Despite the constant repetition in popular media that lucid dreaming is “controlling your dreams,” these two concepts are not the same. One can be lucid and not “in control” of either the dreambody or the dreaming environment, just as one can regularly shift and direct the dream’s direction without formal self-reflection.
Lucid dream control is possible, of course. It’s appropriate in many situations. For example, a hard push of willpower is essential when flying, or creating portals to navigate between dream worlds.
Many beginner lucid dreamers will also find delight in manifesting objects out of thin air as well as warping the dream matrix a la Inception. This is normal, healthy, and akin to a child’s exploration of her immediate environment. It’s fun, and with this attitude, the dream will often respond playfully too.
However, complete dream control misses the point.
This is not a new idea, but one that needs to continuously brought back up! Back in 1991, Stephen LaBerge and Howard Rheingold wrote about dream manipulation saying that it “doesn’t always work–which may be a blessing in disguise. If we learned to solve our problems in our lucid dreams by magically changing things we didn’t like, we might mistaking hope to do the same in our waking lives.” (p. 148).
Honestly, I love the spontaneous element in dreams, and lucidity can enhance this spontaneity just as easily as it can stomp it down for a pre-remembered task.
Philosophically, I find lucidity-as-control to be disempowering, a far cry from the promises of a vast frontier where “anything is possible.”
Self-awareness is overrated: bet you didn’t expect to read from a lucid dreamworker. Neurologically, with all the input from the lower and middle brain in regards of dream generation, our blip of frontal lobe activation is small potatoes. Even transformed dream environments routinely take on spontaneous dimensions. Trying to force the behavior of dream figures can result in dream figures transforming into clay, deformed animals, or lifeless dolls. In these cases, we become puppeteers, not enlightened beings.
Robert Waggoner wisely asks, “Does the sailor control the sea?”
While we can pilot our little egoic craft along the choppy waters, the ocean is bigger, older, and deeper. For some reason, this notion calms me. We are largely along for the ride, but we can hone our ability to make the most out of it.
A new psychotheraputic theory of dreams draws from this concept of dream spontaneity. The core of co-creative dream theory, as discussed here by G. Scott Sparrow, is that dreaming is not a given, but the result of an interaction between the dream and the dreamer.
Given that all dreams showcase some meta-cognition (being aware of what you are thinking or feeling), all dream content can be seen as the result of co-creation, even the most “unlucid” of dreams.
But what distinguishes lucid dreams from ordinary ones is not only the ability to look back and notice choices in the past, but also to choose (wisely or not) in the present moment.
Full-on dream awareness is really about sense of place — an understanding about where you are rather than who you are. In fact, dream scenery can often determine your self-construct and corresponding dreambody, as well as the way you think, react, and make choices. (Which may be why many people prefer to pray in a cathedral rather than in the shower.)
But what we do with the realization of “I’m dreaming” varies wildly and is largely out of our hands. That’s a strange statement to acknowledge, as we feel like we are “in control” when thinking clearly. Besides the biological character of REM sleep (when most lucid dreams happen), culture is the biggest determinant of lucid dreaming outcomes, as culture sets the mythic stage for what is possible.
Within this range of cultural variability, lucid outcomes are also based on unconscious expectation, and our reactions to the autonomous energies with the dream itself. Reactions to these energies (the grab-bag of the “unconscious”) are also influenced by family-of-origin social dynamics and deeply rooted personality structures.
So, there’s a lot about lucid dreaming that is like ordinary dreaming and ordinary thinking. In fact, studies of dream narratives have shown that lucid dreaming content closely resembles non-lucid dreams.
But the dream is not determined, not at all.
Making choices is the real power of lucid dreaming.
This power is active co-creation: interacting with the dream in each moment, creating new realities and opportunities to flex the boundaries of the conscious self.
I’m talking about the ability to:
- Direct the flow of awareness
- Call up something that is not present
- Shift the environment and our related sense of self
- Choose which fork in the road to take
- Witness what is happening with empathy
- Transform (or dissolve) the dreambody
When we interact with the dreaming mind, we are in a conversation with the hidden other, perhaps an inner self. I personally have learned a lot from dream guides, or internalized self-helpers, as they are sometimes called in clinical settings. Of course, the dream can also bring many voices to the table that may not be representative of our “higher” nature too.
Choosing allows us to go against the grain, against our fears perhaps, or in opposition to what is expected. The dynamic choice making of lucid dreaming therefore can question and upturn cherished beliefs as well as unhealthy repetitive patterns. This makes lucid dreaming the inner sanctum of personal evolution, an activity that by its very nature encourages creativity, courage and deep exploration of the structures of mind.
Whether you spiral into light or descend into darkness, it’s always your choice.