For Westerners, the idea that you can ask for a dream on a certain topic sounds silly and new agey. But dream science has shown, repeatedly, that dreams mirror our waking concerns. This is the continuity theory of dreaming, best articulated by dream researcher William Domhoff.
Simply put, this theory suggests that we dream to make sense of the world and our experiences. As shown with quantitative analysis, the content of our dreams corresponds to the things that are most important to us.
Our dreams may not seem relevant at first glance, but they are governed by an emotional logic that connects our long-term memories (and emotional hang-ups) with our current lives. Family, old friends, current work stress, difficult dilemmas, and unresolved emotional tensions all come through loud and clear.
However, the dreaming-waking life connection is not just a one-way street; it’s a feedback loop. Not only do dreams reflect back our life, but we can learn how to focus on a particular topic while we dream. Domhoff may not agree, but the ancient Greeks and many other indigenous cultures were hip to this fact. In the Hellenistic era, dream incubation temples were the most popular cult around.
And before Christianity largely turned its back on dreams, many monks, nuns, and visionaries included dream incubations in their spiritual repertoire. (The exception to Christianity’s spurning of the dream is 18th century mystic Emmanuel Swendenborg, who was widely read in his day and greatly influenced the dream theories of Carl Jung).
Closer to earth, stories abound about how scientists have made their breakthroughs with the help of dreams. It’s not automatic, but dream incubation is an easy to learn skill. It works, but consider yourself warned: sometimes you get more than you bargained for.
3 steps for a Successful Dream Incubation
Set your Intention.
The most important part of dream incubation is setting an intention. You have to really want it. And the clearer your intention, the more likely a dream will come to answer your question or dilemma.
What do you want your dreaming mind to weigh in on? Is it the answer to a mathematic proof or a chemistry solution? Are you trying to decide between two opportunities, each which will take you down a fascinating path in life? Are you looking for closure with a member of your family who has recently passed on? Or maybe you want to work on some recently emergent memories from your childhood?
In each of these cases, you have to want it with your heart, your mind, and your gut. If it’s merely an intellectual curiosity, then the incubation will not necessarily take root in your sleeping mind.
Some good questions to ask to help find your intention are: “What is it I need clarity about?” and “What in my life needs attention?”
Not sure yet? I recommend taking a blank piece of paper and doing 15 minutes of free writing. Set an alarm and put pen to paper. When you don’t know what to write, write “I don’t know what to write.” After you have broken through some initial resistances, you will find more than enough puzzles, concerns, or desires that you want to engage with in the dream world.
Prepare for Sleep Mindfully.
With your intention in mind, prepare for sleep with more attention than usual. No TV before bed. Turn the ringers off. Unplug the router. Then, light some candles or put on some soft relaxing music an hour before you climb into bed. Or take a relaxing bath. If you are the journalling type, write your intention in a journal starting with the phrase “I want to dream about …” As you fall asleep, recite your intention until you really feel it. Be sure about it. As Yoda says, there is no try.
Other aspects of sleep hygiene to consider during a dream incubation include having clean sheets on the bed, and clean sleep wear. How fresh is the air in the bedroom? Maybe a vase of roses could lighten the mood.
Finally, cut down on caffeine, sugar, and alcohol after noon, because this really can make or break a dream incubation.
Receiving the dream: patience and diligence.
Sometimes it takes a week for a dream to reflect on the intention you set. For others, it will happen on the first night. Be patient. I recommend writing down every dream you remember for 2 weeks after a dream incubation. Sometimes, we don’t notice the connection at first, but after some time has passed, the answer is right there in the dream report.
Super Charge your Dream Incubation
If you still aren’t dreaming well, do the dream incubation several nights in a row and then wait again. If no word comes from slumberland, try altering your diet for a while. Cut out processed foods and fats, sugars and alcohol completely. Consider a gentle dream supplement like mugwort.
Then wait some more.
Mugwort is the perfect complement to dream incubation. The dry herb can fill a room with a refreshing minty-sage scent.
Another tactic is to set your alarm in the middle of the night, or about four to six hours after you went to bed. Some people naturally wake up at this time without an alarm. (I do – I usually just fluff my pillow, roll over, and go back to sleep). When you wake up, turn on a small bedside light (or a book light if you have a sleeping partner) and journal about your intention some more. If you have a meditation practice, sit up in bed and do some breathwork for 10 minutes, and then settle back to bed with your intention in mind.
Still another tactic is to have a visual symbol of your intention and keep it close to you. A stone, a small painting, or a bowl full of herbs (like mugwort or chamomile) can sit on your bedside table as a constant reminder of your intention. Train yourself to repeat your intention as you go to sleep. When you see it first thing in the morning, ask, “Did I dream last night?”
Be patient with yourself, too. In the West, where most have us have been taught that dreams are meaningless or random, we have to work through a lot of negative thoughts to get to this natural and profound visionary ability.
Soon you will break through the over-culture and be able to do what the ancients used to do for their greatest life challenges: just sleep on it.