I was around 11 years old, leaving our apartment for lunch, with my grandparents walking behind me. As we were going down a flight of stairs, I paused. “This is a dream,” I suddenly thought, with eerie certainty. I wasn’t completely sure, but I decided to test it out anyway. I climbed back up to the top of the staircase and made the biggest leap I could muster, reveling in the helpless exhilaration of falling. The next moment, I was awake. That was my first and only lucid dream.
Lucid dreamers have long been raving about behaving outrageously without consequences in dreamland. But especially now, when most people are still cooped up at home conjuring wild quarantine dreams, lucid dreaming sounds like the perfect way to explore crazy fantasies.
According to Patrick Bourke, a senior lecturer of psychology at the University of London, lucid dreaming is “becoming aware that you’re dreaming while you’re still in the dream state.” While lucid dreams happen spontaneously for some people, it’s also possible to train yourself to become lucidly aware in your dreams.
Robert Waggoner, author of Lucid Dreaming — Gateway to the Inner Self, said he’s been doing this since 1975.
“Lucid dreaming is an open platform. You can do virtually anything that you can imagine,” Waggoner told VICE. The “basics” of lucid dreaming, he said, include exploring dreamscapes — like flying and going through walls — and learning how to stay in the lucid dream.
“Lucid dreams allow us to consciously access the unconscious and its creativity,” said Waggoner.
Some people use lucid dreaming to tackle nightmares stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder, or resolve phobias, anxiety, and emotional trauma. Lucid dreaming also helps some people access their creativity or enhance their physical skills — think attempting high-level skiing maneuvers without the risk of breaking a bone.
That all sounds great, but where do you even begin?
How to have a lucid dream?
Achilleas Pavlou, a sleep researcher at the University of East Anglia, told VICE that there are three cognitive methods, which may be used simultaneously to start lucid dreaming.
First, there’s reality testing — figuring out whether or not you’re in a dream. Common reality checks include pinching your nose and trying to breathe through it (you’ll be able to breathe if you’re in a dream), pulling your finger (it will lengthen infinitely in a dream), jumping up and down (your dream self will float down and land softly), and trying to push your finger through your other hand (in a dream your finger will go through).
While he believes that reality checks generally work for most people, Waggoner noted that there may be some differences across individuals. Lucid dreams “reflect your beliefs and expectations,” said Waggoner. That’s why he encourages people to have two reality checks in their dreams.
The second method is called “wake back to bed” (WBTB). The lucid dreamer wakes up after a few hours of sleep, typically with the help of an alarm clock, and stays awake for a short period of time before going back to sleep. The WBTB technique is often used with a third method known as the mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD), which involves repeating a phrase to set intentions for your dream as you’re returning to sleep. Waggoner suggested repeating a mantra like: “Tonight in my dreams I’ll be more critically aware, and when I see something strange I’ll realize I’m dreaming.”
For a combination of WBTB and MILD, Waggoner suggested waking up at 4 a.m. and counting your way back to sleep: “One, this is a dream. Two, this is a dream. Three, this is a dream,” and so on.
“Sometimes, you’ll get to ‘37, this is a dream’ and realize that a dream has formed around you. And by hearing yourself say ‘this is a dream’ you go ‘oh, I’m dreaming. This is incredible,’” he said.
When he first began lucid dreaming, Waggoner trained himself to develop a conditioned response through a technique he calls “finding your hands.” He would look at his hands and say, “Tonight in my dreams I’ll see my hands and realize I’m dreaming,” repeating the phrase for 5 minutes before going to bed. On the third night of doing this, Waggoner successfully landed himself in a lucid dream.
What to do in a lucid dream?
So you’re having a lucid dream. What now? For many, lucid dreams are a fleeting experience — staying in a lucid dream is the bigger challenge.
Waggoner said that there are three things people should remember, to help them stay in the lucid dream. The first is reducing your emotions. “If you get too excited, then you’ll wake up from the lucid dream,” he said. The second is enhancing your awareness to “ground yourself in that dream space,” which you can do by rubbing your hands together or touching something in the dream. The last is maintaining your focus. To keep yourself from forgetting that what you’re experiencing isn’t actually real, you have to constantly remind yourself that you’re in a dream.
Once you master staying in a lucid dream, said Waggoner, you can start working towards your goals. These can range from simply pigging out on your favorite foods, to getting in touch with your inner self — the possibilities are endless.
To reap introspection from your lucid dreams, it’s also important to remember them upon waking up. “If you’re going to begin on the lucid dreaming path, one of the first things is to develop good dream recall,” said Waggoner. This means actively remembering your dream, even recording them, once you awaken.
Is lucid dreaming for everyone?
Lucid dreaming can be an immensely rewarding experience, but it may not be for everyone. Waggoner cautions certain people against getting too deep into lucid dreaming.
“If you can’t handle waking life, then I don’t want you to become lucidly aware in the dream state,” said Waggoner, adding that people who are already overwhelmed in their waking life tend to hold negative energy in their unconscious minds. This could lead to stressful lucid dreams.
“When they become lucidly aware, they’ll have to interact with whatever negative energy is there,” he said.
Similarly, Bourke pointed out that lucid dreaming may not be the best idea for “people who have difficulty telling reality from illusion,” such as those with schizophrenia. In these cases, the blurring of the boundary between dreams and reality could have dangerous real-life consequences.
Other risks include a potential decrease in sleep quality, though scientific research in the field of lucid dreaming remains sparse and relatively new.