Lucid Dreaming: Traveling within ourselves

What if I told you that my richest travel journeys occurred to me with my eyes shut-closed? I was not just dreaming, I was lucid! Well, lucid dreaming.

We all spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping. If we were to live to 90 years of age, that would equate to 30 whole years of complete darkness, silence and overall absence from ourselves. If you are getting sufficient sleep (at least 7 hours per night to get to 90 years of life surely), about 25% of these 30 years you will spend dreaming. Yes, that is 7 whole years spent only dreaming. This being said, can you remember what you last dreamed of? Was is it your last dream? Are you sure? How did it feel, and most importantly, what did it mean?

Alas, every morning the vast majority of us is unable to recall dreams, let alone awake inside just one of them. After all, why should we? It's just a dream, right? Our work pace and lifestyles are making our sleep period shorter, and so our dreams are becoming more and more culturally reinforced as baseless and empty. You've probably been in the situation where you have told your friends and family about your vivid last dream, only to be interrupted with an ironic-tuned answer saying: "It's just a dream. It's not real. Wake up! Good Morning!".

Yet, most of us have experienced several times in our lifetimes, waking up sweating or in tears from a frighteningly-real nightmare, or maybe instead angry at ourselves from waking up too early from a beautiful one, or even simply just intrigued by some form of new revelatory thought or introspective sensation that seemed to have come to us during the night. Why do our dreams feel so real? What are their functions? Who is in charge of the "dream script" every night? Are we simply occasional and psychotic spectators? Could we somehow become aware of our dreams while we dream and direct our own dream-movie? Why should we do that, and what are the implications of starting to think like this?

This is a brief article on lucid dreaming, based on my own practical experience and readings; It highlights what lucid dreaming is, what it's not, what it's good for and how it can help us consciously travel within our unconscious mind and discover the universe that has been silently living within us all along. Please, stay lucid.

What's happening to us when we dream?

In ancient times, people have been taking dreams quite seriously. Dream diaries are some of the oldest examples of literature and dreams in the Bible or other sacred scriptures are often treated as prophetic. Then, in the early 20th century, an Austrian guy named Freud comes along and puts dreams at the centre of psychoanalysis, arguing that they're the gateway to the unconscious, allowing analysts to get to the core of a patient's issues. Building on that, in the 1950s, we discover REM (rapid-eye-movement) and learn that most (not all) of our dreaming experiences manifest inside of these 20-to-90-minutes-long nocturnal phases. Even during the day when we nap! Today, thanks to new technologies like neuroimaging, we can literally see what's happening to our brains while we dream. Neuroscientifically, our frontal lobe (logic centre) is less active and as a result, there's less rational thinking. But at the same time, the back of our brain (visuospatial region), the motor cortex (movement), the hippocampus (autobiographical memory) as well as the amygdala and the cingulate cortex (deep emotional centres) light up! Sometimes even more than during our awake states! When we dream, our dopamine level is surging, allowing for intense emotional experiences to erupt in visual abstract sceneries where we find ourselves most of the time, emotionally on the move! Even more interesting, sleep researcher M. Walker points out that "concentrations of a key stress-related chemical called noradrenaline are completely shut off within our brains when we enter the dreaming state".

Because dreams are predominantly negative, they have been related to our survival instinct, allowing our dreaming mind to simulate our external reality, training us to become more adapted to our ever-evolving environments every single night. But what if life started in the sleeping state? Most animals sleep and dream like us, but everyone has a different sleeping-mechanism it seems. Dolphins can only rest one side of their brain at the time, while the other one keeps them alive swimming back for oxygen at the surface. Apes sleep on high tree-branches and cannot afford very long periods of REM phases. You can guess why. Did we become human and self-aware, among other factors, because of our dreaming abilities?

What is lucid dreaming?

