The Conscious-Unconscious: A Guide to Lucid Dreaming and Beyond - Sleep Week

By Zachary Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It’s that recurring nightmare you’ve been experiencing now for three nights straight: while delivering a presentation regarding the effects of Kafka and absurdist stimulation on problem solving, there dawns the sudden realization that you are hopelessly, and utterly… well, naked. Staggering backwards in horror, the chalk drops from your hand in slow motion as your college psychology class erupts into cacophonous, hyena-like laughter. And before long they have literally transformed into a pack of wild hyenas jabbering behind desks.

In frantic search for some means of escape you suddenly notice the clock hanging above the exit. Something isn’t quite right about it. The hands won’t stand still, and the whole thing looks like it might be melting. That’s not right at all, you tell yourself, and for some bizarre reason an understanding clicks into place. None of this is real, it’s all merely a dream. You turn to the classroom of hideous creatures with a sense of renewed vigor, ready to take on the impossible.

What follows next could be anyone’s choice, providing they know how to “dream lucidly”. Most have experienced a variation on the “public nude scene” during sleep at some point or another, but very few have been able to realize the inherent fiction until after waking. However science and research, along with countless personal testimonies, have revealed that unconscious-consciousness is indeed within the realm of possibility.

The process is called lucid dreaming, which The Lucidity Institute defines as simply “dreaming while knowing that you are dreaming.” But how does one suddenly realize that they are dreaming? The answer begins with awareness.

Am I Dreaming? Am I Awake?

This esoteric practice has been utilized and studied by human beings for hundreds of years. It was documented as early as the eighth century by yogis in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Later in the 1867 publication of Dreams and How to Guide Them, a scientific account written by one of the earliest oneirologists (dream specialists) Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. Decades passed before Stephen LaBerge, founder of The Lucidity Institute, first began to conduct serious experiments which sought to thoroughly confirm the nature of this phenomenon.

As a student at Stanford University pursuing a Ph.D. in psychophysiology, LaBerge conducted a study in which sleeping subjects were monitored with electroencephalograms (EEGs) — electrodes that evaluate brain activity. To signal that they were experiencing a lucid dream, subjects would move their eyelids. Results from the EEGs later revealed that the participants were engaged in REM sleep while gesturing the lucid dreaming states.

Deirdre Barrett, past president of The International Association for the Study of Dreams, is a Ph.D. psychologist currently teaching two dream–related courses at Harvard University. She has conducted formal studies on lucid dreaming and is a self-professed lucid dreamer. Barrett believes it is no coincidence that REM states and lucid dreaming occur simultaneously within the brain.

“These dreams are happening in REM, but not typical REM,” Barrett explains. “The brain is showing signs of being closer to waking. Also, (lucid dreams) might be due to an increase in activity with the pre-frontal cortex, which performs a number of abstract reasoning processes. Reflective awareness is one of these, therefore questioning bizarreness makes sense.”

It turns out questioning “bizarreness” is one of the fundamental keys to an awareness that makes lucid dreaming possible in the first place. There are certain reality checks an individual can condition themselves into performing during waking life, such as continually checking one’s hands or the time, which will in turn subconsciously occur as habits in the dream state. Often while dreaming, the appearance of a clock, a personal reflection, or even one’s hands will appear distorted – thus indicating a surreal experience and subsequent shattering of the conditioned reality check.

Author of Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self and co-editor of the online magazine The Lucid Dreaming Experience, Robert Waggoner, shares the first experience in which he used a reality check to confirm a lucid dream.

“I taught myself how to lucid dream in 1975, while reading the book, Journey to Ixtlan, by Carlos Castaneda,” Waggoner says. “In it, his shamanic teacher, Don Juan, asked Carlos to find his hands in the dream and realize that he was dreaming. The next three nights I sat in bed for five minutes before sleep, looking at the palms of my hands while repeating to myself, ‘Tonight in my dreams, I will see my hands and realize I am dreaming.’ On the third night, walking through my high school hall, my hands popped right up in front of my face, and it suddenly hit me, ‘My hands! This is a dream.’ I had an incredible lucid dream, and was hooked.”

Gateways to Reality

Lucid dreaming isn’t just a playground for the imagination though. Physical responses in the body, which transcend the ethereal, can be accessed through the practice. Waggoner tells about a specific lucid dreamer who managed to reduce unpleasant physical symptoms through dream-induced willpower.

