Who am I? And who are the “others” in your dreams? How do identity and lucidity fit together?

Join Andrew in a rare live interview with Stephen LaBerge, the esteemed researcher of lucid dreaming, conducted at the Sedona lucid dreaming retreat, October 2019. This is an unusual interview because Stephen seldom does interviews; it was conducted in front of 50 wonderful participants; and the conversation has a warm-up, or preview. Andrew had prepared a set of questions for Stephen (submitted to Stephen the evening before) that dealt mostly with the science of lucid dreaming. But all those questions fell away as Dr. LaBerge gave his last brief talk at the event, part of which is now included as the prelude to the interview. In other words, Stephen’s concluding comments at the retreat changed the tenor of the originally designed interview, which now became entirely spontaneous and more personal. Andrew realized the direction was being changed as he sat on stage with Stephen, and started recording Stephen’s talk before the interview formally began. The recording was done on a smart phone, so pardon the quality.

The interview with Stephen LaBerge starts by addressing (as part of his talk) the question: Who am I? And who are the “others” in your dreams? This leads to a look at dream ethics, and the question: How do identity and lucidity fit together? The interview formally begins with a Big Question about mind and the universe, and Stephen LaBerge harnesses the principle of complimentarity from physics to address it. “There is room for several views or maps.” Even the way a question is posed sends the mind in a particular direction. In a disarming statement from a scientist, Dr. LaBerge says that “All knowledge doesn’t just come from experiments,” and acknowledges the power of an open question. The conversation then turns to the subtle body — “Is it just the subjective experience of the autonomic nervous system?” — and a look at the classic “mind-body” problem. Stephen then shares personal accounts of how his science has changed him (can science be a spiritual path?). The conversation closes with a look at lucid dreaming and its place in evolution, and the promise and peril of the internet: Does the web disseminate knowledge or “noise,” the growth of knowledge or ignorance? In this interview you will see why Stephen LaBerge is the father of lucid dreaming in the West, and a unique scientist willing to embrace the wisdom of the East.

About Stephen LaBerge

Stephen LaBerge received his PhD in psychophysiology in 1980 from Stanford University where he studied consciousness, dreaming and waking for 25 years. He has taught classes on sleep and dreaming, psychobiology, and altered states of consciousness at Stanford, and San Francisco State University. In addition to numerous scientific articles on lucid dreaming, he has published many books on the topic, including the classics “Lucid Dreaming” and “Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming,” which have been published into eighteen languages. Widely regarded as the father of lucid dreaming in the West, Stephen LaBerge continues his research as an independent scholar and scientist.

Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hi, everybody. Andrew Holecek here. Welcome to our Night Club Podcast where I am in Sedona, having a ridiculously good time with 50 of the weirdest people I’ve ever met. And we have this extraordinary opportunity to ping a few questions off this luminary, Stephen LaBerge, who really doesn’t require any introductions. And so, what I wanted to do was start with just a few questions and start with one that was a tip that was shared with me where a teacher once suggested when you speak to someone who really knows, you should ask questions the answers of which will change your life. That’s really, I think, very interesting, because then it’s like, okay, what are the pith questions? Let’s take a deep dive into that pool right away and begin with, Stephen, what is your favorite color?

Stephen: Blue. Maybe passion blue, but more like midnight blue.

Andrew: That was easy. Here’s an easier one. When you were talking just now, what occurred to my mind — it’s one of the narratives we’ve been circumambulating that maybe we can unpack a little bit, and that is, in your view, does mind exist in the universe, or does universe exist within the mind?

Stephen: Yes. And it’s one of those questions, because any ultimate question we’re asking ourselves, here’s the whole — we’ll call it, as if we could do that, but suppose the whole is that outside of the dinner place is a nice club. So we’re wanting to ask a question like, well, is it this way or that way? So you’ve got a map that’s going to model that reality in one or another view. And the nature of reality is that you can’t have a lower-dimensional, simpler, flat-out map or explanation that doesn’t have tears in it if you’re attempting to describe a higher-dimensional reality.

So, if you think about it in map terms, you’ve got the map. Say you spread a flat paper over the surface of the earth. What do you get? Wrinkles, right? You’re really trying not to make it tear, and that’s true of every possible map that you can do. But you can always remember: have a local map where it doesn’t tear. You can make a smaller map anywhere you want, but it’s only a piece of it. This is where the idea of complementarity comes in — that you can’t have a single map that gets it all right. By this theorem, to me, it’s, I think, related to the incompleteness theorem as well of trying to describe a complete system, and well, it has to have contradictions in it.

