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Chapter 1

The Hypnotic Use of Waking Dreams:
Exploring Near-Death Experiences Without the Flatlines

Chapter 1

The Things You Can Do with a Good Dream


When I died I had an overwhelming experience of calm and peace. I was floating above the ocean and felt absolute harmony with everything around me.

The light is so bright. I feel like Iím floating. There is a lot of loving presence here.

My parents are worried about the ship sinking, about the storm. They just woke me up. Weíre leaving the cabin. People are running. My mother and I lost my dad in the crowd. Iím off the ship now. I seem to be floating up in the air. My mother is next to me, we must have died. We fell into the cold water getting into the lifeboat. I can see my body sinking in the ocean. I was trying to touch my body, but it was too far away and everyone disappeared. [Pause.] My grandmother is there! She took my hand! Now sheís guiding me, telling me to come with her. Momís up there with her. I see the Light now, a big sun. Iím so happy to be with my grandmother again!

When I died I saw my funeral. . . .Then I proceeded to float up and I found my wife. She was very excited to see me. I had an overwhelming experience of feeling loved. All of my sad thoughts had left me and I just filled up with happy ones.

If you have previously read about near-death experiences, these descriptions will have a familiar ring to them. For more than three decades now, researchers have provided us with fascinating glimpses of life-after-life that sometimes occur in individuals following a heart attack or other life-threatening crisis. Triggered by potentially fatal situations, survivors report incredible tranquility and peacefulness as they float out of the physical body into an intensely bright light where they are typically greeted lovingly by others: deceased relatives, spirit guides, angels, religious figures, etc. When the experience lasts long enough, these survivors engage in a non-judgmental life review often accompanied by significant insights. Despite the fact that the experience is over in a matter of seconds, most report profound, durable, life-altering aftereffects of a positive nature.

The descriptions above are not from people who have suffered a close call with death, however. What they are describing took place in my office during psychotherapy sessions. Unlike traditional near-death experiences in which the heart often stops, these people were in no distress. They were all sitting or lying comfortably on my couch.

Waking dreams provide a vehicle that enables people to experience many of the phenomena associated with a true near-death experience, but without any of the life-threatening risks. The varied case studies that follow, with their extensive transcripts of actual waking dreams, demonstrate a variety of ways that I have used waking dreams to help people resolve problems ranging from the specific to the existential. Transcripts, of course, are limited in their ability to convey the emotional richness that is so integral to the experience. Nonetheless, as you read each of the case studies I hope you will increasingly sense the transformative potential of waking dreams.

Aided by straightforward hypnotic techniques, my clients experience vivid dream-like imagery during the psychotherapy session in which they become the main character in a fictional life. The life of the dream character may include insightful parallels to the clientís own life such as Dorothy experienced in The Wizard of Oz, but the true power of the waking dream typically begins when the dream character dies. At this transitional moment, clients typically report the first of many of the characteristics associated with a true near-death experience. Floating out of the body of the dream character and into the Light, most clients meet what they describe as spirit guides or other non-physical beings whose function seems to replicate that of the figures who present in a true NDE.

Among other things, waking dreams usually include a non-judgmental life review, an opportunity to release faulty beliefs and feelings of guilt, reunion with loved ones, and transforming experiences of being loved unconditionally. Unlike a true NDE, an important part of this experience is a meeting between the dream character and the client in which the dream character offers the client support and guidance for his or her own life struggles. The process often concludes with an assurance that the guides and/or the dream character will remain available to the client in an ongoing relationship, assisting, coaching, and supporting the clientís efforts to change.

Throughout the book, I refer to these after-death beings as "spirit guides" or simply "guides." In doing so I wish to be pragmatic without being presumptive. It is certainly possible that these guides are merely creations of the clientís imagination, just like the dream character and others who appear in the waking dream. Because both their function and the emotional responses that their presence elicits seem analogous to similar encounters described in true NDEs, I chose a label descriptive of that function.

