The Dream Hackers Movement & the Cult of Castaneda
A couple of years ago, I interviewed Nikita Annt, developer of the LucidCatcher, a sleep mask said to induce lucid dreams. He told me about the “Dream Hacker” movement of the 1990s, which started with lucid dreamers in Latvia and spread throughout the Russian-speaking world. Nikita told me that lucid dreaming is about 1000 times more popular in Slavic countries than in the English-speaking world - a bold claim! I wanted to check this out for myself, so I spent several days digging through Russian forums using Google translate, and eventually travelled to Russia for a month in August - September 2019.
I noticed two main differences between the Russian and English discussions online. Firstly, while Western dreamers typically distinguish between lucid dreams (LDs) and out-of-body experiences (OBEs), Russian dreamers largely argued that out-of-body experiences do not exist, or that they're a “type of dream”. This doesn’t mean much on the surface, as we don’t have a fantastic working definition of what a dream is in the first place. Michael Raduga's Russian-based programme, "The Phase", seems to categorise and describe these phenomena in a less bounded way, perhaps reminiscent of Celia Green's "metachoric experiences". However, there does seem to be enough of a difference between LDs and OBEs to warrant a separate classification.
For some background, when American lucid dream researcher Stephen LaBerge claimed that OBEs were a type of LD, this was largely refuted by other researchers and those who have experienced both. One main argument is that OBEs can occur from waking, NREM or REM sleep, and can also be caused by both deep relaxation and trauma; LDs largely occur during REM sleep. To Westerners, lucid dreams are often valued for the personal agency, freedom and creativity involved, whereas out-of-body experiences are often seen as more mystical, significant and ontologically real.
The second difference I noticed was that Russian descriptions and interpretations of lucid dreams seemed to be much more esoteric and mystical than Western dream logs.
The Russian Dream School vs the Western Dream School
On the DreamViews online forum, Phantasos explains that the Western Dream School is divided into a secular group who base their beliefs on the scientific research of Western lucid dream researchers, and ‘astral believers’ who base their beliefs on writers such as Robert Monroe and Robert Bruce. In contrast, the main influence of the Russian Dream School is the late Carlos Castaneda. This seems to be reflected in many Russian-language forums, and his practice of 'stalking' is popular both here and on English-language subreddits. Although his original interpretation of stalking, apparently, was to stalk your own weaknesses, in practice many dreamers claimed to stalk others while dreaming.
When searching for local talks and workshops on lucid dreaming in Russia, Castaneda’s name continued to come up. Followers of his organisation Cleargreen teach lucid dreaming alongside his movement-focused Tensegrity practice, which (controversially) claims ancient Toltec lineage.
Castaneda's name had occasionally come up during the past ten years of speaking to lucid dreamers in London, but no one had ever mentioned anything negative about him. Yet, as I started to dig deeper, I learned about a darker side to his teachings: there were allegations of abuse and control from ex-followers, and rumours of the mysterious disappearance of at least five women.
When the Shambala Centre, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist organisations in the United States, was planning to allow Cleargreen to host events at their venue, an ex-follower got in touch with them to warn them of its shady past. This particularly focused on their false claims about, and exploitation of Native American culture. The Centre replied, saying that they would go ahead with the programme, which would be overseen by the head of their lineage, Mipham Rinpoche. Not long after, the head stepped down from his role after several female followers accused him of sexual abuse. Considering this background, it is worrying that so many lucid dreaming communities seem so steeped in Castaneda's teachings.
Luckily, this is not the case nationwide, and Russian universities produce an abundance of research on dreaming - including lucid dreaming - and I have so far found no mention of Castaneda in these works. Every two years, the Russian Society for Dream Research holds a conference on a wide range of dream-related topics, such as lucid dreaming or dreams and art. I met the facilitator, Dr. Elena Korabelnikova, who kindly gave me a copy of the abstracts (helpfully written in both English and Russian), with topics ranging from archetypical plots of nightmares, dream incubation in Slavic folklore, and dream analysis in the investigation and prevention of crimes.
Who were the Dream Hackers?
Amidst Castaneda’s concepts of Toltec dreaming and inorganic beings, the Russian Dream School before the Dream Hacker-era was “just as rigid, stagnant and dull as [the Western Dream School] now”, according to Meron, who translated the Dream Hackers’ FAQ into English.
