I dream that I am standing in a very unfamiliar building. Something about the strangeness of my surroundings leads me to wonder if I might not be dreaming. I decide to perform a little experiment to determine whether it really is a dream or not. There is a short flight of stairs ahead of me going down to a lower level. I know that if I jump off the top step and find I can fly, it must be a dream, whereas if land normally, it isn’t. So I jump, and sure enough, I float down to the next level. “Cool!” I think, “I am dreaming—that must mean I can do anything I want!” But I can’t decide what to do next. I try walking through some people but that doesn’t work, and after a few minutes I slip back into the unconscious world of regular dreams. Nevertheless, the experience is fascinating and exhilarating. Being able to consciously influence the course of my dream is a wonderfully novel sensation.
A lucid dream is simply one in which you realize that you are dreaming. The dream I just described happened about a year ago—and it happened spontaneously, without any effort or intention on my part. Since then, I’ve read about and practiced a variety of methods for inducing lucid dreams deliberately. Although I can’t yet dream lucidly on command, my success rate has gradually improved. For me, this is a purely recreational activity, but for centuries lucid dreaming, in one form or another, has been practiced with great seriousness in certain religious and philosophical traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, has an ancient discipline of meditative techniques designed to encourage not just lucid dreaming, but a continuously unbroken state of consciousness, while sleeping and awake.
What’s so great about lucid dreaming? For one thing, it’s lots of fun. If you’re aware that you’re dreaming, you can do things that are impossible in waking life, such as flying, becoming invisible, or traveling to distant times or places. But on a more practical note, interacting with dream characters in a lucid state can help the dreamer to interpret the meanings of dreams in real time. Lucid dreams can also enable the dreamer to find creative solutions to problems, work through difficult emotional issues, and promote physical and mental healing. Many people believe lucid dreaming is a path to, or at least a necessary step toward, a form of enlightenment, and it also forms part of the training for some forms of shamanism.
A researcher named Hervey de Saint-Denys introduced the notion of lucid dreaming to the Western world in his 1867 book Dreams and How to Guide Them. But the term lucid dream itself was coined by Frederik Willems Van Eeden in his 1913 paper “A Study of Dreams.” The best-known modern figure in lucid dreaming is Stanford professor Stephen LaBerge. For nearly three decades LaBerge has been studying lucid dreaming in a laboratory setting, and he proved that subjects can be taught to dream lucidly, using a technique he calls Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD).
To use this technique, you form a habit, in waking life, of asking yourself, “Am I dreaming or awake?” every time you encounter some common stimulus. Sooner or later you’ll encounter the same thing in a dream, and if you ask the question while dreaming, you’ll probably figure out that you’re really asleep. (Carlos Castaneda wrote extensively about lucid dreaming—though he didn’t use that term—in his books about his alleged training as a sorcerer under don Juan Matus. His trigger for lucid dreaming was his hands. He developed a habit of looking at his hands as often as possible so that he’d be likely to do that in a dream as well; on seeing his hands, he’d be reminded to consider whether he might be dreaming.) Other methods include exercises performed right before going to sleep to focus one’s attention on having lucid dreams, meditating on certain symbols or sounds, and listening to specially designed audio recordings while falling asleep.
Blink and You Won’t Miss It
There’s also a sophisticated, high-tech way to promote lucid dreaming. In the course of his research, LaBerge developed an electronic gadget—somewhat reminiscent of a brain machine—called the NovaDreamer. The NovaDreamer includes a soft mask that you wear to sleep; sensors above the eyes detect when the wearer enters REM sleep, the state in which dreaming occurs, and then activate a flashing light or a sound. The idea is that the user will notice the light or sound inside the dream, remember what it means, and enter a lucid dreaming state. This device is apparently quite effective—as well it should be, considering its price of US$500.
Regardless of the details of one’s approach, anyone who tries to incubate lucid dreaming will end up wondering, on increasingly regular occasions, “Is this real? Could I be dreaming?” And this is what so many people find fascinating about the notion of lucid dreams: if dream reality is as convincing as waking reality, how do we really know that waking reality is not itself a kind of dream? Of course, we don’t: this has been one of history’s great philosophical questions from the time of Plato through The Matrix. But learning to influence the course of your dreams can lead to skills that may help you to exert similar influence in waking life. Whether that turns out to be yet another dream or not, a little extra awareness and control surely can’t hurt. —Joe Kissell
For much more detail on lucid dreaming, see Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge and Howard Rheingold (1991). It features a great many practical exercises anyone can use to incubate lucid dreams. Jeremy Taylor’s Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill (1992) is a good general introduction to dream work, including dream groups and lucid dreaming.
The 2002 film Waking Life, made with a strange and wonderful animation-over-live-action technique is (despite its name) all about dreaming—and lucid dreaming in particular. It’s visually striking and philosophically engaging. Well worth a spot in the library of anyone interested in lucid dreaming.
If you haven’t seen The Matrix, do yourself a favor and take the red pill. The sequels were rather disappointing, but the first installment of the trilogy delves deeply and cleverly into the question of what is truly real. To dig even deeper, read The Matrix and Philosophy, edited by William Irwin (e-book) (paper/cloth) (audio book). This book is a collection of serious academic essays by honest-to-goodness philosophers exploring the themes of the film from every angle. If you want to skip all the light reading and go straight to the heavy hitters, check out Plato: Complete Works, which weighs in at an impressive 1,808 pages. Or go for the quick overview with Plato in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern.