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Posted Under Shamanism

How to Use Shamanic Practices for Dreamwork

Dreaming Clouds

There is extensive literature on dreamwork, psychotherapeutic applications of dreaming, and, more recently, shamanic dreaming. In this article I explain what shamanic dreaming is and what you can use it for, such as your own development, for purposes such as creativity, or to help others. In this context dreams can include waking dreams or other visionary states, as well as dreams while asleep, all of which you can work with in the same way. Anybody can learn shamanic dreaming, although you still need to learn shamanic practices used in dreams (teaching of these may of course occur in dreams).

A prerequisite for shamanic dreaming (or any other active dreamwork) is to be lucid and to take control of events in a dream. Lucid dreams occur in the final two hours or so of normal sleep, so there are 730 hours each year (30 days) of lucid dreaming potentially available. If you live to be 70 years old, then that equates to 6 years. If you learn to dream lucidly in your late teens, your lucid dreaming may only cover 50 years, so total is 4 years. Let us further assume that you only dream lucidly 25% of the time; that still equates to a full year of lucid dreaming that is available for dreamwork. What could you achieve in that time?

The other consideration relevant here is that your experience of time is different in dream, so an extended period in the dream may occur in a shorter time in physical reality, increasing the "actual" time available for lucid dreaming.

Two particularly useful approaches that authors often mention to help lucid dreaming are prospective memory and reality checks.

Prospective memory is remembering to do something in the future. A usual way of using this is via a trigger question. When you notice an object, person, or event that you are likely to see routinely (but that is unusual encouraging you to notice it), you then ask a question such as, "Am I dreaming?" While awake the answer to this is obviously no, but the act of asking the question encourages you to also ask it while dreaming if you notice the same trigger, which may prompt the realization that you are in a dream and lead to a lucid state. Examples of such triggers may be seeing something of a particular color, noticing a specific animal or animal behavior, seeing the Full Moon, or hearing a particular phrase. Knowing that you are using this technique may also encourage spirit to put the trigger into your dream.

You can also perform reality checks to confirm that you are dreaming. A good example of this is being able to do something that you cannot usually do in physical reality, such as passing your hand through or into a solid object or jumping in the air and seeing if you float rather than fall again.

There are common signs that you are in a dream, such as devices or vehicles not working as they normally would, a location that you know being different to your knowledge of the location in physical reality, or your appearance being unusual (people often notice the appearance or reflection of their hands, feet, or facial appearance being different). These may also trigger lucidity.

In addition, you can also set a specific intention before going to sleep that you will be lucid in the dream, such as, "I intend to be lucid in my dream," and can also use an affirmation such as, "I am able to dream lucidly" in combination with your intention.

Like anything else, lucid dreaming becomes easier and more frequent with practice. The other problem for beginners is preserving the lucid state within a dream once you achieve it. This requires focus on the dream and again becomes easier with practice.

You can direct events in a lucid dream or allow your unconscious or higher self to be in control, or to guide you, so that you are more of a witness to events. This opens new possibilities that your conscious mind may not consider. You may also of course receive guidance from spirit in a dream.

A key to dreamwork is dream interpretation. People often do this with reference to a dream dictionary, but it is important recognize that symbols and metaphors that you see in dreams have specific meaning to you, which may be different from general interpretations. It is also important to ask yourself how a symbol or dream event makes you feel, noting your emotional as well as mental reaction. If you do not understand the meaning of a particular symbol, you can take a shamanic journey while awake with the intention of meeting a spirit to ask them to explain this to you.

Important symbols include archetypal and personal symbols. Archetypal symbols are cross-cultural and span time, such as certain spirits that have an accepted meaning. Birds are archetypal messengers and certain animals (such as rabbits, spiders, foxes, and coyotes) are tricksters. If you see a frog wearing a crown, you might consider kissing it. Personal symbols are ones you already recognize and associate a meaning to. Spirit will tend to communicate with you in dreams using these archetypes and/or teach you the interpretation to use for a symbol or allowing you to infer it from dream events.

You should write dream intentions in a dream journal, as well as the experiences of a dream and your interpretation of it, together with any follow-up work that you perform. Using a dream journal also helps you recollect dreams and in learning to interpret symbols in future dreams. If writing dream contents is not that practical, or will interrupt your sleep too much, you might consider using a phone or other device to record a memo in which you describe the dream content, which might be a more effective method.