Lucid dreaming is simply the act of knowing that you are dreaming whilst you are dreaming. You gain volitional control and you decide what's going to happen in your dream. Etymologically, the word lucid stems from the Latin word lucidus for "light, bright, clear". But it is in its first reported use in 1786, that we find a deeper connotation to dreaming: lucid translates into "easy to understand, free from the obscurity of meaning, marked by intellectual clarity".

In 1975, Alan Worsley is making the first-ever scientifically recorded signals from the lucid state in a sleep lab at the University of Hull. Prearranged eye movements (left to right eight times) are tracked thanks to eye pads and Alan is signalling his lucid awareness to researcher Keith Hearne. It seemed like we had invented a way to communicate across worlds, and this seemed to be a supernatural ability that only a very few lucky people could be born with. Later in 1988, Snyder & Gackenback conducted a survey which found that 20% of people claimed to lucid dream frequently (every month) while 50% of people had done it at least once in their lives. Today, there's a growing number of people from all over the world, keen to share their last lucid dream episodes online.

Personally, I discovered lucid dreaming a few years ago, when I decided to research a common and mild sleeping disorder that has been accompanying me for the last 10 years: sleep paralysis. I discovered that sleep paralysis was a sub-branch of lucid dreaming and that I could learn about ways of developing more self-control within my dreams.

Is lucid dreaming bad or dangerous?

A close person to me, once asked, why the hell I would want to awake inside of my dreams. After all, she said, we are not meant to be awake while we sleep. Are we?

First of all, lucid dreaming will not turn you into a sleep-deprived insomniac or lock you away in your mind. Also, as we have seen previously, in our dreams we are devoid of noradrenaline, the anxiety-triggering molecule. This allows our brain to create a safe and calm environment to reprocess our experiences and emotions, where we can witness the unconscious mind without inflicting damaging repercussions. Your eyes, the only moving part of your body when you dream, are not going to get you killed.

Yet, having suffered from sleep paralysis for a few years, it is true that becoming lucid in a nightmare can be a terrifying experience. Sometimes, we might even wake up from a nightmare only to find ourselves in another one! False awakenings are an incredible aspect of the depth of our minds and can make us feel disoriented. The reality is that nightmares are nightmares if you let them be so. Once you realise that, those eight-legged dogs, ferocious green monsters or whatever other scary figures are chasing you down the hall every night, are simple creations of the dreaming mind, you start awakening. You embrace your deepest fears, confront the dream figures and potentially even discover the underlying causes of unresolved past life situations, that might have brought those figures to life. It's a radical change of perspective: being in a horror movie is quite different than realising you are just watching one. Directing it has definitely more possible endings.

What feels wrong, sad and bad to me instead, is to be completely absent from this incredible process of remembering or forgetting the good or the bad, given how complex our lives have become.

What are the benefits of lucid dreaming?

An increasing number of studies are bringing further evidence on how lucid dreaming might be beneficial to mental health, and new research now focuses on how to induce lucid dreaming more reliably, as well as how to develop complementary clinical applications to relieve patients from stress, depression, anxiety, and even more severe conditions. But I'd like to focus a bit more on people's experiences. After all, this is a highly subjective topic.

For the majority of people, lucid dreaming is (and usually remains) a ludic activity. The lucid dream so becomes a very personal super-advanced virtual simulator. Lucid dreams can become fantastic playgrounds, where individuals can fly, become superheroes, paint new ideas, compose new music genres, and most obviously enact any sexual fantasy. Yes, Sigmund! For some others, lucid dreaming can help overcome stressful situations or relieve mental and physical pain. We've already seen how lucid dreaming can help you combat nightmares and confront situations that conflict with your inner assumptions and beliefs, or re-interpret deep traumatic experiences that you might be carrying with you without knowing.

