Have you ever been in the middle of a dream and realized you were, in fact, dreaming? This is called lucid dreaming, and most people experience it every once in a while, seemingly at random. However, there are also a few things you can do to encourage lucid dreams if they sound appealing to you. Read on for sleep and dream experts' go-to tips for starting a lucid dreaming practice.
What are lucid dreams, and why would I want one?
Simply put, lucid dreaming occurs when someone finds themselves conscious (or "lucid") within a dream. Sometimes, this awareness actually allows them to feel in control of their own dreams.
As you can imagine, lucid dreaming opens the door to quite a lot of fun, author of Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self Robert Waggoner tells mbg. But the benefits don't stop there: He adds that lucid dreaming allows people to tap into the seemingly unlimited potential of the dream world and consciousness itself.
Lucid dreams can be opportunities to access creativity, practice certain skills, work on emotional issues3, and so much more, he says. Therapist and dream expert Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., adds that "lucid dreaming can bring you in touch with your own deep spiritual nature and bring about a sense of universal connectedness, and less fear of death."
It's even been shown to help treat nightmares4, she adds, because if you can become lucid during a nightmare, "you can change the content in a way that feels more empowering right from within the dream itself," she says. In time, this reframing can lead to "greater flexibility and adaptability to life's challenges1."
And according to Ellis, you'll want to bear in mind that lucid dreaming on demand usually takes patience and perseverance. "Even those who regularly experience lucid dreams can't always do so at will," she says.
9 tips & techniques for lucid dreaming
Lucid dreams can happen naturally, but there are a handful of ways you can make them more likely. Some of these involve waking yourself up in the middle of the night—but since we're such big sleep fans here at mbg, we're choosing to focus on the ones that let you sleep through the evening:
Frequently test reality
Get in the habit of asking yourself whether you're dreaming throughout the day, or even try to put a finger through your own palm, or launch yourself into flight, Ellis suggests.
"Most times, you will quickly realize this is waking reality and you are not able to become airborne at will, but it will get you into the habit of questioning your state of consciousness—which makes it more likely you will do so while dreaming."
Get more sleep to make dreams more likely
Of course, in order to achieve lucid dreaming, you have to reach REM sleep. So, one of the most basic things you can do is work on your sleep hygiene, making sure you're getting an adequate amount of sleep.
Avoid alcohol and other substances before bed that can inhibit dreams, keep your sleep schedule consistent, and so on.
Use the power of suggestion
"When lucid dreaming first became scientifically validated," Waggoner says, "using the power of suggestion seemed one of the most common practices to induce a lucid dream." To do it, simply clear your mind, relax, and repeat one of the following statements to yourself until you start to believe it:
- Tonight in my dreams, I will realize I am dreaming and become consciously aware.
- Tonight in my dreams, when I see something strange, I will realize I am dreaming and become consciously aware.
- Tonight in my dreams, I will be more critically aware. When I notice something odd, I will realize I am dreaming and become consciously aware.
"It may also help to imagine yourself happily writing down your lucid dream in the morning," Waggoner adds.
Keep a dream journal
As Ellis explains, "Those with excellent dream recall typically find it easiest to become lucid in their dreams." And one way to get better at dream recall is to keep a dream journal, in which you record everything from your dreams that you can remember upon waking up.
Recognize recurring themes or characters in your dreams
Do you have a recurring dream character or theme that's always showing up? If so, Ellis says you can use it as a trigger to become lucid. "As you are falling asleep, you can tell yourself, the next time this well-known dream event happens, or I see this dream character that shows up often, I will become aware that I'm dreaming."
According to Ellis, naps are typically lighter sleep than what we experience at night, so they can help promote lucidity. As you're falling asleep, "try to keep your mind awake and present to the dream world as you start to enter REM sleep," she says.
Try a "Modified Castaneda" technique
Waggoner developed this technique after reading Carlos Castaneda's seminal book, Journey to Ixtlan. Here's how it works:
- Sit in your bed, and become mentally settled.
