Meeting in the Dream World: Oneirogens and Tips for Better Dreaming

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Cover Courtesy Evolver Editions
What do dreams mean? From demons encountered in sleep paralysis visions to psychic research conducted by the CIA, the seemingly disparate topics covered by “Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness" congeal to form a larger picture of what these extraordinary states of consciousness might have to tell us about the nature of reality itself.

In Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (Evolver Editions, 2012), a diverse group of authors journey into the fringes of human consciousness, tackling psychic and paranormal phenomena, lucid dreaming, synchronistic encounters, and more. Collected from the online magazine Reality Sandwich, these essays explore regions of the mind often traversed by shamans, mystics, and visionary artists; adjacent and contiguous to our normal waking state, these realms may be encountered in dreams or out-of-body experiences, accessed through meditation or plant medicines, and marked by psychic phenomena and uncanny synchronicities. From demons encountered in sleep paralysis visions to psychic research conducted by the CIA, the seemingly disparate topics covered here congeal to form a larger picture of what these extraordinary states of consciousness might have to tell us about the nature of reality itself. In this excerpt, Jennifer Dumpert writes about a group of dreamers called an oneiroauticum and the practices, herbs and supplements they take to promote dream experiences.

At five in the morning the alarm clock quietly chimed. I leaned over and gently roused Erik. Then I reached toward Ivy, asleep on the cot on my other side, and woke her too. Barefoot and in my best nightie, I got out of bed and padded around the apartment, nudging the dozen people sleeping on futons and couches. “It’s time,” I said. In my wake, drowsy people reached for the pill of galantamine, an extract of red spider lily, and the bottle of water I’d placed near them earlier. We’d gathered to dream together, a monthly commitment we’ve kept for more than a year. Thus began the Oneironauticum.

On the last Saturday of every month, Oneironauticum participants worldwide enter dream space together. We do this by sharing an oneirogen. Derived from the Greek oneiro, “dream,” and gen, “to create,” an oneirogen is anything that induces vivid dreams. Our oneirogens are often substances, but sometimes they’re practices or sensory triggers. Whether it’s garlic, galantamine, or Tibetan Buddhist lucid-dream practices, if it promotes dreams and dream recall, we’ll try it.

Oneironauticum has no specific focus. I don’t specifically advocate therapeutic interpretation, lucid dreaming, healing dreams, messages from the gods or from the other side, contacting other dreamers through dreams, foretelling the future, inspiring creativity, or any of the many other reasons that people pay attention to dreams. It’s great if people are into any of that; lots of participants are. Any goal is valid. My interest is not why people participate, but what happens when we simply practice together. We dream together to see what happens, without expectation about what that will be. Oneironauticum offers an open-ended exploration of what the experience is like.

Everyone dreams. Across cultures and throughout history, we all visit bizarre, visionary worlds on a nightly basis. There is a lot to be learned in this place. Your mind creates objective “reality” and the subjective experience of moving through that reality. Think of it as a different mode of cognition. Your dream mode is a way of being that you inhabit a fair percentage of the time. The point of Oneironauticum is to provide a vehicle to help us all explore this universally shared, yet deeply individual, lost continent. Whether you’re lucid dreaming or barely dreaming, want to contact your ancestors or figure out what symbols mean to you, or just like to sit back and watch the weird movie, Oneironauticum helps amp up the experience through collective attention, brings it to the fore of the mind in a way that encourages us all to take a closer look. What’s going on in there? Is there a worthier question?

Before every Oneironauticum, I pile blankets, sheets, pillows, and single futons into my VW van and drive to our venue–the home of one of our participants. Sometimes I host at my place too. People troop in between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., pajamas and dream journals in hand. While we settle in and wait for everyone to arrive, we chat about some oneiro-centric topic. During last August’s session, I brought up hypnagogia and hypnopompia, those in-between stages that bookend sleeping and waking consciousness. I have my best dreams in hypnopompic states, just before I get up in the morning. During hypnopompia, the difference between awake and asleep gets confused, so thoughts and dream intermingle. First I’m in bed considering going to yoga, then I’m on a flying carpet discussing yogic breathing techniques with a chipmunk. I love the delicious drift between consciousness and dream.