The Dream Hackers, although somewhat influenced by Castaneda, breathed new life into dreaming practices in eastern Europe, going beyond his teachings while not completely disowning them. Rather than a sect, a New Age group, or an online community, the Dream Hackers were one or several small occult groups interested in lucid dreaming, who met both on- and off-line with the goal of hacking reality through occult means.
Their origin story is bizarre. According to Ravenna on the Dreamhackers forum, the movement's founders were Sergey Izrigi (‘Sergey from Riga’), ‘Doc’, ‘Tambov’, ‘Spam’, and Ravenna herself. The story begins with Sergey and Tambov travelling to a "Russian colony in Chile" to “cluelessly” pursue a financial investment. Whilst there, Tambov met Doc, who warned them that they were being spied on by the KGB. The KGB then apparently killed Sergey's fiancée, after which he ended up hiding out in Belarus for nearly two years. It was during this time in the early 1990s that Sergey came up with the idea to create a research team along with Tambov, Doc and Spam.
The Dream Hackers felt that some of Castaneda's teachings were useless to them, and instead developed alternative practices, notably "dream cartography". Instead of limiting their focus on the people, symbols or plots in their dreams, they attended to the locations they dreamt of, creating maps and comparing these with places seen whilst awake. The Dream Hackers found that certain places would recur not just within the dreams of one person, but across those of multiple people. This led to the concept of ‘archetypal places’, reminiscent of Jung's archetypal figures. Phantasos kindly produced a guide to dream cartography for Western dreamers, which you can check out here.
I find this practice particularly exciting because I have often heard about and experienced recurring places in my dreams, and have met two others who have had similar locations in their recurring dreams, to the point where we were finishing each others sketches on napkins. Also, whether having a lucid dream or out-of-body experience, I usually find it difficult to control where I go, almost as if there is a strong default setting to "end up" there. Recent dream theories and individual dream reports seem to focus on the prevalence and importance of social content in dreams, yet we also seem to have an ability to relate to spaces (as well as objects, etc.) in similar ways. For example, groups such as the Kukatja in Australia purposefully communicate with their environment in dreams, which they feel helps them to navigate and hunt whilst awake. Environments and objects can also seem to have personalities when on psilocybin, which has been related to waking dream states. Whether these are seen as sentient/social or not, this area might be a promising area for future research.
The 'Fall' of the Dream Hackers & A Warning from Ravenna
Rumours abound as to why Sergey's group dispersed around 2002, including rumours of his death, or the involvement of rival occult groups. However, knowledge of their lucid dreaming techniques had become widespread especially in the Russian-speaking world from around 2000, with people noticing the potential to make money on workshops and books on the topic. Through dispersion and dilution, the Russian Dream School engorged themselves on the Dream Hackers' fruits of labour to become “an amassment of totalitarian sects and phobiatic groups”.
In an appearance on an English forum dedicated to Castaneda's teachings, Ravenna warned Westerners to not fall prey to plagiarised material stolen from the Dream Hackers' posts, naming and shaming Andrey Reutov in particular for his Dream Searchers book. She warned that, as Russians will not be easily deceived (presumably because they were already aware of the trajectory the Russian Dream School has taken), the publishers may turn to Western readers instead.
The knowledge and practices advocated by the original Dream Hackers live on in open-access and democratic pockets of the web and across social media. In contrast, opportunists repackage dreaming as a product to varying levels of usefulness or quackery, while groups such as Cleargreen are at once commercial, coercive and potentially dangerous. In between, and mostly offline, are academic conferences on dream research and presumably dream circles of oneironauts that do not show up in Google (or Yandex) searches. What path dreamers and the dream-curious take in their quest to understand and explore their mind will decide not only the trajectory of their dream life, but consequently their psyche and social life. Questions which will perhaps inspire future journeys...
Chauhan, S. 2004. Biological Weapons. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation
Meron, D. K. 2011. English translations of the Dreamhackers’s site’s FAQ. Available at: www.dreamhackers.eu/forums
Cleargreen Cult. Available at: www.newagefraud.org/smf/index.php?topic=1712.0
Newman, A. 2018. The ‘King’ of Shambhala Buddhism is Undone by Abuse Report. The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/11/nyregion/shambhala-sexual-misconduct.html
Nikita, A. 2017. Personal communication.
Phantasos. 2009. The Rise and Fall of Dreamhacker. Available at: www.dreamviews.com/beyond-dreaming/83896-rise-fall-dream