Be it a brief remark hidden in a footnote, or the main focus of the whole system, hardly any author in the field fails to mention lucid dreaming at some point. Despite having been scientifically proven in the ‘80s by psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge, the human ability to recognize a dream, taking conscious control of its contents, is often still looked at with scepticism by those who haven’t directly experienced it; among more mystically inclined authors, it’s often regarded as simultaneously very basic and very advanced. With good reason: while the basics are simple enough to grasp, provided one manages to find the hook that’s right for them, the applications can be pretty amazing.
There are countless books and tutorials to be found about the subject. What I’ll try to do in the next couple posts, however, is to gather up a few essential points that should enable every dreamer – regardless of their level of experience – to make the most of this wide range of material, identifying the basic mechanisms behind the different methods, and turning them into something that works for you.
Here, then, come a few tips I wish I’d heard many years ago:
- Enough sleep.
Seriously though: getting enough sleep is paramount to any kind of dream exploration. There’s simply no way a sleep deprived brain will allow you to tamper with its life-preserving maintenance routines. You’d be surprised how many people come to lucid dreaming message boards complaining they get no results, only to get asked “how much do you sleep?” and answer “Oh, five hours, tops”. Same goes for seasoned dreamers that suddenly “lose their gift” as soon as they start a new job that has them waking up before sunrise, or a have a baby that cries all night long.
However, if a good night sleep is not an option, you could always try afternoon naps. Chances are your brain will try to use them to get some much-needed REM sleep, and possibly it’ll be more willing to let you tamper with it a bit.
- A trained memory
All manuals and tutorials start by recommending you keep a dream journal, stressing how important it is to be able to remember your adventures if you manage to get any; however I find this is not the main point: sure, forgetting the best bits of a hard-earned lucid dream is frustrating, but the ability to carry memories with you while shifting between different states of consciousness can be invaluable even outside of the scope of lucid dreaming. Have you ever come out of a celebration with the vaguest memory of something amazing happening, only to see it run through your fingers like sand once you try to focus on it properly? Bit frustrating, isn’t it?
Besides, strengthening this kind of memory is the key of most lucid dreaming techniques. Therefore, do keep a dream journal. Pick one that can stay open on your nightstand on its own (e.g. spiral bound), and a pen or pencil that doesn’t need uncapping (your sleepy self will thank you). Write every dream, even those who seem irrelevant, at least at the beginning. If you only remember one vague feeling or a keyword, write that one down: chances are the rest will come unexpectedly back to your mind. If you remember nothing, still do the gesture of writing: it might be enough to kickstart the memory. Once properly awake, transcribe any barely readable scribbles before the whole memory fades and they stop making sense even to you.
- Small sacrifices
Namely, pot. If you’re a smoker, and serious about dreaming, you might have to cut your habit down quite a bit. Pot kills dream memory like nobody’s business.
So: smuggling memories between different states of consciousness is damn useful. Too bad memory tends to work by compartments: memories of dreams tend to be more accessible from dreams, drunken adventures stay in drunkenland, and even a small thing as walking through the door could make you forget what you were about. However, in my experience there seems to be an area – or function – of memory that isn’t affected much by this effect: it’s that little place where “nagging reminders” get stored. “I *really* need to do my laundry later on”; this sort of things. It’s also the same function that may cause you to wake up a couple minutes before the alarm (especially if you’re waking up early to do something interesting).
One of the most effective tricks to achieve dream lucidity is to plant a simple, vivid command right in that area of your memory. It helps to make it something strongly visual or physical, and possibly pleasant. The “nagging” feeling of “having something to do” might do much, by itself, to trigger lucidity. Also, it can be helpful if you recognise you’re dreaming easily, but sometimes struggle to remember what to do: having a strong “message” from “awake you” in your “inbox” will prevent “dreaming you” from waking yourself up by trying too hard to access your whole memory from inside the dream.
