[Photo by Alice Popkorn]
Lucid dreaming is a hot topic. Within the last five years, The Atlantic has published two articles and a how-to video on the topic. Not to be outdone, Huffington Post published more than two dozen articles in 2015 alone. Beyond the flaky tomes that have lined the shelves of Barnes & Nobles' New Age section for years, lucid dreaming is now the subject of substantial works in the philosophy of mind—most notably Evan Thompson's Waking, Dreaming, Being and Jennifer Windt's Dreaming.
This renewed interest is quite a welcome change for me, since my work in media studies explores the relationship between lucid dreaming and virtual reality. It's a unique juxtaposition of topics which, when mentioned in polite conversation, often elicits the type of confused look one might witness after sprouting a second head. Academics, in particular, have not been keen on the topic, as evidenced by the size of the audience during my first conference presentation on the subject (which, aside from the other panelists, amounted to zero).
But that was ten years ago. Since then, I've witnessed the emergence of Contemplative Studies—a new field with established programs at respected universities. It is a field ripe for unusual juxtapositions: University of Michigan, for example, offers a Bachelor's program that combines jazz and meditation. Surprisingly, though, the field has placed little emphasis on media—odd, considering that companies like Google and Facebook tout the benefits of "mindfulness" while making gadgets and websites designed to distract you.
To address that discrepancy, I've outlined the contours of Contemplative Media Studies—a subfield that applies contemplative principles to the critical analysis of media content, technologies, and institutions. We might ask, for example: What should we make of sexualization of yoga in popular magazines and elsewhere? Could a circular-shaped smartphone like the Runcible solve the problem of distraction-by-gadget?
More importantly, we might ask: How can we move beyond a narrow conception of mindfulness that ignores the suffering caused by an obsessive pursuit of profit?
To address the latter question, I've offered the term civic mindfulness (what some call "engaged mindfulness"). Unfortunately for the tech elite, this perspective fundamentally challenges the assumptions that drive the digital economy. Among other things, it involves whistleblowing, civil disobedience, investigative journalism, and non-commercial technologies aimed at disrupting the disruptors.
By civic mindfulness, I don't just mean an individual citizen's awareness of issues. I mean collective awareness within the body politic—the ability to recognize and resist propaganda, and to write more empowering cultural narratives. As we move toward more convincing simulations, and more immersive virtual environments, the importance of maintaining this type of awareness is crucial.
That brings us back to lucid dreaming—or what is known in Tibetan Buddhism as dream yoga. From a contemplative perspective, mindfulness and lucidity are fundamentally related. Civic mindfulness is lucidity writ large. And, as in a dream, collective lucidity is difficult to achieve and sustain.
Virtuality is not Lucidity
The experience of lucid dreaming maps out in fascinating ways onto users' experiences in immersive virtual environments. In many ways, dreaming and VR are quite similar. (Consider, for example, this screen capture from the virtual environment Second Life, and compare it to this artistic rendering of lucid dreaming from the Lifehacker website.)
Beyond simple aesthetics, lucid dreaming and VR share some of the same therapeutic applications. VR can be used to treat PTSD, for example. Lucid dream therapy can do that too. Other applications involve treatment of nightmares and anxieties related to autism—not to mention their use as tools for creative and artistic expression.
But VR and lucid dreaming are different. A lucid dream is limited only by your imagination and determination, while VR is limited by code and—more importantly—by coders. Code is law, as they say. In most cases, furthermore, users must pay for the privilege to exercise their creative potential.
What's especially ironic to anyone familiar with lucid dreaming is that tech people tout VR as providing experiences unprecedented in their immersive richness—as if we need a pair of ridiculous-looking goggles to have an immersive virtual experience.
That is a terrible lie. Dreaming is the original immersive virtual experience. And if we can cultivate the ability to maintain consciousness while dreaming, we can use that cognitive space to develop flexibility of mind, imagination, intentionality, engagement with the unconscious—in ways that are simply not possible even with the most sophisticated computer systems.
Contrary to the ideology of Silicon Valley, I've argued elsewhere that information is not wisdom, transparency is not authenticity, and processing is not judgment. To these, let's add another proverb for the digital era: Virtuality is not lucidity.
Steering the Ship
To be clear, I'm not opposed to VR. The technology has tremendous potential. But what framework should we use to develop it? What principles should guide it? As I like to ask my students: Who is steering the ship?
Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion in 2014. Questions of moral and economic gate-keeping were already present in Facebook's platform architecture. But with VR, the cognitive stakes are much higher. That's why it's so easy to find dystopian representations of VR like this one. If gadgets like Oculus follow the same logic of Facebook's commercial development, the dystopian concerns of critics may be well-founded.
