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Aware and Asleep

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Take a dive into the lucid dream world and explore advice for new dreamers.

The sky was lavender. The Himalayan hills a slate gray, hiding the sun, and the concrete roof of our yoga hall a steely blue beneath the evening sky at sunset. Daniel sat on a short square pillar near the building’s edge. His hands were outstretched and his gaze slightly downward. His palms faced in. After a few moments, he turned them away and directed the backs of his hands toward his body. Later, I gathered the courage to ask him what I witnessed that evening.

“It’s called a reality check,” he said. “I count my fingers.” Daniel, it turned out, was an experienced lucid dreamer.

A reality check like observing one’s hands and counting fingers helps people know if they’re awake or if they are dreaming (repeating a consistent reality check throughout the day is also one of the most widely recommended tips for beginning a lucid dreaming practice; see box).

After developing this reality check habit in our waking life, we look at our hands in a dream, but instead of them appearing the way they normally do, we might see extra fingers, odd growths, or, in my experience, giant hands (what happened during my first successful lucid dream). Upon seeing the oddity, we’ll become aware that we’re in a dream and our control of it can begin.

Lucid dreamers can, if they desire, choose dream characters and environments, play out real-life situations or fantasy scenarios, and even explore consciousness itself.

For a small percentage of people, lucid dreaming happens spontaneously and without effort. For most of us, it requires an intentional practice and is a skill that develops gradually, if at all.

Lucid dreams were once widely thought to be imagined. In the mid 1970s, however, scientists proved the occurrence of lucid dreams using eye movement tests during the rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep stage, when dreams most often occur. In the 1980s, studies at Stanford University by well-known lucid dream researcher and author Stephen LaBerge also validated lucid dreaming.

More recently, scientists uncovered that it takes more time to complete physical tasks in a dream than it does while awake, yet the brain’s sensorimotor cortex responsible for specific physical movements is active and engaged in a dream the same way it is when we’re awake.

Because the same areas of the brain activate when dreaming of a physical activity or performing those activities in a waking state, we can use this connection to create repetition within a lucid dreaming practice that will increase our body’s ability to do just about anything. Whether you would like to improve your balance, remember a sequence of yoga poses, or even run faster, a lucid dreaming practice may help.

In one study, test subjects who lucid dreamed of practicing an activity improved their performance of that activity while awake nearly as much as the people who actually practiced that activity during their waking hours.

Lucid dreams can help us move past difficult issues, too. When we’re burdened by anxiety or trauma, there’s a high likelihood we’ll have nightmares or recurring dreams related to our fears. Within a lucid dream experience, we can find lasting resolve. For instance, a friend of mine shared that her mother had a recurring nightmare about being lost. After learning about lucid dreaming, her mother created a dream in which when she got lost, her three daughters appeared and rescued her. The nightmare stopped occurring. Studies show there are lower rates of depression and suicide in lucid dreamers as well, and that people who frequently lucid dream have less anxiety and more confidence in their waking life.

Lucid dreaming expert LaBerge suggests lucid dreaming can also be used to receive spiritual insight. He suggests asking the dream itself to present something other than what you create. Ask to be shown something beyond yourself, and to be guided to an understanding of something you don’t already know.

While spiritual perspectives vary on the necessity or usefulness of dreaming, Tibetan Buddhists from the tantric Vajrayana tradition place value on lucid dreaming to further journeys toward liberation. They refer to it as “dream yoga,” milam or svapnadarshana. According to this belief system, all phenomena occurring in a dream-state is illusory and dependent arising, but yet so is all phenomena in a waking state. Through gaining dreamtime awareness, we come to realize that our dream self is just an illusion. Anything happening in the dream world can be controlled, and nothing should be feared.

Once we reach a lucid place to control what is arising, the empty mind becomes limitless and ideal for maintaining a meditative state. Deity yoga, or meditating on the direct visualization of a buddha and its qualities, is best performed with a clear and focused mind. When better than within the lucid space of conscious sleep?

A lucid dreaming practice isn’t for everyone. People with distorted perceptions of reality, such as those with hallucinations or schizophrenia, likely aren’t ideal candidates for a lucid dreaming practice as it can make the shifts in reality even more extreme. There is also some evidence that lucid dreaming may disrupt sleep quality as the brain is more active while lucidly dreaming than in non-lucid dreaming sleep.

My daily reality checks have turned into a sort of gratitude practice, as well as an opportunity for present-moment self-awareness. I offer my thanks to my hands each time I see their wrinkles and their knobby knuckles, and as a result, I’ve gained an appreciation for my aging hands. While I’ve only successfully lucid dreamed two times, and both times I woke after no more than a few moments of lucidity, I plan to keep practicing.

LUCID DREAMING FOR BEGINNERS

A lucid dreaming practice takes time to develop. Start your journey with these tips.

Make Note of Your Dreams

Remembering your dreams is important if you would like to have a consistent lucid dreaming practice. To signal to your body that your dreams matter, and that you would like to remember them more frequently, keep a dream journal. Immediately upon waking, jot down notes or draw a sketch about your dream. You can even record a voice memo with any details you remember.

Reality Checks

Several times throughout the day, become deliberately aware whether you’re awake or in a dream. Many people choose to look at their hands, look at a clock, or check their reflection in a mirror. Any of these things, done habitually throughout the day, will begin to show up in your dreams. When you are dreaming, however, they will let you know you are in a dream.

Declare Intent

Set an intention to remember your dreams and to be lucidly aware in your sleep. You can repeat your intention many times before going to bed, similar to an affirmation or mantra. A lucid dreaming intention may be similar to: Tonight, I will be lucid and aware during my dreams.

Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD)
Several phone apps are avail- able to support you with the MILD technique. During your sleep, a timed or sensor-based alert gently signals to your body that you are dreaming. Many people find that this alert enables them to become lucid. (However, other people find that it just wakes them up!)

Wake Back to Bed

The wake-back-to-bed technique can send your body into a dream quickly. Try to fall asleep for three or four hours, wake up for a half-hour, and go back to bed. Set your intentions as you’re falling asleep.