Movies like Inception and Avatar have made lucid dreaming a household word. The buzz around the idea that we can wake up in our dreams ripples outwards, rocking our collective boat as more us realize that the world as we know it is malleable and magical.
But lucid dreaming can be difficult to learn. Some people are more inclined to lucid dream than others. For everyone, though, it can be frustrating to try to have more lucid dreams, especially if you’ve spent money on products like herbal supplements or technological assists and are not seeing improvements.
What I suggest is simple, but not necessarily easy. Stop trying to lucid dream, and start lucid living.
While dreams can open us up to new possibilities, most of the time our interests, preoccupations and cognitive abilities in dreams mirror the same constructs that we nurture in waking life. Lucidity is a habit. Awareness is a practice. By attending to our choices, our emotions, our bodies and the empathic drive in waking life, we are strengthening this ability in our dreaming life too.
Towards Lucid Living
Practice gratitude. Take five minutes every morning and cycle through everything you have to be thankful for. Health, job, relationships, a roof over your head, food in your belly, a good hair day, a passing smile from a stranger: all is fair game. Who showed up yesterday? Thank them today. Cultivating gratitude is the path to greater empathy, the bodily knowledge that we conceptualize as “we are all connected” on this biosphere. In the dreamworld, where boundaries between self and other are more fluid, this practice opens the door to some amazing experiences. This practice is a prerequisite to lucid living.
Breathe. Take a moment right now and notice your posture and your breath. If you are breathing shallowly—like I was before writing this sentence—let your next breath fill your lungs and extend deep into your belly. Let your belly out a little, doesn’t that feel better? You don’t have to meditate for hours to receive the benefits of conscious breathing – a few moments can bring mental relaxation and ease bodily tension. This practice brings us back to the moment, where we are lucid and aware of what is going on in us and around us.
Feel your dreambody. Now that you’re really here, ask yourself: what is going on with me right now? List your concerns—I’m tired, I feel bad because of the argument with my partner last night, I have financial anxiety, etc. List them all until you can say, “Besides these things, I’m feeling OK.” Now choose one of these issues and focus again on your belly, chest and throat and notice any particular tightness or tensions that come when holding this concern in mind. Don’t look for emotions, but bodily feelings that may be vague and sort of slippery.
See if you can give a name to this feeling: heart-achiness, burning belly, or fluttery chest. Find the word or phrase that locks on to the feeling so you can name it and feel it simultaneously. You may spontaneously see an image if you do this exercise with your eyes closed. Once you’ve got it, thank this feeling, “thank you for alerting me to what’s happening” and let it go for now. Return your awareness back to your breath for a few moments.
Lucidity is in the Mind and the Body
This simple exercise, drawn from the work of psychologists Arnold Mindell and Eugene Genlin, puts us in direct contact with the dreambody. The dreambody is with us at all times, but is slippery during waking life when we take in so much information from our senses about our external environment.
Not surprisingly, our rational culture also keeps the dreambody down in social discourse. This makes it hard for us to be very lucid in our daily lives, especially as we become enmeshed in the habits and distractions of modern life.
But in our dreams, the dreambody is front and center. Lucidity is not just the firing of the neocortex, as some have suggested, a hotspot of linguistic awareness as we utter the phrase “I am dreaming.” Lucidity is also the ability to sense thoughts, emotions and feelings and create symbolic metaphors of these events through the dreambody. Neurologically speaking, dreaming is a powerful visual-emotional way of being, and lucid dreaming brings awareness to this titanic state of being, creating new potentials that extend much farther than a new linguistic schema.
If you practice this technique, called focusing, 5 minutes every day, you will develop all the necessary skills for becoming aware of the visual-emotional landscape in your dreams spontaneously. You’ll also be a more grounded person, which is really what lucidity is all about.
These true lucidity skills include self-awareness, emotional monitoring, the sensing of bodily and mental anomalies, the awareness of dream bizarreness, and the ability to feel your emotions without being consumed by them. These skills are complemented by developing concentration, which is the ability to maintain heightened awareness over time. Focusing can also be used to help you interpret your dreams as well as provide insight into the issues that stand in the way of your self-growth.
The Path Up is Down
Actually, our issues are the path of our self-growth. Got to be grounded to learn to fly. Lucid living is a practice of awareness, empathy and understanding, and it cuts to the quick. Trust me, this life practice is sooo much more effective than just doing some reality checks or looking at your hands, Carlos Castenada style. Do all of this, by all means. But lucidity by means of cognitive tricks alone, in my experience, does not provide a stable long-term foundation for what the dream has to offer.
On the other hand, lucid dreams come naturally and spontaneously as the fruit of lucid living, revealing a dream world that supports our awareness and provides new insights, experiences and encounters far beyond the confines of our personal egos.
Let your body interpret your dreams, by Eugene Genlin
Dreaming while awake: techniques for 24-hour lucid dreaming, by Arnold Mindell
Title Image: Lucid Dreaming by Mark Sebastian