Andrew: Kurt Gödel.

Stephen: Yes. Yes. Exactly. And I think this geometric idea is the same concept that trying to map a higher-dimensional reality — and we know it’s higher-dimensional in the sense that there are many elements that are not treated in the physical science, or even in physical reality. When we presume that, why should there only be this thing called physical reality, which we only know about indirectly through our senses, etc., right? Why shouldn’t it be that there are many more dimensions, maybe more than we can see? But certainly, all you need is an infinite set of those dimensions, and you can’t have a finite account.

Let’s embrace that concept and say, all right, we have both. So how do we have both? Yes, somehow we are contained in the world, right? And that’s sort of easy to see by looking at the history of life on earth over, you know, the last 5,000 million years. Things have happened, changed geologically, and gradually life forms have developed, and gradually these brains have developed, and gradually we’re having conversations about it. From that perspective, it makes perfect sense that all the physics, the material, whatever that is, is first, and mind develops out of that. Okay? But it may not feel quite right. But it makes sense there, right? Brains have got a lot to do with our minds, as we can see. Well, we didn’t have minds before we had brains, or before we had planets back when there was a lot of star stuff, but that’s that theory.

Then let’s think again. Well, what did you have before the big bang, right? We had the big bang in the beginning in some sense. So we’ve got to have — something starts from nothing. Well, nothing comes from nothing, right? But what does that mean? We tracked it back, and we can understand how this cosmos unfolded by the scientific view that we’re talking about, but before that, it must have been…call it the universe of potential, because this is the actual universe, the physics, the physical world we call actual, the thing that you should step out of the way, by the way, when you see that big thing coming at you, because it could be a truck, you know? Really, step aside is the first thing. Okay. That’s that world, the actual.

But where does it come from? It comes from the potential. The potential contains the actual, because every actuality is one of an infinite number of potentialities, right? So, obviously, that’s the greater. Now, that world of potential sure sounds a lot more like mind than it does like stuff, right? And when you push either of these ideas to their edges, you find, oh, let’s try another map that makes more sense here. I think that really suggests that we learn of possibility and to not, you know, try to get one answer that is it. Instead, we’re going to have several answers for several situations in different components.

Andrew: Yeah. What came to mind there, Stephen — several things. One is… and we’ve been talking with a group throughout the week about the elegance and the explanatory power of integral thinking, integral theory, where the idea is to honor and incorporate all these different forms of knowledge and forms of knowledge acquisition. I think this is exactly what you’re intimating, what you’re suggesting. And you know, I think along these lines, I wanted to see how it feels to you when some non-dual traditions say something like the following, and I shared this with the group during the week, because there’s this proverbial kind of mind-body dualism problem. Does it hold water for you to assert that mind is subtle form, extremely subtle form of body, and body is gross form of mind?

Stephen: Well, I have to say I don’t really understand how that idea works, because it really…I believe that particular formulation is a relatively recent one in Buddhism.

Andrew: In other non-dual traditions as well.

Stephen: Yes. In particular, it really came to the fore in the 19th century just at the time that it was discovered that the electromagnetic spectrum included a wide range of stuff that we don’t see. So there is a little limited bit. There are vibrations higher and lower and all over the place, so why shouldn’t these things that we can’t find with a microscope — shouldn’t they be simply a higher vibration? And that’s a perfectly fine idea, except there are details which in vibration, ultraviolet, how does that work with yourselves? And really high gamma rays, you want gamma rays? The subtler you get, the more dangerous and destructive it is to forms on this level.

What I would ask for testing that theory is say, really, what is dream stuff made of? What are the laws of the electrochemical equivalence that keep atoms and molecules together and build up structures as we have on this level? It’s not coherent in that way, so it’s got to be something else. If it’s true, if that’s a useful way of looking at it, then maybe it’s not subtle in the literal. It’s the same thing on the smaller particles or something like that, which is, of course, one way we think of subtle and gross, but maybe it’s more looked at on one level, right? This kind of thing, grossly. But when you look at it going beneath the surface, more sophisticated, more subtle reasoning, then you can see it in another way, and that’s where we’re getting into the subtle bodies.

