Lucid Dreaming Basics: What You Need to Know

What is Lucid Dreaming?

One definition of lucid dreaming, according to Gackenbach and LaBerge, is “the rare but robust awareness that we are dreaming and that we are not really awake.”  In a lucid dream we are in a somewhat liminal space between waking and dreaming, an ethereal midpoint between waking consciousness and unconsciousness.  In psychological terms, it is related to dissociation, which is the capacity of the psyche to break off into islands of separate consciousnesses, while still maintaining a certain sense of wholeness.

The spontaneous occurrence of lucid dreaming varies across individuals and it also varies with age within individuals. It is notably susceptible to pre-sleep autosuggestion. That is to say, the relatively rare spontaneous incidence of lucid dreaming can be increased by training. Young subjects may not only learn to become lucid but can also perform intentional self-awakenings, and even institute plot control by introducing voluntary decision making into the normally involuntary dream experience.

This means lucid dreaming is the ability both to recognize that one is having a dream while still in the dream, and to participate actively in the dream’s drama as it plays out.

Historically speaking, lucid dreaming has been associated with enhanced spiritual awareness, self-healing at both the psychological and physical level, and even enlightenment. Contemporarily speaking, neuroscientists are excited by lucid dreaming because the progress in brain imaging offers the possibility of measuring the physiological correspondences to three different states of consciousness -waking, non-lucid dreaming, and lucid dreaming – in a laboratory.  Some neuroscientists even think lucid dreaming may help them “finally establish a brain basis for consciousness.”  We’ll see how that works out for them.  Modern psychologists tell us that lucid dreaming is a “way to put the deepest areas of your brain to good use while you’re sleeping.”

What is Dreaming?

In the world of depth psychology, particularly the Analytical Psychological approach developed by Carl Gustav Jung, dreams are the bridge between consciousness and unconsciousness.  Though we like to think we are the masters of our own minds, we are most certainly not. According to Jung, dreams are a way to find out what is lurking beneath the surface of our awareness, causing us to do things we do not mean to do, say things we don’t want to say, or feel things we do not want to feel (like fear, negativity, or self-doubt).  The dream characters, processes, and objects are images of those unknown aspects of ourselves – aspects which have a certain sense of autonomy over us.  Sometimes they are parts of our personality that want to emerge. Other times they have parts of our personality that hold unresolved emotion or trauma. Once we understand what the image means, it no longer has the power to override our thoughts and actions. This is not because we have overpowered it, but rather because we have integrated the lesson or meaning behind the image.

Writing down your dreams is essential to understanding them. The more you understand them, the more you will understand yourself. When we combine this meaning of dreams to the idea of lucid dreaming, we can see how they would work together to establish communication between the dreamer and the dreamworld.  As a matter of fact, lucid dreaming is very similar to a practice Jung called active imagination. In active imagination, a person is able to watch the contents of the mind organically unfold in a sort of drama, just as if he or she was dreaming.  As the person becomes more accustomed to accessing this space, he or she can start to engage in the drama, again with the intention to understand the meaning of the imagery.

Lucid Dreaming Requires a Profound Sense of Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is something most people automatically assume they have. Most of those people are profoundly mistaken. Every one of us has self-consciousness, but not all of us have self-awareness.  Self-awareness requires that our brain be well-exercised in meditation. Meditation has proven to strengthen grey matter in all areas of the brain associated with higher thinking, namely the left hippocampus, the temporal-parietal lobe, and the frontal cortex.  Higher thinking includes perspective taking, compassion, empathy, introspection, and self-awareness. Along with increased grey matter in those brain areas comes increased neuronal connectivity with the area of the brain called the default mode network. For most people that default mode is associated with mind-wandering, but for those who meditate, it is associated with an ability to maintain laser focused attention, something which one needs to practice lucid dreaming.

How to Have Lucid Dreams – Three Basic Disciplines

The art of lucid dreaming is something you must practice daily to get good at it.  The foundation of lucid dreaming according to V.H. Frater Justificatus’ book Lucid Dreaming, is grounded first in three basic disciplines, all of which you can practice on your own.

Dream Recall

Learning to recall your dreams is very similar to both learning a new skill and learning a new language. As a skill, dream recall is about developing a daily practice.  You start by keeping a dream journal or a voice recorder by your bed and faithfully recording your dreams every night – preferably the moment you wake from them. That is the time when the most detail can be recalled. If you fall back to sleep, you are likely to forget important details.  When you record your dreams, note any feelings or emphasis you sensed in the dream.  What stands out as most significant? Is it an image, a feeling, or a character?

The second part of learning dream recall is to study symbols – not from a cheesy dream symbol dictionary, but by doing honest-to-goodness research on them.  Every image is a symbol of some kind. Some are personal symbols, while others are archetypal. Write down what you learn from your study in your dream journal.

Each night before falling to sleep, take a moment with yourself, preferably in a dedicated meditation, and set the intention to remember your dreams.  This practice is called a coueism.  Coueism is a cross between auto-suggestion and a Hindu mantra.  It is a method by which wishes are converted to unconscious suggestion.

One suggested coueism for lucid dreams is the following, again from Justificatus’ book Lucid Dreaming:

I want to be happy.

I want to be healthy.

I want to be confident.

I want to remember my dreams in detail.

I want to be a lucid dreamer.

You can actually use any affirmation you wish, these are only suggestions.  Emilie Coue, the man who developed the idea of the coueism, suggests repeating your affirmations 20 times before falling asleep.  You will remember that we said meditation was essential to lucid dreaming and here is where it comes into play.  The more you meditate, the better you are able to focus on your affirmations.

Directed Dreaming, also called, Dream Incubation

When you have gotten really good at dream recall, writing down your dreams, and using Coueism, you are ready to begin the practice of directed dreaming.  Again according to the book Lucid Dreaming, there are three basic methods for this practice. Work with each until you have a feel for them, then you can choose which one suits you best or use all three for maximum benefit and versatility.

The Basic Method

Pick a topic for your dream, something which can be described in one sentence, or even one word.  It is suggested that you choose something to which you are not emotionally attached. For example, you can choose to travel to a far-away place or to dialogue with someone you have never met.

Now, take this dream idea and write it in your dream journal in the following format:

I will dream about _______________.

Underline the word will several times.

Follow the same steps as you have every other night for your dream recall.  You can even use the coueism to support your dream subject. Follow this method until you have dreamed the subject of your intention.

Method Two:  The Image/Picture Method

With this method, you follow steps similar to that of method one, except you will use an image of your intended subject.  The internet makes obtaining that image very easy. Find one that really strikes you, something you can feel viscerally.  You should study the image carefully so that when you close your eyes, you can remember every detail with as much precision as possible.

Again, write your affirmation in your dream journal.

As you are falling asleep, hold only the image in your mind – meaning, do not engage in a mental dialogue about the picture.

Method Three – The Visualization Method

Justificatus considers this the most powerful method of the three. You can use both of the previous techniques for this method. Upon lying down to fall asleep, you are first going to use deep breathing techniques to relax your entire body. Once you have attained a state of relaxation, bring your awareness to each body part, and allow it to relax with your suggestion. Do this until your body feels like it is covered with a lead blanket.

Next you will visualize your intended subject matter as though you were watching a film or taking part in an activity.  Let this imagery be fluid and smooth rather than single images with no animation.  Try not to allow any thoughts to interrupt this vision. Again you can see how a meditation practice can help you stay focused.

Don’t be surprised if you fall asleep and start dreaming of your subject!  Once you get really good at these techniques, you are well on your way to maintaining lucidity while dreaming.

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