Scary VR/AR experiences as dream yoga daytime practice?

I’ve been thinking a bit about how virtual reality and augmented/mixed reality might be used in various ways as a kind of daytime dream yoga practice. For example, in @aholecek’s book on Dream Yoga, the description of Stage 4 begins:

Create frightful situations, then work with your fear. The pioneering researcher Paul Tholey suggests that if you want to grow, you should seek out threatening situations in your lucid dreams and work with them. If you’re already in a nightmare, work with the fear instead of running from it.

There are a lot of “horror” experiences in AR/VR that resemble nightmares and evoke real fears that people have (including phobias), and it seems to me that in theory they could be worked with in a similar way as stage 4 of dream yoga as described by Andrew. Maybe just playing those games, with no intention or understanding of dream yoga, might have similar effects. If you face fears consciously in immersive VR/AR games, maybe you would be less fearful in nocturnal nightmarish situations, or in your general life.

I’m also wondering about skillful means here; could you damage yourself by playing excessively scary experiences? I read a fascinating article recently that highlights the potential dangers: There is a second valley past the Uncanny Valley or How developing an AR horror game put me in the hospital]. I am drawn to the dreamlike (nightmarish) nature of some horror videogames, but in the case of virtual reality horror, being fully immersed in the experience makes it a lot more frightening (as compared to looking at it confined safely in a glowing rectangle, surrounded by my non-horrifying (albeit sometimes a bit messy) home environment.

What do you think of the potentials and perils of working with frightening VR/AR experiences? Might this make a useful daytime practice for dream yoga? What would be the best way to approach this? (e.g. by trying to tone down the fear level in various ways, at least initially? or by diving into the deep end?)


[source of image: ; found on Google search]

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Addendum – of course @aholecek touches on this in the paper he co-authored on lucid virtual dreaming, which I highly recommend:

Quaglia, J. T. , & Holecek, A. (2018). Lucid virtual dreaming: Antecedents and consequents of virtual lucidity during virtual threat. Proceedings of IEEE Virtual Reality.

There also exist meditation practices in contemplative traditions that more specifically target the development of lucidity, which allows one to better recognize the illusory aspects of current experience. One such practice is illusory form yoga. Illusory form yoga is considered the diurnal correlate to lucid dreaming in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. According to the Tibetan Buddhist view, reality is illusionlike (ultimately “empty” of inherent existence), so this practice acts as a template for perceiving reality in this way. Specifically, through the practice of impure illusory form, an individual continually reminds themselves that what they are perceiving during the day is like a dream. Importantly, this view is not about psychological dissociation or escapism. To the contrary, the aim is to dereify experience and thereby challenge habitual ways of perceiving, which can promote more conscious engagement moment by moment. This dereification may then naturally extend into the night, and can be useful for apprehending the dream state. A bidirectional or reciprocating relationship is then established between diurnal and nocturnal practice: illusory form yoga supports lucid dreaming, and lucid dreaming, in a positive feedback loop, then supports the practice of illusory form. With sustained practice, impure illusory form matures into perfectly pure illusory form, when one actually perceives the world’s dreamlike nature. If illusory form supports such awareness generally, across both dream and waking states, then its practice in the context of VR may similarly support VL [virtual lucidity].

If this kind of technique interests you, what do you think of the potentials and perils of working with frightening VR/AR experiences? Might repeated exposure to a variety of scary VR/AR experiences make a useful daytime practice for dream yoga? What would be the best way to approach this? (e.g. by trying to tone down the fear level in various ways, at least initially? or by diving into the deep end?). I’d love to hear from anyone else who practices, or is thinking of practicing, illusory form yoga in the context of VR/AR horror experiences.

More specifically, what do you think of the experience reported by the developer who was traumatized by the frightening AR experience (linked to in my previous post)? Do you think he might have fared better if the experience was held within the container of a dream yoga practice? Do you think even in that case he might have gone too far, that even in a dream yoga context this would constitute “unskillful means”? (I had mixed reactions to the article; most of me was thinking “Wow, that was a crazy thing to do, I would never do something like that!” and part of me was thinking, “Wow, that sounds really interesting, I wonder what that would be like…”)

curiously, Arthur

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I’m kind of big into VR and had considered opening a VR Experience center directed to good-karma type uses. One of these uses is aversion therapy, that is desensitization to the phobia–heights, spiders, flying (just like LD, no equipment necessary!). However, the danger lies in, well, desensitization. It could be used to desensitize people and yourself to violence and probably does inadvertently, much more so than movies or video games on account of the immersiveness. Definitely should be cautious–there’s no higher powercatering to your needs or looking out for you in VR!

