How to Explore Your Dreams—Literally and Lucidly
I recently spent some time exploring my dreams. And, no, I don’t mean ruminating about my life ambitions. I mean literally exploring what happens in my head when I sleep at night.
Lucid dreams are dreams that you know are dreams while you’re having them. This gives you total freedom to explore your dream world and, sometimes, control it. There are, most people agree, various levels of lucidity. You can be lucid enough to decide to fly without being lucid enough to understand that you’re actually in bed and can’t be hurt by crashing into power lines. It’s fascinating territory—especially given all the connections between dreams and the subconscious.
As it turns out, there are many techniques you can use to make lucid dreaming more likely. If you practice them and do end up lucid dreaming, you can do all sorts of interesting things. There are the obvious ones—flying and bacchanalia and so on—but that’s just the beginning. You can also practice a skill you want to get better at, for example, or literally pass through a looking glass. One thing I really wanted to do was ask characters in my dreams if they knew they were just figments of my imagination. I ended up doing that, but first, here are some notes on how to lucid dream.
Keep a Dream Journal
This is one of the most common suggestions you’ll come across. You’re supposed to take some time immediately after you wake up to write down everything you remember from the previous night’s dreams. (If you think you don’t dream, by the way, you’re wrong; you just don’t remember them.)
Keeping a dream journal helps connect your conscious, waking mind, with your dreaming mind by building your awareness of, and sensitivity to, your dream experience. You’ll be surprised at how much more you can remember with some effort.
If you can be disciplined about this, it may work well. At the least, it’ll give you a new window into your subconscious. The difficulty with this technique, however, is that it gives you yet another thing to do in the morning when you’re (probably) rushing to work or something.
As you may have noticed, the dream world is a little less predictable than waking reality. But actually, the funny thing is that you generally don’t notice that fact during a dream. There’s a wide range of techniques that all involve getting you to notice that dream reality is weird when you’re dreaming, which then jolts you into lucidity. These are called “reality checks.”
If you perform these reality checks regularly in your waking life, you’ll start to do them without thinking—and that’s the key. That means you’ll start doing them automatically in your dreams. When you do, and then notice a reality check fails, it’ll set off a string of thoughts—“What am I noticing? Oh yeah, that gravity isn’t working. Why do I care? Oh right, this is a test of whether I’m dreaming. I must be dreaming!”—that culminates in you becoming aware enough to know you’re in a dream without waking up.
Commonly suggested reality checks include tossing your keys or a coin in your hand (gravity doesn’t work quite right in dreams), checking whether light switches work (electric wiring is weird in dream reality), or making sure that text or printed material stays the same when you look away and look back.
Some of these are easier to incorporate into daily life than others. It’s easy to read a sign, look away, and then read it again to make sure it hasn’t changed. It’s a little harder to check the lights everywhere you go without annoying other people. That said, these are very effective techniques.
WILD and Other Systems
There are several techniques that involve waking yourself up at night, getting grounded in reality, and then going back to sleep. One common one is called Wake Induced Lucid Dreaming. With WILD, you set your alarm for some time in the middle of the night (generally five or six hours after you fall asleep). When it goes off, you wake up and stimulate your mind a little bit by doing a crossword puzzle for ten minutes or getting some fresh air. Then you get back in bed, relax, and daydream until you fall back asleep.
There are lots of detailed guides online that spell out how to approach this technique. There are also a handful of similar techniques with goofy acronyms that involve waking up in the middle of the night. The obvious challenge with these techniques is that they involve interrupting your sleep, and we all probably need more uninterrupted sleep than we’re getting anyway. If you have the time and dedication, they can work really well, but they’re disruptive (that’s the point).
If you’re really serious, you can also look into apps or even specialized masks (here’s one Kickstarter project) designed to help you lucid dream by playing timed audio or visual cues while you sleep.
What’s It Like?
In the end, I was able to lucid dream a few dozen times with a combination of inconsistent dream journaling and frequent reality checks. I did experiment with setting an early alarm, and it worked really well, but I like sleep too much to do it regularly.
It was fascinating for me to experience different levels of lucidity—it makes you realize that, in dreams at least, but probably in waking life, too—awareness isn’t an all-or-nothing property. It can also be very hard to maintain lucidity without fully waking up.
In one dream, after bursting into self-awareness, which is an incredible experience itself, I found myself on the dream version of a crowded city street. I accosted the first guy I saw—he looked sort of like me—and prepared to blow his mind. “Hey, so do you know that you’re just a figment of my imagination?”
He thought about it for a moment, but not nearly as long as I had expected. Then he reacted sort of the way I would. He said, pretty matter of factly, “No, that hadn’t occurred to me, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I guess you’re probably right.”
The flying is really fun, though.