reptilian action and then one of those snakes twisted around on himself and grabbed its own tail in its mouth. And in that moment he had the picture of the structure of the elusive benzene molecule he had just given up on (or so he thought) ever finding.
Other artists and scientists including Beethoven, Wagner, Dali, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Isaac Newton) have given credit to hypnagogia as given them enhanced altered states of consciousness and dramatically enhancing their creativity.
It comes as no surprise to learn that in the long past phenomena associated with hypnagogia have been interpreted as premonitions, prophecies, visions and divine inspiration.
You may be able to tell that I truly enjoyed learning about the Cuyamungue Method and the work of Dr. Goodman that is being carried out and supported at the Cuyamungue Institute. And that a passing reference to “waking dreaming” in the orientation session led, ultimately, to my own personal voyage of discovery for what lay at the heart of the ecstatic experience. And instead of finding some jumbled collection of ancient myth and modern pseudo-science I found a fascinating scientific basis for what is happening in the brain while the drums of the ritual reverberated through my brain, my heart, my soul.
And I was left pondering those most famous lines from Shakespeare – “…what dreams may come….” What dreams indeed.
Dave is a business operations and technology consultant working in the Seattle area. He is also a published author and editor writer with interests in technology, neuroscience, cosmology, psychology, and personal development. His background also includes managing business operations, sales and marketing, and general program and project management. He has a particular passion for identifying, articulating, and executing on long-term business strategies.
Dave has been an attorney for 35 years and recently retired from Microsoft where he worked for 15 years on several interesting products across three different Microsoft product divisions. He ha traveled extensively giving presentations to various groups on project development, operations and business efficiency. He has worked as a board member for various non-profit organizations – most recently providing legal and business expertise to a large Seattle-area food bank.
In addition to his ongoing consulting work, he is currently working on his third book covering the intersection of neuroscience and spirituality and related the costs, benefits, and opportunities.