It helps to take into account this tendency of memory to operate by separate compartments, while setting this command. A quite effective way seems to be doing it from different states of mind: while wide awake; while meditating; while half asleep – more specifically, while focusing on the general feeling of a recent, strong, lucid or important dream. The aim is to plant the command in that “shared” area of your memory from as close as possible to the state you’ll be in when you’ll “read” it. The command should be something simple and independent from your environment: “I’m going to look at my hands” (the one used in Castaneda’s books) is much better than “I’m gonna kiss Benedict Cumberbatch” – if anything because you’re much more likely to have access to your hands than to a British actor with an unpronounceable name. A pleasant command can also help, because you might happen to achieve lucidity in a nice dream, and you might not be willing to admit that no, you haven’t really just won a thousand bucks, just to stare at your fingers. However, if it means you can fly, then maybe…
Yes, but how do I know I’m dreaming? By recognizing dream signs, and performing reality checks. Dream signs are all those thing that, by looking weird or for other reasons, make you wonder “am I dreaming?”. Reality checks are the experiments you do to answer this question.
Dream signs don’t have to be absurd; quite often your dreaming brain will explain away blatantly uncanny imagery such as dragons and dead relatives; recurring dreams are more likely to give you the hint: the key to identifying those patterns is, again, your dream journal. Do you often dream about being back in high school, or have noticed that it’s always sort of warm and sunny in a subtly unsettling way? That’s the sign to be on the lookout for, then… and if something feels off, here comes the reality check!
There are also more general signs to look out for, such as “glitches” in the “simulation”, bad graphics and failures in cause-and-effect; an old classic is the inability to switch lights on and off with the light switch, digital clocks not making any sense, technology failing hard or appearing unusable, difficulty writing or texting.
Some of that can also happen while awake. If it does, just ask yourself, as an exercise, if you’re dreaming, and maybe do a reality check. It’s all practice, and sometimes it turns out you were dreaming, after all.
Common reality checks include jumping on the spot and seeing if you stay afloat, sticking your finger through your palm, breathing through your nose while pinching it, counting your fingers. I really like the first one because it means by the time you achieve lucidity, you’ll be already flying: a good incentive to let go of the plot of the previous dream, if it happened to be a pleasant one.
Some dreamers suggest repeating reality checks at regular intervals while awake, but I don’t like it much, as I fear it might train my brain to simulate them failing. I rather just stop and visualize doing them (and succeeding). Maybe doing a bit of both could work too.
Reality checks should be changed periodically, as your sleepy brain might just learn to cheat and simulate a failure in order to sleep in peace. Also, if you happen to realise you’re dreaming with absolute certainty, and already remember what command you’d set, you may as well skip the testing altogether and get on with it – within common sense, of course.
If you’ve read any forum post or tutorial around the web, you’ll probably have met acronyms such as WILD (Wake Initiated Lucid Dream), DILD (Dream Initiated Lucid Dream), WBTB (Wake Back To Bed) and so on. Describing them all would take a whole other post, and I probably wouldn’t have much more to say than what you can find on your own. However, I will spend some words on the last one (WBTB) because it’s extremely effective.
Basically, you’ll have to figure out how much you need to sleep to go through your first REM phases (usually 5-6 hours), then set an alarm for that time, get up, stay awake for a short while (from a few minutes to half an hour), possibly doing or reading something dream-related, and go back to sleep: this second part of your sleep is destined to your dreaming practice.
I personally find it even more helpful if instead of setting the clock on my phone, I manage to set it on my brain: just by doing so, I’ll engage that “laundry alarm” part of my memory, the same that’s hopefully hosting my dream command. That short wake interval in the morning is also a good moment to reinforce your command, maybe using a dream you just had as a “connection”. Yes, it’s also possible to go back to a dream you had in the first bit of sleep, with some luck.
Also, if you happen to fall in love with some induction technique that starts from awake (most astral projection books, for instance, will go with some variation on the WILD method), you still may want to do it in the early morning, using the WBTB routine as set-up. This will greatly increase your chances of bypassing all the common issues with itches, random fears and loss of sleep associated with those techniques.
The next post will expand more on the application of dream lucidity, from the most leisurely (“ok, now I’m here: how do I have fun?”) to more experimental, magically and spiritually engaging possibilities – from exploration to direct application to your personal practice, whatever it may be.
Arianna likes dreams, fiction, cats, nerd stuff, magic, and finding out what happens when you mix them all up. She studies neo-pagan movements for academic and personal interest, and is trying to figure out Chaos Magick because why not?