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Hi Richard,

I’ve read a bit about using VR to treat phobias, and I agree that is a very interesting and effective use of VR.

As for the danger of desensitization, it is an interesting question. As you point out, the increased immersiveness of VR may lead to greater problems with desensitization, or of cultivating negative or toxic qualities, including violence. (See, for example, VR researcher Jeremy Bailenson’s article If a possible mass shooter wants to hone his craft, don’t hand him a virtual boot camp.) These are open questions.

In the context of dream yoga, though, would mindfully engaging in frightening VR experiences involve desensitization or increased awareness? It seems to me that the goal would be to reduce fear by seeing through the illusion of the VR experience. Or to turn the question around, if someone was practicing dream yoga and conjuring up scary scenarios, would they be desensitizing themselves? (Not just a rhetorical question – would desensitization be a potential risk in practicing the dream yoga technique @aholecek describes as “Create frightful situations, then work with your fear”?

Oh, a question about your final comment, “there’s no higher power catering to your needs or looking out for you in VR!” Are there higher powers catering to my needs and looking out for me in other contexts? That would be very good news indeed! :wink:


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You know, the Big Friendly You that seems to take the wheel from time to time.

Could you elaborate on this response, please? :smile:


Well, as for the general benignity of the “awake” states, I would refer you to “A Little Book of Coincidence” by Martineau–a beautiful and succinct compendium of “too weird to be an accident” astronomical features of the Solar system. Or, John Michell’s “How the World is Made,” a beautiful book, too.
As for LD, I sense guidance and guard rails on occasion. Also, the content seems often programmatic. So, whatever internal or “external-seeming” forces seem to have my poor little ego’s tolerance levels in mind, especially when I just invoke the dream-gods to direct a dream.

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Thanks, Richard. Interesting point. As Robert Waggoner notes, “No sailor controls the sea. Only a foolish sailor would say such a thing. Similarly, no lucid dreamer controls the dream. Like a sailor on the sea, we lucid dreamers direct our perceptual awareness within the larger state of dreaming.” (source) This seems true to me, and implies the potential for something like “guidance and guard rails” – or at least aspects of one’s self beyond that which is illuminated by the narrow flashlight beam of the conscious ego that likes to take credit for everything. In that sense the dream ego in a lucid dream is something like the “you are here” mark in the larger map/territory of the dream world (not unlike the situation when we are physically awake…?)

The books you recommended seem to point to larger cosmic patterns of meaning that permeate the universe and guide our lives in some way. If that is so, then aren’t those patterns in some sense operating everywhere – including virtual worlds?


Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

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I recently heard a fascinating interview on the Voices of VR podcast that is relevant here: #749: Using VR Horror as Fear Resistance Training + Sound Healing & Psychedelic Culture. It focused mostly on using horror VR as a kind of shadow work. I transcribed the section where the interviewee is discussing his process of working through fear using a particular VR horror game:


Kent Bye: Last time I saw you there was this whole journey that you went on of kind of modulating your consciousness with a very specific horror game within VR. Maybe you could tell me a bit about what you were doing with Resident Evil VR and what you were experimenting with from your perspective.

Torkom Ji: Yeah, so when this game first came out I was like “Oh great, they’re making a new game. I’m never playing it! That’s just not for me. It looks bloody. It looks gory. It looks dark, dank, and scary.” And although I was at a point in VR at that time where I was all in, I had my PSVR ready to go and I was going to play this game. And so I was excited for anything on this level to come out in VR, and that’s the thing that made me go “Wow! Well, it’s going to probably be a really, really good game, so, uhhh – OK, I just bought the game and it’s downloading, great.”

So naturally the first time I booted it on was going to be with four or five of my friends, and we were going to all do it together, because I just got it, it’s downloading, and then a couple of people were like, “Dude, you got it? Let’s go do it! Let’s check this out!.” So we’re at my place, and we’re taking turns, ten minute, twenty minute increments, and [then] my guests left.

The next day I looked at my PS4, and I didn’t have any guests, but I was like, “I’m gonna do this!” And I booted the game right where we left off. It happened to be this really distinct, particular scene where you’re in this hallway and there’s all this commotion going on in the background sounds and glass windows you can’t see outside of, and the only way to advance is you have to walk down the end of this hallway and make a left at a door that has stairs that go down to a basement. And the thing is though, the light ends at about halfway down the stairs. So I’m in the headset and I’m like, “OK, I’m playing this game. Let’s do this.” I went through all the different doors that were already opened, and I said “there’s no way to advance it” and I look down that dark staircase and I made sure, I went back and checked, there’s no other way, and I came back to the staircase and I looked down at it, and I took two steps and I heard . I’ve never turned 180 and bounced out of a scene faster in my life. I went down a hallway, turned a left, and I’m back in some bedroom with a mirror next to me, and I’m like –

Kent Bye: Physically?

Torkom Ji: Yeah, and I’m literally huddling down trying to avoid this thing, and I’m like, “What am I doing right now? I’m fucking bending over, I’m a grown-ass man bending in a fake living room down a hallway from a basement I’m afraid to go down!”

Kent Bye: Oh, so you’re still in virtual reality at this point?

Torkom Ji: yeah, no, sorry, yeah, this is in virtual reality the whole time, yes. I did rip the headset off for a minute and said like, “Eff this, I’m not doing this!” So there was a definite moment where I almost just cut it. And so I brought myself to a safety point – and this is a common thing in games, where they give you one little area that’s a safe zone, where the helicopter won’t shoot you, or where the big boss can’t hit you, or – they give you this little safety room that you can go reflect on your life. And I’m in there, and I’m like – but they don’t just give it to you [in this game] there’s also screeching on the walls and stuff in that room, so even in there you’re freaking out. But I had to confront it, and I decided “No, there’s only one way to do this.” And there’s something in me that has an absolute aversion. I immediately remembered all my past experiences, whether they were with meditation, whether it was with ayahuasca, whether it was with this medicine, or that experience, or this ceremony. I immediately remembered that I had confronted things and experiences and visions way darker and deeper than this little stupid game, and this fake sound, and a dark basement. But one thing that was equally as heavy was my childhood fear of the darkness. Of taking the trash bins to the back alley because there was no lights, and zombies and ghouls coming from the hills, and ghosts who are looking at me and waiting for me by the trash bins. So that’s something I had to confront, and I did, but later with psychedelics – and it was by laughing in enjoyment in a pure dark room, by feeling like I conquered this type of childhood fear that was innately inside of me that I realized was just the fear of the general unknown, let’s just say. A lot of clarity came through for me.

So with that said, I’ll zoom back in. I’m back at the staircase, round two. I’m looking down. I take a few steps. I hear the voice. I take a few steps. I’m in the darkness. I’m going down. BOOM! She’s in your face, she pops up, bloodied, this ghoulish, freakish creature! And this whole fight ensues where your heart is pounding, and you actually have to beat the scene, you have to beat the sequence of events and liberate yourself of this scene. But it hits you and it doesn’t stop until you beat it. And so that fear and that hesitation, that rubber-band effect, being hit so hard by something you have to confront so quick and [in] such a manner, that’s so in your face and stabby, and so guttural and visceral! And it ends, immediately just stops, and all you hear and feel is your heart pounding.

And fourteen hours later I finished the game. And when I finished the game I remember putting it away and going, “Man, I am happy I played that goddamn game!” I realized “You know what, this is actually why I bought VR. This is why I got this. This just put me through an experience” – and the story kicked ass, I mean the story was solid. I really really like the story of this game. But the thing is, the feeling after of accomplishment after finishing the triathlon, or completing the physics exam with an A+, or whatever else, getting your black belt. This was like a black belt for me, where not only did I confront a lot of things that at first I was like “I’m never going to do this,” but I also found a liking to a genre that I didn’t think I ever would like, and that I had an aversion to – and that is the horror genre. And it’s lead me to explore what the horror genre is about, and all the different – it’s not just one blanket genre, there’s different types of horror that scare us in different ways. And depending on your constitution and your own innate fears and sub-consciousness, one of those or two or three of those variables will spook you in different ways – whether it’s a Lovecraftian fear of the large, grotesque unknown alien ancient cold dank primordial, massive, or whether it’s the very Victorian horror of werewolves and ghouls who are going to snatch you in the evening; but those are two very different fears, and they’re reflective of where we are at as a consciousness. So if we’re going to deal with shadow work, what safer playground than a digital one? What better one than one that you can easily rip off and shut off? What better one [than one] that tempts you with the fears of darkness? Spiders? Snakes? Ghouls? Demons? The undead? The living? The corrupt? The dark? The evil? And you get to be the one who piles through all of that in a synthesis. It’s like a Matrix booting, instead of the Akimbo Uzi training or the sword fighting, it’s one where you [boot] up the anti-fear resistance, right? The fear-resistance training.

