Nearly twenty years ago, when we had just gotten married, my wife and I moved from Japan to Seattle. We naively thought we would have our pick of jobs; instead, we scrounged around for part-time teaching and subbing work, and my brother’s apartment, where we’d planned to stay for maybe a month while we got on our feet, became our home for nearly a year. It was a little tight.
All of us, during that time, got really interested in dreams—specifically, the project of knowing when you’re dreaming. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is the practice of “dream yoga,” in which you learn not only to recognize when you’re dreaming but also to continue your practice, whatever it is, into the dream; even if your body is at rest, your practice is continuous. None of us at that time were studying with teachers who could instruct us in dream yoga, but we had access to some of the popular writing on lucid dreaming, and those books became our guide.
We tried everything the books said. Most of what we tried took the form of little exercises, invisible tests that we could do in our heads throughout the day. But some things were more concrete. One book said we should break up our sleep cycles by waking up for an hour in the middle of the night; that, apparently, increases dream time in early morning, which gives us more opportunities to wake up to the dream. So for a few weird and wonderful months, the three of us would wake up at three a.m., stumble into the living room in the dark, and meditate together. We were kind of grumpy, good-naturedly resentful of this pact we’d made. And when we rang the bell and staggered back to bed, we almost certainly told ourselves this would be the last time. But the next night, there we were in our pajamas. And the next.
I don’t think any of us had any huge success with dreaming during that time. Not nothing, but it never got any easier. The basic idea behind all of it—whether we call it lucid dreaming or dream yoga—is that in our so-called waking lives, we aren’t very good at interrogating our reality. When I get in an elevator and push a button to go to the seventh floor, I just believe it all makes sense: in this world, we step into little boxes, push a button, and the doors open on to a place different from where we started. We don’t question any of it.
We do the same in dreams. An elephant walks by, and we instantly rationalize it: Oh, I guess someone’s elephant is loose. We don’t know we’re in a dream, so we reverse engineer our understanding of the world to fit what we see. People who take up the practice of exploring dreams become seriously invested in a question most of us never consider: How do I know I’m not dreaming right now? So in waking life, they start testing. One trick I learned was to check the time on a clock, look away, then look at the clock again—in a dream, it’s often the case that the time will change (or that it won’t be clear either time); in waking life, the time will remain the same, at least within a few seconds. It can feel silly at first—after all, don’t I know I’m awake? But by taking the question seriously, by constantly checking while you’re awake, you develop the habit of doubting.
That habit, in time, will find its way into your dreams, and one day, after you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll check the clock, then check again, and it won’t match up. You’ll know you’re dreaming. In that moment, an illusion of your own making, one so huge that you experience it in three dimensions and in every direction, will fall away. It’s a powerful taste of waking up—to the dream, yes, but also to your capacity for self-deception and fabrication. It’s a taste of awakening.
As I say, during our months of waking up in the middle of the night and sitting together, we never really got good at any of this. I had a few lucid dreams—enough to keep me interested for a long time—but my memories of them have long since faded away. What I do remember is this: the little sangha, the little community, that the three of us made. The actual practice? I’m not sure that mattered. At least, it isn’t what stuck with me. But the decision to practice together, to look deeply together, to hold that space together regardless of mood or time of day or even our own doubts and frustration—that’s what makes sangha so beautiful.
Every week I see people walk in the door for meditation. Newcomers are often excited, maybe nervous. But the people who have been coming for years? They stumble in, tired, sometimes grumpy, maybe good-naturedly a little resentful of this pact they’ve all made and the vows behind it. But they’re determined. They’ve made a decision to show up, and they’ve made it together. That doesn’t look or feel like inspiration, and it has nothing to do with success or failure—it’s just pure resolve. Seeing that, waking up to that, is the gift of this path.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.