Having learned lucid dreaming, dream recollection, and dream interpretation, you are able to do shamanic dreamwork. So, what is shamanic dreaming and how is this different from normal dreaming? The following are differences that help distinguish "shamanic" dreams from "normal" dreams:

  • Recognizing that dreaming is not something that happens in your mind, but that dreams occur in spiritual reality, the same three level cosmology of lower world, middle world, and upper world that shamanic journeying occur in. Dreams occurring in the middle world aspect of spiritual reality is one reason they often appear to be confusing and strange.
  • Realizing that spirits can be present in dreams, including power animals, other helping spirits or teaching spirits, or ancestral spirits, as well as the spirits of live or dead people who may need your help. Such spirits may provide you with teaching and healing (or even initiation) in the dream.
  • Understanding that you can do shamanic work in a dream, including where you intend to change physical reality, in the same way you can use such an intention in a shamanic journey.

In shamanic cultures, people believe that dreams as sacred and real, and that people can dream physical reality into existence, with the dreamworld being the true reality.

As well as normal dreams there may be significant dreams, what Michael Harner and others call "big dreams," which may recur and that may hold guidance that has potential to change your life. Advanced dreamwork aims to try to incubate such dreams.

The following are the sorts of activities that you can do in shamanic dreamwork, which can form the basis for intentions set before you go to sleep:

  • Explore the dreamworld.
  • Experience activities such as flying or shapeshifting into an animal.
  • Do things that you may not usually do as a way of experimenting, or to rehearse future activities that you will perform in physical reality, such as public speaking.
  • Fulfill fantasies.
  • Take more direct control of your dreams.
  • Face fears, phobias, anxieties, grief, or past trauma that you have not fully resolved.
  • Resolve issues with past relationships amicably if you meet a former partner in a dream.
  • Receive empowerment or recover energy that you have lost.
  • Release or return energy or power that you have taken from others.
  • Face nightmares, transform them and release their energy.
  • Get creative inspiration or input from people or events in a dream. If you are working on creative fiction people in the dream may be characters, and events part of a plot outline.
  • Receive or give teaching, or gain or impart knowledge or wisdom, in a dream.
  • Learn divination of potential future events, what you can do to avoid them, or how to co-create a desired future with spirit.
  • Receive or give healing in a dream or learn healing techniques.
  • Learn healing techniques in dreams to use in physical reality.
  • Meet the spirits of dead ancestors to engage in ancestral healing or other ancestral work.
  • Gain information about, work with, or heal, past (or future) lives.
  • Have spiritual, mystical, and ecstatic experiences. This can include experiencing union with the cosmos, the divine, or an equivalent based on your belief system.
  • Make changes in the dream with an intention that this leads to changes in physical reality. You can learn rituals to affect this from teaching spirits and will eventually be able to design your own.
  • Receive initiation from spirit.

Dream initiation is an advanced topic but can occur spontaneously, even in people new to shamanic work. During a shamanic dream initiation, a person usually experiences symbolic (not actual) suffering and death within a dream including the following motifs:

  • Experiencing illness, animal bites, or near-death experiences that change the person and provide them with knowledge or enhanced abilities.
  • Descent to the underworld or your being swallowed by an animal and their return with gifts, or ascent to the upperworld to receive divine guidance.
  • Symbolic dismemberment such as having your body cut up, boiled in a cauldron, or reduced to ash in a fire) followed by rememberment and your resurrection or rebirth as a new person. Rebirth is an initiation element in all traditions.

As always, we need to consider the ethics of work that we do. Any entity that you meet in a dream may be a suffering being who needs help. You should treat people that you meet in dreams the same way that you would treat a person in real life.

You should also adopt a serious attitude to dreamwork, so it is not just an opportunity to engage in frivolous pursuits, which misses opportunities to undertake work of benefit to yourself and others.

By changing your approach to how you experience and work with dreams, and learning your true potential, you can produce beneficial changes in physical reality, for yourself, for others, and for the world. May you be empowered and guided to do so.


Further Reading:
Moss, Robert. Active Dreaming: Journeying Beyond Self-Limitation to a Life of Wild Freedom (New World Library, April 2011).
Sumegi, Angela. Dreamworlds of Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism: The Third Place (SUNY Press, May 2008).
Tuccillo, Dylam et al. A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming (New York: Workman, September 2013).
Villoldo, Alberto. Courageous Dreaming: How Shamans Dream the World into Being (Hay House, March 2008).

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About Mark Nelson

Mark Nelson (Hong Kong) is a resident shamanic practitioner at Shakti Healing Circle, one of the leading healing centers in Asia. He is a graduate of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies three-year program and a member of the ...

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