I’m intrigued by nights in which we slip from one dream into another, as if moving from an outer to an inner courtyard. Sometimes the shift is marked by the experience of falling asleep and waking up inside the dream state.
Waking from an inner dream, not yet fully aware that we are still in outer dream (but not yet in the outermost dream of physical reality) we record or talk about what we just experienced in that deeper place. In one of the big, life-changing dream adventures of my life, I woke from a dream in which a sea eagle, an aquatic raptor native to northern Australia, my native country, and to northern Scotland, the country of my paternal ancestors, flew me across an ocean to a profound experience of contact with Aboriginal elders and their Dreamings. In high excitement, I proceeded to recount the dream to a gathering of dream researchers at a conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. I noticed, as I spoke, that the lecture theater we were in was too formal and structured for my taste, with desks bolted to the floor in steep banks. I did not notice, until I woke again in my body in the bed, that I was still dreaming.
There was a double follow-up to that dream sequence. First, I checked with the IASD on the venue for a presentation I was to make at a forthcoming conference and found that I had been assigned a lecture theater very similar to the one in the outer dream; thanks to my dream advisory, I was able to have the venue changed to a more informal space more suited to dream experiencers. Second, on a visit to Australia I had not planned at the time of the dream, I found myself in contact with Aboriginal elders who confirmed things I had seen in the inner dream, and opened sacred space to me because I came to them with the right dream.
Experiences of this kind can awaken us to the important fact that there are many levels of dreaming. As we develop the practices of Active Dreaming, including the ability to embark on conscious dream travels and to attain and maintain lucidity during our nocturnal excursions, we will learn that we can go with intention to successive levels of dreaming. Our design then becomes to bring back more from the innermost dreams, where the greatest treasures are to be found, but may be lost to memory as our dream selves wend their way back to the surface. In a program I led for sixth-graders, we were all seized with admiration for a lovely young girl who narrated a night in which she passed through seven successive dreams, nested inside each other, until she found herself in an epic of love and danger in the time of the American Revolution – and then traveled back, level by level, through the outer courts of dreaming, with exact and vivid memories of the whole adventure.
Part of our practice, as active dream travelers, is to learn to recognize personal markers that we are moving from one level of dreaming to another. Some dreamers have familiar places of transit; favorites include a locker room (a place of changing, when we think about it), a bathroom, an Eastern restaurant, grandma’s house. Some of us have the frequent experience of going up or down successive levels in a building with many floors, or an elevator that works rather differently from a regular lift. Shifts from color to black and white and back again may denote transits between different levels of dreaming as well as different locales. Taking off or putting on clothes, or changing vehicles, may be another marker of switching levels. To get to higher levels, we may need to move beyond the astral body (in which we engage in many of our dream adventures) to a more subtle vehicle.
The problem of the “false awakening”, in which we wake from a dream only to find – when we wake again in the physical body – is an intriguing one. I explored it one evening in a class in which I suggested that although I could not prove whether or not I was dreaming at that moment, I might be able to establish whether I was in a physical body. To dramatize this point, I took the candle from the center of the circle and dribbled hot wax onto the web between the thumb and forefinger of my left hand. As I felt the pain, I announced to the group, “I think I have established that whether or not I am dreaming, I am in a physical body right now.” Then I woke up in my bed. I felt the residue of the heat and pain in my left hand, a dream hangover effect that is sometimes called astral repercussion.
Growing consciousness and discernment about these things is a matter of practice, practice, practice. The reward is to become a more conscious citizen of the multiverse, awake to the fact that our ordinary lives are related to grander stories being played out, right now, in other orders of reality, able to draw from this the will to choose how we navigate life on all levels.
For more on the levels of dreaming and the subtle bodies, please see my book Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination and Life Beyond Death (New World Library).