During the February Oneironauticum, Dean read to us from Charles Tart’s classic 1969 book Altered States of Consciousness. The piece he shared with us, a well-known chapter of dubious scholarship called “Dream Theory in Malaya,” describes the dream practices of the Senoi. Author Kilton Stewart claims that the Senoi, whom he calls “an isolated tribe of jungle folk,” base personal interactions on dream encounters and carefully teach their children the meaning of and proper etiquette around dreams. The piece may demonstrate the romantic idealism around “gentle savages” that marked Stewart’s era of anthropology, but it’s a lovely and inspiring story all the same.

Some time around midnight, people arrange bedding, brush teeth, and get into pajamas. We usually take, or undertake, our oneirogen just before bed, though some substances are best ingested in the middle of the night or early morning, when the length and frequency of REM cycles increase. Because REM cycles happen more and get longer the more you sleep, we try to stay in bed for at least nine hours. Then we wake up slowly–a key to remembering dreams–and share nighttime narratives over brunch.

Besides the dozen or so dreamers who sleep in the same space in the San Francisco Bay area, people worldwide participate remotely. To do that, they check in to the Oneironauticum blog to see what we’ll take or do that month. Sometimes our oneirogens are easy to come by. We’ve tried garlic, vitamin supplements, and dried herbs, stuff you can get at any well-stocked health food store. Instructions for practices are always posted on the website. Other oneirogens, like Silene capensis or Blue Water lilies (Nymphaea caerulea), take some effort to find. But even when the substances prove difficult to track down, remote dreamers can simply set the intention to participate.

A couple thousand people hit the website before the event, though I don’t know how many people actually participate. Dreamers have emailed me from places as far flung as South Africa, Italy, New Zealand, and Brazil. A disproportionately large number of Canadians write. A lot of people up and down the West Coast dream with us. A sister group formed in Australia. They gather to sleep in the same space together on their Saturday night, on the other side of the clock from us in San Francisco. Participating remotely, Richard in Cape Town had his first lucid dream. Debra in Adelaide encountered deep grief and realized that a long sad cry could take her beyond the space-time continuum. Ian in New York City sailed a pirate ship into port where three women, really a single woman in the three phases of her life, awaited him.

Clearly the intention to dream with the group contributes to the vividness and keen recall of the dreams participants report. Participation in a large dream endeavor is enough to kick dreams into a higher gear. But within that context there are also clearly some very effective oneirogens. Here’s a few you might want to try.

Galantamine (Red Spider Lily Extract)

Galatamine, a drug used to treat Alzheimer’s and other memory impairments, can be purchased either over the counter, in lab synthesized form, or else in a less processed form, as a substance derived from the bulbs of flowers. We prefer to keep it natural, so I ordered our galantamine in the form of Red Spider Lily extract from the web. I’ve taken synthesized galantamine in the past, and it works fine too. This is one of our favorite oneirogens; we’ve worked with it repeatedly. For Oneironauticum, we take four-milligram capsules of Pro-Galantamine five hours after going to bed.

Galantamine promotes a self-recursive effect that causes those of us sleeping in the same space to also dream of ourselves together as a group. The first time we took it, Ivy felt certain I’d leaned over in the night to tell her something. I thought David had put Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo and had begun discussing his dreams with Sylvia. Geneva dreamed we’d all created a collaborative art piece, a revolving mural that wrapped around an entire city neighborhood block. Galantamine also seems to produce strong emotions. The second time we worked with it, Vibrata and a conversational puppet helped a woman work through a deep sense of childhood loss.

