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The Strange Subconscious Fantasy Worlds of Lucid Dreamers

Lucid dreaming can give you the power to fly, visit the dead, and have sex with celebrities while you sleep.

Jared Zeizel facing the "Dark Jared" of his dreams. All photos by Roc Morin

"I had an orgy once with Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé, and Marilyn Monroe," John confessed. "Brad Pitt was there too, but just to videotape."

I had approached the middle-aged teacher randomly in New Orleans for a project I do where I collect dreams from around the world. John wasn't like most of my subjects: From a young age, he has regularly been able to "wake up" inside his dreams, controlling their content with an almost godlike omnipotence. Some of his favorite activities, besides sex, include flying, fighting terrorists, and talking with his father, who died several years ago. His waking life in the classroom, he admitted, "just can't compete."

Recent studies have shown that the phenomenon, called lucid dreaming, has been experienced at least once by 47 to 82 percent of people. For most of those individuals, lucidity is rare and fleeting, but psychologist Dr. Joe Green insists it doesn't have to be. Lucidity, the therapist claims, is a skill that can be learned and perfected. It's a skill that Green has used successfully in his therapy practice for decades. "If people are motivated," he told me in a recent interview, "almost anybody can have a lucid dream."

Determined to see for myself, I bought the book A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming—a compendium of lucidity techniques. Within a week, I had the first real lucid dream of my life. It lasted for less than a minute, but it was intoxicating. I had a taste of what felt like an almost Buddhist enlightenment, a total transcendence of reality.

A month later, I found myself sitting in a Hollywood café across from Field Guide author Jared Zeizel. I wanted to learn more about how to wield my new power. We began the interview, of course, by looking down and touching our own hands—a simple test to determine whether or not we were dreaming.

VICE: How can someone learn to lucid-dream?
Jared Zeizel: Well, the first thing that I always tell people is, you have to start writing down your dreams every morning. After a while, you'll start noticing patterns. Maybe you're often dreaming of clocks, for instance. If that's the case, what you want to do is, every time you see a clock in the waking world, just take a moment and ask yourself, "Am I dreaming?" It's called a reality check, and if you do that enough during the day, you'll start to train your mind. Eventually, you'll ask that question in the dream world and go lucid.

What reality checks do you do?
I've got a few different checks. In high school, I had a lot of dreams about zombies, so during the day, I'd just rehearse those dreams in my mind, and know that if I was seeing zombies, there was a pretty good chance that I was dreaming.

What other checks do you use?
I do a lot of things with locations. It's very common to dream of your home, or your childhood home especially. So anytime I'd walk into my home, I'd ask, "Am I dreaming?" So that's become a common trigger. Also, post-apocalyptic settings—if I see something like that, I do a reality check right away.

One of the problems that I have is, after becoming lucid, I get too excited and that wakes me up. Do you have any advice?
For whatever reason, we've found that just spinning in a circle helps ground you in the dream. Another thing I like to do is to find something tactile and really concentrate on the sensation of it. Often I'll use my hands. I'll push my finger through the palm of my hand and I can actually feel it going through my flesh and coming out the other side. It's a very strange sensation. Basically, though, you want to do whatever you can to calm your excitement. You can take a moment to focus on your breathing or just count backwards from ten.


Jared Zeizel in the real world

Once you're stable in the dream, what are some of the things that you like to do?
Sometimes I like to summon my evil alter-ego, Dark Jared, and have a conversation. I love to fly. Sex is always fun. Oftentimes, I'll continue the narrative of the dream already in progress, sort of like a video game. Sometimes I like to try to find this orchard where the trees have all these different dream fruits that taste better and sweeter than anything I've ever had in my entire life.

It's amazing that the mind is able to generate pleasure and perfection so far beyond what's available in this world.
That's a great way to look at it.

Dream sex would seem to be another example. Can you talk a little about how that works?
Let me start by saying that there is not a lucid dreamer I've met who hasn't had sex with a dream character. Sex and flying are probably the two most common activities. I think there should be no shame or embarrassment about it, but I also think it's important to be mindful that these dream characters are representations of parts of yourself.

What implications does that have for you?
Well, I just like to take a moment to talk to the dream character before or after the sexual encounter.

How does that conversation generally go?
I've found that, a lot of times, dream characters are very open to sex. But sometimes they seem more disconnected from you. You'll ask them for sex, and they'll shrug and be like, "Whatever." Sometimes, though, they won't be up for it. This kind of calls into question whether or not you should be raping your dream characters. I think there's an argument that says it's all in your mind, and you're not harming anyone. But I also think, if you're using lucid dreaming for self-exploration, you might want to take a moment and ask yourself if you really want to commit an act of harm on your inner psyche.

So who are these people—acquaintances, celebrities, people you've never seen before?
They can be all those things. Celebrities are common. There's a fantasy to being with them. And I think they can also represent something else in our subconscious, whether it's aspiration or self-worth. The only way I'd ever get with a celebrity in the waking world is to achieve massive success. So to get with them in a dream can be very validating.

