Lucid Dreaming

A you you never knew was you

A psychadelic portrait of a person seeing colors and shapes.
Imagine having a totally immersive virtual world available to you, where you could create any kind of experience for yourself, and experience it as if were as real as reality.

Sex with the most outrageously beautiful people in scenarios that would make porn look like an after-school special? Defy physics and fly to anywhere in the universe? Be freed of social conventions and let loose the most basic urges without any consequence?

When I was in my early teens, I used to accompany my mother on her weekly outings to the local library, and sit on the floor between the shelves in whatever section I found myself in, flipping through pages of books, hoping to find something arcane and exciting.

That's where I first learned about lucid dreaming. The idea that with practise, one could learn to be conscious and self aware while dreaming, and potentially even control the environment.

My father once told me he didn't dream in colour, and I've heard other people say they only dream in sounds. If that's how you dream, a lucid dream may not seem worth shooting for. For me, however, from the earliest dreams I can remember, my dreams have all been as real to me as anything I could experience in real life. In some ways bigger, more vivid, and more intense.

And also almost completely random. The environments and people that I encountered in my dreams are so surprising to me it's sometimes hard to believe that they come from within me.

A lot of books on lucid dreaming are padded with a lot of new age bullshit about spiritualism and dream symbolism. However, throw out all the completely worthless magical thinking, and learning how to lucid dream is actually a simple two step process. It's not hard, but it does take patience.

Step one is to start remembering your dreams. The easiest way to do this is just start jotting down notes about what you dreamt the night before. Not only is there no point in lucid dreaming if you'll never remember it, the act of getting your brain actively engaged while dreaming is a part of being self aware.

That's the easier of the two steps. At first you can only remember a couple of vague points. Then, within a few weeks, maybe not even a month, you'll find that you can recall your dreams more clearly and hang on to the memory longer. In fact, after a certain point you'll find yourself needing to be more and more selective about what you write about, because you dream far more than you think you do now, and writing it all down becomes a time waster.

The harder part is step two, which is to get into the habit of asking yourself if you are dreaming or not. While in a dream, you won't consider whether or not it's a dream if it's not something you do when you're awake.

Some instructions on lucid dreaming advise setting an alarm to go off at regular intervals to remind yourself to ask the question. Not only to force yourself into the habit, but also so that you can then later set the alarm to go off while you sleep, triggering you to ask the question while dreaming. Tactics like that aren't very effective or feasible. You can't time an alarm for when you'll be in dream stage of sleep because you can't know when that will be. And if the alarm doesn't simply wake you up, there's no guarantee your brain will interpret the sound data the way you intend while it is asleep.

In any case, tricks and short cuts are unnecessary. Like any habit, at first you tend to forget about it, but with patience it will come. After a while, you start to implement it, and eventually it becomes second nature. It just takes time, and forcing it to come any sooner probably won't get you the results you want.

For me, I found that occasionally asking myself now and again "Am I dreaming?" was an interesting psychological exercise on its own. The question is inexorably bound to the other question "How do I know?" How do I know that I'm actually sitting at a bar with a few of my friends, and not dreaming that I'm at a bar with a few of my friends?

You might come up with all sorts of answers. Basically, though, you just know. And when you start to have lucid dreams, you'll appreciate the difference from experience.

The first time you have lucidity while dreaming, you're almost guaranteed to answer the question "Am I dreaming?" with "Yes" and then immediately follow that up with "holy shit! I'm dreaming! This is a lucid dream!," and then immediately wake up, disappointed that you couldn't hang on. It's also likely to happen when you are near wakefulness in the morning, about 10 minutes before your usual alarm was going to go off anyway. That's just the way it goes, and you'll experience that a bunch of times.

Each time, though, you vow that next time you'll keep your cool, and eventually, you do. For me, the process took years. Almost a decade. Partly because this was never anything near a top priority. Just a personal amusement that came and went whenever I remembered to consider it. But I doubt even the most gung-ho person could achieve consistent lucidity in less than a matter of a year.

So was I able to achieve the full on, better than virtual reality, hyper-erotic, physics defying, unbound adventures I imagined when I started out?

Yes and no. Like so many things, maybe everything in life, the situation was nothing like what I expected when I got there.

When you are dreaming, you are not the same person in your waking life. Your goals, your desires, your motivations, are totally different. And this is not something that is changeable. The whole biological act of being asleep is for your brain to modify it's activity in order to do certain tasks. What those tasks are may not be fully understood, but it is an absolute certainty that your brain while asleep is doing different things than your brain does when awake.

If your brain is in a different mode, then so are you, because your brain is you. You can't maintain the same mode as awake when asleep, because then you wouldn't be asleep. The deal is that you can have lucid dreams, but you won't be who you are now while you experience them.

