Throughout history and in all cultures, dreams have been understood as an important source of inspiration, guidance, psychic power, and healing.
Dreams are almost miraculous - every night each one of us creates vivid three-dimensional and multi-sensorial virtual realities in which we interact with people and creatures that seem solid, real and intelligent. Yet despite their extraordinary nature, we often dismiss these experiences as “merely a dream”.
Research suggests, however, that dreams are not only vital for maintaining physical and psychological health, but that dream experiences can be used to increase personal creativity, to enhance personal understanding and our ability to cope with life events, and to promote psychic and spiritual development.
In order to use our dreams in this way, two important abilities need to be learned:
- How to remember our dreams (dream recall).
- How to become conscious in our dreams (lucid dreaming)
Although each of us dreams several times during a night's sleep, we usually cannot recall these dreams. Dreams may be remembered if we awake directly from the dream state, or if something later happens to jog our memory. Dream recall is, however, very unstable, and often dreams remembered on waking may fade away completely within a few minutes.
Yet dream recall is a skill that can be easily learned. To do this requires keeping a dream diary, as follows
- Mentally tell yourself every night that you will remember your dreams.
- Keep a notebook and pencil by your bed. Alternatively, you can use a voice recorder (the voice activated ones are best as you can simply set these to record when you retire for the night).
- Every time you awake from sleep (perhaps several times during the night), write down in the notebook (or speak out in the voice recorder) your memory of any dreams in as much detail as you can. Record not only the events and images, but also the feelings you had during the dream(s).
- Try to keep your body as still as you can while you do this, or the memory will fade before you can record it.
- After recording your memories, allow yourself to go back to sleep unless it is time to get up.
- As soon as you can after you get up, read through your notes or listen through the voice recordings, adding any other memories that come to mind.
- If you wish, you can later write up a neat copy of your dream memories. It is NOT necessary to interpret your dreams, but you can add notes about possible meanings and associations if you wish. Dream dictionaries, however, are not recommended.
- After a few weeks of keeping your dream diary, you will probably find you are recording a large number of dreams every night, often in more detail than you can fully record. If so, you can resort to very short notes about each dream. If you later find your ability at dream recall is starting to fail, then resume the more complete recording.
- Over time, make a list of the common themes, images, locations, characters and other features of your dreams. This will help to establish your own personal dream signs (indicators that you are dreaming) that will be useful when you start learning lucid dreaming.
In normal dreams, we assume that the dream events are actually happening in real life. It is only when we wake up that we realize it was “just a dream”. Sometimes this realization is a relief (e.g., if it was a nightmare) and sometimes a disappointment (e.g., if we dreamed we won the state lottery).
Although, in normal dreams, extraordinary or impossible things may happen, our normal rational and critical faculties are absent such that we simply accept the extraordinary dream events and do not question or try to change them.
Occasionally, however, we may start to wonder whether what is happening could be a dream: “Could I be dreaming?” When we do this we are said to be in a pre-lucid state. In most cases, we draw the wrong conclusion, and decide that it is NOT a dream, but is happening in real life. In which case, we simply go back into the dream (or, sometimes, we may wake up at this point). If, however, we draw the correct conclusion, and realize that it is a dream, then we have become lucid, and the dream becomes a lucid dream (or conscious dream) which has very different characteristics and potentialities from a normal dream.
A lucid dream is a dream in which, during the dream, you are aware that you are dreaming.
A lucid dream differs from a normal dream in these main ways:
- Ability to think rationally, to decide and plan.
- Ability to engage in complex cognitive activity (e.g., to remember complicated instructions, to perform mental calculations).
- Great clarity of consciousness and sense of aliveness.
- A sense of wonder and delight, freedom and independence.
- Ability to program and change the dream events - as if we were conducting an orchestra or directing a play.
- Ability to fulfil wishes and act out sensual fantasies.
- Ability to fly in the dream (like Superman) or instantaneously teleport from one dream location to another.
- A strong sense of being an integrated self in touch with all our physical and psychological potentials.
- Ability to enter into meditative and prayer states.
- Accurate and detailed recall of the lucid dream.
Although we can do many things in lucid dreams that are impossible in ordinary dreams (or in real life), including many things that would be considered magical (such as flying and teleporting), there are a few things that people seem unable to do in a lucid dream. These include:
- The inability to switch on a bright light (the light switch will generally fail, or the light will come on only dimly).
- Other equipment and devices will often not work at all, or will work strangely (e.g., radios, phones, car ignition, remote controls, computers).
- Inability to read more than a few words. Many lucid dreamers find that they cannot read a book - the words on the page may disappear or change, making reading difficult or impossible.
- Inability to control other people’s speech and actions - an especially interesting phenomenon which suggests that the characters we meet in our dreams possess an intelligence and purpose that is independent of the lucid dreamer’s conscious self.
