This is my final post on ways of working with dreams without a dang dream dictionary. Becoming a lucid dreamer is an advanced dream practice that is actually easy to learn. I’ve been leading up to this post because to start lucid dreaming you have to have good dream recall, know how to set a strong intention for dream incubation, and understand how to honor a dream with action. All of these are foundational practices and perspectives for those who want to take their dreaming life to the next level.
So what is lucid dreaming?
It is the art of becoming more conscious during the dream. When we are dreaming and realize “Hey, I’m dreaming!” we have a unique opportunity to interact with the dream with purpose and, of course, with amazement.
Because lucid dreaming is truly one of the most amazing experiences I have ever known. To look around, and know that everything you see is an imaginary realm is simply mind blowing, especially because it feels more real than waking life. Colors are more vivid, perception is clearer, and joy can rush through so strongly that your feet will lift off the ground. (The dream ground, I mean.)
And it gets even dreamier when you realize that the other dream figures want to talk to you and show you, well… they show you what you’re ready to see. They can be friendly and other times they can test your boundaries and the limits of your courage. And occasionally, they will let you in on a secret or two that can remind you that the world is not at all what it seems.
I’m speaking so vaguely here because lucid dreaming is really what you make of it. In the moment, it is a mirror of your own intentions and desires. But over time the mirror changes you, making you clearer, stronger, and yet also more flexible, more centered, and ready for anything life throws at you.
There’s really no one way to lucid dream – after all, people from hundreds of cultures have been using lucid dreaming for thousands of years for all sorts of purposes, including out-of-body travel, shamanic healing, communication with plants and animals, finding answers to dilemmas and solutions to problems, dissolving the self, and exploring the mythic realm for self-knowledge and for social leverage too.
Lucid dreaming is culturally-mediated; there is no final authority to the Highest aims of lucidity.
On a personal note, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the practice changed my life forever. As a teen and a young adult, I was haunted by nightmares. Lucid dreaming helped me face my fears, literally.
This initiation into conscious dreaming helped me build courage in my waking life too and to take more risks (emotional, physical and spiritual). More than anything, lucid dreaming has shown me that the greatest hurdles and roadblocks are the ones I have put up in front of myself.
To put it mildly, lucid dreaming is the greatest teacher I have known.
Is lucid dreaming the same thing as dream control?
No, these are actually two different aspects of dreams. You can manipulate your dreams without being aware you’re dreaming, and you can be lucid without controlling the dream. What lucid dreaming offers is the ability to make a choice. To control yourself, your actions, and your reactions. As great Hindu mystics remind us, karma is not what happens to you; it’s how you react to what happens to you.
But sure, you can conjure up whatever you want if the intention is strong enough. Of course, once you let that cat out the bag it will behave as it wants…
Technically speaking, there are lots of ways becoming more lucid in dreams: volition or making choices, meta-cognition (thinking thoughts and noticing your emotions), as well as levels of understanding that “this is a dream.” For example, I sometimes realize I’m dreaming and then try to teach another dream figure that we are dreaming. (Most of the time, they don’t want to hear it.) Interestingly enough, one lucid dreamer friend of mine suggests that the dream is more lucid when all the dream figures understand.
But at the end of the night, a dream is “lucid enough” if your consciousness level is appropriate to the task at hand. You don’t need to remember your social security number or every detail of your sleeping location in the middle of a dream to prove you are lucid; this kind of fact-finding can actually diminish the magical qualities of the dream itself.
Consciousness moves around; it changes in an instant, and this is true of lucid dreams too. So, whether your state of mind reflects a mild self-awareness or some kind of transpersonal bliss, a lucid dream is always good enough. We don’t judge our ordinary dreams, so I don’t believe in judging our lucid dreams either. We will always have another opportunity to choose differently again, to try a new strategy or take a different path.
That’s my quick introduction to lucid dreaming. Now, the question is, why would you want to become more conscious in the dream anyways? Here’s the short list.
Benefits of Lucid Dreaming
- Facing fears
- Exploring the dream world
- Safely engaging in fantasies
- Finding inspiration for puzzles, scientific problems, or works of art
- Composing music
- Contacting ancestors or people who have passed on
- Asking for spiritual guidance
- Deep meditative practice
Many therapeutic applications of lucid dreaming have been researched as well, such as:
- Facing the past for emotionally “stuck” individuals
- Developing courage for sexual assault victims
- Experiencing bodily freedom for quadriplegics and the wheelchair-bound
- Overcoming Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome for soldiers and abuse victims
- Visualizing physical therapy improvements
- Reducing nightmares and sleep paralysis
My favorite Lucid Dreaming Techniques
Lucid dreaming is a learnable skill, but it can be difficult to “break through” to the other side. Also, learning is easier for some more than others, based on the strength of intention, your daily habits of self-awareness, your level of dream recall, and your sleep hygiene. I have already mentioned the importance of good dream recall. Here are some other must-have lucid dreaming techniques.
