Dreams are an everyday occurrence in our lives, but they're something most of us feel like we have no control over. I counted myself as one of those people, too. That was, until I learned about lucid dreaming. I admit, when I was given this assignment to try lucid dreaming, I had no idea what it entailed. I needed to get some help and guidance.
Thomas Peisel, the co-author of A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming, put it in the simplest terms for me: “Lucid dreaming is a dream in which you know you’re dreaming.” Lucid dreaming teacher Charlie Morley further explains that “once you become conscious within a dream, you can interact with and direct it at will.”
But unlike a daydream, lucid dreaming happens when you're actually asleep. Moreover, it isn’t necessarily about going to sleep with a specific dream in mind, though you can work up to that. Rather, it’s recognizing when you're in a dream and taking the reins from there—with lots of mental, physical, and spiritual benefits promised as a result.
Keep reading for the 101 on lucid dreaming and what happened when I tried it.
Step 1: Set the intention to have a lucid dream
Since lucid dreaming is so dependent on focus, I started taking Rise Nootropics to make my brain sharp throughout the day in order to have it clear and open at night. I also took tips from Peisel and Morley on getting into the lucid dreaming mindset and understanding the practice better. Peisel suggests taking a bath or shower before bed in order to feel cleansed from the day. Morley notes that things like meditation can really help.
I admit, I’m a total Netflix-before-bed junkie, which I know is a bad sleep habit for a plethora of reasons—and it's certainly not recommended if you're attempting lucid dreaming. So for my first night, I shut down my laptop for good long before bed and tried to clear my mind. Nada. If I did dream, I wasn’t in a lucid state.
Peisel reminded me that it's not just going to bed thinking, Okay, now go lucid dream. You have to incorporate this intention into the day. As Peisel puts it, “You know when you’re at work and you think, I have to get milk after work. You plant the seed. So when you’re walking to your car at the end of the day, you remember, Go get the milk.” So I tried to be more aware of myself and my surroundings throughout my waking hours, as well as things that might affect my sleep quality, like my breathing and how much water I was drinking.
Step 2: Keep trying—the benefits are worth it
On the third night of attempts, I was dreaming that I was walking through a field on a very hot summer day. (I’m writing this in the midst of a never-ending winter, so I’m not terribly surprised that my brain was like, Please go somewhere warm.) It was a field I used to walk through to get back home from my elementary school. I haven’t walked through that field in about 25 years.
But just as quickly as I realized I was dreaming, I got too excited and woke myself out of it. Even so, I saw what these guys had been talking about: You drift into sleep, let your brain get free, realize you’re in a dream, and go from there. I just had to get the hang of the go-from-there part. As Morley reassured me, the time it takes for this to happen varies from person to person. While some people can pick it up after a few tries, others take “anywhere from weeks to months to stabilize the practice.”
Still, I was determined to keep trying, especially when these guys kept telling me what the benefits of lucid dreaming could be. Stating more than once that lucid dreaming had changed his life, Peisel told me that it allows your mind to take you to incredible places. Want to fly? You can do that. Want to make amends with an estranged family member with whom you never got closure? You can achieve that.
Lucid dreaming, he explained, can also challenge you to take on darker parts of your psyche. “Those parts of yourself that are repressed or show themselves as an obstacle or a nightmare… lucidity allows you to face them with poise.”
“Once you become conscious within your unconscious mind, you can make lasting changes to your body and mind while you sleep,” Morley echoed. Some of the benefits he's seen are psychological healing, physical healing, spirituality, enhanced learning and access to past memories, heightened creativity, and an overall happier waking life, too.
Step 3: Stay focused
I was determined to get back to that field where I could smell freshly cut summer grass—or at least back into a dream state in which I was able to go on a self-guided adventure with my mind. My problem was that I kept trying to put myself in a certain time or place. That's definitely part of the lucid dreaming technique, but as Peisel explained to me, it's a pretty advanced one.
In order to get there, he suggested I start keeping a dream journal to find common themes, and then pay attention to those things in my waking life. For instance, Peisel shared that the ocean and dogs are a constant in his dreams, so whenever he sees dogs in his daily life, he’ll ask, Am I dreaming? That way, when he is in a dream and that answer is yes, he can be part of the dream.
By the fifth night of trying I found myself walking at dusk on a boardwalk of sorts, surrounded by lots of swaying palm trees. As I realized I was starting to dream, I asked myself, Hey wouldn’t this dream be more interesting if you ran into your ex right now? But just as quickly as I started to direct my dream, I would lose focus. (Why do exes have to make everything so complicated?)
“It’s easy to lose awareness and fall back into a regular dream,” Peisel assured me. “You have to focus your mind.” Admittedly, as someone with major anxiety and depression, it’s not the easiest task for me. Basically, to achieve lucid dreaming, you build a muscle memory that allows you to enjoy the process and be an active participant.
Sadly, after a few nights of trying I would just reach the edge of a dream, or at least the awareness of one, but I could never really stay there. It’s possible I’m too much in my own head—or that I’m drinking caffeine too late in the day to get a proper night’s sleep—but either way, it looks like I need more than a week to get there.
Even though I didn’t achieve the same level of lucid dream states as pros like Peisel and Morley, their enthusiasm will inspire me to keep trying. “Lucid dreaming is access to a rich, inner world where you can explore your psyche and heal,” Peisel says. It’s not about changing the dream—it’s about changing yourself.
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