Life is But a Dream

Lucid dreaming—the paradoxical state of being aware and conscious while
dreaming—can be exhilarating, entertaining and enriching. The best part?
Anyone can learn how to do it.

By Patrick Dougherty

June 2007

You glance at a street sign, only to see its letters melt into tiny snakes that slither down the pole and vanish into the grass. Trees whisper beneath a paisley sky, and a warm cotton candy-scented breeze ruffles your hair. You’re enjoying your morning commute, riding a unicorn to your job at a fudge factory. Through hazy thinking you suddenly realize...you don’t work at a fudge factory! Come to think of it, letters don’t slither, either! You must be dreaming. Now “awake” in your dream, you decide to fly. Dismounting your unicorn, you run, leap and take to the sky. Soaring in euphoria, you are blissfully free. You wake with a twinge of regret, but feeling positive-minded and ready to face the day.

What just happened? This experience is known as “lucid dreaming,” or dreaming in a conscious state—waking up mentally in the dreamworld while the body remains soundly asleep. Though many accidentally stumble into lucid dreams, they can also be cultivated through mindfulness, training exercises and nutrition that fosters deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Through lucid dreams, you become the supreme being in a dreamworld of your own creation—the universe is yours to define, whether you want to finally dunk a basketball or snuggle with your favorite movie star. But even beyond its obvious entertainment value, lucid dreaming is a powerful tool for empowerment, self-confidence, psychological well-being and perhaps even physical health.

Sleepless in America

The path to lucid dreaming starts with sound sleep—which few of us are getting these days. According to a report published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders. The report links these sleep disorders with elevated risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack and stroke, and even reveals that nearly 20% of all serious car crash injuries are associated with driver sleepiness.

Dream, Dream Away

Lucid dreaming can only be achieved in the deep REM state of sleep. But many of us find deep sleep—or any kind of sleep, for that matter—to be excruciatingly elusive. If you need a little something extra to speed your way into dreamland, the following supplements can all help you along:

*Passionflower—helps halt the turning wheels of thought as you lay your head down on the pillow. Widely used by the Aztecs for its sedative effects, this safe and effective herb enables your mind to “shut off,” allowing a calming, relaxed feeling for a restful night’s slumber.

*Valerian—safe and effective in reducing sleep latency, or the time it takes for you to drop off. Valerian also improves slumber quality after one to two weeks of nightly use—all without morning sleepiness and other harmful side effects.

*GABA—gamma-aminobutyric acid, an amino acid concentrated within the brain. GABA calms neuron activity and helps regulate effective sleep-cycle function. Safe in recommended doses, GABA produces a sedative effect for more restful slumber and even promotes deep, REM sleep.

*Chamomile—a mild sedative, excellent for those who have difficulty winding down before retiring for the evening. Used for centuries worldwide, chamomile also helps digestion as it quiets and soothes.
*Melatonin—exists in the pineal gland of the brain and plays a vital role in promoting REM (dream) sleep. If your body does not supply enough, melatonin supplements can bring on Zs safely and effectively.

As a result of this mass sleep deprivation, Americans are now popping prescription sleep aids, also known as hypnotics, in staggering quantities—in fact, sales of pharmaceutical hypnotics are projected to exceed $5 billion per year by 2010. But for anyone seeking to promote lucid dreaming, hypnotics are a must-avoid. The most commonly prescribed hypnotics can interfere with the REM sleep cycles where lucid dreaming occurs; additionally, some hypnotics are associated with memory loss—making it potentially even harder to remember dreams upon waking.

Thankfully, aspiring lucid dreamers can take a natural route to deep, restful Zs that both boost the likelihood of lucidity and eliminate the heavy toll sleep disorders can exact on both physical and mental well-being. Embarking on a quest to learn lucid dreaming is in itself a healthy step: “In order to be a lucid dreamer you’re going to have to have healthy sleep habits,” explains Mark McElroy, author of Lucid Dreaming for Beginners (Llewellyn Publications). “That means making sleep a priority; avoiding caffeine, avoiding heavy meals before bedtime and making sure that the two or three hours before bedtime are as stress-free as possible. If you’re creating that regimen as part of your pursuit of lucid dreams, you’re doing yourself a huge health favor.”

Dream a Lucid Dream

So you’ve made bedtime a priority, and as a result you’re enjoying healthier, more restful sleep. But now what? To transform this deep slumber into a wondrous tapestry of self-generated lucid dreaming adventures, you’ve got to train your mind to become aware while sleeping. The first step to achieving this goal is recording your dreams immediately upon waking and in as much detail as possible.

“The dream journal is an invaluable tool if you want to start lucid dreaming,” explains McElroy. “The act of making a point to pay attention to your dreams is the most important thing that you can do. Keeping a dream journal focuses your attention on dreams; you’re saying dreams are important, they’re worth my attention.”

Dream journaling helps build intention; those who consciously resolve to have lucid dreams before going to sleep are more likely to do so. More importantly, with dedicated dream journaling a pattern of recurring personal symbols will emerge. These are what pioneering lucid dreaming researcher Stephen LaBerge, PhD, dubbed “dreamsigns”: cues that the dreamer can use to recognize a dream state. Dreamsigns could include feelings of altered perception, inhabiting a different body, impossible actions or situations such as flying or riding a unicorn, or limitless other anomalous events, forms and activities. “In my case, when I step into an elevator that has hundreds of floor buttons, or when I see these impossibly tall ziggurat towers, I know that I am dreaming,” says McElroy. “These are my dreamsigns.”