Waking dreams allow people to work on a variety of issues:

Sometimes they discover previously unrecognized faulty assumptions about a problem.

Once identified, these faulty beliefs fall away. As this happens, new solutions quickly emerge. Consider the example of Matthew who had long perceived power as a kind of magic that only women have. The only way he could have power, therefore, was to be in a relationship with a woman. As a result he became depressed and anxious whenever he was in between relationships. In one of his waking dreams he saw himself as a young girl, Antoinette, who spent the rest of her life in a convent as a nun. By the time of her death she had become the Mother Superior. Comparing the characters in the waking dream with his own life Matthew noted:

When you asked me to look for people in the nunís life I realized I couldnít . . . I knew the father in the girlís story was a parent in my life, but I didnít know which one. Still donít. But then I had a set of thoughts that went, "Oh, if itís my father, and he really had this kind of power, what I saw then was a man who was so afraid of how he would misuse power that he wasnít going to let himself have any." And thatís stupid. Power is just another form of magic. You donít have to be consumed by it. Itís another form of energy. Itís not that big a deal.

What she [Antoinette] saw earlier was Ė itís a kinesthetic experience, how the hell do I put it into words . . . okay, "Magic is external to me. You go out of yourself towards it, grab something outside of yourself, and try to get incorporated by it." She found that God has to subtract from Himself to create an emptiness into which the magic can enter. The cabalistic statement is, "God created nothing in order for there to be a space into which He could enter." God subtracted from Himself. What she got was a kinesthetic of, "You let God into you. That creates a space into which the magic enters." The magic is an energy exchange between you and God Ė to be prosaic about it. [I interjected, "Did, you get that in a kinesthetic way?"] Oh, yea. Oh, yea. I was flooded with light.

Then, a minute later, he found another faulty assumption. In the waking dream the young girl had gone through a period of intense loneliness as a teenager in the convent.

That was the shift in me about . . . Ahhh! This is relevant actually. Two years ago, a woman told me something which I heard, and knew she was absolutely right, but didnít know what to do with it. She said that I confused loneliness with missing God.

The nun had the experience (of the loneliness) which is why I said I thought I was in exile. I thought I was like being put in "time out," and He has to take me out of time out. Itís only a separation. I got it. . . . Oh! Heís been waiting for me to come back!

People can safely try out a new solution in the virtual reality of the waking dream, modifying it as needed.

As an analogy, consider the main concept of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day happening in a trance-induced virtual reality. In the movie, the main character finds himself trapped in a 24-hour time loop. Every day when he awakes it is the same calendar day. Each day he experiments with different ways of resolving his problems, drawing on his successes and failures from the previous attempts. When he finally works out a solution he truly likes, he gets out of the time loop.

One client, a middle-aged professional woman, Emily, was wrestling with whether to risk shifting the focus of her work to an area that held much more appeal for her, but that might alienate her from much of the conservative community where she lived. In one of her waking dreams she was a professor, Winston, and the administrator of a seminary. As the dream went on she narrated:

Iíve called in another one of the professors, Gilbert, because of pressure from influential parents of some of the students. The parents are complaining that this professor has been filling their sonsí heads with things they donít want them to think about. He is questioning and promoting questioning in the students. He is arguing with me because he knows from our prior conversations that I agree with him. But I donít give in. I tell him if he doesnít stop, Iíll let him go. These people are too important. They give too much money to us. I canít ignore them. His reaction is surprising, because he looks at me with sadness, almost pity. Iím embarrassed and furious. He leaves, and soon after leaves the seminary.

I find it ironic: the seminary continues to struggle and yet he prospers. Gilbert starts his own small school. Only the brightest, most open-minded students seek him out. Even though he doesnít have the most money, he still seems to prosper. Meanwhile, I donít grow and the seminary doesnít grow. I realize too late there was nothing else in my life, so I retire from the seminary on a small pension. Iím very bored and bitter, and I feel like I sold it all. I just sold out my life. I sold my potential for financial security, but all I bought was boredom.