I was talking with Joseph about this exact element of what I call the subtle plumbing of the Tibetan Buddhist. It’s fascinating, because what is that? Is it actually this objective experience of the autonomic nervous system? Maybe, but it has some part in the world, and we don’t, right now, know where, because the Tibetan technology is the technology of personal observation. And what you find out from that is subjective experience. You don’t find out what’s going on in your brain, because don’t even have brains in the system for anything useful, but we find experience.

Now we’re in that place we talked about before, where we’ve got the complementary systems of this wonderful, elaborate understanding of the inside of the system to see how that relates with different parts of the nervous system, which it must, because it produces effects that are, at least on some level, equivalent to the electrochemical activities of the brain. That doesn’t mean, of course, that’s the only connection, in that every bit of subjective experience comes from a sort of existent nervous system that we can see with microscopes, but I think we really should be exploring that. That’s a fascinating research question, I think.

Andrew: Stephen, this begs another question, of course. To what extent is there so-called objectivity? I mean, our mutual friend, Alan Wallace, wrote a book called, “The Taboo of Subjectivity.” If, in fact, when we see something — and this is what the scientific community is largely based on, and it has emphasis on replication of studies and the like — how objective can we truly be? To what extent do we actually see something that is real? What I think of when I think of this is Heisenberg’s — I believe it’s Heisenberg’s — statement where he says, “What we discover in science is not reality itself, but reality as is revealed through our methods of investigation.” To what extent do you feel there is an objective world and objectivity, even within the lens of science, or are we kidding ourselves?

Stephen: Well, I think there are different senses of objective, as you mentioned there. On one level, as Heisenberg’s quote, that is pretty much the current accepted view of physics in current physicists, or probably one of the most popular ones. This is the idea that what you, let’s say, like, it can behave in different ways, as a wave or a particle. So you can say, is it a wave or is it a particle? It depends on the system that we’re interacting with to make that measurement, because if you set up an experiment that causes the “like” to act in a wavelike way, you can observe wavelike properties. If you set the experiment to observe a particle nature, what do you know? And so, that suggests that what really — whatever “like” is, it’s that X thing — and we see it in different ways. The whole story is the experimental apparatus, what we subject it to.

I think the thing about the collapse of the waveform having to do with consciousness, I don’t think that’s the level of — it has to do with when you do something on the level of whatever you’re studying, you force it to be in one of two states. If that’s the two choices, and that’s what makes it look like what it does, do we know what it looks like when you don’t make it look like anything? Well, no. We couldn’t. But does that mean — and here’s, for me, the really challenging question, which is, does that mean that the moon isn’t there when nobody’s looking? And I just find that hard to believe that that’s so, because there’s so many complications…

Andrew: But it’s not there for the observer, right?

Stephen: It’s not there for the observer. That’s for sure, right? If it’s not there for any interaction with the physical world, then it’s in a sense, not a part of the physical world, right? But it is. It’s gravitationally interacting with all the other planets and with ourselves, even very subtly. Even though we don’t know it, it’s still there. It’s like, well, what do you know? Do you think…I don’t know. Do you think there’s…I don’t see any back of Andrew’s head. Don’t you think he’s got a backside of the head? Let’s check it.

Andrew: I’m not sure, because we blew it off this morning.

Stephen: Yeah. There are definitely questions that you can get to very quickly that nobody really knows how to even address. And people, serious intelligent people, will say things like, “No, the moon isn’t there when you don’t look at it.” Well, all right, but I think most people would go for the formulation that I made, which is it wouldn’t be there if nothing in any sense looked at it, because that’s how we define things that are part of one world, is they interact with the other parts of that world. That’s how we define parts of the mind, is the elements of the mind that interact with the other elements of the mind. It’s like a set of interacting features.

Same idea about physics so clearly asking a question about physics, and the mind, and the nature of reality, of ourselves. It all leads back to this impossible question, because it’s about the whole and we can’t really address it. Back to the ultimate mystery, which is how can there be…why is there anything? There must be something, whatever it is, but there’s something. That is just plain incomprehensible. You think about it and you say, well, let’s just do nothing.

Andrew: But just because it’s incomprehensible, perhaps…and again, we’re starting to enter that domain where everything is in quotations. Does that, in fact, imply that it’s unknowable? Isn’t there, in fact, another apparatus in knowing, a kind of agnosticism, or whatever that could know it that is actually transconceptual or preconceptual?

