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Waking Up in the Dream: An Interview with Andrew Holecek

The author, teacher, and humanitarian on how to cleanse the doors of perception.

Key points

  • Wisdom traditions tell us that a person is more in contact with the nature of reality during the dream state than in the waking state.
  • The only thing we have is experience. Everything else is inference.
  • The very things we take to be givens turn out to be constructs, including our sense of self.
  • Mindfulness was not designed for many of the things it is being used for today.

Andrew Holecek is an author, teacher, and humanitarian whose writing and research focus on meditation, perception, and the ancient art of lucid dreaming. Blending Eastern wisdom with Western science, his books, courses, and public lectures draw on years of intensive Buddhist study and practice, coupled with a profound understanding of the challenges faced in contemporary life.

In addition to his work on lucid dreaming, he focuses on helping people deal with hardship and pain, death, and dying and find the opportunities that exist in obstacles. His books include Dream Yoga, The Power and the Pain, Preparing to Die, Meditation in the iGeneration, and The Lucid Dreaming Workbook. He is a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. We talked about lucid dreaming, the gap between science and spiritual practice, and how mindfulness is misconstrued in popular culture.

Mark Matousek: What is lucid dreaming, exactly?

Andrew Holecek: Lucid dreaming is a state in which something clues you into the fact that you’re dreaming—while in the course of a normal nighttime dream. You regain consciousness, but you’re still dreaming.

Wisdom traditions believe that if a person is lucid in their dream, they are more in contact with the nature of reality during the dream state than in the waking state. One studies the mind (during lucid dreaming) using the laboratory of the dream arena as a way to gain insight and to bring the lucidity of the nighttime dream into this waking dream.

In that way, lucid dreaming can lead to lucid living, and lucid living feeds back to support lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming invites you to look more closely at your experience. You come to discover that there’s nothing outside the dream (individual or collective), that all of it is experience, the mind manifesting in various ways. You're then able to take those insights, bring them back into this collective dream we call daily life, and use them to challenge assumptions, question authority, and test out what is true.

MM: You've been described as an "elite lucid dreamer." Does that mean you're able to lucid dream deliberately?

AH: More or less. I can do it pretty much at will, but I’ve been doing this for decades. Anybody who puts in the effort can do it. The most important thing for me is stabilizing the realization that all of this is literally a dream! Dream is code language for “manifestation of mind.” In other words, one of the fruits of lucid dreaming is waking up to the fact that what you’re experiencing right now is all a manifestation of mind, a dream.

This doesn’t mean it’s all in your mind, which is the error of solipsism, but that the nature of reality is mental, not physical. That is what the Buddha, the ultimate lucid dreamer, discovered, and that the philosophy of idealism has professed for centuries.

MM: You were interested in using science to "cleanse the doors of perception," as William Blake described it, before turning to spiritual pursuits. What prompted this shift in orientation?

AH: While in my teens, I had some powerful experiences of awakening and thought that the study of physics could substantiate, mature, and develop those insights. I soon realized, however, that those studies would not answer my questions because the sciences don’t describe what reality is; they describe what reality does.

That’s a big difference. You’re not going to get to what reality is through the scientific method, but you can do so through what the Indian traditions refer to as “yogic direct valid cognition,” or direct, first-person insight. One reason I like the Buddhist tradition so much is that, like science, and the wisdom of the scientific method, it is also highly empirical.

MM: So you're saying that Buddhism bridged the gap between science and spirituality?

AH: Physics and neuroscience describe reality from the outside in and Buddhism describes it from the inside out. My favorite definition of Buddhism is that it’s a description of reality. I’m not saying it’s the only description, but it is a clear and profound description. Science and Buddhism both offer a legitimate trajectory toward determining truth—determining what’s real—but their fundamental suppositions are different.

The Buddha awakened by taking a close look at this thing called death, using a sophisticated and elegant analytic process. He returned to the fundamental parameters of what it is that causes death. Then he turned that same inquiring lens to everything else, with an emphasis on questions more than on answers. That, as well as the drive toward salvation and achievement of liberation, defines the tradition. Teaching about the end of suffering is a premise grounded in transcendental pragmatism; that is a monumental difference between science and spirituality.

MM: So science and spiritual inquiry are both reductive, but towards a radically different reduction base?

AH: Exactly. The reductionist approach in science is based on reducing everything to matter. Buddhism, on the other hand, is a form of idealism that believes the world to be made of mind, heart, spirit, whatever label you choose to pin to the ineffable. Trying to reduce everything to matter creates what's known as the "hard problem of consciousness." As my friend Ken Wilber says, “How does consciousness or mind arise from frisky dirt?” It doesn’t. Scientific reductionism in the Western sense is trying to reduce everything to matter or energy, and that’s a really important difference between science and Buddhism. The Buddhist perspective reduces (or elevates) everything to mind, leading to the realization of the great inseparability of being, the unity of consciousness with the world.

Quantum physicists have profound things to say about this. Some of them, in fact, have turned somewhat mystical precisely because of what their science reveals. They've discovered the participatory nature of reality, which did not fit into the standard materialistic worldview. It turns out that there is, finally, no solid, lasting, or independent matter "out there" (air quotes). This sounds outrageous, but is supported by Andrei Linde (among many other scientists) from Stanford University. He believes that the only thing we ever have is experience. That’s it. Everything else is inference. Matter is inference. Once again, this aligns with the assertion that everything is a dream, or a manifestation of mind.

MM: There are also different levels of reality. Relative, impermanent, seemingly physical reality is not the same as the unchanging, numinous, spiritual reality pointed to in spiritual traditions.

AH: What’s important to remember is that when you enter the domain of the spiritual, you have to centrifuge out absolute and relative truth. Talking about the true nature of reality deals with absolute levels, and nonduality. Scientists work within the domain of dualistic relative truth, but don’t deal with these absolute dimensions of truth. So, when we’re talking about matter on a relative level, we can’t deny that there is the appearance of this thing that we impute to be solid, lasting, independent matter.

The wisdom traditions aren’t challenging appearances, they’re challenging the authority of appearance. Matter only appears to exist at the level of relative truth, in the same way that space, time, and causality appear to be real but are not from the non-dual perspective. The very things we take to be givens turn out to be constructs, including our sense of self. The spiritual path helps us deconstruct these givens.

MM: How do we navigate between the heart and head on a spiritual path?

AH: It’s helpful to swing initially into the intuitive heart side of things, but you then work toward the non-duality of the heart and the head so that they’re both included as part of this wonderfully messy thing we call the human condition. Duality is a developmental issue. It’s based on the provisional necessity of being able to separate self from other. If we didn’t have that duality on a conventional level, we would not be able to survive in the world.

The differentiation of self and other is a critical part of evolution, but it's a form of arrested development (that easily slips into dissociation) based on ego; a developmental level that reifies and solidifies this sense of self and other. My teacher Ponlop Rinpoche uses the phrase, "the extreme path to the middle.” You want to find the middle way, or union of heart and head.

MM: In your piece called “The Pitfalls of the Mindfulness Revolution,” you use the term McMindfulness. What did you mean?

AH: The mindfulness revolution is a colossal contribution to the West, but mindfulness meditation is entry-level and has a limited bandwidth of applicability. Mindfulness sedates, it does not liberate. Insight meditation liberates.

McMindfulness is perverting mindfulness by using it to become a more aggressive corporate executive, or to be better in the military, or whatever. It also confuses the cultivation of mere attention, which can be virtuous or unvirtuous, with mindfulness, which is always virtuous. Mindfulness was not designed for many of the things it is being used for today, but as a tool for taming the mind in preparation for insight meditation, or spiritual advancement.

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