So that’s what I turned that into. It showed me more about the horror genre than I was willing to or wanted to accept prior. And it also helped develop part of my shadow work, which has really let me step into more of a balanced approach to how I deal with things like healing, which I think has to incorporate obviously the yin and yang is a great symbol for this exact demonstration of perfect unity and balance between the yoke – yoga is yolk, egg yolk, unification – so there’s a unification that we have to seek in order to feel complete. And for me I found that I wasn’t [balanced/unified], while I was running from this thing. and for me, personally, by going through this thing, I found a little bit more unification for myself. (35:29)


The rest of the conversation is quite interesting as well.


In case you’re wondering how scary VR horror can be, see this post from Reddit that made me literally LOL:


I like VR for this type of preparation. On the other hand, some of the most frightening videos and media I ever experienced was in Driver’s Ed classes, particularly in the military.

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@Andrew brought up using horror movies to train in desensitizing. It was at the last talk of the 2-weekend Graceful Entry intensive and I was … ‘full’ might be an understatement. Need to revisit to find out the details of why, but you addressed a lot of it here, @ArthurG.

My mind goes both ways.

Thumbs up:

  • Read about a VR program that tracks eye movement. Used to desensitize social phobia, so the VR is a bunch of people approaching the user. Their challenge is to make more eye contact. < squirm >
  • Anything we’re afraid now, it’s said we will meet during a stage of dying. Probably the ‘hell realm’ phase. Except anything experienced at time of death is said to be 10x the intensity.
  • Never ‘got’ this VR stuff until taking the Graceful Exit Bardo intensive. Then it finally registered - I think a reference to 3-D glasses was brought up, and I had a flashback to my father taking me and bro to a horror movie (Krull comes to mind?), and wearing those blue and red paper glasses. When I was entirely too young. But the things coming at me being so realistic was the ding. To make a VR about the various Bardo experiences would be phenomenal training when one doesn’t have time to learn all the characters taught in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Not to mention the decades of practice in training the mind in visualization… A version could be put out with any religion using it’s benevolent and nasty characters - don’t all religions have those? (just archetypes)

Thumbs down:

  • I’m silly sensitive. Watch scary movies covering my eyes and peer through the cracks. Except I haven’t watched a scary movie since 2005-ish.
  • As a kid, I read Stephen King’s Misery. (Or was it Tommyknockers?) I always kept my door shut - super private. Read late into the night and had to pee. The bathroom was right across the hall. (older house = hallways) All I had to do was open my door and I was facing it. So I mustered all my courage, opened the door, and jumped into the bathroom, shut and locked the door. Not even a glance down the hall in either direction - who knows what monsters were there?
  • On my only solitary retreat (in Feb, with a blizzard the entire time, and fire stove for heating + outhouse), I gave myself food poisoning. I made that trek many times that night to the outhouse in the wilderness, and had plenty of time to look out the window I was facing. I noticed how my mind would start searching for scary content to worry about, filtering through memories of scary movies and books. I was able to NOT do that because I saw I WAS doing it. I can see how exposure to scary material would indeed cause harm to those of a more sensitive disposition.
  • (p.s. there were some GORGEOUS shitcicle stars on the window the next morning when the clouds cleared just in time for sunrise!)
  • We as people are far too desensitized to suffering and death through movies, games, media, etc. Those who are particularly numbed out can watch horror because it’s the only tine they can actually feel. Joseph Goldstein in one of his 3-part (mindfulness?) series way back talked about how he was in peace corps and chopped the head off a chicken and how he had felt like a man, proud for accomplishing something to feed follks. But then decades later while sitting in meditation, that scene kept coming back. It had something unresolved. He said eventually he realized a deep down horror of killing the chicken, and that he was so blocked off from that feeling. In that light, it causes harm. (when all aspects of the scary VR are not felt in awareness and become lodged into the body).

I guess it comes down to the person, their temperament, their intent, and their motivation.

And to throw in a mystical slant - as one’s mine becomes more refined and subtle, it is said they start to have “visitors” - who live or are stuck on some dimension or layer of reality. They can see the person when the person’s mind is at the level of the dimension/subtle level. If it is a lonely place, like a ghost stuck somewhere, then another being is suddenly accessible, they can be a little too attentive.

Not sure where that fits. But it came to mind.

– Courtney

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