Calea Zacatechichi

Used by indigenous peoples in the Mexican state of Oaxaca for the purposes of oneiromancy–a form of divination based on dreams– the leaves of this plant from the sunflower family are dried and steeped to make extremely bitter tea. In some Mesoamerican cultures, people believe that dreams happen in realms beyond those we consciously perceive. Calea supposedly helps you gather messages from these higher planes and remember them once you wake up. In our experience, Calea produces sensually rich, particularly vivid dreams. We buy our Calea from the Botanical Preservation Corps and either prepare it like you would a tea or else distill it (look online for a recipe). We’ve also enjoyed a Calea liqueur distilled by our pal, plant wizard and poet Dale Pendell, a considerably tastier alternative to the nasty brew I make.

During one of our Calea nights, Christine firmly sought divination. She dreamed a landscape that was both realistic and also like an image on a card from the Ryder-Waite Tarot deck. At midnight in a windswept scene, with a light snow falling bright and white on the ground, she saw a reindeer lying on its left side. Though she could only see its hind legs and the back of its body, she knew it was breathing and therefore alive. The scene stayed in focus inside a border suspended in the air, framing the reindeer in the snow with the dark sky behind it. She saw all this with extreme vividness and recognized the creature both as an actual reindeer and as a tarot card, One Reindeer, lying on its side.

On a different Calea night, I looked through a window at a cityscape so clear that every window, cornice, and glittering spire stood out with microscopic clarity, more real than life. The wall I leaned against felt slightly squishy, like one of those memory-foam mattresses that takes on the shape of a sleeper’s body. In my hands I held an open notebook. On the page I read a series of notes written in black pen, clearly taken by a colleague during phone calls with me. He’d used red ink to annotate, and purple and yellow highlighters for emphasis. Experienced dreamers agree that one can rarely actually read in dreams, but I understood every word, saw it all in incredible detail. Most of what he had written concerned mundane observations of my reactions to things, like “Jennifer seems excited about lightning in Japan.” The last thing I read said “Jennifer is still pretty, though she’s clearly getting older.” Not exactly the most enlightening bit of divination.

Valerian Root, Melatonin and Vitamin B6

Available at any well-stocked health food store, these three supplements, taken in combination, enhance dream recall and vividness. The oneirogenic properties of B6 are thought to arise because it facilitates the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, and thus increases serotonin levels. Some studies also suggest that B6 improves memory. Accounts of medicinal use of valerian, a perennial flowering plant, go back as early as the fifth or fourth century BCE. Currently, people mainly use the herb as a remedy for insomnia. Melatonin is naturally produced in the human pineal gland (the sort sold in stores is grown on fungi). It helps regulate circadian rhythms by causing drowsiness and lowering body temperature. Studies have shown than melatonin increases the time we spend in the REM phases of sleep, when we experience the most dream activity.

When we took this combination in May, we varied the relative amounts of B6, melatonin, and valerian we all took. Each of us downed 3-5 grams of melatonin, 100-200 milligrams of B6, and 470-940 milligrams of valerian. The result was weird. Eight prolific dreamers–many who remember several dreams nightly–and all we could pull up amongst us were fragments, though we were all sure we’d dreamed wildly and constantly all night. Dean told us he felt like he’d spent the night in a psychedelic submarine; lots happened but it stayed submerged. David said he felt exhausted, like he’d spent the whole night in action and hadn’t slept at all. Ivy was sure she’d been in REM sleep without hitting the deep sleep cycles at all. Soon after sunrise, I had my only full dream of the night and became lucid. Like people often do in lucid dreams, I decided to fly. I soared above a football game, enjoying the sensation of swooping and banking, elated and free. Then I caught sight of two badgers in the lake below–I know that badgers are not aquatic–trying to help a drowning man. I knew I had to go help them, and in the process forgot my lucidity and fell back into dream logic.

Somnium: Auditory Oneirogen

During the 1980s, electronic musician Robert Rich performed a series of live, all-night concerts for sleeping Bay Area audiences. These concerts had a specific aim: to promote vivid dreams among attendees. To that end, Rich alternated sound textures to match the phases of sleep. During deep sleep, when the mind dives deep below the surface of consciousness, the music became more active. During dream-rich REM sleep, when the mind is more aware, he played quieter, textured, ambient sounds. In this way, he kept dreamers closer to the border between asleep and awake. He felt this increased the intensity and recall of dreams. You can now buy some of Rich’s psychoactive soundscapes on his website, on either disc or MP3.

