by Patrick Marsolek (7/2012)
You’re sitting on the patio of a coffee shop drinking tea and talking with a friend. You see cars driving by. You can hear the chatter of other people’s conversations and enjoy the fragrant taste of your tea. A police car drives by with flashing red lights and sirens wailing. You think to yourself, “What an annoying sound.” Your friend says, almost simultaneously, “That was annoying.” Your friend’s words sound like they came from your own mind. You pause for a moment, and have a strange sensation, a kind of remembering. You feel a rush of energy in your body at the same moment you have an insight . You are dreaming.
You take a deep breath, feeling a tremendous surge of energy through your body, and, as you focus on your friend, the dream settles down again with increased sharpness and aliveness. Your friend is looking at you, suddenly quiet, as if waiting for something. You realize she is part of your dream, part of your own mind. She stops talking, a quiet reflection of you. You realize you can do whatever you want. The colors become heightened, more subtle and vibrant. All your senses become more intense. The world around you seems to breathe in connection with your mind. As you realize your freedom, you feel a rushing sensation again; the world pulsates and you begin to float with energy. Suddenly, everything shifts and you find yourself stirring in your bed in the dark, with soft red lights pulsating in the eye-mask covering your eyes. You are exhilarated finding yourself starting to miss your heightened state.
Does this description sound like a scene right out of a science fiction movie? It is, and it is also an example of the kinds of experiences that many people have on a regular basis. Have you ever become aware you were dreaming while it was happening? Becoming conscious while you’re dreaming is what is called a lucid dream. Though studies have shown that perhaps only 25 percent of people report having lucid dreams, many more people may have lucid dreams without remembering them. Worldwide, thousands of people are talking about them on blogs and forums, wanting to have them and having them.
Those who regularly experience lucid dreaming are able to manipulate their dream reality in amazing ways. They can fly like the characters in the movie “The Matrix.” They are able to generate whole realities, and even spontaneously visit friends and physical places. Some lucid dreamers report their dream experiences seem more real than their waking life events and they feel more themselves while they’re lucid in their dreams. Some report having profound, spiritual experiences in their dreams that help them remember the meaningfulness of their waking lives.
Moviemakers are weaving lucid dreams into their scripts. The movie “Inception” had a scene much like the one described. In the movie, technicians had learned how to go into dreams with lucidity and manipulate the dreams with stunning accuracy to find information in the sleeper’s unconscious mind. Though the predictability, reliability, and shared experiences demonstrated in “Inception” are not currently feasible, researchers are finding ways to make lucid dreaming easier. Lucid dreams have entered our cultural mainstream.
Lucid dreaming has been acknowledged by Western science for a hundred and fifty years. It became more reputable in the 1970’s and 1980’s when psycho-physiologist Stephen LaBerge and British parapsychologist Keith Hearne independently validated lucid dreaming. These researchers confirmed that subjects could signal during lucid dreams while EEG monitors verified their mental states as rapid eye movment (REM) phases of sleep. In these studies, dreamers who realized they were dreaming, were able to move their eyes in very specific, predetermined ways, thus informing researchers who were watching their sleeping bodies, that they were conscious.
To date there continue to be many studies integrating lucid dreaming with transpersonal psychology, sports psychology, cognition studies, and the treatment of nightmares. LaBerge continues to study the psycho-physiological domains of lucid dreaming and his research has been valuable to cognitive psychology, leading to advances in mind/brain mapping and linguistic-cognitive studies.
There are also tools to help you have your own experience. If you’re an iPhone or Android user, you can download an app for your phone which will play reminders for you while you are dreaming. The app monitors your sleep and, when placed near you on your mattress, plays subtle voice reminders when your brain goes into one of its REM, dreaming cycles. The stimulus is intended to register at a subconscious level, activating an aspect of conscious awareness while you’re in your dream, helping you achieve lucidity.
Using another tool, there are several different versions of sleep masks you can wear to help you have a lucid dream. These masks also track your sleep cycles and flash gentle lights into your eyes when you are in a REM sleep cycle. This stimulus is designed to be light enough to not wake you, but strong enough to help you recognize that you are dreaming. It was described in the scene at the beginning of this article. The police car’s flashing lights were the dream experience of the red lights from the mask the sleeper was wearing. The movie “Inception” played with a similar idea, noting that when dream characters experienced changes in gravity, their physical bodies were experiencing similar changes. Granted, there are mixed reviews as to how effective these technologies really are, but they seem to be helpful for some people.
Two entrepreneurs, Duncan Frazier and Steve McGuigan, have started a company called Bitbanger Labs with the intention of producing a Lucid Dreaming mask. Their kickstarter campaign seems to have tapped into a popular trend. They’ve gone over their $35,000 goal and raised close to $600,000 from 6500 people. Bitbanger Labs is producing the Lucid Dreaming Mask and will start shipping in August, 2012. LaBerge’s company, The Lucidity Institute, has produced a similar sleep mask. The new model is soon to be released.
There is some scientific rationale for cueing dreamers during REM sleep. The lateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in logical reasoning and working memory, becomes less active during REM sleep, while other areas of the brain, the visual and emotional centers, become more active. Dr. Matthew Walker, the director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at UC Berkeley, thinks the prefrontal cortex is key to lucid dreaming. He suggests that during REM sleep, the activity level in that logical-oriented part of the brain becomes more active, close to waking levels, which brings about lucidity. He suspects researchers will verify something of that sort in the next five years.
On the outer edge of science, hinting at what was done in the movie “Inception,” researchers at UC Berkeley are using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and computational models to decode and reconstruct people’s visual experiences. So far this technology can only reconstruct movie clips people have already viewed, but the researchers say it might pave the way to see inner dreams and memories. The practical applications of this technology would be to better understand the minds of people who can’t communicate -- stroke victims, coma patients, or people otherwise disabled. Yet, they are careful to say they are decades away from people being able to view another’s thoughts as in “Inception” or the sci-fi classic movie, “Brainstorm”.
Although Western science has only been studying lucid dreams for a relatively short time, they have been known and utilized by humanity for centuries. The Sufis and the Tibetans have long traditions of lucid dreaming. In the Sufi tradition, the dreaming is practiced in conjunction with spiritual inquiry. For Tibetan monks, lucid dreaming is practiced to rehearse for death, detachment from the body, and the states beyond death. Similarly, indigenous cultures, such as the Senoi of Malaysia, have used lucid dreaming states for healing, information gathering and accessing spirit realms. Brandt Secunda, a healer/shaman with the Huichol tribe, once described to me his practice of visiting other healers and having interactions with themwhile in the dream state.
Lucid dreaming can be a powerfully transformative tool that doesn’t require any outside stimulants, physical suffering or near-death experiences - other ways people do have visionary or lucid experiences. When interviewed by Stanley Krippner, contemporary Native American healer Rolling Thunder suggested that lucid dreaming is a more reliable source of visions than using mind altering plants. Those who practice lucid dreaming tend to concur with this sentiment. Not only are their natural experiences felt to be powerful and rich enough without needing external stimulation, the practice of having self-driven, intentionally created transformative experiences has a positive effect on one’s waking life. Lucid dreamers often feel more conscious how they create their waking lives as a result of their dreamtime experiences.
Many people have lucid dreams spontaneously. My friend Sam Taylor has had them since he was around five or six years old. Initially he thought his lucid dreams put him in a fun, dream playground, different from this world, where he could play however he wanted. In his dreams as a child he would vent his anger, destroy things and kill people, venting all his energies. After 60 years of conscious dreaming, he now tries to operate with the same level of integrity and caring that he does when he is awake. He doesn’t see the dream world as different from the physical world. Rather, they are on the same continuum.
Lucid dreams are related to other states of consciousness and certainly to Out of Body Experiences (OBEs), which I’ve written about in a previous issue of AR. I asked Sam his sense of the differences. “In the beginning, they seemed very different. The lucid dream has a very dream-like quality,” he said. “The characters are often manifestations of my own personal creation, not a collective consciousness. Whereas in the OBE, I would rise up out of my body, walk around the room, or fly up through the ceiling. The OBE would appear to me as if I was in an area of collective consciousness.”
“As I’ve had more experience,” Sam continued, “I’ve come to see that there are many more similarities than there are differences. Lucid dreaming is a separate way of viewing the energies, or being with the energies of the mind and the ego. Sometimes my experience is very far away from the ego. It’s not of this world, me looking at my body and looking at the bed. It’s being some place very different, and not just a personal fantasy.”
Like Sam, many people have had lucid dreams their entire lives. Others report having them spontaneously, at different points in their lives. More famous lucid dreamers include Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nicolai Tesla, Salvador Dali and modern personalities like James Cameron and Stephen King. Many people who want to learn how to lucid dream are tapping into the numerous books, online courses, and online discussions groups that are available. Then they start having them.
For people who are interested, there are some basic recommendations for having a lucid dream. You can practice remembering your dreams and keeping a journal. You may already be having lucid dreams and not remembering them. Writing dreams down helps you retain their memories. This practice also sends a message to your unconscious that your are serious.
Do reality checks. Some practitioners call this lucid living. Look around you and see if anything is strange. Can you read the clock? Does the time stay the same when you look a the clock a second time? Do the light switches work correctly? Make a habit of asking yourself if you are dreaming. Are you dreaming now? How would you know? The psychologist Susan Blackmoore suggests that it helps to get in the practice of answering, “Yes”, to this question. Then, when you are dreaming, you’ll be in the habit of answering, “Yes”.
Then there’s meditation. Any practice of mindfulness that cultivates greater mental awareness seems to help the process. The more you meditate, the more conscious you become of your shifting mental awareness, during waking or sleep. Sam also had another suggestion related to the meditation process. Quiet your mind. Do this in the middle of your life, having a conversation with someone, going to sleep, or wherever you are. If the world becomes quiet with you, you may be in your mind and dreaming. Of course, if the world keeps talking, then pay attention. If you are in a dream, someone may be telling you something important. As with Ms. Blackmore’s suggestion, you may also begin to have a sense that this waking state IS a dream too.
Sam also suggests that if you are wanting to lucid dream, you are probably already doing it, but not remembering it. You might look at what is blocking you from remembering. “The draw to learn about lucid dreaming means a lot,” he says, “probably that you miss that state. You miss being there. That’s why people write down their dreams. It helps them remember. You can do something, and half a second later, it’s gone. The memory doesn’t retain it.”
“Use your imagination,” he suggests, “to help you flow as you are going to sleep, to move your intention to other places, other people, even into the room around you. Just imagine yourself doing it. It’s a good method. If you use your imagination, it doesn’t mean it’s not real. You’re just using your mind in a less concrete way.” I’ve noticed that lucid dreamers, in general, seem to share this kind of flexibility of awareness. What is real and imaginary seem to blend together. Several times Sam referred to our waking world as if it were a dream. “It’s a collective fantasy.” he said, “There can be really great fantasies in our living world.”
Speaking about the power and value of imagination, the journalist Richard Shiffman said, “Lucid dreams, while clearly owing a lot to the imagination, often contain a spiritual element which is not merely "imaginary." In other words, the imagination in this instance is not just a faculty for creating fictions and illusion, but also a portal into another realm of experience, a realm of heightened awareness and intense spiritual aliveness which challenges our very notions of what is real and what it means to be awake.”
It is the powerful aliveness and sensuality of the lucid experience that attracts so many people. Many new lucid dreamers awakening to these new energies want to have a sexual experience. I asked Sam about this strong urge. “A lot of people when they get started, get tied up in wanting that sexual connection,” he said. “I think sexuality is a draw for a soul connection, and they think of it in a this-world kind of way. Until they figure out what it’s about, they get tied up in the Dante’s Inferno of sexuality and never get anywhere. Once they have a sense of using that energy to connect with themselves at a deeper level, they realize more what it’s about. It changes from being physically sexual, to being connected, and loving.”
For those who have lucid dreams, this sense of knowing and oneness can be very profound. It is often reported that the dreamer feels more herself than in an ordinary dream or even than when awake. This is similar to reports of other peak experiences or meditative states, yet the lucid dream experiences seem much more easily accessible to people, as if we’re hard-wired for them. The few lucid dream experiences I have had in my life, I had when practicing with conscious intention, the exercises mentioned above. I wanted to experience being lucid and focused on having a lucid dream. After a couple weeks of reading about lucid dreaming, meditating while going to bed, and doing “reality checks,” I had an experience similar to the one described above. In what seemed like a moment or two, I felt a rush of energy and meaning. In each of my lucid dreams, I only managed to stay lucid for what seemed a short time before falling back into a regular dream, with less lucidity, or waking up. My lucid experiences were intense and exciting, and, though brief, felt full of meaning and insight, much like a rare peak experience I had when meditating in India.
The intensity of my shift in perspective was very strong and also scary. I asked Sam about these shifts and he described how powerful dying in a lucid state can be. “There is a vibrational shift - words which do not express the true meaning. In the dream, things change. That can be accomplished by killing myself, or by just shifting, letting go of the scene around me, letting go of everything there is there. Then things start to accelerate. When I jump off something and accelerate, it’s a faster shifting and things change.”
“One time in a lucid dream, this guy was threatening me,” Sam continued. “He was going to kill me. I said fine. He shot me, I fell down. I was dead. Then I got up and we were friends and we had a nice dinner. There was a clear shift. In other dreams, it’s a greater shift where everything changes, all the scenery, all the environment, not just sight, but feeling and being. It all changes.” To me, Sam’s description sounds very much like the intentional awareness cultivated by Tibetan monks in preparation for dying, who, while practicing lucid dreaming, learn that they are not the body, but something beyond the body.
Sam describes this transformational core in lucid experiences as the source of fear that can be encountered. When we leave the body, we feel fear. “You may be comfortable and relaxed with fear, and you’ll still feel it, because that’s the body’s job. At times we may be at peace with the fear and at times not. Part of the challenge is to be comfortable with this fear as we are going into these lucid and out of body experiences. For me it’s a meaningful part of being in this physical existence -- to come to peace with death at some level.”
With the current fascination and interest in lucid dreaming, people are seeking the rush, power, freedom and sexual pleasure of this natural, yet profound experience. At the same time, within this fascination, people are being drawn more into a personal knowing of radical transformation, a release from this body. The energies that draw us are not of the body, but from our deeper selves, expressed through the body.
So I asked Sam, “What exciting about lucid dreaming for you now, after 60 years of fascination and experiences in that inner world?” He replied, “Being back with my connected, soul self. That always continues to be exciting and wonderous, I look forward to it.”
Patrick Marsolek is a writer, dancer, facilitator, clinical hypnotherapist and the director of Inner Workings Resources. He leads groups and teaches classes in extended human capacities, consciousness exploration, personal development, and compassionate communication. He offers his services to businesses, individuals and families and in self-empowerment seminars. He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis manual and A Joyful Intuition. See www.PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.