- Stare softly at the palm of your hands, and tell yourself in a caring manner that, "Tonight while I am dreaming, I will see my hands and realize that I am dreaming."
- Continue to softly look at your hands and mentally repeat the affirmation, "Tonight while I am dreaming, I will see my hands and realize that I am dreaming."
- Allow your eyes to cross and unfocus; remain at peace and continue to repeat slowly.
- After about five minutes or once you feel too sleepy, quietly end the practice.
- If and when you wake up in the middle of the night, gently recall your intention to see your hands and realize that you are dreaming. Try to remember your last dream; did you see your hands?
- At some point in a dream, your hands may suddenly pop up in front of you. If they do, you will instantly make the connection, "This is a dream!" Try to stay calm and explore the dream environment. Later, when you wake from your lucid dream, take a moment and write it down in your dream journal. Write the entire dream; how you realized you were dreaming; what you did while aware that you were dreaming, etc.
Waggoner notes it helps to do this practice consistently each night before sleep. "I believe it works by establishing a simple stimulus-response associational link, or what psychologists call a 'conditioned response,'" he explains. "Practicing repeatedly develops the association between the stimulus (the sight of your hands) and the response ('This is a dream')."
Think about your previous dreams
The Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams technique (MILD) is a memory technique that's used to promote lucid dreams. One Stanford researcher found that it could help him achieve 18 to 26 lucid dreams per month5, with up to four per night, compared to the 13 per month he experienced using suggestion alone, and less than one per month he had without technique.
Heads up: MILD does require good dream recall, but here's how it's done:
- Begin by remembering a dream, whether from a previous night or one you just woke up from.
- Think of an anomaly that occurred within the dream.
- Visualize or imagine yourself returning to the dream, seeing this anomaly, becoming lucid, and performing some sort of action or next step in the dream as you're lucid.
- As you visualize, say to yourself, "The next time I'm dreaming, I want to remember to recognize that I'm dreaming."
- Repeat this visualization and affirmation until you fall asleep.
Don't get excited
And lastly, as Ellis and Waggoner both note, if your desire comes true and you do become lucid in a dream, don't freak out. "When you do become aware that you're dreaming, getting too excited can wake you up," Ellis explains.
Precautions to take with lucid dreaming
While lucid dreaming can be powerful and fun, to say the least, it does come with some risks—especially if you have any sort of mental health disorder (psychosis, dissociation, and depression, in particular).
"Those who are dissociative or have conditions that lead them to lose touch with reality might find the blurred boundaries between dream time and waking life disorienting," Ellis explains, adding "it can lead to a further blurring of the line between what is real and what is imagined."
As Waggoner adds, he always tells people, "If you can not handle waking reality, then it seems best to avoid lucid dreaming. But if you can handle waking reality, then it seems generally safe to dream lucidly."
However, according to Ellis, even healthy dreamers can have trouble waking up out of a lucid dream sometimes, "and experience a series of 'false awakenings' or will enter a black void before they are able to orient fully to the here and now."
And because lucid dreaming isn't a typical sleep state, she adds, some dream experts believe too much lucidity can interrupt one's normal sleep cycle in an unhealthy way.
According to Waggoner, the name of the game is to simply "wait until you feel relatively at peace with your waking state experience before beginning a lucid dream practice."
How do you trigger lucid dreams?
There are a number of ways to trigger a lucid dream, such as getting in the habit of testing reality when you're awake, keeping a dream journal, using the power of suggestion, taking naps, and more.
What not to do in a lucid dream?
Don't get excited, as you'll wake yourself up. Beyond that, avoid doing harm to others in your dream, or engaging in negative thoughts.
Can I get stuck in a lucid dream?
No, you cannot actually get stuck in a lucid dream, though it is possible to experience a "false awakening," or even multiple false wake ups, before you actually wake up.
Lucid dreaming is an undoubtedly fascinating, and for many, eye-opening, experience. While there are some who would do best to avoid it, if you're at peace with your life, you should be fine to give the practice a go by setting the right intentions. Happy dreaming!
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.