“There was a lucid dreamer named Annie who had painful plantar warts,” he explains. “They were so painful [that] it actually hurt her when she walked. One night she became lucidly aware and remembered her goal to heal her plantar warts. In the lucid dream she created a ball of healing light between her hands and placed the light over each foot, intending for it to be healed. In the morning she looked at her feet. Overnight the plantar warts had all turned black, and within ten days they dropped off to never return.”

Our day-to-day consciousness can be greatly affected by this too.

“There’s a reason why many Tibetan Buddhists have employed this practice,” says Barrett. “They feel that dreaming emphasizes just how much our conscious experience is being produced by our brain, even amidst outside stimuli. We are not experiencing things directly, but rather constructing them.”

Deeper Down the Rabbit-Hole

But wait, it gets stranger. From the age of seven, Beverly D’Urso has been an avid lucid dreamer. Since then she has conducted research on the practice alongside LaBerge at Stanford, co-founded The Lucidity Institute, and completed her Ph.D. on artificial intelligence. She is an expert lucid dreamer and the first person to have a recorded orgasm during a lucid dream.

Participating in a study to record sexual activity while lucid dreaming, D’Urso was hooked up to electrodes and vaginal probes in the Stanford Sleep Lab. Her goal: to lucidly have dream sex and experience an orgasm. She signaled the onset of sex and the orgasm to the experimenter, and the success was later published in Journal of Psychophysiology as the first-ever recorded female orgasm in a dream.

But D’Urso has accomplished much more than this for the cause. While working with The Lucidity Institute D’Urso helped co-design the NovaDreamer, a mask that lights up during REM sleep to rouse the dreamer into realizing that he or she is dreaming without waking.

“I have had profound lucid dreams using it,” she says. “The NovaDreamer acts as a cue to ask, ‘am I dreaming right now?’ Even without an induction device, if I ask this question often enough, I will naturally ask it in a dream.”

“These things act as aids,” Waggoner agrees. “The NovaDreamer and similar devices, such as the DreamStar and Remee, show how technology can assist someone to achieve lucid awareness. But once you become lucid, you still have to know how to manipulate yourself in that environment. It’s like being in an alternate dimension with its own rules.”

Spirituality & Creativity

Since serving as the main subject for lucid dream research at Stanford University during the ’80s, D’Urso has presented extensively on a new lifestyle she has developed called “lucid living.”

“It means to live life as a lucid dream,” she explains. “Lucid living serves as a type of spiritual self-actualization. It has allowed me to understand my connection with everyone, including what some call God, to know unlimited potential in life, and to live with less fear.”

“Lucid dreaming stimulates creativity directly,” she continues. “I can play in my own three-dimensional world and try out anything imaginable.”

D’Urso isn’t the only one to facilitate lucid dreaming as a means to heightening creative faculties. Kevin Williams, bass guitar player of the acclaimed indie-rock outfit Surfer Blood, has used an awareness of his dreams to inspire songwriting for the band.

“Ideally, when I am at home and have the time/materials at hand, I like to keep a physical journal by my bed and sketch ‘maps’ of dreams,” Williams tells BTR. “I have found that I typically will remember more of a dream if I make brief sketches in the form of an aerial map rather than trying to write out what specifically happened in a dream. The last one, I wrote in it on tour, involved hanging out in a mansion inhabited by a family with an evil baby on a tumultuous lake. Thurston Moore was their butler.”

“Phrases and ideas from these dreams always have ways of working into art and musical ideas,” he adds. “But then again, dreams are a product of all that is going on subconsciously, so the dreams can often serve in the other direction– as extensions of the art and songs already being created while awake.”

Lullabies for the Wise

Looking to try lucid dreaming out for yourself? Here’s a little advice for the long and winding dream road.

“Read about it,” Waggoner advises. “Get books by respected authors and dive into it. A book will likely have thoughtful, interesting and well considered advice from long-time lucid dreamers with great examples. By getting your head deeply into lucid dreaming, you will likely have spontaneous lucid dreams.”

Barrett acknowledges just how difficult this can be for many people. “Even with all the practice techniques, it doesn’t happen often; it’s very hard. Sometimes just self-suggesting you want to have a certain dream is easier to do and sometimes more effective than utilizing lucid dreams to change dreams.”

Perhaps the most useful tool for embarking on this journey: start keeping a dream journal. “Record your dreams and discuss them,” D’Urso urges. “Pick a simple task that you can try in a lucid dream. Look for clues, such as meeting someone whom you remember has ‘died’ or feeling yourself floating in air.”

“And one last thing,” she says. “Don’t ever assume that you are not dreaming.”