Lucid dreaming is the practice of being aware that you are dreaming. People want to lucid dream in order to gain greater control over the dream space. There is also some evidence that lucid dreaming can have various mental health benefits. Lucid dreaming was not scientifically investigated until 1978; however, the first documentation of lucid dreaming dates back to ancient Eastern mysticism, thousands of years ago. For example, the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, an ancient Hindu text, offers advice on how to direct one’s awareness during a dream.
Moving on to the ancient Western world, the Greek philosopher Aristotle described lucid dreaming in the text, On Dreams. In it, he writes that “when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which tells us that what presents itself is but a dream.” The 12th century Sufi mystic, Ib El-Arabi, argued that controlling one’s thoughts in a dream is essential for any potential mystic.
During the Enlightenment, two important Enlightenment thinkers, Peter Gassendi and Thomas Reid, reported retaining their critical faculties while dreaming. And Rene Descartes wrote about his lucid dreams in his private journal, known as the Olympica. Stephen LaBarge is perhaps the most famous lucid dream researcher. His explanation and practical manual on lucid dreaming, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990), has allowed many to understand and master this mysterious state of consciousness.
Part of the book draws on his scientific research on lucid dreaming which earnt him his PhD. He developed a technique called MILD (mnemonic induction of lucid dreams), which allowed him and his research subjects to reliably enter into a lucid dream state at will. (Just as a side note: oneirology is the scientific study of dreams and oneironauts are “explorers of the dream world”).
LaBerge now works at the Lucidity Institute, which supports research into lucid dreams, and offers help to those who want to master the practice by way of workshops, seminars and even lucid dream induction devices, such as the NovaDreamer. This device detects when you are in REM sleep (which is when most dreams occur), and it gives you a cue (through flashing lights or sounds) to remind you that you are dreaming. Dream Yoga is also a tantric technique which has been crafted by Tibetan Buddhists. The Buddha himself said that everything is dreamlike in the sense that it is illusory: when you go to sleep you’re just passing from one dream state into another. This teaching would act as the foundation for Dream Yoga.
Tibetan Dream Yoga is described by W.Y. Evans-Wentz in his book, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935). The author says that there are 6 stages of dream yoga; these are: (1) Becoming lucid in the dream, (2) Overcoming fear and realising that you cannot be harmed, (3) How the illusory nature of the dream world relates to the illusory nature of the waking world, (4) The dreamer is in control of the dream and can manipulate their surroundings at will, (5) Realising that the dreamer’s body is as illusory as the objects in the dream, and finally, (6) Images of deities (Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Dakinis) should be visualised as a way to enter into a mystical state of being. Choedak Yuthok says in Lamadre: Dawn of Enlightenment (1997), that:
People who have practised dream yoga have been able to visit teachers they missed and travel to lands they never managed to get to in the waking state. The dream state is a very pure state of mind.
In Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, LaBerge offers a reliable step-by-step guide to achieve lucid dreaming and explains the benefits that can come with it. The first step to lucid dreaming is recalling your dreams; “Until you have excellent dream recall, you won’t stand much chance of having many lucid dreams.” You have to be able to remember your dreams in order to recognise the next time you have one. More specifically, you need to be able to remember what is particularly dreamlike about the dream, or what distinguishes the dream from normal, waking reality. This involves remembering certain clues (e.g. violations of the laws of physics; inconsistent, bizarre and unusual events) and to then spot these clues in the next dream. Spotting them in the next dream will help you to realise that you are dreaming.
Common “dreamsigns”, as LaBerge calls them, including not being able to read a book or the time on a clock. For the most effective dream recall, LaBerge recommends readers to keep a dream journal, to commit to writing down the dream as soon as awakening from it, and to fill the journal with as much detail as possible.
MILD, the technique which was mentioned earlier, essentially involves four steps: (1) Before going to bed resolve to wake up and remember the dream, (2) When you awaken from a dream write down everything you remember about the dream straight away, (3) Focus your intent: before returning to sleep, tell yourself, “Next time I’m dreaming, I want to remember that I’m dreaming” – focus on nothing else but that, and (4) At the same time as (3) imagine that you are back in the dream from which you have just awakened, and imagine yourself becoming lucid and guiding the direction of the dream (e.g. imagine yourself flying in the dream).
LaBerge offers some other techniques to ease the entry into the lucid dream state; including breathing exercises, meditation, autosuggestion, hypnosis, critical state testing (which is when you ask yourself, both when awake and dreaming: “Am I awake or am I dreaming?”) and several visualization techniques. A company called Remee are also marketing their sleep masks which can help you to become lucid when dreaming.
There are several potential benefits with lucid dreaming. The first is just for pure pleasure and enjoyment: if you can control a dream you can do pretty much anything you want, and it will seem real. Several veteran lucid dreamers also say that becoming lucid in a dream is accompanied by a state of bliss and euphoria. Being in control of the dream can also give the dreamer a chance to play out situations in their dream as preparation for the real world. Tibetan Buddhists claim that their spiritual techniques are improved in the real world by practising them in dreams, and people who have mastered some task in their dream claim it has improved their ability to do that task when awake. Lucid dreams can be an aid for finding creative solutions to real-life problems, for overcoming nightmares and for correcting psychological imbalances and promoting self-growth.