Who are you when you are asleep? I suppose that will be different for each individual. For me, one of the most striking things was that I was nowhere near as interested in sex as I am in my waking life. Not completely uninterested, but it wasn't of more interest than a lot of things. Frankly, this has caused me to wonder how much of my drive for sex is created in my own mind by my perception of what it means to be the person I am in the society I live in. But that's a whole other topic.

When asleep, I was much more sanguine, fascinated by minutiae, and open minded.

As an example of the difference between awake-me and asleep-me, in one instance I was on a sort of beach with warm water. It was nothing like a real beach, but the details of the place would take too long to explain. More importantly, I was in the shallow depths near the shore, and I was with a gorgeous woman who had her back to me.

Awake-me would would pursue the obvious sexual potential.

Asleep-me, though, was content to merely touch her back and marvel at how in my dream reality I could distinctly feel the texture of her skin, that she used a specific type of moisturiser that an ex-girlfriend used to use, and I could feel the difference between the warmth of her skin and the coolness of the water droplets on her back. That's all. Just test the extent of my tactile experience. Shortly after, I wandered towards the shore to do something like see how detailed the shells in the sand were.

It was a definitively sensual experience. Not sensual as in the kind of low-production-value soft-core Euro-porn. Sensual in that I was engrossed in my five senses.

I learned that in dream world, you generally only feel the sensation you are actively focused on. For example, in the real world, as I type this, a part of my brain is registering all sorts of inputs that I am not focused on. The feel of my feet against the floor, the slight temperature variations in the air, the sounds off in the distance. But I don't care about them, so while they are part of my overall awareness of my current reality, my brain regulates any thoughts about it to some level just below perception.

In dream world, though, if I wasn't thinking about a particular input, it's completely absent. Since I was often in an inquisitive state, I would jump from one sensation to the next. Does that wood table feel like wood, I would wonder, then to touch it and be amazed by the rich tactile accuracy at my fingertips. Then I would wonder if the air in the room had a particular feel, and be struck with how I could feel slight breezes and temperature changes.

Each sensation, once attended to, suddenly becomes this intensely rich and detailed experience. As a result, because things you don't focus on become completely absent and things you do focus on become all engrossing, walking through dream world is a process of going step by step from one vivid but singular perception to another. It lacks the more general awareness that waking life does, but has an intensity that waking life doesn't. For me, when asking the question "Am I dreaming," it was this difference in sensory perception that allowed me to differentiate. Consciousness itself feels different in the two worlds.

I could go on and on about the differences of being in dream world, and what I learned from it, but I suspect a lot of those insights are personal. I never did have the super-orgy of my daydream fantasies, but I had experiences I never would have come up with... except, well, I guess I did come up with them. You know what I mean.

I eventually stopped bothering to encourage lucid dreaming. I never got to a point where I could do it any time on demand as some books claimed was possible. I'm not sure even if it is.

Or if it's desirable.

Sleep is an important part of being healthy, and while dreaming is not fully understood, all indications are that it is very likely to a part of the process by which your brain maintains good health. You probably shouldn't monkey with it too much. Besides, in the real world your sleep is likely to be constrained by things like having to get up for work and whatnot which would make it hard to get the right conditions for lucid dreaming consistently.

The reason I stopped was because I found that when I didn't lucid dream, the choices asleep-me would make would take me in directions that led to far more interesting situations than awake-me would come up with. I think taking awake-you into your dream world is actually a limiting consideration, because awake-you differentiates itself from asleep-you by the social conventions and concepts of self identity that you hold dear.

You tend to think that asleep you, which makes strange decisions that you don't agree with is the one that is somehow held back. Actually, awake-you makes more limited choices, not only because awake-you has mundane concerns, but because awake-you makes the choices you expect to make. Asleep-you is more open to the fantastical, more content with the present, and more attuned to the subtleties. Asleep-you reacts more impulsively, with greater extremes of fear, happiness, and expression.

Recently, I had a dream that took place in an environment that was so fantastical, and so rich in detail, when I woke, my first feeling was "Holy shit, what the hell was that?" Had awake-me been in charge of creating the environment, I would have never come up with anything like it.

As a creative person who tells stories, I would love to be able to create environments like the ones in my dreams in writing, art, or film. I like to think that I come up with interesting concepts now and again, but I have to admit that when it comes to just cutting loose and letting my imagination literally run wild, I'll never be as capable as my dreams. Whenever I try to create the fantastical on a scale with my dreams, it is constrained by being too deliberate, too much of a struggle against my perceived limitations. Asleep-me is much better at being sincere, balancing the outrageous with the functional.

And that is the ultimate lesson of lucid dreaming for me. In the end, I don't really want to go in and control my dreams more. I wish there was a technique for doing the reverse, to tap into that genuinely unbounded imagination for use in my waking life.

Non-lucid daydreams?