Is there a memorable connection you've had with a particular celebrity?
The most memorable relationships I've had with dream characters tends to be with recurring dream guides. Those haven't been sexual relationships, though. Going back to the whole Dark Jared thing, I've had dreams where he was trying to convince me to have sex with my dream guide. It just felt disrespectful, though.

What guide was that?
She's this middle-aged woman who feels like a friend from years ago, or a maybe from a past life. She's dressed like she's from the 1700s. And she always appears to help me out, or give cryptic advice.

What other guides do you have?
Most recently, I've been seeing this giant bear a lot. He's old, very grizzled looking, and his fur is gray with a tint of purple. He usually appears when there's chaos. I see the bear, and I follow him, and he leads me away to a calmer place.

So it's clear that you can form these meaningful friendships with dream characters. Have you ever fallen in love with one before?
Probably several times a year, I fall in love with someone or something in the dream. When you wake up you still feel all these emotions toward this thing that only exists in the dream world.


Jared Zeizel picking his dream fruits

I've had that happen a few times too. And, what's fascinating to me, is that you basically fell in love with a part of yourself, right? It suggests that we're really complete beings, who are capable of generating all the love we need. Yet through some design flaw, we just can't access it without an intermediary.
I love the idea of dreams being a mirror reflection of ourselves. When you're looking on the surface, everything seems separate from you, but in reality, everything you see is you. The act of separating it can be beneficial, though, to making positive changes in yourself. That's what I've found with Dark Jared. He takes on my dark characteristics, and I become, essentially, Light Jared. And, I can really feel the difference between us.

That brings up another interesting question. In a lot of the dreams that I've collected, people seem to have a reduced sense of conventional morality. Do you feel like the same person in dreams that you are when you're awake?
Yeah, when I think of any number of negative acts or horrific things that I've done in dreams, they definitely don't feel as bad as they would in this world. I remember having a dream where this guy was attacking my girlfriend and me. He was a massive man, probably eight feet tall. Anyway, I became lucid and, because it was a dream, I was able to make my punch so much stronger, and I beat him up. At one point, he was on the ground crying. When I woke up I felt really bad about it, which is interesting to me because he was attacking us, and I certainly didn't feel bad about it in the dream. He brought it on himself.

Well, if all the characters in your dream are you, maybe you were just feeling that guy's sadness.
Right, and when I came into this world, instead of being separate entities, we both came back together.

Is there anything you haven't tried in a lucid dream that you've always wanted to?
Thomas Peisel, one of the other writers of the book, always turns into a various animals. He'll turn into a jaguar or a wolf. He can feel himself running on two legs, and then slowly transforming until he's running on four. He's just able to go so much faster using four legs instead of two. He loves it. He also turns into birds. I think that's something that I'd want to explore.

Ever since I got involved reporting on psychedelics research, I've been fascinated by mystical states of consciousness. People have said that when they smoke cigarettes in dreams, it feels just like real life. I'm wondering if it's the same with drugs. Do you have any experience with that?
I smoked some pot in a lucid dream once. I was with Thomas and we were just floating on clouds, touching the treetops, and passing a joint back and forth. It was very relaxing. I've also heard of people who go into a lucid dream and meditate there. There are masters who meditate in a dream, and then end up in another world, and then meditate again. They keep going into deeper and deeper worlds. But I wonder if you just get a drug in the dream world, can you bypass the meditation step?

I've also been thinking if it would be possible to replicate a near-death experience in dreams—you know that tunnel of light, or visions of angels, or like in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, those horrific monsters that represent enlightenment. What if you create the idea of God in your mind and merge with it?
That would be exciting. What happens when you merge with another entity? Going with the assumption that there are other beings in the universe and if there is a god or gods, I do feel like if there were a way for them to communicate with us, it would be through dreams.

It seems like your book is part of a larger trend toward taking dreams more seriously. What do you see for the future?
Yeah, it's been getting more popular over the last couple years, probably because of Inception and Waking Life. Twitter has also helped in a weird way. There are a surprising amount of teenagers talking about dreams and lucid dreaming. It's been around for thousands of years. Indigenous cultures were really into it. And then, slowly, it just sort of disappeared from Western culture. And now, most people, even really smart people often totally ignore dreams. As little kids, growing up, when you have a nightmare, the parents always say, "Don't worry. It's just a dream."

What would you say instead?
I would say, "It's part of you." Dreams often provide a direct line of communication to your subconscious and your inner self. Sometimes it's just the garble of the previous day, but other times, it's really important. Especially with nightmares. Those tend to be deep-seated fears or anxieties. You can keep pushing away or ignoring it, but it's not going to go away. I would probably tell a kid, "What you're seeing is all in your head, so you have full control in dealing with it. But, also listen to it, because it might be telling you something you really need to know."

Follow Roc's latest project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.