We worked with “Somnium,” a seven-hour piece released in 2000. At midnight, we turned on the music and got into bed. As I found out the next morning, many of us experienced particularly strong and long-lasting hypnagogia–that drifting state that happens at the onset of sleep when images and ghostly perceptions may coalesce into proto-dreams. People who fall asleep easily, like me, usually spend less time in hypnagogic states. A long bout of it, then, is a real treat for me. Soon after I lay down, bright points of light danced around my field of vision like pixies, forming into whirling kaleidoscopic clouds. Faces emerged from the swirling patterns and became part of a surging crowd of people, a chilling wind blew through the tops of trees at night, a cartoon rodent tried to sell me a sailboat. Over and over again, I surfaced close to waking and then sunk back down. At first I tried not to pay much attention. That’s my normal trick for trying to maintain the state, since strong hypnagogia usually wakes me up. But then I realized I could watch it like a movie, fully attentive, and not lose focus.

The next morning the majority of participants reported dreams involving water (pools, rain, the ocean). Apparently, just before we all got into bed, someone failed to properly close the water cooler spout. By morning, the drips had formed a small pond on the kitchen floor. Throughout the night, as the water level fell inside the container, the cooler let off occasional bubbling burps. Anyone familiar with water dispensers knows the sound; it’s the same thing you hear when you pour liquid quickly out of a large bottle. In David and Vibrata’s spacious loft, the sound would have been audible to everyone, though only David and Vibrata (familiar with the leak problem) consciously noted it. Yet the majority of us dreamed about water. Nobody remembered hearing much of the concert either, but we concluded that clearly we’d been listening.

Flowers and Herbs for Better Sleep: Olfactory Stimulants 

On the September night that we worked with scent, we filled sachets with dried herbs, flowers, and essential oils. I’d sewn the sachets the night before, simple eight-by-six-inch rectangles with a hole in the seam large enough to stuff in the mixture. I had also cut plastic water bottles in half about a third of the way from the top. We used the bottom of the bottles to mix oils, herbs, and flowers, and the necks as funnels to push the blend into the sachets. Participants combined the following oneirogens in a proportion determined by which plants most aligned with their dream intention:

• Mugwort: Promotes lucid dreams, “astral travel,” and visionary dreams. Contains thujone, the most active ingredient in absinthe.
• Roman Chamomile: Calms dreams, reduces stress, and aids sleep. It is helpful for those who experience nightmares or restless sleep.
• Lavender: Increases alpha waves, promoting tranquil, calm dreams. Relaxes the nervous system and reduces tension and irritability.
• Rose: Works as an antidepressant. Promotes happy, pleasant dreams. Stimulating, uplifting, good as an antidote to sadness and fatigue.

Most of us slept unusually deeply yet had more dreams in the night than usual, often with a sense of continuity from one dream to the next. Senses other than vision–usually the dominant mode of perceiving dreams–also characterized our journeys. In the morning, Juliana remembered five or six dreams. Each had a different storyline, but the same soundtrack: her favorite Sound Tribe Sector 9 song. Erik has a very fine sense of smell and doesn’t always remember his dreams. He reported several vivid dreams, including one in which he ate an extremely delicious morsel. I dreamed about myself asleep in an unbelievably soft, velvety bed, my dreaming self, dreaming herself dreaming.

When we dream as individuals we journey into the marvelous, intangible, and sometimes fraught landscapes we create in our minds. The Oneironauticum offers a way for us to unite around these solitary experiences, creating a community of dreamers who journey together through surreal, incredible places that almost inevitably begin to weave together. Our community acknowledges and validates this nightly visionary trip, opening the possibility for meeting in the dream. We begin to move in and out of each other’s consciousness, opening our own inner realms to our fellow dreamers, merging ourselves into theirs.

From Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness, edited by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan, published by Evolver Editions, an imprint of North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2012 by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

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