Taoist Shamanism and Dream Yoga
“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flying in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder, am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” – Chuang Tzu.
The Shamanic Roots of Taoism
Taoism’s origins, like many other spiritual philosophies and belief systems can be traced back to shamanic practices from the earliest tribal civilizations. The Chinese word for shaman or “wu” was first recorded during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), but it is believed that these traditions date back to the very origins of Chinese culture. In fact, many of the stories surrounding Fu Hsi, the mythological founder of Chinese civilization (approximately 5,000 years ago) have a distinctly shamanic feel to them. For instance, Fu Hsi is considered the creator of the Yi Jing (I Ching), or “Book of Changes” the basis of all Chinese philosophy. According to the legend, he discovered the Yi Jing in the arrangement of markings on the back of a turtle that emerged from a river. This is a classic shamanic tale that marries nature and divination with the result being the attainment of profound knowledge.
In the historical documents that remain, the wu (shamans) are portrayed as masters of many magical talents including exorcism, healing, divination and rainmaking. They were also known to enter trance states and journey into the spirit world to gather information. The ancient Chinese emperors employed these shamans to assist them in choosing the appropriate course of action and maintaining their power.
There is even a record of an ancient Chinese hallucinogen, Yun-Shih (Caesalpinia sepiaria) a shrubby vine believed to possess medical and magical properties. The earliest Chinese herbal manual states that the yun-shih flowers “contain occult powers” that allowed “one to see spirits.” The book also claimed that the flowers “produce levitation of the body and promote communication with the spirits.”
With the rise of Confucianism and Buddhism, the wu practice slowly fell out of favor. Shamans were persecuted, like witches in the west, and ultimately their practices were completely banned. However, they continued their rituals and training in secret and became known as magicians, wizards and sorcerers. As time went on and shamanism receded from Chinese culture, the shaman’s duties were largely taken over by Taoists.
At their core, both shamanism and Taoism work on developing, channeling and directing energies within the practitioner and the world around them. In fact most Taoist rituals, as well as qi gong (chi gung, or energy exercises), are designed to enable the practitioner to live in harmony with nature — an inherently shamanic idea.
To this day, shamanic principles can be seen clearly in Taoist practices such as traditional Chinese medicine (acupuncture and herbalism), divination, astrology, spirit travel, and the use of talismans. It is also at the heart of Feng shui (literally “wind and water”), the Taoist art of placement, which guides practitioners on the best way to create a positive and nurturing environment. And shamanism also forms the foundation of advanced Taoist esoteric practices such as alchemy, sexual yoga, and dream yoga.
Taoist Dream Yoga
Dream yoga is a very safe, enjoyable and easy to learn shamanic practice within Taoism. It is designed to allow the practitioner to harness the power of the dream and sleep states to awaken the consciousness. The idea behind dream yoga is simple. We spend approximately one third of our lives sleeping. So dream yoga gives us the opportunity to use that time as part of our practice in order to access information that is typically hidden from our waking consciousness.
In the west, dream yoga is known as lucid dreaming, astral projection, or out-of-body experiences. A lucid dream is one in which the practitioner becomes aware that he is dreaming while dreaming. In other words, the lucid dreamer can act deliberately in the dream state to do whatever she wants without the constraints of physical reality.
Aside from the obvious fun people can have if they become lucid in a dream — the ability to do anything you can think of certainly creates a lot of possibilities for wish fulfillment — learning to awaken within a dream offers many other benefits. These include increased energy, problem solving, enhancing our creativity, gaining insight into the death process, and cultivating our intuition. But perhaps the greatest spiritual benefit lies in helping the practitioner wake up to the dream-like nature of all experience, which is key to creating a magical Taoist reality.
Developing Your Dream Practice
Taoist dream practice, sometimes called true dreaming, dream wandering, or night practice, uses energy work and shamanic techniques along with traditional dream yoga. The dream state can then be used as a tool for energy development and enlightenment, while the dreams themselves can become a source of spiritual direction or guidance.
The essence of a lucid dream is recognizing that you are dreaming during the dream. The first step in this process is to begin looking at your normal waking reality as though it too is a dream. A basic principle of Taoism is that life is a dream of our own creation. Dream yoga, then, is meant to help us wake up from this dream in order to experience life completely.
So the very first exercise is to go about your daily activities reminding yourself that everything you are experiencing is a dream. As the great philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes wrote, “How can you be certain that your whole life is not a dream?
While you go through your day, try to think of all that you experience as being part of a dream. This applies to everything from thinking of your physical possessions as dream possessions and your friends as dream friends, to thinking of problems and thoughts as dream problems and dream thoughts. Then, as you’re lying in bed before going to sleep, review your day as though you were recounting a dream you had.
Another very simple practice is to do what are known as “reality checks.” This is where you constantly confirm whether you are dreaming or awake. You can do this by placing your hand on a wall and trying to move through the wall, or willing yourself to fly. Essentially a reality check is attempting anything that you believe is impossible during normal waking reality as though you were in fact dreaming and it was completely possible.
The more you do these practices, the better the effect. Like any spiritual exercise, the longer and more consistently you practice it, the greater the benefit. Once the ideas captured by these methods become second nature, you will find yourself in a night-dream doing the same thing. In other words, you will notice that you are dreaming and then you will “wake up” in your dream and experience it consciously.
Here are two simple Taoist exercises you can do alone and with a friend to help spur your dream practice.
Dreaming mirror practice
1. Find a mirror that you can stand or sit comfortably in front of.
2. Take 3 deep breaths.
3. Spend a few moments looking at yourself in the mirror. Then, once you are completely relaxed, repeat to yourself “You are dreaming.”
4. Continue for 2-3 minutes.
Friends Dreaming practice
1. Find a comfortable place where you and a friend can stand or sit facing each other. This can be inside or outside, but you should make sure that there are no major distractions such as noise, weather, etc. Choose which person will go first.
2. Position yourselves so that your faces are 2-3 feet apart.
3. Take 3 deep breaths.
4. Spend a few moments looking at each other. Then, once you are completely relaxed, the person chosen to go first should say to their friend, slowly and clearly “You are dreaming.” The second person should wait a brief moment and then respond by saying “You are dreaming.”
5. Continue for 2-3 minutes.
I wish you bold adventures in your dream reality!
This article was written by Jonathan Blank at Reality Sandwich. For more on Taoist dream yoga practices, please check out his new book, Secrets of Dragon Gate. It includes many secret Dragon Gate Taoism dreaming practices including the Five Celestial Guardian dream yoga. You can purchase the book here.