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How To Incubate Dreams

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  1. What is dream incubation?  
  2. Incubation occurs naturally from our daytime experiences. 
  3. Incubate solutions to problems. 
  4. Techniques of dream incubation.  

What is dream incubation? When we do "dream incubation," we request a dream on a particular topic. This is a valuable skill because the topic might be a problem (for which we solicit a solution), or a dreamworld activity which we want to experience (for entertainment or education).

Incubation occurs naturally from our daytime experiences. Saint Thomas Aquinas said, "Those things that have occupied a man's thoughts and affections while awake recur to his imagination while asleep." The unconscious mind incorporates these topics into dreams because it wants to ponder them further in the form of symbolic drama. To a degree, we can manage this process to make it more productive (as least by our conscious mind's standards), to program dreams which confront the issues which seem important to us.

Incubate solutions to problems. We have all had an incident in which we went to sleep thinking about a problem and then, when we awoke, we had the answer. Our unconscious mind deliberated on the topic throughout the night in dreams (and probably in other, non-dream-related mental operations). The issue might be related to our career, health, personal relationships, or other decisions or conflicts. The incubation might ask for general guidance ("What do I need to know and do in order to improve my life?"), or specific assistance ("How can I enhance my financial state?"), or decision-making ("Should I agree to marry this person?"). One of my friends asked for advice as to whether she should continue to write a book which she had started. During a subsequent dream, she saw the credits of a TV-movie based on her book; when she awoke, she accepted this dream as a confirmation that she should finish the book.

Techniques of dream incubation.