Stephen: That could be, but it could also be that what you need to learn, as well as how to know, is how to unknow. This is more like an unknowing that you…because surely there are mysteries, and that doesn’t mean that we have to know everything, because if we try to know something, that, by doing so, makes it not what it is, then we’re not knowing it. Just to know something by…if I can point to this thing that we’re trying to know, say, this thing is the thing we want to know, this ultimate mystery, right? Having pointed to it, I made a distinction. I’ve separated it from something else, and that violated the rules of the game, because we just said it’s the only thing. There’s not two things, or three, or more. There’s not somebody else outside it pointing to it, right? We get ourselves, I think, in a position where we’re trying to ask questions that we can’t answer because of the way we put them.

Andrew: Yes, exactly. And that’s one of the things we’re talking about at the outset. There were some questions that were what I call “it-based” questions, and that’s where I use the Heisenberg thing that, like the Buddha would often say to some of his disciples, a particular question was directed at him, and he would say, “The question is erroneously positive,” because the very way you ask the question already sends the mind in a certain direction and as it goes down that rabbit hole, perhaps it’s the wrong rabbit hole.

Stephen: Exactly. I think the main thing we can expect now, we optimists from science and spirituality, is more of a mutual understanding and cooperation coming out of that knowledge doesn’t come just from experiment as scientists. That’s one way of knowledge, but there’s also experience, and these two together is really a whole other way of knowledge that can be shared objectively with others. That, I believe, is how progress can be made, and sort of why I’m…if I have a religion, it’s something like science as it should be. It’s the idea of a shared endeavor of seeking to attain what objective knowledge we can, which is not easy, but that’s the endeavor, to share this, and develop it, and we hope for the better of humanity.

Andrew: I think this is really important point, Stephen, because when we talk about things like emptiness, which we’ve been trying to circumambulate here, one of the enemies of this is nihilism, or thinking that reality is some kind of ontological sliding scale that at some point, it just doesn’t, so to speak, bottom out. I think the challenge here is, in fact, if there is a bottom, what is that bottom?

Stephen: Yeah. That is, again, one of those questions that is ultimate. Think about big bang. All right. That’s the beginning. Okay. Now, there’s that thing before it, another one, and before that. Okay. Here we are. I’m sure it goes all the way down, because what do you mean there was another one before, and before? What was the first one? I think the way out of that is, as I’ve suggested, that you’re not going more of the same, but it’s going from actuality to potentiality, and that’s a different level of existence. It’s not really existence being maybe, but we are going to find new ways of addressing these problems, certainly, but the understanding of the basic mysteries is ancient.

Andrew: Here’s another question that may seem philosophical, but I think it’s extremely practical, and that is this notion of — and pardon the term, but in a certain way we’ve been talking about the plastic nature of reality, plasticity. There’s a lot of traffic these days with neuroplasticity. In the inner traditions, I often talk about nadi plasticity, that the subtle body is also plastic. But one of the things that this evokes for me is my term here, ontic plasticity. In fact, how cooperative, how plastic is the phenomenal world? Is it kosher to say that we don’t see things from perspectives, but things actually are perspectives? Because if we see things from perspectives, that seems to imply a subvert kind of representationalism. There’s still something being represented. But is it, in fact, just merely perspective itself?

Stephen: That is exactly a coherent point of view coming out of that. I remember we had these two global maps of, are things there anyway even if you don’t perceive them, or are they not? That assumes not, right? Part of the problem, remember, is that any one of those two views, when you look at it to completion, it doesn’t really hold up without a tear here or there. So I’d say, sure, that sounds like a useful concept to explore, but the thing I’d like to address from what you just mentioned there that is relevant to us here, I think, is green bodies, subtle bodies, and physical bodies.

I think that is something that is more complicated than it should be, and please correct me if I’m missing something, but it seems to me what we normally call the subtle body, or several subtle bodies in some systems, is the thing that we experience in dreams. In dreams, we’re in some body and that body does things in a dream world apparently. And that body is not the same as a physical body, because it’s somewhere other than where the physical body is, so we say that. But rather than putting it as it’s made of different stuff and all that, say what if it’s a mind-body, a body that you have made in your mind that has some relationship to your actual body. That’s why it looks like you fly and you don’t have wings. You fly like this, right?