Because of its unique qualities, in particular because of the conscious control that we have during a lucid dream, it is possible to use lucid dreams for various purposes. For example:
- Creating less anxious dreams - e.g., reducing or overcoming nightmares by realising that it is “just a dream” or by consciously changing dream scenarios.
- Deliberately confronting and conquering danger and fears, knowing that it is “just a dream” - e.g., confronting phobia situations (spiders, public speaking etc.).
- Creating gratifying dreams - e.g., meeting up with family, friends or famous people; travelling to exotic locations; sexual encounters.
- Enabling powerful emotional experiences (e.g., love, strength, invincibility, ecstasy).
- Meeting a dream helper (e.g., spirit guide, guru, power animal).
- Asking for solutions or creative insights into personal or intellectual problems.
- Creating and testing out dialogues, adventures, storylines.
- Creating artistic works (poetry, music, painting, etc.)
There are a number of different techniques for learning lucid dreaming, but almost all are based on acquiring the ability to question and test whether we are dreaming.
So, right now, ask yourself: “Could I be dreaming?” Don’t simply reply “Well of course I’m not!” How do you KNOW you are not dreaming?
To answer the question correctly, you must make a reality test. This is a simple procedure to distinguish between the waking and dream state. It is best to use a test that will give a clear answer one way or the other.
The following are the most widely used reality tests:
- Pinch your nostrils together with your thumb and forefinger. If you can still breathe through your nose, you are dreaming!
- Try to switch on a light (or switch it off and then on). If you are dreaming, the light will probably fail or come on only dimly. If you are awake, the light will (hopefully!) work normally.
- Look at your watch, read the time, look away for a few moments, then look at your watch again. If the time has changed (by more than one minute) then you are dreaming!
- Read some text, look away for a few moments, then read the text again. If the text has disappeared or changed at all, then you are dreaming!
- Place your two palms in front of your eyes so that you cannot see ahead, then separate them to look again. If the scene has changed, then you are dreaming!
Do each of these tests NOW! Don’t tell yourself this is silly!
OK, now that you know how to question and test whether you are dreaming, you need to practice doing this regularly (during the day). It is best if you ask the question and make the test(s) whenever something happens that could be a sign that you are dreaming (called a dream sign). These dream signs could be:
- When something odd, unusual or unexpected happens (e.g., a light bulb fails; you bump into someone you hadn’t expected to meet; you see or hear something bizarre or different; you have a déjà vu experience; you or somebody else acts out of character; you make or receive a wrong number phone call).
- Whenever you find yourself in an unfamiliar or rather uncomfortable situation.
- You feel different from your normal state of mind (e.g., happier, or sadder, or more angry, or more anxious).
- Something happens that regularly occurs in your dreams (your personal dream signs which you will learn from keeping your dream diary).
Whenever anything like this happens, ask yourself the question: “Could I be dreaming?” and then MAKE A REALITY TEST (e.g., pinch your nose or look at your watch).
The idea is that, by doing this regularly (during waking periods), you will train your mind to question and test for dreaming whenever something happens that could be a dream sign. As a result, when a dream sign happens in an actual dream, you will be more likely to ask the question and make the reality test in your dream! And by asking the question in your dream, you become prelucid, achieving full lucidity when the reality test indicates it is a dream and you therefore correctly realize you are dreaming!
If you find there are too few possible dream signs during the day (you should aim to make at least 5-10 reality tests each day) then you can decide to make reality tests at other times, either whenever you feel like it or, better, on a particular unpredictable signal. Such a signal may be when your phone rings (if you only get a few calls a day), or whenever you see someone in the street with (for example) ginger hair or wearing a bright red dress, or whenever you hear the word “carrots” (or another uncommonly heard word).
Remember you MUST make the reality test even if you think you “know” it is not a dream. Otherwise you will not learn to make the test in an actual dream (when usually you also think you “know” it isn’t a dream). There is nothing more frustrating for the learning lucid dreamer than to become prelucid (i.e., to question the dream) and then to not bother to make the reality test because you seem certain it isn’t a dream!
If you follow these instructions diligently for a few weeks, you should be able to achieve a lucid dream in that time. The following suggestions may also help to maximise the likelihood that you will achieve lucidity:
- When you go to bed, intend to have a lucid dream. Say out loud to yourself: “Tonight I will remember to recognise that I am dreaming”.
- Make sure that you allow enough sleep time - at least 8 or 9 hours (more if possible). Your health and well-being will also benefit from a good night's sleep!
- If you can, avoid using an alarm clock to wake up.
- Immediately on waking, make a reality test. Often people wake up falsely (i.e., they dream they are awake). Making a reality test at the point of waking may therefore sometimes lead to the realization that you are still dreaming.