Soon after this comment in her narration of the waking dream, Winston died. Following his death, I invited Emily to revisit the decision Winston had made that day in the seminary office when he and Gilbert had argued. I suggested she implement an alternative decision and notice what difference it made.

It was not very satisfying to have power over sheep. I have to learn to be true to myself. (If I changed the decision) Iíd leave the seminary with Gilbert and start a new one. In that setting I see myself having a challenging, vibrant life, growing and learning and teaching. We took a lot of financial risk Ė and social risk. Weíre very unpopular with the majority of the people, just as he really was. But the best and brightest learned from him and would have learned from me, too. They soak in knowledge like a sponge, never depleting mine but enhancing it, teaching me in return.

Now, five years since that waking dream, Emily is well into the transition in her own work. She is still valued by her traditional referral sources despite having become much more open in her pursuit of this new direction in her career. The fear and apprehension that had plagued her for some time have gradually abated as she has given herself permission to pursue her true interests.

In waking dreams people can develop abilities and relationship skills they currently lack.

A recently divorced woman, Donna, brought her two children to see me for some help dealing with the fallout from the breakup of the family. In one of her individual sessions she had a waking dream in which she was the wife of a Southern plantation owner in the pre-Civil War period. In her dream, Donnaís husband had died young and left her with two children to raise and a plantation to manage. As she explored the remainder of Donnaís life in the dream, she experienced the confidence and competent manner in which she managed the plantation. She noted with some humor that the other plantation owners in the community, all men, did not take kindly to the undeniable truth that she was more successful than they were. Following her death in that dream, Donna had a strong sense that her own two children were with her to help her remain aware of her own competency as she deals with the stereotyped expectations of some of her professional colleagues in the traditionally male-dominated field in which she works.

Sometimes in a waking dream people experience a problem from an opposing perspective.

This is particularly helpful for clients who have felt "victimized" in some way by life. Emily (see number 2) had not only been looking to move in a new direction professionally, she had also remained somewhat "stuck" following the death of her long-term partner. Previously she had experienced a number of other losses in her life. In her grieving over her partnerís death she wrestled with the unfairness that she always seemed to be the one who was left behind. In one of her waking dreams her partner appeared in the role of a spouse. In Emilyís role as the dream character, this time she was the first of them to die. Floating in the Light she decided that it was no easier to be the first to die than to be the one left behind.

She had had to deal with other losses as well. As the owner of a small business, Emily had suffered quite a financial loss when a trusted employee embezzled funds. She experienced the other side of this relationship in another waking dream in which Emily saw herself as a young man, Clark, who wanted to join the military. In the dream his mother was opposed to this. Over a period of about twenty minutes she related the following events in her dream:

My mother inherited some money from her parents and sent me away. She shouldnít have done that. She couldnít make me go, but bribed me with money to go and find another type of work. She wants me to go to other countries and export things back to our country. The money is a temptation and I take it, but I donít look into anything productive. It is my first time out from under her watchful eye, and I have a good time [smiling]. I drink a lot, go to whore houses, become friends with seedy people. Iím just too naive to know theyíre around just for the money. I donít know much about the world . . . Iím sick. I have no money left. All of my companions that I thought were friends are gone. Iím homeless. A lady finds me and takes me in. She feeds me, and nurses me back to health. She has an apothecary shop. She tells me I can work in it. She teaches me what the different herbs and roots and teas do. Once again I abuse the power she gives me. I find out which ones make you feel good and I start taking them. I become addicted. She has to make me leave. Iím homeless again. This time the illness is from withdrawal . . . I get on a ship and hide. Iím dying. What a waste. I didnít have enough courage to do what I wanted to do. I never connected with anyone. I used two very good opportunities and destroyed myself with them, and hurt the people who were trying to help me.