Set a Strong Intention To Become Lucid
Go back to my dream incubation article and read it again with a mind to incubating lucid dreams. Dream incubation involves setting an intention. There are many lucid dreaming techniques out there, including using technological devices, listening to brain entrainment music, and even going to sleep with a full bladder. However, I have found that none of these are effective unless you know how to set an intention before you go to bed. This is the single-most important indicator of becoming aware in dreams.
So why do you want to go lucid? Is it philosophical curiosity? The quest for power? Lucid pleasure? Be honest with yourself and stick with the strongest intention you can muster. Are your mind, heart, and gut on board? A powerful intention lives in all of these places.
Next, decide upon a behavior you will do once you realize you are lucid. Codify it. “When I realize I’m dreaming, I will fly over the trees.” Make it simple, short and sweet. What makes lucid dreaming so cool is that, unlike ordinary dreams, you can honor the dream with action while still in the dream, and even interpret the dream as it goes along. If dreaming is the royal road to the unconscious, lucid dreaming is the super highway.
Become More Aware During the Day
This is called “reality testing” and it is an effective way to increase spontaneous lucid dreams. The truth is that we are not very aware as we go about our daily lives. How aware of your surroundings are you when you are eating lunch? Shopping? Driving? By taking a second and thinking something like, “I am aware right now,” you are training your mind to become more aware during dreams as well. This is why many religious approaches, such as Sufism and Tibetan Buddhism, consider lucid dreaming to be an indication of good meditation and “waking up.”
Carlos Castaneda popularized a good reality check in his book The Art of Dreaming. Simply look at your hands and think, or say out loud (even better), “I am aware.” Do it until you really mean it. The nice thing about hands is you always have them around.
Another effective technique that works for me is noticing every time you pass through a doorway. This is hard at first, and really shows how unaware we are in our everyday patterns. I’ve had many lucid dreams emerge from my habit of noticing these thresholds.
Discover Your Dream Signs for Lucidity
Dream signs are signals that you are dreaming. Usually these signs are elements of the bizarre, perceptual anomalies, or other personal symbols. One for me is dreaming that I’m looking in the mirror and obsessing about my teeth. I’ve trained myself to think, “when my teeth are messed up, I’m dreaming,” so when I have this dream, I become aware I’m dreaming. You can strengthen the dream signs that have led to lucid dreams in the past, or try developing new ones. For instance, you might study an image and say, “The next time I see this, I’m dreaming.”
The Role of Sleep Hygiene
There’s no way around it: good lucid dreamers are good sleepers. If you don’t get much sleep, you are cutting out those long REM stages that only comes after 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep. On weekends or days off, try going back to sleep after waking up at your normal time. The extra sleep will probably have an extended period of dreaming.
Also, afternoon naps are frequently REM sleep and result in high levels of lucid dreams. I’m a fan of the late afternoon nap, personally. Not only is it a chance to lucid dream, but I wake up in 20 or 30 minutes refreshed and ready for a whole new day. Much more effective than a cup of coffee.
Try Lucid Dreaming Supplements
Supplements, in my perspective, are a waste of money if you don’t do the real work, which is about becoming more aware in daily life. Honestly, this is the real path. But supplements can help with that first boost into lucidity, provided the other preconditions have been met (dream journal, check. Strong intention, check. The chance to take a nap undisturbed, check). Check out my review of the most popular lucid dreaming supplements currently on the market.
Stimulate the Frontal Cortex with Reading
I personally have had great success with waking up, reading for 45 minutes or so, and then going back to sleep. Especially effective if the reading material is about lucid dreams. The reading activates the frontal cortex which is the seat of analytical awareness that says “I’m dreaming!”, so you are more likely to stay aware immediately afterward.
Do lucid dreaming incubations really work? Yes, they do. I wrote my MA thesis based on my experiences of incubating lucid dreams. During that period, I had a lucid dream twice a week (without trying, I have lucid dreams about once a month). Another way to boost your results is to form a lucid dreaming circle, either online or in your home town. A little social pressure is good – too much can have the opposite effect, however. Lucid dreaming takes a lifetime to master, so be patient with yourself. We have all our life to wake up to our greatest challenges and opportunities.
So start with today, right now. Are you dreaming? How do you know?