In ancient Greece, the demigod Asclepius represented healing and medicine. Some myths say he was capable of bringing people back from the dead, making him an enemy of Hades, while others propose that he was merely an excellent mortal physician.
According to legend, Asclepius spent his life traveling with a band of physician-priests, learning the art of medicine and developing the science of dream healing. After his death, Asclepius was deified as a hero, inspiring a cult of devoted followers who believed that even in death, he possessed the healing powers they so desired.
Followers built intricate temples in honor of him and often spent the night sleeping inside them. They believed that Asclepius had performed many of his healing miracles inside of dreams, and they wanted to ask his spirit to work its magic on them while they slept.
The Greeks, like many other ancient cultures, believed that healing needed to happen on both spiritual and physical dimensions. Though the Asclepian cult is considered the zenith of dream healing, the art of dream incubation—or attempting to commune with deities through dreams—has existed for thousands of years. It may have originated in Egyptian cults; it appears in dream yoga, an aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, and on ancient papyrus scrolls written by Babylonian mystics. For as long as humans have lived, we have been dreaming and trying to figure out just what those midnight hallucinations might mean.
For Asclepius's worshipers, therapeutic sleeping was a ritual that required a great deal of preparation. Patients would often fast, bathe, cleanse themselves in specific sacred fountains, and would possibly even inhale psychotropic substances before embarking on their sleep odysseys. Then the patient would spend the night at a dream temple. If it all went well, the patient would be visited by some sort of prophetic dream and ultimately would receive the advice and healing they required from the spirit of Asclepius himself.
Dream Healing Today
Over the years, dream healing has clearly lost credibility among mainstream scientists, and that's fair enough. But more recently, members of the scientific community have begun to re-emphasize dream healing as a viable way to address deep-rooted problems.
The famed psychologist Carl Jung was fascinated by the art of Asclepian dream incubation. He believed that dreams could allow us to access the collective myths that bind humanity together across time and space. He also believed that every person is capable of analyzing their dreams and using what they find to learn more about themselves and their place in the universe. "All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night," he wrote.
In more recent times, research has proven that healing can actually take place in dreams—particularly lucid dreams. The scientist Robert Waggoner writes, "Being consciously aware in the dream state may allow the lucid dreamer to influence unconscious body mechanisms, much like excellent subjects in deep hypnosis. In any case, the anecdotal reports show lucid dreamers have had apparent success with stopping internal bleeding, reducing fever and signs of infection, speeding recovery from fractures, reducing uterine cysts, and healing scar tissue."
While of course most people cannot stop internal bleeding in their dreams, the act of healing oneself through dream work might be somewhat effective because the body, in its dream state, is particularly susceptible to hypnosis. We know that hypnotherapy can be an effective form of therapy, allowing you to take control of your behaviors. Just like hypnosis can reveal deep-rooted truths, dreams—even non-lucid ones—can also provide clues about the sources of various problems. "When a patient dreams of dirty water, this could be connected with kidney problems and the urinary system," says Nida Chenagtsang, a doctor of Tibetan medicine. "The dream may signal problems on a energetic level, before those problems manifest on the physical level."
Even if it doesn't contribute directly to physical healing, dreams can provide an altered state that can shed light on reality. "You get a different take on things," says Charles T. Tart, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California. "This isn't an instant cure. There are no guarantees. But so many of our problems persist because we see them in only one way and keep beating our head against the same wall. Lucid dreaming can be a way to open to new insights."
How to Heal Through Dreams
Dream healing should never be a replacement for medicine and professional care. But if you're, say, sick, stuck at home and sleeping a lot already, you might as well try to see if you can heal your subconscious as you heal your physical form.
In general, DIY dream incubation involves four steps. First, you'll need to set the stage. Make space for yourself to dream with a few rituals inspired by the ancients—say, a cleansing bath or shower, a puff or sip of lavender tea, mugwort, CBD, or your relaxant of choice. Clean your space and act like you're literally going to perform a ritual. Unplug everything, turn all the lights off, light some candles or incense, and do what you need to do.
Then, set your intention. If you think about dreaming before going to bed, or meditate on lucid dreams and ask your subconscious to let you into a lucid dream, you're far more likely to actually have one. So if you want to practice dream incubation by yourself, begin by making a request of your subconscious mind before bed. Do you want to meet a family member in your dreams? Do you want advice about the future? Do you want to try to solve a particularly confounding philosophical dilemma? Do you want to know what you should be paying attention to? You might want to write down your question in a journal, even a few times over, before you go to bed. In your pre-sleep meditation, be sure to imagine yourself dreaming a solution and visualize yourself waking up having come to a conclusion.
Of course, your dream incubation efforts don't have to involve a specific question about your own life. You might meditate on a symbol or a particular deity, depending on your own faith and preferences. Ancient dream incubation practitioners would usually meditate on a deity before sleeping, and they'd often sleep in sacred places—like Aesclepian temples—sometimes surrounded by icons, or even drawing the face of their deity on a cloth and binding it to their hands.
When you wake up, be sure to write down your dreams. It's so easy to forget your dreams, even if they feel mind-blowing in the present moment. If you wake up in the middle of the night: Make sure to write down your dream before you go back to sleep. (Of course, if your dream was a nightmare that you'd rather forget, you might prefer to let it swim away into oblivion). Whether you were visited by a deity in the form of a snake or caught in the middle of a labyrinthine journey through a botched onstage performance, you should be able to find some gem of wisdom in the abstraction.
Try this process several nights in a row and see if it works. You might not dream, or you might not succeed in lucid dreaming—but hey, we have to fall into voluntary unconscious hallucinations every night. You might as well ask the sheep and shadows of your unconscious mind if they have anything to tell you.