When dreamers recognize their personal dreamsigns amidst the surreal landscape of slumber, they’re gently reminded to “wake up” and achieve lucidity. LaBerge also developed “reality check” exercises to help build this awareness in waking life. One day’s pre-determined list of “reality check” cues might consist of events such as touching a doorknob, seeing an airplane, hearing a phone ring or washing your hands. Throughout the day, the practicing lucid dreamer responds to each of these events by asking “Am I dreaming?” and carefully considering the answer. The strategy here is to make the day’s queries carry over into in the dreamworld, where eventually the dreamer’s answer will be “Yes, I am dreaming!”, establishing lucidity.

Ask yourself: Are you dreaming right now? Are you reading this article in reality or in a dream? Before you dismiss the question, entertain it. Still not sure? Lucid dreaming research reveals that there are common giveaways that definitively indicate whether you’re in a dream or in waking life. Reading text is one example; in the dream world, written words are elusive. A reliable reality check is looking at written words, glancing away, and then examining the text again. Does the text swim before your eyes? Have the words changed or rearranged? If so, you can be certain you’re dreaming. Similarly, clocks and wristwatches are fluid and unreliable in dreams, even missing hands, while light switches never behave as they should.

A last tip for lucid dreaming neophytes involves a spin on counting sheep. In this technique, while slowly counting to bring about sleepiness, each number is followed by an affirmation; “One, I am dreaming. Two, I am dreaming. Three...” As the mesmerizing (and let’s admit it, mind-numbingly boring) sheep-counting approach induces drowsiness, the “I am dreaming” affirmation carries over into sleep—where the mantra becomes true, bringing lucidity to the dreamer’s awareness.

Lucid Healing

Your training has paid off, and now you’re able to wake up in dreams consistently. So far, you’ve plundered booty as a pirate on a majestic frigate, flown a spaceship to the galaxy’s outer reaches and tried out a dozen different hairstyles in anticipation of a new look. But how can you use this amazing new tool to bolster your well-being? The most direct way to do so is by addressing emotional health.

Place yourself in a nightmare: You’re being chased. The monster, a powerful, evil juggernaut, is pursuing you with a voracity that compels you to run away and hide. Much like dreams about falling or being naked in public, these “chased” dreams are a common archetypal nightmare, believed to be a reflection of anxieties from the waking life. Fleeing the dream demons only reinforces the fear, and waking to escape them merely suppresses the fear in waking life—leading to below-the-radar anxiety.

Lucid dreamers, bolstered by omnipotence, may choose to stand up to the monster—thereby banishing the fear. Psychologist and lucid dreaming founding father Paul Tholey conducted a “self-healing” experiment with 66 lucid dreamers to explore the practice’s emotional health ramifications.

Instructed to travel to the darkest corners of dreams, the subjects consciously faced, confronted and conquered their monsters. At study’s end, 66% of the subjects found that through this lucid dreaming strategy, they were able to overcome conflicts in waking life while additionally feeling less anxious, more balanced and more creative. With practice, similar lucid dreaming techniques may be used to de-sensitize phobics from the object of their fear; by conjuring snakes, airplanes or an audience, dreamers may consciously face their fear in a realistic virtual environment that is completely under their control.

Lucid dreaming can also help children plagued with nightmares: “There’s a story in my book about a young mother with a child who’s terrified of monsters that keep appearing in her dreams,” says McElroy. “In the course of working with her child and helping her master the idea of taking control of those dreams, the child learns to summon an army of stuffed animals to chase away the monsters—and as a result, begins enjoying good, healthy sleep at night, and is no longer plagued by nightmares.”

Lucid dreaming may help physical health as well, through its power to sharpen visualization ability. Visualization—envisioning desired situations or outcomes in an attempt to realize them—is a hot trend. The wildly popular book The Secret is, in part, based on the visualization concept; that we may mold the external world with our internal thoughts. Visualization practice, however, is hardly a new idea—it is thousands of years old, spanning elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tibetan healing practices and shamanic rituals. In these traditions, visualization applications run deeper than conjuring up a shiny new car—frequently, they are used to positively influence health. Today, guided imagery visualization is well-established in forward-thinking healthcare facilities—where it has been shown to allay anxiety, accelerate healing and promote healthy body states.

But how can we vividly visualize good health when imaginations have been atrophied by the era of 300 television channels, DVDs and TIVOs? Lucid dreaming may be the answer. “Lucid dreaming is a lot like visualization on steroids,” explains McElroy. “For a long time, people have been proving the benefits of visualizing themselves as healthy. Lucid dreaming provides people with a way to not only visualize, but to actually experience things in the playground of the mind, where they can go inside their bodies and see what’s happening or where they can project and step into images of themselves as healthy.”

Why strive to achieve lucid dreams? At the very least, the pursuit of lucid dreams restores sleep to its rightful place of reverence, complete with healthy rituals to make the most of shuteye. Even if lucid dreams are elusive, this emphasis on sleep carries its own health benefits. But with practice, lucid dreams will happen—and turn an ordinary night’s sleep into an empowering, enriching and entertaining journey into the mind’s deepest recesses, where fears may be confronted, possible realities explored and wellness visualized in detail so vibrant, it can only remain after awakening.

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