[At the peak of COVID, I wrote this article about a technology that was (and still is) meaningful for me in coping with difficult circumstances. More recently, I wrote a second article to consider the ways that my experience of Virtual Reality had evolved, so I’ll share that here as well—in Part 2, next month. Both of these articles reflect upon the similarities and differences between dreaming and VR. My personal priority in doing dreamwork has always revolved around the potential for opening our minds to new possibilities, so exploring VR from this angle comes naturally to me. I hope that you will find the subject as intriguing as I do!]
The new Virtual Reality technology, now available for reasonably-priced popular use, opens up some breath-taking possibilities, that might be applied to our dreaming and waking lives. With a heavy “visor” (resembling diving goggles) and simple hand controls, you experience a fresh reality. It’s incredibly persuasive. VR isn’t exactly a dream, but can potentially provide a dream-like alchemical recipe for personal and social transformation.
I was introduced to this technology as a patient in a Pain Clinic this past summer. I had severe PTSD a year after traumatic spinal surgery, and for months I’d been having episodes of excruciating back spasms that couldn’t be controlled, my heart rhythms were unstable, and my nervous system was in shreds. Slowly and with great care, the pain experts were guiding my healing, and that process included an experimental trial with Virtual Reality.
In my first VR session, I found myself floating down a sparkling river canyon while giant otters on all sides waited for me to shoot rainbow fish to them. This was actually a pretty rudimentary VR program, and the session only lasted ten minutes, but it gave me a sense of glorious spaciousness, relief from pain and anxiety, and a chance to encounter a truly unthreatening experience with the joy of a child discovering the world for the first time. Like an ecstatic dream, it freed my mind and heart.
I probably needed this experience more than the average person because of my health issues, but we could all use an opening right now. In the era of COVID, the small world we inhabit can seem tedious and stifling, when it’s not outright alarming. Our imaginations may suffer from a lack of meaningful inspiration and a surfeit of distracting or overwhelming stimulation. These times only accentuate our human tendency to get stuck in repetitive patterns that create and perpetuate suffering. Confined to an over-familiar environment, masked and buffered from our neighbors, perhaps faced with desperate stresses and choices, we share only screen presence and grow sick of the confines of our own minds.
Maybe we are fortunate enough not to be immediately afflicted by economic pressures, environmental disasters, family emergencies, health concerns or existential crises. Still, for most of us, the past year has brought some hard reckonings with the limitations of our way of life. So where can we go for a new perspective? Of course, we turn to dreams. But, dreams can sometimes be difficult to access, especially if our waking lives are energetically exhausting. Virtual Reality could be a powerful tool for reaching new parts of our brains using the same approach that dreams use to develop and exercise under-used neurological pathways, expanding our mental breathing room and creative possibilities. And, as a side benefit, VR can accentuate dreams themselves, making them more vivid and easier to recall.
Of course, any technology that offers instant sensory gratification can become problematic if it leads to avoidant or addictive behavior. On a gloomy, wet winter day, confined to my stuffy little house, it might be too easy to retreat completely into this thrilling realm of color and light. But I can resist the impulse to overdo it: the visor is rather uncomfortable, and the natural world outside is actually where I want to live my life. Just as even the most pleasant dreams don’t usually tempt us to sleep our days away, VR can enhance our appreciation of our RR (Real Reality), rather than enticing us to escape from it.
Some members of my Pain Clinic team have been studying the therapeutic possibilities of VR. With my own home system now, I’m doing research on their (and my own) behalf—reporting back as I explore some of the most recent popular “games,” to assess the benefits and challenges that Virtual Reality might offer neurological patients like myself, or anyone experiencing “real world” stress, depression or anxiety.
I’ve been swimming with whales, gazing into unfolding mandalas, hanging by my fingertips from cliff faces, planting magical gardens, tumbling down rabbit holes, encountering thrilling surprises and staggering beauty… all while sitting comfortably in a chair. Though many of the apps designed for VR are just glorified video games full of high-speed, combat-oriented, adrenaline-pumping action, it is also possible to find apps that create a positive, transformative virtual environment. These apps, described as “experiences” rather than “games,” are remarkably similar to dreams in their capacity to challenge stale patterns of perception and thought. Personally, I try to enter a virtual world with the same respectful, even reverent, curiosity with which I approach my dreams. I expect to be astonished, sometimes confused or frustrated, often delighted, occasionally blown away. I know I will learn something.
With some apps, there are puzzles to be solved—but unlike with my everyday problems, I feel invited to linger and explore rather than pressured to figure things out. Other apps are simply playful, peaceful, or lovely—offering a sense of expansiveness and joy that comes as a tremendous relief when the world seems to present only dark prospects.
One of my favorite VR apps lets me experience the intense challenge of high altitude rock-climbing. In waking life or even in dreams I have severe vertigo and couldn’t begin to tackle these heights. But while the VR experience is vividly realistic, the vertigo is manageable, and I can glory in being thousands of feet above the ground, grappling for a grip on crumbling sandstone. It’s great training for a nervous system that has been primed by PTSD to react to every challenge as a major threat. VR climbing makes my palms sweat and activates the small muscles throughout my body; I grunt and gasp as I struggle upward; I fall again and again, try again and again, until I clamber onto the top. The tension mounts, and my nervous system gets charged up. But I’m learning to de-escalate, transforming raw fear into concentrated focus, vitality, and sensitivity to my environment. In climb after climb, I’m able to take risks in a safe space and discover how strong I am, how resilient I am. I’m learning to trust my own body again. A life-like, perhaps dream-inspired, “game” intended for popular entertainment, invented by people I will never meet, has given me a personal opportunity to heal and grow.
The past year has presented us with challenges that our old, familiar patterns of thought and behavior couldn’t meet. We’ve all needed to dream up new ways of being hopeful, new ways of trusting that we can change for the better. VR can be more than a personal tool or toy; it can be a social catalyst. We can co-create this reality as “players,” by choosing how we conduct ourselves within any given situation.
When I say “this reality,” I’m not just talking about VR now, I’m talking about a potential that exists in all of our experiences, which are never “just a game” or “just a dream” or “just the same old thing.” Whatever we do to heal and inspire ourselves, we invariably share with one another just by living together in our own unique, multifaceted time and place. So, please believe that there are wonders everywhere—it’s all a kind of dream—and let yourself be surprised, virtually and truly, every moment!
[This article was originally published in the Spring, 2021 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]