Oneironaut: literally dream sailor, translated from the Ancient Greek — describes those who travel the less familiar realms of consciousness, whether for self-reflection, learning, experimentation, personal betterment, escape or purely for fun. Indeed, the dreamscape is a rich environment for tourism, but another industry also thrives in the dream world: mining. For all of human history, curious men and women have scoured the planes of consciousness in search of inspiration, the raw material of our myths, our culture, our inventions, our greatest breakthroughs. In this special feature, MISC talks to eight dream miners about the ways and the whys of their exploration and excavation of the dreamed existence, and the extraction of culture’s most valuable resource.
If it seems like we chase inspiration through every available means, it’s because genius visits us so infrequently. The Muses need to be coaxed, and finally convinced, to come to our aid. They need to know they’re needed. Homer knew how important it was to show this respect; in the first line of The Odyssey, he entreats Calliope, The Muse of epic poetry: Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story.
Today we are less likely to talk about courting The Muses’ attention; instead we try to ‘find inspiration.’ And as anyone who has attempted creative work can attest, we often have to battle against our normal routines and habits of thought through elaborate means ‘in order to find inspiration.’ To this end, creative individuals employ a wide range of tools and practices to help break out of mental habits and induce bouts of creativity.
Roger Martin’s The Opposable Mind urged leaders to intentionally steep themselves in ambiguity, in order to learn to work through dilemmas and develop integrative solutions that part ways with traditional thinking. Electronic musician Brian Eno and multimedia artist Peter Schmidt, both pioneers in their respective fields, developed Oblique Strategies, a set of over one hundred cards emblazoned with prompts, suggestions, questions, aphorisms and other “worthwhile dilemmas” designed to get around creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking. Even brain training companies like Lumosity claim that their games improve not only cognition and memory, but help to build creative thinking skills. The frustration and desperation creative individuals experience when they can’t find inspiration fuels whole industries.
The Muses need to be coaxed, and they need to be made to feel at home, too. The preparatory rituals of creative work establish a zone of comfort for the creator, but they also act as a portal to a place where the routines that run our lives recede into the background and we become explorers: of the page, the canvas, the sounds, the space, ourselves. If we’re fortunate, The Muses join us on the journey, and then the work of discovery feels effortless, maybe even outside ourselves. If not, we struggle, we lose direction, we move in circles.
Creative writers especially seem consumed with the particulars of their work rituals. Steven Pressfield’s book on winning creative battles, The War of Art, begins with a description of his work ritual. It includes tying the lucky laces on his lucky work boots, putting on his lucky sweater and lucky charm, and pointing his lucky miniature cannon at his desk “so that it can fire inspiration into me.” Every movement in the rituals of creative work helps set the stage for an encounter with inspiration.
The tools and rituals of creativity are our modern Homeric invocation: Sing in us, Muses! But maybe we’ve become overly focused on hearing their song. We can forget that we spend a third of our time under the sway of another group of spirits who inspire: the Oneiroi, spirits of sleep and dreams.
In the dream world, the strange and remarkable are commonplace. Dreams are constructed from fuzziness, uncanniness and ephemera. A dream thing’s thingness is always subject to revision: glance away from your plate of mussels in white wine sauce for a moment and it becomes a hand fan adorned with a painting of three gibbons catching egrets. In the dream state, our mind achieves effortlessly what we struggle to make it do when awake.
We might not require the waking life contrivances of inspiration-inducing tools and rituals in the dream state. But neither should we go into our dreams empty handed. In the interviews that follow, MISC speaks with adept dreamers – among them, psychologists, psychiatrists, religious scholars, creativity consultants, writers and broadcasters – about how to explore the dream state using tools and rituals to help induce creative dreams, explore those dreams lucidly as they occur, and retain the insights they generate.
Become an Oneironaut. Brush your teeth. Crawl into bed. Turn out the lights, listen to nothing and look at nothing. As you drift off think to yourself; the ritual is complete, I have the tools I need, maybe tonight I’ll find something.
Dreams Tools + Techniques
Dreams don’t just happen, and you don’t have to enter the dream world empty handed. Oneironauts have developed many tools and techniques for cultivating their dreams and exploring dream worlds.
Go to bed with the intention of finding something in your dreams, whether it’s the solution to a problem, the outline of a melody or the spark of inspiration. Conjure an image to represent your intention, and let it be the last thing you hold in your mind before falling asleep. If possible, put something on your bedside table that evokes what you’re working on. If you’re an artist or writer, it might be a blank canvas or page. If you’re an engineer, it might be a project’s schematics. These suggestions will help insinuate your waking intentions into your dreams.
Dream signs are recurring dream elements – people, things, places – that can signal to the dreamer that she is in a dream. Typically, dream signs are things that the dreamer encounters infrequently in waking life. For instance, finding yourself standing in front of your childhood home might be a sign that you’re in a dream. Lucid dreaming masks like Bitbanger Lab’s Remee and Stephen Laberge’s NovaDreamer work by creating reliable dream signs through the use of flashing LEDs that appear in dreams as light anomalies.
While dream signs provide a clue to your conscious mind that you’re in a dream, reality checking can help prove your suspicion. Certain elements in dreams only approximate waking life, so scrutinizing these elements can help determine whether you’re dreaming.
Try checking your watch. Time tends to jump around in dreams, so you may find that consecutive glances reveal two very different readings. Look at your hands. Do you have extra or missing fingers (that aren’t usually there)? Read a book. Are the words squirming around? Unless
You remember recently ingesting hallucinogens, you’re likely in a dream. Perform reality checks every now and then in your waking life
To cement the habit; you’ll be more likely to perform reality checks in your dreams. And don’t bother trying to pinch yourself. You can feel pain in dreams, especially if you aren’t lucid.
Testing for super powers can be a form of reality checking, but it’s also the first step toward taking control of your dreams. Try flying, or breathing while holding your nose and mouth closed. These superhuman feats are easy in a dream. Turn the lights on and off with your mind. Teleport somewhere you’ve never been. Conjure something out of thin air. But be careful not to become overly excited, as this might cause you to wake up. If you feel your presence in the dream world begin to fade, try some stabilizing techniques.
Becoming overly excited in a lucid dream can cause you to lose lucidity, or to wake up altogether. If you feel this begin to happen, you can ground yourself by interacting with the dream world. Rub your palms together. Touch surfaces. Taste things. If all else fails, spin around in a circle a few times. Some lucid dreamers report that this drives them deeper into lucidity, like a screw into wood. Above all, stay calm, and remind yourself periodically that you’re dreaming.
You’ve been playing around in dream worlds all night and have generated a mountain of ideas. Before you do anything else in the morning, write down your dreams. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted. Lie in bed and try to conjure the emotions of dimly remembered dream scenarios. With some patience, you might find hazy dreams creeping back into your memory. Besides its obvious use in cataloguing inspiration found in dreams, journaling can also help improve dream recall and build awareness of dream signs, which can aid in becoming lucid.
This article appears in MISC Fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue