How to Learn Lucid Dreaming: A Primer

“Am I dreaming or am I awake?”

I look at a spot on the floor. I look at the pattern of the wood. I look away. I look back at the floor. Everything is the same.

I am awake, obviously.

But I do this anyway, several times a day, in hopes that one day, out of pure habit, I’ll ask myself, “Am I dreaming or am I awake?”

I’ll look at a spot on the floor. I’ll look at the pattern of the wood. I’ll look away. I’ll look back. Something is different. The wood is now tile. And it’s blue. No, it’s green.

And then I’ll know — I’m dreaming. Definitely dreaming.

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that our dreams can provide meaning, insights and answers in our lives, and that we can be aware that we’re dreaming and even alter it’s contents.

Just imagine being able to create fantasy worlds, change forms, time travel or dine with celebrities. Imagine being able to clam your anxieties and fight off nightmares. Or  being able to pick up writing tips from Hemingway, hit tennis balls with Serena Williams, or take guitar lessons from Segovia knowing that you can carry these very skills and experiences into waking life.

That’s pretty incredible.

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It’s called Lucid Dreaming and this idea of “dreaming at will” has been studied for thousands of years – from the ancient Hindus and Greek philosophers to Renaissance writers, theologians, Tibetan monks, and clinical researchers. It’s been practiced by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Nikola Tesla, Salvador Dali, and filmmakers Guillermo Del Toro, James Cameron and Chris Nolan, blogger Tim Ferriss and Stephen King.

But lucid dreaming isn’t just some hippy practice about creating surreal experiences (which is fabulous in and of itself). Studies are showing that you can use your dreams to improve the quality of your waking life including:

  • creativity & problem solving
  • accelerating learning and skill improvement
  • overcoming nightmares
  • decision making
  • stress reduction and finding inner awareness, presence and mindfulness

Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University is one of many dream researchers who has dedicated his life to the study of lucid dreaming in a clinical setting.

Some of his early studies involved instructing subjects (who were trained lucid dreamers) to perform a specific set of previously agreed upon eye movements while dreaming (i.e. Right-Right-Left-Right-Left). Researchers would then measure their polygraph records which, not surprisingly, always matched.

I uncovered a lot of interesting research on the topic, and I’ll briefly get into the hows and whys of our dreams a little later, but first, let’s start with how to induce lucid dreaming, as outlined by LaBerge in his book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming.

Is sleeping through your dreams the best use of your limited lifespan? Not only are you wasting part of your finite store of time to be alive, but you are missing adventures and lessons that could enrich the rest of your life. – Stephen LaBerge

How to Learn Lucid Dreaming

I like to compare lucid dreaming to a mindfulness practice because it has everything to do with being conscious about the things in and around us. The definition of lucid dreaming, after all, is the ability to be aware that you’re dreaming, so many of the techniques outlined below revolve around developing your ability to keep your thoughts focused and be hyper aware of your environment and how you interact with it.

1. Practice Dream Recall

Your goal is to remember at least one dream per night in as much detail as possible. Keep a journal next to your bedside and immediately, upon waking, write down everything you can remember, starting with little clues or thoughts, and building from there.

You see, in order to be able to say to yourself “I must be dreaming,” you need to not just remember the dream, but you also need to have a clear picture of the kind of dreams you have most often so that you can recognize them while they’re happening.

2. Identify Your Dream Signs

Once you have 7-12 dreams recorded in detail, start looking for patterns. What odd things, people or places make regular appearances? They typically fall into one of the following:

  1. Inner awareness: perceived thoughts and feelings
  2. Action: activities and motions
  3. Form: shapes of things, people and places (which are typically bizarre and always changing)
  4. Context: a combination of the above elements which, when placed together are unusual and odd

Identify your common dream signs because you’re going to use them as target gateways to enter a lucid state.

3. Test Your Reality

As you go about your day, get into the habit of paying attention to things that happen to and around you, especially, when it comes to people, places and things that appear regularly in your dreams.

Here are some reality testing exercises that you can practice throughout the day:

  • Look at objects, notice their patterns, colors and textures. Look away and then look back, and make sure that everything is the same. In a dream world, objects (and even people) have a funny way of changing shape and form right before our eyes.
  • Notice any random person or odd situation that might seem dreamlike or that appear in your dream frequently.
  • Ask yourself simple questions like:
    • Am I dreaming or awake? How do I know?
    • What am I wearing?
    • What’s my name?
    • Where am I?
    • What happened five minutes ago?

4. Induction

Now that you’ve worked throughs steps 1-3, you can start practicing induction techniques:

  • Control your environment: sleep in a dark, cool and quiet room where you won’t be interrupted
  • Relax: Before bed, do a progressive relaxation exercise where you release all tension from your body and clear your mind from the days worries
  • Set your intention: Resolve to be aware of your dream state, say a prayer or affirmation
  • Rehearse the dream: Visualize your intention over and over as you’re falling asleep, where you imagine yourself in a lucid dream; whatever benefit you’re seeking (spa treatment, answers, inspiration, enlightenment), that should be your intention as you are falling asleep
Pro Tip: Longer, more vivid dreams happen later into the night, which is when we have more REM sleep. To maximize lucidity, sleep for 5-6 hours, get up for one or two, and then go back to bed and then apply your lucid dreaming techniques.

Tapping into Your Dreams to Improve Waking Life

There’s a lot going on in the subconscious that we’re not aware of.

We all have a treasure trove of information, memories, and experiences stored in the warehouse that is our subconscious mind, most of which our conscious brain classifies as irrelevant (and consequently inaccessible).

Our dreams bring some of these things to the surface, often in bizarre, frustrating and mindless ways that we pay little attention to. But I with a little bit of practice and focus, our dreams can help us access some of the more useful knowledge, creativity and inspiration that’s inside of us.

Sometimes it’s as simple as being able to remember something, the way that Paul McCartney is said to have composed the entire melody of Yesterday after a very vivid dream.

Other times, we have to be intentional about the problems we are trying to solve. We have to tell ourselves what we want to get out of our dreams, so that we can create the playground in which to find the answer.

Dreams can also be a fantastic practice arena.

I’ve written about visualization and mental imagery and it’s impact on performance. Dreams are the most powerful form of visualization because we can make use of all of our senses to create an environment that facilitates learning.

Because of your lucid state, you know that nothing is “real”, but your brain delivers the same messages to your muscles and the rest of your body as if it were real – your muscles just don’t move because they’re paralyzed by the REM process.

That’s why you can test and try all sorts of different things without fear of injury, fatigue or embarrassment. You can push yourself. You can learn from the best. You can hit tennis balls with Serena Williams. Take a guitar lesson from Segovia. Do a double backflip off of a high diving board in an olympic aquatic facility.

And it’s not just about motor skills like music and sports. You can use lucid dreaming to rehearse for just about anything in life like an important meeting, a big presentation, a surgical procedure or a difficult conversation.

At the end of the day, we can learn to change the negative, frustrating and dark images we encounter in our dreams into beautiful ones. We can attempt to make peace with people we’ve lost or problems we can’t let go of. And we can bring all of the experiences we have in our dreams into our waking lives and hopefully, be a little more creative, thoughtful, self aware and, confident.

And, at the very least, we can see what it feels like to fly.

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