Years ago, Ron Purser made a helpful distinction: some kinds of VR environments are like a tunnel, and some are like a spiral. The former is the kind with which we're most familiar: goggles and headsets that suck you down a cognitive tunnel into an alternate reality. By contrast, spiral environments typically toss aside the goggles in favor of multi-wall projection rooms. The images in the room respond to you, and may create a sense that you are elsewhere; but you never forget that you are a body in real space. This VR treatment of autism is like that.
In a similar way, I suggest that research into lucid dreaming and VR should occur in tandem, spiraling back upon each other. The principles of dream yoga can provide an ethical and philosophical framework for the development of VR. And VR environments, rather than sucking us into architectures of contempt and exploitive consumerism, should remind us that the eye-opening experiences they offer are actually low-grade reflections of the imaginative—indeed, spiritual—capacities with which we are already equipped as human beings.
The Dream as Metaphor
Reading the work of Buddhists like Tenzin Rinpoche, one gets the impression that life is literally a dream. But we needn't go that far. The dream is, in a sense, a "generative metaphor." This concept is common in organizational studies, where research shows that the metaphor of dream can help small groups to move beyond an impasse to envision a more sustainable future.
On a broader scale, as Stathis Gourgouris argues in Dream Nation, we can understand an entire nation as a dream, and begin to ask critical questions of the nation's dream-work. In Serbian Dreambook, Marko Zivkovic similarly describes the national imaginary as a dream and uses this approach to understand Serbia during the time of Milosevic.
As Zivkovic suggests, there's a reason why we describe historical crises as nightmares. I'd add that, by the same token, there's a reason why we are inspired by leaders who "have a dream"—not a passive dream, mind you, but an active dream in which we consciously participate.
A sustainable future requires attentional focus, awareness, mindfulness, on a mass scale. Mass media and technology are clearly implicated our apparent failure to ensure such a future. (Here I refer you to the fantastic film Koyaanisquatsi.) But mass media and technology must be part of the solution.
Dream yoga teaches us that the idea of turning nightmares into visions is more than a mere metaphor. It is in fact a skill we can develop as individuals. Applying that principle more broadly, we understand that turning nightmarish suffering into conscious dreaming is, in fact, a capacity that the institutions of a democracy—especially journalism and mass media—are responsible for cultivating.
Dreaming the Virtual
What if our media environment—particularly as it becomes more immersive—reflected the dynamics of the conscious dream? Imagine if the following principles could guide the digital economy. A dream environment in which we dream consciously and mindfully is one about which we can say the following:
- It reflects and reveals our unlimited imaginative potential.
- It responds quickly to our intentions.
- The only rules that restrict who or what we can be—or for that matter, how many identities we can have—are those to which we give our consent.
- We can, at any time, begin to tell a new story about ourselves—honoring the past while moving beyond it.
- We have access to those parts of ourselves that are usually hidden.
- We recognize that the object of our fear is an illusion, and bogeymen lose their power.
These dynamics have important implications for the design, content, institutional structure, and regulation of digital environments. Consider, for example, how they might impact our thinking about privacy policies, data control, user consent, corporate and governmental transparency, or best practices for journalists—to name a few. In summary, this approach asks us to conceive of digital technologies in terms of their value as public goods.
Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger have done an excellent job outlining some basic principles for the ethical development of VR technologies. (It is no coincidence that Metzinger, a noted philosopher of mind, is clearly aware of the parallels between lucid dreams and virtual reality environments.) But there is much work to be done. The elaboration of an ethics of VR will benefit immensely if we revisit the contemplative experiences they seek to emulate.
If mass media are to be part of the solution, they should not function as a tunnel that sucks us into a dystopian nightmare, or even a wistful but mindless reverie (Candy Crush, anyone?). To the extent that digital media are commercially driven, however, they will continue to have a low moral center of gravity. They cater primarily to our vices.
Instead, active participation in our media environment should serve as a catalyst for the development of wisdom and integrity. To be sure, lucid dreams provide opportunities to indulge our vices. But over time, contemplative practices like dream yoga (or contemplative prayer, or any number of other practices) reorient us to the source of our highest virtues—whatever you might want to call that source. A media environment modeled on such practices, which spirals back toward our own imaginative capabilities, serves as a catalyst of virtue rather than vice.
To dream the virtual is create a new digital economy—one which does not merely entertain or manufacture consent, but which instead reminds us to wake up, to realize we've been dreaming, and then to dream together, with purpose—that is, mindfully.
Let's make sure the digital economy serves human ends. Let lucid dreamers steer the ship.