- As often as you can, have a lie in (i.e., go back to sleep for some time after waking - an extra hour or two if possible). It is known that lucid dreams are more likely to occur later in the sleep period, especially after waking.
- If you wake up out of a dream, keep absolutely still and mentally repeat to yourself: “I am dreaming” as you visualize yourself back in the dream. You may then be able to re-enter the dream lucidly.
If you have been able to achieve lucidity (i.e., have had a dream episode in which you realized you were dreaming) you may have found it difficult to maintain the lucid state for any period of time. Commonly, beginning lucid dreamers will either wake up out of the lucid dream state, or else they will lose lucidity and the dream will revert to a normal dream.
Waking up out of a lucid dream usually happens because the dreamer becomes too excited (after all, the lucid dream is pretty amazing and you may have been desperately seeking lucidity for some time). So it is important to learn to remain calm and unflustered during the lucid dream and to try to hold onto the lucid state.
So don’t immediately try anything that may be too exciting (such as dream flying or dream sex) or you will probably wake up. To remain lucid requires a mental balance of calmness and alertness. You need to develop a certain “knack” of relaxed focussed attention in order to maintain lucidity - rather like the kind of attention needed in meditation, or when balancing a stick on your finger or when sustaining the 3-D image of Magic Eye pictures. If your calm attention and focus wanders, you will lose lucid consciousness. But with practice, and as you become more familiar and comfortable with the lucid state, you will find yourself more and more able to sustain the lucid dream.
When you can comfortably maintain lucidity for some time, you can try a few experiments, such as jumping up and down, moving through your dream world, saying hello to the people or animals you meet, or seeking out particular persons. Later you can try out more advanced experiments such as levitating, flying, teleporting or scene shifting, or engaging in discussions with your dream characters.
If you find the dream world fading, or sense that you are starting to lose lucidity, you can try to salvage the lucid dream using a technique called dream spinning. Simply spin round in your dream (telling yourself that you are dreaming) then stop. You will probably find that the scene has changed and that you are now fully lucid again. If you are uncomfortable with spinning, you can try putting your palms in front of your eyes, then separating them to produce a scene shift (again tell yourself as you do so that you are dreaming).
As you become more and more familiar with the lucid dream state, you can experiment with your ability to control dream events. When controlling dreams it is important to remain calm and confident about the changes you seek. Don’t doubt and don’t get too excited or frustrated if the changes don’t immediately happen. Simply think about what you want to occur and visualize it clearly in your mind.
If the change requires a scene shift, then use the trick of dream spinning or placing your hands over your eyes. If you want to contact someone, then open a door, or walk around a corner, or even phone them up if necessary.
If anything happens in your lucid dream that you are uncomfortable with, or frightened of, remind yourself that it is just a dream and that, therefore, nothing bad can happen to you. Confront the situation if you feel confident in doing so, or shift the scene to something more pleasant using the methods explained above.
Lucid dreams have a long history of use in certain traditions (especially Shamanism, Yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, and Magic) to aid the psychic and spiritual development of practitioners.
Perhaps the most developed of these lucid dream traditions is the Tibetan “Dream Yoga” in which the practitioner successively learns to achieve lucidity, to achieve control of the lucid state, to realize the illusoriness of the dream world and, ultimately, to recognize that all phenomena are the creations and playthings of the Mind.
Although recognised as a real and spiritually relevant ability in these traditions, it is only relatively recently that Western science has even acknowledged the existence of lucid dreaming or begun to consider its psychological, psychical and spiritual significance.
From a psychic and spiritual perspective, lucid dreaming has a number of important implications and applications. These include:
- Appreciating and learning from the analogy between (a) achieving lucidity in the dream state and (b) achieving enlightenment in the waking state. In other words, achieving enlightenment may involve achieving a special kind of lucidity in contrast with our normal dull waking consciousness.
- Through learning lucidity, to enhance our ability to control the mind.
- To learn the illusoriness of all mental phenomena, including our fears and anxieties.
- Cultivating awareness that waking life is also a kind of dream.
- Using the lucid dream to explore other realms of experience and other realities.
- Seeking out encounters with transcendent beings, spiritual teachers or religious figures.
- Seeking spiritual knowledge (e.g., a sign, symbol, message, spiritual insight).
- Engaging in meditation practice, prayer, or religious/magical ritual while in the lucid dream (often reported to be very powerful).
- Using experience with lucid dreams to facilitate other related paranormal and spiritual potentials - e.g., out-of-body experience (astral projection), remote viewing, telepathic communication.
Harary, K. (1999). Lucid Dreams in 30 Days, Second Edition: The Creative Sleep Program
Laberge, S. & Rheingold, H. (1991). Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming
Laberge, S. (2006). Lucid Dreaming (Book & CD)
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. (1998). The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep
Waggoner, R. (2008). Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self.
Text © Michael Daniels PhD, 2012-2022