Lucid Dreaming For Beginners: What Is It & How To Do It
Odds are, you've had a lucid dream at least once—and might wish you could have them more often. To find out more about this mysterious and fascinating type of dream, we got in touch with Robert Waggoner, lucid dreaming expert and author of Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self.
Here's what he had to say about what lucid dreams are, what they feel like, and if it's possible (or even safe) to guide your body into having more of them.
What is a lucid dream?
The simple definition of a lucid dream is any dream in which you realize within the dream that you're dreaming. Oftentimes, you'll stop and think, "Wait, this is a dream." The American Psychological Association has a longer definition, writing, "a dream in which the sleeper is aware that he or she is dreaming and may be able to influence the progress of the dream narrative."
Indeed, some lucid dreamers are able to manipulate things in their dreams, from the environment, and even characters in the dream. Other people, however, may not be able to influence the dream, and only have an awareness that they're dreaming.
How common are lucid dreams?
Here in the U.S., one survey found that around 72% of students claimed to have dreamed lucidly at least once. But when looking at the general population, around 50% report lucid dreaming. About 25% of people seem to be what they call "frequent lucid dreamers"—they have at least one lucid dream a month.
What are the benefits of lucid dreaming?
I would say there are multiple benefits, though some of them are anecdotal for now:
- It's fun: The first is just having fun. When you realize you're dreaming, you can fly, you can go through walls, etc.
- It's emotionally cleansing: You can also use lucid dreams for emotional healing and dealing with psychological trauma or anxiety. There are some therapists who've used lucid dreaming to help people who have recurring nightmares from PSTD. Anecdotally, lucid dreamers have used it to deal with phobias, like getting over the fear of public speaking or the fear of heights, by facing it in a lucid dream.
- It's creative: The third benefit is getting in touch with your inner creativity. When you become lucidly aware, you can announce, "When I go into that next room, I want to see the most incredible art I can create." And you walk into that room and there's incredible art on the wall. So if you know how, you can project your creativity in your dreams.
- It's a good way to grow: You can use it to start improving skills. For example, there's a story about a graduate student in Germany who had to take a swimming course to get his degree, and he was a terrible swimmer. But he was a great lucid dreamer—so every time he became lucid in a dream, he would go swimming. And by the end of the semester, he'd improved profoundly. I've also heard stories about athletes who have used lucid dreaming to practice their skill.
- It's spiritually fulfilling: And the final benefit is for personal transformation and spiritual growth. Sometimes in a lucid dream, when you meet a fear or a shadow—what Carl Jung called the denied, ignored, repressed aspects of the self—you can resolve the issue or concern. And sometimes you get so much energy when you wake up after that, it's like you've reclaimed all that energy from that aspect of the self. So lucid dreaming is a way to go deeper into your psyche.
Why are some people more prone to lucid dreams than others?
Some people just have better dream recall naturally. Others have reduced the amount of REM sleep—and therefore vivid dreams—they get by taking drugs or alcohol before bed. That explains some of it. I also believe that if you can learn to be more mindfully aware in the waking state, that can be beneficial for your dream state. It can help you become lucidly aware when something in your dream doesn't make logical sense.
There is also a connection to genetics, as research has found people with a family history of the narcolepsy gene1 are more likely to be lucid dreamers.
Is it possible to make yourself have a lucid dream? What are a few tools that can help?
One is just the power of suggestion. As you're going to sleep, if you just keep quietly telling yourself, "Tonight in my dreams I'll be more critically aware, and when I see something strange, I'll realize I'm dreaming." Just keep repeating that. Back when I was young, I created a technique where I would look at the palms of my hands every night before I went to sleep, and I'd say to myself, "Tonight in my dreams I'll see my hands and realize I'm dreaming."
Another way of approaching this is with the wake-back-to-bed technique, where you set the alarm to wake you up two hours before you normally would. When you wake up, you stay up for 15 or 30 minutes, and you think or read about lucid dreaming. Then as you fall back asleep, remind yourself that in your next dream you'll realize you're dreaming.
I also developed a technique after reading Carlos Castaneda's seminal book, Journey to Ixtlan, that I call the "Modified Castaneda" technique. 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.
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. Practicing repeatedly develops the association between the stimulus (the sight of your hands) and the response ('This is a dream').
How can you wake yourself up from a lucid dream?
Normally when I'm teaching workshops I teach people how to stay in the dream, but if you're in a scary lucid dream and want to wake up, if you stare fixedly at something for more than five seconds, that should cause you to do so. Another thing people can do if they find themselves in a scary lucid dream is close their eyes and spin around, and then they might find themselves in a new lucid dream that's more pleasant.
Are there any risks or side effects of lucid dreaming?
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. If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue, it might not be a good fit for you.
The bottom line.
Most people have had a lucid dream before, but cultivating the ability to lucid dream more frequently will take a bit of practice. bBt once you figure out a technique that works for you, you could be flying through your lucid dream world in no time.
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.