Inspiration in the Dream World: Ryan Hurd

Ryan Hurd is an independent writer, researcher and consultant who helps people rekindle their imaginations. He has written books on lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis. His newest book, Dream Like a Boss, is a beginner’s guide to dream work. 

MISC: From the perspective of stoking ideation, what do dreams do better than waking life?

Ryan Hurd: In dreams, reason is not master and commander. You’re out of that default, rational, waking way of being. Instead, cognition becomes more emotional. In dreams we make metaphors between images and emotions, and create holographic worlds out of the results.

It’s a really profound way of being. When you start recording and paying attention to your dreams, you open yourself up to an older way of thinking, a more traditional way of thinking, that our society tamps out; that intuitive, creative, gut-based thinking.

You write about the creative use of dreams throughout his- tory. It stretches back quite far, doesn’t it?

Some of our earliest literature is based on dreams. Gilgamesh’s dream is one of our first pieces of writing. A lot of Egyptian iconography is dream interpretation. Clearly, we’ve been dreaming and talking about dreaming at least since we’ve been writing things down. Once you get into the prehistoric world, its mostly conjecture. But the human brain was the same 50,000 years ago as it is to- day; we can’t refrain from dreaming.

One of the theories about ancient rock art is that they depict shamanic states of consciousness, which includes dreams, nightmares, and vision states. I’m obsessed with rock art. If you look at the rock art imagery, a lot of what you see in it is similar to what we now call ‘archetypal’ or ‘big’ dreams, those dreams that stick with us for a lifetime: abstract, geometric art, uncanny things like half-human half-animal monsters and things like that.

Can you explain what you mean by “big” dreams?

You can’t talk about dreams for very long without bumping up against the question of their function. I try to
be holistic about this, because there are a lot of different theories about dreams. We tend to dream about those things we care about or those things that are most present in our lives. Not even just people, relation- ships, and places, but also the ways that we think and our paradigms for reality manifest in dreams. So that’s a bias for us, as researchers, because our own dreams inform what we think is going on with dreams. So often researchers will glom on to a theory that fits with their personal experience of dreams. That’s why I like the creativity angle.

The public discourse around dreams seems rather shallow. It’s taboo to engage with dreams.

Everyone’s going to yawn if you talk about your dreams! Or they’ll tell a stupid Freud joke about a cigar.

But if you frame dreams as a tool for creativity, then it really opens up the discussion.

Yeah, and it’s about creating opportunities to share dreams in your life. Share your dreams with your loved ones and encourage them to share theirs with you, and rather than trying to solve the dream’s ‘problem’ or figure out what it means, just actively listen to what they have to say. That’s very important. I think those individuals that are most successful in working with dreams are comfortable with a high degree of ambiguity. If you have this attitude where you are trying to solve dreams like a Rubik’s cube, you’re going to miss out on a lot of their richness.

Tell me about sleep paralysis. I’ve always experienced it as an unpleasant phenomenon, so the notion that it can be inspiring is surprising to me.

Sleep paralysis can bring a dark creativity. It takes a certain temperament to appreciate it. A lot of classic horror – especially from the Victorian age – was undoubtedly influenced by sleep paralysis: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and certain of Edgar Allan Poe’s work suggest the terror of sleep paralysis. The monster from Frankenstein came to Shelley in what appears to have been a sleep paralysis vision; she woke up on the side of her bed and the monster was looming down on her.

A more recent example is the work of Elmé Bekker, a South African fashion designer. She was having experiences of these entities dressed in strange costumes coming to her in her sleep and spooking her. At some point, rather than being frightened, she decided to focus on what they were wearing. Her fear turned to curiosity, and after waking up from bouts of sleep paralysis she would start designing clothes based on what the entities wore.

In sleep paralysis, as in dreams, it’s easy to become frightened. The amygdala – that part of the brain that process emotions and controls the fight/flight mechanism – is lit up like a Christmas tree during REM dreams and sleep paralysis. Having a way to calm yourself down or a faith to lean on is very helpful for combating that fear. You can ground yourself through meditation, affirmation, or prayer. If you’re a hardcore materialist, you could also find comfort in recognizing that your fear is just a biological state.

You can think of sleep paralysis as an encounter with the creative daemon; what the Romans called our genius. Look back at some of the classical sources. Socrates said he had a voice in his head that gave him instructions. But it wasn’t something you owned, it was divine. You have to cultivate your access to it.

So there’s a risk involved with exploring these states, but it’s worth it to stick it out and explore them rather than push them away.

Yes, absolutely. I think the more we face things that challenge us – even if they’re morbid – the more we learn from them and grow. People want to talk about dreams, but the sometimes have this perspective that they’re all about fluffy bunnies and candy land. But once you start to actually read people’s dream reports, you realize that
a lot of it is extraordinarily dark material. A lot of it is tabooed material that we don’t talk about around the dinner table. Those things about humanity that are hard to look at routinely show up in dreams. But its all part
of an emotional journey; you are getting to know your emotional-somatic self, your body self. And the body tells you through dreams when things are wrong: with your corporeal body, but also your relationships. Dreams can serve as a tension-detecting system.

I had a chance to read some of your dream journals. Your dream recall is very impressive. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of cultivating that skill?

Like all things, it’s a matter of making it a habit. I find that if I make a declaration at the beginning of the week to record my dreams, I’ll tend to do so through the week. If I don’t make that declaration, I might not have any dreams that I can remember through the week. So as soon as you make that intention to start recording your dreams in a journal or a dream app, your recall begins to improve because you’re building bridges between your waking and dreaming lives.

There’s an artist in San Francisco named Jennifer Dumpert who builds maps of elements from her dreams that she spots in waking life. So the whole of her waking landscape, over time, has become populated by dream memories. She’s overlaid waking reality with dreams.

What do you recommend to those who want to start engaging more with their dreams?

You don’t need a lot of technology. The dreams are the technology. Keep a dream journal. Share your dreams with a good listener. And be a good listener for that person. It can be extraordinarily informative to share your dreams with a group of people. They’ll say things you hadn’t thought of, and some of it will be wrong, but some of it will hit the nail on the head. It’s hard to figure your dreams out on your own. It’s almost as if they’re meant to be shared. Anthropologists who talk about dreaming sometimes call it a communicatory event; it has to be brought into the waking world to come alive. And not just through talking about it, but by choreographing a dance, painting a picture, embarking on a journey inspired by it. Honor your dreams through action

This article appears in MISC Fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue 

More on dreaming and inspiration: Dream Tools & TechniquesDeirdre BarretWendy DonigerDuncan McCleod Frazier & Steven McGuigan, Dax Urbszat, Jeff Warren, J. Allan Hobson


the author

Jayar La Fontaine

Jayar La Fontaine is a senior foresight strategist at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.