Andrew: It’s actually called monomaya, made of mind.

Stephen: Yes. And I think that’s right. Of course, what we don’t know is how does mind make that and does it make it? You know, the neural networks or what? It doesn’t have to, by the way, make it only neural networks just because it might for our brains. I mean, there may be many different ways to implement the form of mind, and I think that must be why. Otherwise, we’re saying the way humans are, and the way we think about things, and our minds ,and the associations of our brains is it. There’s nothing else in the vast multitude of multiverses that is different. No. And I think there’s room for some kind of a mind before we’ve got any kind of a body, and that’s intriguing, but it’s an open possibility that we can actually say, how does it work?

That’s why I think we should be willing to — you know, every idea, hypothesis, that needs a kind of checking. It’s checking with either common sense, which is sometimes adequate, or by experiment, and that’s the point of experiments in science, is to determine whether your guess is consistent with what else you believe to be so. And the same thing should be true on the inner world, because if we don’t test our inner views, then we get a mixture of truth and imagination where…because we all know that we’re wrong about things. We don’t know we’re dreaming, for example, until we do, and so we think something that’s not right about it. If we can get better at that and sharing that information, I think we can make even more progress.

Andrew: I think that’s what makes you so unique, Stephen. You know, one of the main narratives of our week here has been this openness. Meditation, this habituation to openness. Openness is a synonym for emptiness. Your capacity to remain agnostic, I mean, the power of the open question, I think, is formidable. And I see near enemies on both sides, and what you’re alluding to in terms of the sliding scale, and this is a little jingle that I often say: that it’s really important to have an open mind, but if your mind is too open, your brains will fall out. This is what happens when minds are too open. It’s just like whatever. So the sliding scale — there has to be some metric of reality.

Stephen: Yes. And it could be too much and not enough, and that is one of our challenges is getting it right.

Andrew: As we start to close this up, you are also unique as a scientist because not only do you engage in classic third-person, so-called, objective science, but in the work that you do as a phenomenologist, you work with first-person science. To get more personal, it’s rare for people to both be subject and object at the science that they do. With that in mind, and for many of us here, we’ve heard intonations of this, but some of our listeners perhaps have not. To what extent does your science continue to inform and transform your life? I mean, when you leave the laboratory, do you leave your insights in the sleep lab, or are you somehow able to bring them into your life and actually use them to change the way you look at reality altogether?

Stephen: That’s a deep question, and difficult to answer in a short time, but I’ll make an attempt. When I first started learning lucid dreaming, it was for a scientific purpose, having to do with I needed to have someone who could have lucid dreams in the laboratory, and make signals and marks in the records and things like that. I couldn’t find someone, so I’m going to learn to do this so I can do that. Now, what happened as I developed that ability and had more and more lucid dreams is I found that many of the dreams were very educational personally, that they were teaching me something, and that they had a wonderful path in them, that I was finding that by the further practice of it, that this was an area that combined two of the major directions in my life. One as a scientist, exploring this state which we knew very little about, and the other was my inner practice. It was a way that I could develop and make it a spiritual practice, essentially, and the same idea with the dream yoga.

But it just occurred to me that this is actually both an inner and outer path for me, and that was very surprising to me that that was so. Of course, it is very different from the…science has various standards and prejudices, like every other social group, and one of the ones they have is that it’s not objective to be a subject. You shouldn’t be your own subject, because it’s bad. I prefer to say, well, if the subject, the topic, is consciousness, then I certainly want to see the first-person evidence myself in addition to getting reports and data from the outside of me and others, just because how can it be that you’re going to know what you’re studying if you don’t examine it that way?

I think that’s an example of a prejudice that has to be overcome for science of consciousness to develop is that, of course, people, scientists, should be observing inside their dreams and meditation practice, etc., because that’s one of the primary ways we understand what is happening. Then you get ideas of what experiments can be done to verify or test different possibilities. If you never do that, you really don’t know what the topic is even.

Andrew: Yeah. That is what also Alan talks about, is the emergence of contemplative scientists, which in the traditional academy is almost an oxymoron. How can that actually be? And so, in that regard, you know, you’ve been a real pioneer and I share also this little jingle with the group, and maybe your life can attest to it. If you turn around, you can always tell who the pioneers are by all the arrows in their back, you know, shot by those behind them.

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