For a set of pragmatists, this abstract state provides something even greater: enhanced creativity to solve complex problems such as rehearsing next-day work presentations, or even astronomical equations in the field of astrophysics (Einstein and Tesla were self-declared lucid dreamers). Similarly, a computer engineer has recently admitted being lucid dreaming at night, to review his software code for bugs and errors! But it is a very small group of elite lucid dreamers we should most wonder about I believe, who instead use it to attain enlightenment through meditation within the dream realm. Needless to say that, in order to reach enlightenment, you will need to discipline your ego from staying away from habitual pleasures, fantastic temptations, and obvious distractions.

Furthermore, many lucid dreamers describe incredible encounters with dream agents living insider their dreams. Characters they are able to question, interrogate or simply just have all type of conversations with. While most lucid dreamers are able to obtain new information through these encounters, many others have reported encountering agents that seem to have their own consciousness. Dream characters who decided to not respond to our questions and choose to ignore us, or maybe even interrogate, us instead. Is this a mind-trick abstracting a dead-end conversation with your subconscious, or are there multiple awareness(es) within us? If they are not us, who are they?

How do I start lucid dreaming?

Rest assured, you do not need any superhuman ability or brain condition to lucid dream. Anyone can! This said it will take you time, practice and devotion. Personally, it took me nine entire months to experience just four brief lucid dreams, but as said, those were some of my best travel journeys in life so far! Here's how you can get started. The most widespread lucid dreaming technique is called MILD (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming) and was developed by Dr. Stephen Laberge, a Lucid Dream researcher at Stanford University. Just follow these 4 steps:

1) Start a Dream Journal

The first step is to start logging your dreams in a Dream Journal. Every time you wake up from a dream, write down everything you remember immediately. Just type as much as you can about what you remember, without caring too much about your writing style or grammar. You can write on paper, on your phone, or even voice-record. It's important you keep track of your dreams and read them again and again, every night before going to sleep. You will need to enhance your dream-recall ability to get acquainted with the territory of your dreaming mind, in order to start recognising (your very own) dream sings and ultimately develop mindfulness triggers. For instance, let's say if are dreaming of your grandmother but you realise that it cannot be because she passed away a few months ago; this is a great trigger to become lucid.

2) Check your Reality

A "reality check" is a habit you develop during the day to ensure you are not dreaming. You can count your fingers or just look at your hands, watch the clock, or look in a mirror. It should not take you more than 30 seconds. It's important you set a serious intent to validate if you are dreaming or not, before checking your surrounding reality.

Don't just develop a disinterested habit to count your fingers, it will become extremely boring, ridicule and tiring. Overall, reality checks will ultimately allow you to awake inside your dreams. How? Next time you are dreaming, your mind will include the habit, and your blue hands will have 9 fingers, the clock has no numbers, and you will not see yourself in the mirror. In that very moment, you'll know... something is not right, and you'll become lucid!

3) Recite Lucid affirmations

Next, plant a seed in your mind by programming commands into your memory. It sounds difficult, but in reality, all you have to do is repeat a short mantra of your choice with a strong intent to lucid dream. Something like: "Next time I'm dreaming, I will remember I'm dreaming!" or "The next scene will be a dream" or just "Tonight, I will have a lucid dream!". Don't just speak the words out, put feelings in them!

4) Visualise Your Dream

Finally, once you are deeply relaxed and feel you are about to fall asleep, imagine you are back in a recent dream. But this time, you want a different ending. Visualise the scene in as much detail as possible, and look for a dream sign or something that reveals the dream is pure fantasy. Then say to yourself: "I'm dreaming!". Do whatever you would do in your lucid dream, and without noticing you'll fall asleep. Just remember, your last thought must be about lucid dreaming.

What else can improve my lucidity?

It's important you keep a dream journal and exercise reality checks for at least 30 continuous days before raising a white flag and giving up on yourself. Here are two brief tips to help you stay disciplined. We check our phones over 100 times a day, why not set a wallpaper that reminds you to carry out reality checks? Also, there are quite a few apps that can help you keep a dream journal as well as remind you to do reality checks. The Awoken App is the one I have been using all along on my Android phone, while this one is a good equivalent for iPhone users.

