Being aware of our dreams gives us greater insight into the workings of our minds and a window into our deepest emotions.
The other night I had a dream. The sand was sun-warm under my feet, the sea cool on my skin. I swam out into the bay, languid and peaceful. Then, around the headland, a rampaging herd of elephants came thundering through the water. Trumpeting as they swam furiously towards me.
It’s then I realised I was dreaming. Elephants don’t exist in Australia and they probably don’t swim. Not that fast anyway. In my dream though, the threat was very real, the elephants were raging straight for me, huge and heavy. I swam as fast as I could for shore, thought about dodging between their legs, but the elephants were gaining on me and I knew I’d be trampled to death. My heart hammered in my throat. There had to be another way. They were almost upon me.
Transforming the Dream
I knew I was dreaming, but I couldn’t seem to give myself the power to outswim the angry herd, or make them disappear, but perhaps I could change their shape. With dream magic the elephants transformed into jellyfish, still swimming towards me, but blubbery and soft as they swarmed around my body. I laughed as I felt their slipperiness.
In this situation, I had just experienced the power of lucid dreaming, using a state of altered consciousness within a dream to transform the dream itself.
Lucid dreams are any dreams where the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. References to these special dreams date all the way back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Tibetan Dream Yoga, originating in Tibetan Buddhism over 1,000 years ago, aims to awaken the conscious self within the dream and then use this state to pursue enlightenment by engaging in spiritual tasks, including receiving initiations and empowerments, visiting different worlds, communicating with enlightened beings, flying and shapeshifting.
Many have experienced similar encounters and adventures through creative visualisation techniques and guided meditations, but in the deeper subconscious state of actual sleep, the practice is thought to be more powerful. The ultimate goal of Tibetan Dream Yoga is to enter a state of pure awareness within the dream, dissolving the dream completely.
Lucid Dreaming in the West
In the West, however, it wasn’t until 1913 that Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik van Eeden (1860–1932) coined the term ‘lucid dream’ in an article entitled “A Study of Dreams”. Since then there have been many scientific studies of the phenomena, which have monitored sleepers and recorded commonalities among those who experience them.
In these studies, dreamers are required to perform tasks such as counting at the point when they realise they are dreaming within a dream. Scientists discovered that lucid dreaming occurs during periods of REM sleep, with a higher rate of activity in the frontal lobes than during passive sleep. The dreamer however, remains unconscious to the world outside, but can alter the dream realm.
Lucid dreaming is a common phenomenon, with one in five people experiencing at least one every month. Some have been doing so since childhood. Gamers are found to experience more lucid dreams than most, because they are used to seeing themselves outside their bodies in the form of animated avatars.
Harnessing the Power of Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming techniques have been put to good use. Artists have long found inspiration in their dreams and many writers keep a notepad by their beds, in case inspiration strikes while they’re sleeping. In a semi-dream state, they wake and scribble down their dreams – perhaps the plot of an international best seller or maybe just gobbledy-gook. Several studies prove that those suffering from chronic nightmares find relief when trained in lucid dreaming, as explained more fully in LeBerge’s seminal text Lucid Dreaming.
So how can we harness the power of lucid dreaming to help us live more peacefully and productively? Or maybe just to have fun wielding the magic of dream reality for our own purposes? Try flying? Make out with the movie star of your dreams? Why not? Gamers can engage in epic battles they always win, dancers can leap higher than ever before, athletes can feel the weight of a gold medal around their necks. We can do this with creative visualisation, but if we employ the deeper subconscious power of lucid dreaming, it may just help us step into that winner’s circle.
Healing Illness, Transforming Monsters
Healers have long been using the practice of lucid dreaming to help those with anxiety issues and those overcoming trauma and physical illnesses. The fear you experience during nightmares is real. The bodily experience, heart pounding, limbs freezing, is the same as when facing a life-threatening situation in reality.
The danger however, is not. If you can realise you are dreaming and become aware that the danger isn’t real, then you can do whatever you like with the false danger. Monsters can be transformed. Rampaging elephants can become jellyfish. This is empowering, because in a very visceral sense you learn to conquer fear.
We can use lucid dreams to rehearse situations that are fearful for us. If we awaken to our dream state in the middle of a nightmare involving public speaking, we can envision ourselves nailing it, the crowd cheering, important people congratulating us, our minds preparing us for real life success. In the same way we can seek creative solutions to challenges in our daily lives within our dreams, and use them for problem solving and artistic inspiration.
Knowing that you are Dreaming
Becoming aware of your dreams is the first step to increasing your chances of engaging in lucid dreaming. Most commonly, dreamers are advised to keep a journal regularly recording their dreams. The next step is to learn to recognise when you are dreaming within dreams. This is trickier than it sounds. You need a tell – much like the spinning coin in Inception.
You can try looking at your watch, or a piece of writing that you keep with you. If the numbers remain unchanged or only alter sensibly, or if the words on the page remain coherent, then you are not dreaming. If, on the other hand, the numbers change markedly and the writing becomes nonsensical, then you know for sure you’re dreaming and can use that as a starting point to enter and control your dream.
Setting a Lucid Dream Intention
Once you’ve become familiar with these steps you can then begin to set the intention to have a lucid dream before you sleep, and plan for what you’d like to do within it – be it fly, meet an ascended master, or win a gold medal. A word of warning though, as I’ve been researching this article I’ve been setting the intention to have lucid dreams and consciously witnessing my dream state. This doesn’t make for restful sleep as it keeps you in a state closer to consciousness than the deep sleep needed for real rest. So pace yourself and use your newfound skills wisely.
Chase away dream monsters, let go of fear and transform the terrifying to the terrific. Visit countries you’ve always wanted to go to, chat with Buddha, see yourself winning that award, feel the joy of love. Reach for transcendence and dwell in bliss, if only in your dreams. Who knows what profound impact lucid dreaming will have on your waking life?
Being aware of our dreams gives us greater insight into the workings of our minds and a window into our deepest emotions. Fear is the greatest hindrance to truly enjoying life. If we can battle that fear facing dream monsters, then we’re halfway to conquering fear in our waking lives. We can reach for the stars, fly there.