I’m often asked what got me into dream yoga? For me, the journey into these incredible nighttime practices started nearly forty years ago and I have been exploring them ever since. Some of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had occurred in my dreams. In my early twenties one such experience would change my life — and send me deep into the dark.

Harsh Realities of a Prison and a Hospital

I had just completed an exhausting five-year double-degree undergraduate program in music and biology, and I took a year off before going to graduate school. I spent the first half of this year working in a maximum-security federal prison. My job was to supervise inmate construction crews: motley gangs of killers, rapists, extortionists, and thieves. It was a gritty introduction to the shadow side of life. As I befriended these tough guys I saw that their crimes for the most part were just surface expressions; I came to see these men as people who were just like me but who had lost their way.

For the second half of that year I worked as a surgical orderly. My job was to prep patients for surgery, deliver them to the operating room, and later take them into the recovery room. It involved intimate care and led to stark discoveries about the harsh realities of illness and death. Because I was thinking about going to medical school, I became the teacher’s pet to a number of surgeons. They allowed me to watch countless operations and ask endless questions. It was a marvelous opportunity to learn about life and death. As a young man, I experienced these two jobs as a sobering introduction to the human condition.

Started Spiritual Seeking

During this year I was also becoming interested in the ideas associated with the burgeoning New Age movement. I had started a practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM) two years earlier and was getting involved with other spiritual practices. TM showed me that there were dimensions of reality deeper than my external world, a surface world that was slapping me in the face with these two job experiences.

I was also reading a great deal, things like The Seth Material, Edgar Cayce, pop psychology, and quirky books about dreams. The juxtaposition of heavenly spiritual experiences and hellish introductions into psychological, social, and physical disease shook me to the core. How could I reconcile my blissful spiritual states with the gritty reality presented by the prison and the hospital?

Altered State

About six months into this year I started having dreams that seemed to foreshadow something. These recurrent dreams, which increased in frequency, generated an ineffable sense of anticipation. I knew something was about to happen. One day, while deeply contemplating one of my New Age books, my mind suddenly broke open. In an instant I was flooded with insights and visions of an entirely new world. It was as if a huge spiritual hammer slammed down on top of my skull and split me apart. Words defy me even decades later.

This new world was a kaleidoscope of electrifying perceptions, like having eyelids peeled back on eyes I never knew I had. I felt awake for the very first time, jolted from the slumber that had been my life. I remained in this ecstatic state for two weeks, convinced that this is what it meant to be spiritually reborn, or mystically awakened.

Two aspects of the experience stood out, one related to the night and the other to the day, both of which were connected to dreams.

The first was that my dream life exploded. I had dozens of powerful dreams, many of which were lucid (which means I realized I was dreaming while still remaining in the dream), while others were prophetic. Many of these dreams were hyper-real, more intense and real than waking experience. I started a dream diary and within those two weeks had filled several notebooks. It was as if my deepest unconscious mind erupted and a volcano of dreams burst forth. Some of those dreams still guide my life today.

The second aspect was that my daytime experience became very dreamlike. My world had become fluid, illusory, and groundless. I saw everything as a transparent symbol. When I walked along the shore of Lake Michigan near my house, the waves were teaching me about the rising and falling of thoughts in my mind. When the sun broke through the clouds, it was a teaching about the awakened mind shining through the gaps between my thoughts. A rainbow was showing me the transient and ephemeral nature of things.

Everywhere I looked it was as if the world was sending me a message. I was treading a fine line between metanoia and paranoia (that is, deriving spiritual meaning from my world, versus imputing excessive meaning upon it). In addition to my burgeoning dream diary, I also filled several notebooks with insights delivered during the day. I was thrust into a dazzling and highly surreal experience. It’s impossible to convey the impact of these miraculous weeks, which remain the most transformative of my life.

Awake or Asleep?

Because my daytime experience was becoming more dreamlike, and my nighttime dreams were become more real (clear and stable), it got to the point where I had a hard time determining if I was awake or asleep. There were times when my dreams felt super-real and waking experience became the dream. These previously separate worlds were mixing together.

This was entertaining at first but became progressively disconcerting. An experience that started out so fresh became frightening. Where was my solid and secure world? I was losing my grip on reality. Instead of asking myself, “Is this enlightenment?” I began to panic and ask, “Is this madness?” My thrill in being spiritually awake was replaced with my fear of being insane.

I felt that if I went to a therapist I would probably be medicated, or even institutionalized. The contemplative psychiatrist R. D. Laing said,

“Attempts to wake before our time are often punished, especially by those who love us most. Because they, bless them, are asleep. They think anyone who wakes up, or who, still asleep realizes that what is taken to be real is a ‘dream’ is going crazy.”[1]

In a desperate attempt to reestablish some sense of ground, and therefore sanity, I shut the experience down. I jumped into my Volkswagen Beetle, drove to Colorado, and joined my buddies to drink and ski my way back to sanity.

Within a week of intense distraction my sense of a stable world began to rebuild. I don’t know if it was the beer, my rowdy friends, or spending so much time in nature, but I breathed a massive sigh of relief as that unworldly two-week experience faded and I regained my sense of reality.

[1] R. D. Laing, The Politics of the Family (New York: Pantheon, 1971), p. 82.