Aside from the MILD technique we've seen before, the WILD (Wake Initiated Lucid Dream) technique can step up your lucidity. WILD is when your body falls asleep while your mind stays awake. This one is a bit more tricky as it requires entering a dream without breaking your awareness. Also, wakefulness interjected during sleep can greatly increase your chances of lucid dreaming. So you could try to wake up in the middle of the night, become conscious for about 20 minutes and reset your intent on lucid dreaming when falling asleep.

Many lucid dreamers have also reported using objects to increase mindfulness triggers. TILD (Totem Induction of Lucid Dreaming) is a technique where you use a totem to induce your lucid dreaming. A totem is an object you carry around during the day that has a specific function or movement that can only be achieved inside of a dream. If you have seen the movie Inception, you'll remember the spinning top. That's the totem used by Dom Cobb's (Leonardo di Caprio) to check if he's dreaming.

Make sure you sleep in a comfortable bed and that the room temperature is cool. Most importantly, meditating before going to sleep and listening to Binaural beats while sleeping gave me, personally, the best results. You can also supplement your diet with Vitamin B6, which has been demonstrated to enhance your dream recall and lucid dreaming ability (Full Study). On the other hand, alcohol and other recreational drugs can negatively influence your lucidity.

How do I know I am making progress?

You'll know that you'll have made progress, straight after your first lucid dream. My first lucid dream was a radical sensory experience. I was seeing colourful sound-waves coming my way. Unfortunately, it only lasted a few seconds, because I was way too excited.

You will need to learn how to control your emotions in order to stay lucid within a dream, or everything will fade away instantly. For example, in dream yoga, students are taught to lucid dream about fire and extinguish it with their bare hands, helping them overcome fear and develop confidence.

Overall, a lucid dreamer does not control his lucid dreams, rather he focuses his intent within the dream, interacts with his unconscious mind and vividly witnesses his inner self. The ultimate goal is to direct and maintain our perceptual awareness within the larger state of dreaming and realise the limited realm of our awareness compared to the infinite depth and creativity of the mind. Here's a short passage from a great book on lucid dreaming that sums it up pretty well:

"No sailors controls the sea. Only a foolish sailor would say such a thing. Similarly, no lucid dreamer controls the dream. Like a sailor on the sea moving toward an island or point, lucid dreamers direct the focus of their intent within dreaming to seen and unseen points." (Lucid Dreaming - Gateway to the Inner Self, by Robert Waggoner)

Let me stress this one more time: The main challenge for lucid dreamers is not pleasure so much as abandoning any other goal as they pursue pleasure. It's an ongoing battle with your ego. Remember, becoming consciously aware in the dream state is only the first step in the process of self-discovery.

Life is a dream...we can awake from?

Your idea of the world is everything, and when that changes, everything changes. In Dream Yoga, you are taught that living may become the dream, and dreaming may become "the living". The encounter between a young disciple named Dona and Buddha exemplifies this idea majestically:

Dona: “Master, are you a deva [a god]?” Buddha: “No, brahman, I am not a deva.” Dona: “Are you a gandhabba [a kind of low-grade god; a celestial musician]?” Buddha: “No…” Dona: “… a yakkha [a kind of protector god, or sometimes a trickster spirit]?” “No…” Dona: “… a human being?” Buddha: “No, brahman, I am not a human being.” Dona: “Then what sort of being are you?” Buddha: “Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened.’”

The perceived reality and the phenomenal world can be considered an illusion. Just like the concept of time. Where does the past or the future exist if not only in our minds? Only the present moment counts, and we should be aware of that. The main difference between the general dreaming state and the general waking experience is that the latter is generally more concrete and linked with attachments. Similar to meditation, lucid dreaming can help us, liberate ourselves from chains of emotions, attachments, and ego. To become enlightened is to realise that life itself is a big dream.

As Havelock Ellis once said: "A dream is real until it lasts, .. can we say more of life?"

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