Following Clarkís death, I suggested Emily do a life review and notice what she learned from this "wasted life."

I have to learn to give as well as to take. I was supposed to learn that but I didnít. It was too easy and felt too good to take. It was too much work to give anything back. I also learned that I need people Ė real connections with people, not superficial but real. Love is much more important than feeling good.

I tell myself, "Now youíve got to come back as the people being hurt because you have to learn what thatís like. Learn what itís like to be on the other side."

Subsequent to this waking dream, Emilyís anger at the employee who had embezzled from her subsided considerably, and continued to abate in the months that followed. She still pursued legal avenues to the situation, but was able to do so from a much calmer perspective.

Once a new solution is clear, many clients establish a cue based on the waking dream that serves as a self-generated reminder to use the new solution when that particular situation occurs again.


One woman, Jane, generated the idea of hearing her dream character whisper "purple" in her ear whenever she began acting jealous around friends or colleagues. While I monitored this over the next several months, she reported that not only had she heard "purple" on a number of occasions (reaffirming how much of a problem this behavior had been), but that many of her friends had commented on the positive shift in her interactions where jealousy was concerned.

Clients develop new insights into current relationships based on relationships between the characters in the dream.

In one waking dream a young woman, Betsy, saw herself as an old man, Stephen, sitting on a park bench. His wife had died, and he had no contact with his two grown sons.

I never really got along with them. I have money and donít know what to do with it. I donít want to give it to my sons.

Betsy noted that Stephen seemed very resentful. She said, "He was just disappointed. Nothing went the way he wanted." Following his death, she reported the following discussion with him:

Heís telling me to do something with my life. Donít be like he was. Heís very sad now. Heís crying. He wasnít very nice. He never gave time for anyone. He was very selfish. He realizes this now.

He was the middle of three children. He didnít really get along with his brother and younger sister. He never really connected with his mom and dad. Both parents died when he was 17. He moved out and started on his own. He never kept in touch with his brother and sister. He lost a bunny when he was little. He loved that bunny. He put all his love in that bunny and it died. He didnít care for anyone else after that. He tried to love his wife; she just got annoying.

Heís telling me to love as many people as possible. It is sad when you go to your funeral and no one is there except your sons Ė out of obligation. Heís telling me to call all my brothers and sisters and tell them how much I love them.

I suggested that Betsy ask Stephen what he would have to give up to let go of feeling so unlovable. He told her he would have to let go of his pride. Given the choice between being proud and alone or risking love, Stephen accepted my invitation to have his wife join him there in the Light. The client then reported:

Sheís very happy to see him. Heís shocked! He thought she hated him.

I suggested that Betsy allow herself to experience this firsthand instead of from the third-person perspective. She continued:

Iím very happy. Itís a nice feeling. She loves me, she really loves me. Someone really loves me!

I then invited Stephenís parents to join him. Smiling, Betsy continued:

There they are! Theyíre hugging me. They love me, too!

As we explored metaphorical connections between the dream characters and people in her own life, Betsy reported a number of parallels like those found in The Wizard of Oz. Stephenís parents were representative of Betsyís aunt and uncle; Stephenís aunt and uncle were representative of her own parents. When Stephen was a child these relatives had been nice to him, but had moved away and he had missed them. There were more connections. His wife in the dream was a parallel to one of the Betsyís grandmothers. His two sons in the dream were a parallel to two of Betsyís sisters. Two more of her siblings were represented by Stephenís brother and sister. Finally, a teenage girl whom Stephen had befriended as an old man in his neighborhood had personality traits of one of the Betsyís nieces. As Betsy ended the dialogue with him in this waking dream, I asked if he had any other messages for her about all these people gathering together there in the Light with him. He told her:

Stay in contact. Why? Because they love you.

Not only did the dream provide Betsy with an intense experience of feeling loved by so many people, it also let her experience the consequences of the alternative in the form of the lonely, bitter man sitting on the park bench. Notice how the dream took advantage of many different relationships from Stephenís life, bringing the essence of those people into many different relationships in Betsyís own life. Love is not just between soul mates. It is a feeling we experience internally that can arise from any relationship we nurture.