  1. Develop a phrase for your incubation. Follow these guidelines for an effective incubation:
    • Make one simple sentence, using the fewest number of words to express your intention: "I will dream about my sister."
    • Use positive terms: "What can I do to feel healthier?" rather than "Why do I feel sick?" The first incubation will probably give solutions; the second might create a nightmare which depicts the problem but no answer.
    • Use either a question ("What should I do to experience more happiness?") or a statement ("I want a dream in which I learn how to be happier"). Be specific -- or not. We might want information about our relationship with a particular person, or insight into our relationships in general. Be flexible. Express the incubation in different words on different nights. One style of wording might be more effective than another. Incubate just one topic at a time. We will be able to concentrate more fully on the incubation if we have only one subject. Save the others for future nights. Consider other uses for dream incubation. Some people incubate dreams for creative inspiration (for their artwork). Other people incubate a generally "happy ending" to any dream which occurs.
  2. Associate the topic with an emotion. When you repeat the incubation phrase, feel the emotion which is related to it. Our dreams seem to be generated primarily by our emotional arousals rather than by our intellectual interests, so an incubation which has an emotional component is more likely to be honored by the unconscious mind. The feeling -- pleasant or unpleasant -- might be fear, anger, sexual desire, eagerness, pleasure, worry, or another sentiment.
  3. Visualize the desired dream. While awake, use your imagination to "see" yourself immersed in the dream, doing the incubated action or receiving the desired information. Or picture yourself awakening in the morning with a memory of the incubated dream. As you visualize, feel the emotion which corresponds with the topic. Use other senses besides vision; "hear" the voice of anyone who will be in the dream, or "smell" the perfume which she often wears, or add your sense of touch or taste.
  4. Use sensory aids. Visualization lets us "see" internally, but we can also use our external vision (and other senses); use objects which correspond to the incubation. For example, if you want to dream about your uncle, look at his photograph, read his letters, talk about him, enact a drama in which you imagine that he is present, draw a picture of him, or watch a home video or listen to a cassette recording in which he is present. If you can visit your uncle on the evening of the incubation, add other sensory input -- the scent of his body, the texture of his hair and skin. As you do these things, silently ask your unconscious mind for a dream on this subject. You might place a related object (such as a photo) under your pillow or next to you in bed, or you might wear, for example, one of his shirts to bed. And you could listen to a tape recording of his voice as you enter sleep.
  5. Repeat the incubation throughout the day. Say it many times, silently or aloud. Mentally concentrate on the phrase, and feel the corresponding emotion. Every time we reiterate it, we increase the probability that the incubation will take effect. Write the phrase in your dream journal and on "reminder" notes which you will see during the day (and perhaps on a piece of paper to put under your pillow).
  6. Be relaxed while doing the incubation. The incubation phrase can be repeated at any time, but it might most effective if we say it while we are doing a relaxation technique. During this period, our unconscious mind is receptive, and we are in a right-hemisphere mode which more closely approximates the dream state. A similar state is hypnosis (or self-hypnosis); some people have used post-hypnotic suggestion to incubate dreams on specific topics.
  7. Be certain that you want to know the answer. If we fear that the response to an incubation will upset us, we might be less successful with the incubation. For example, if we want to know whether we should marry a person, but we are afraid that the answer will be "no" (or "yes") the unconscious mind might not permit the proposed dream to occur. If the dream does occur, the mind's Freudian "censor" might keep us from recalling it or being able to interpret it.
  8. Gather the related facts for problem-solving incubations. The unconscious mind needs data to process during its problem-solving function; it cannot operate in a vacuum. Supply this data by reading about the incubation subject, pondering its causes and consequences and potential solutions, and noting your feelings about it. Don't expect an answer during the information-gathering stage; the unconscious mind requires time -- and it will do much of its processing during our next sleep period.
  9. Repeat the incubation just prior to sleep. Review the factors and feelings involved in the incubation, with calm assurance that the unconscious mind will provide a resolution; this is not a time for profound analysis or anxiety regarding the subject. Ask your unconscious mind to fulfill the incubation and to help you to remember and interpret (and accept the message of) the resulting dream. As you approach sleep, repeat the phrase (with corresponding imagery and a gentle feeling), and sense that you are releasing the repetitions into the unconscious mind like helium balloons ascending into the sky.
  10. Search for the solution in your dream interpretation. When you awaken, recall your dreams, and explore them for any feelings or symbolic images which might refer to the incubated topic. The correlation might not be apparent at first, but it might appear as you study the dreams further. If we incubated a solution to a problem, the answer might emerge as a hunch during wakefulness, even if we do not remember the dream in which the problem was processed.
  11. Analyze the response to your incubated question. We need to be careful in accepting advice which has apparently been given by a dream. Dreams frequently exaggerate their themes for dramatic effect, so they might not be presenting realistic guidance. And we must consider the possibility that we have interpreted the dream incorrectly. Be certain that the interpretation feels right and seems sensible before acting on it.
  12. Be patient. An incubation might not occur until a few days after we request it. Perhaps this delay occurs because of "scheduling conflicts"; the unconscious mind has other matters to investigate during the limited time allotted for dreams, and our topic is not a priority. Or maybe the incubation won't occur until we rephrase the question, or until we are psychologically "ready" to hear the answer, or until the unconscious mind has formulated its response (after processing the data), or until we have mastered one of the skills of incubation. Consider these possibilities, and others, while you wait for the incubated dream.
  13. Accept the unconscious mind's overrides. The last paragraph suggests that the unconscious mind is in control of our dreamworld; we need to respect its authority and intelligence. Some people worry that dream incubation is "tampering" with the dream process (and displacing more-important dreams which the unconscious is trying to give to us) -- but the unconscious mind has the prerogative to ignore any incubations which would interfere with its serious work; it is likely to accept only the incubations which conform to its interests. Although we have leeway to impose our will and desires within the dreamworld, we will always be amateurs and guests in that realm. We need to acquiesce humbly to the unconscious mind's wisdom.
  14. Be alert to dreams which tell you to back off from inappropriate incubations. Following are examples of my unconscious mind's "don't-waste-my-time" dreams. I feel that the meaning of these responses was that I should refrain from relatively meaningless incubations, and that I should not seek something in dreams which I could find in my waking life.
    • Because I enjoy my computer, I wanted to incubate a dream about it. In a dream, I saw a computer for a moment, and someone said (in a breathless voice which implied that he was too busy to talk to me), "There's your computer. Are you satisfied now?"
    • I knew that lucidity often occurs in dreams in which we see sources of light. On two nights, I tried to incubate a dream about (1) a lightbulb and (2) the sky. In both cases, the response occurred not during a dream, but after I awoke. The lightbulb incubation was answered when I arose from my bed and turned on a light; a quiet inner voice said (somewhat sarcastically), "There's your lightbulb." The sky incubation generated a similar response; when I was at a park the following day, I felt my gaze go upward, and a voice said, "There is your sky."
    • When I lived in California, I enjoyed swimming at the Santa Cruz beaches. An incubation for a visit to a beach resulted in this dream: "I receive an envelope which appears to have been sent from a distant place. The envelope seems to contain sand. I open the envelope, and pour the sand into my hand. I wonder about the significance of the sand, but it feels like an ordinary substance. I think, 'It's just sand.'" My journal adds this note: "This dream seems to be telling me that the incubation was a trivial request. I received a component of the 'beach' request (the sand), but it had no meaning."


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