Clients often explore metaphysical, existential, or spiritual issues in waking dreams, typically following the death of the dream character.

One of Emilyís (see number 4) other waking dreams provides an example of this. In this dream she is a young woman, Tarea, who grew up in a gypsy community in Europe in the 1800s. At age 16 she became pregnant by her motherís boyfriend who subsequently left. She gave birth to a son who became very special to her: "I never cared so much about anybody." One day when her son was four years old, men on horseback rode through the camp to run them out of the area. Her son ran out to see what was happening and was killed by one of the horses. Until she died some 25 years later she never let anyone get close to her again (despite the efforts of several people who sought to help) because, as she said, "It hurts too much." On her deathbed, Tarea laid waiting for the darkness to come, but instead she said the Light came. With it came understanding:

I blew it. I know now that no matter how bad it hurts, itís all worth it. Love. I just wasted so much. Iím going to have to do that one again.

People tried to comfort me, tried to help me. They tried to get close to me sometimes. But I never allowed it.

I suggested Tarea and Emily meet and talk with each other.

Itís all worth it. Thatís what sheís sharing with me now. Thatís why she came back. She says to never close the door. Itís too hard to re-open it.

We worked with the metaphor of the door as Emily had experienced it emotionally in her own life.

Thatís a scary thought to take it down; then you canít close it.

Asked about the benefits of keeping the door open or taking it down, Emily remarked:

(Itís about) understanding more about love, purpose, all of it. Itís like being on the other side, millions of tiny sparkles. Itís wonderful. Itís not something that can be put into words. Itís so beautiful! Itís not scary here. Whatís scary is what I have to go through to get here.

Itís all worth it. Everything is worth it . . . You have to receive if you give it. You always get back . . . If it was easy, if it was all easy, there wouldnít be much point. How could I learn if it was all easy?

This last point routinely becomes a gateway to what is often one of the most significant aspects of the therapy process. I believe our culture continues to value an emphasis on the five senses at the expense of an additional way of knowing: our intuitive sense. Facilitated by the guides and dream characters in a series of waking dreams, my clients re-learn how to recognize intuitive moments in their daily lives, and to again trust the accuracy of those intuitions. Perhaps facilitated by the unconditional love they experience when in the presence of their guides, they also learn to better differentiate fear-based thoughts from intuition. As they increasingly recognize and value ordinary hunches in day-to-day living, they find they can more easily sidestep or defuse situations that previously would have felt stressful. Life becomes more playful, more intriguing as "coincidences" are increasingly understood as more literally linked to their thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

As you read their stories, I hope their messages will have a similar effect for you. Pay attention to places in the book where something that you read seems to strike a resonant chord in you. Resist the temptation to just keep reading. Pause for a moment and sit with your feelings. Instead of trying to analyze their source, imagine giving yourself permission to turn a dial that allows you to experience these feelings even more intensely. Play with the possibility that it was no coincidence that you had the reaction you did to what you had just read. Invite your intuitive sense to elaborate on the message being conveyed by what you are feeling.

Most people who experience an NDE encounter some form of non-physical being or guide. As will be evident throughout the book, I personally believe that every person has one or more such guides who are available during life and not just after physical death. Whatever your beliefs about the form and function of guides, you can use unexpected moments of intense feelings as a kind of "affect bridge" to help you and your guide(s) communicate better with each other. Similar to leaving a message on a close friendís cell phone without focusing on how the message actually gets there, imagine sending a message to your guide that explicitly gives him or her permission to use this window of opportunity to offer you guidance, suggestions, or support.



Updated: 06/23/2007

Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.
3589 Habersham at Northlake, Bldg O, Tucker, GA 30084-4001
Phone: 770-939-4473
Office Fax: 770-939-0033