What Lucid Dreaming Tells Us About Life
Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Experience
In the quiet moments of life, the deeper questions emerge: Who am I? what am I? and what is the purpose of my existence?
We search not just for answers but for experiences that nourish and fulfill us. Life is full of many mysteries, including the mystery of our being.
Where to begin the journey of discovery?
One approach is to explore the relationship between waking and dreaming. In the opening quote of this essay, Emerson notes that we move from dream to dream. He equates our waking life—what many call “the real world”—with a dream. He states there is “no end to illusion,” that life is just a string of dreams, one after another.
Yet, what if we could awaken to a higher awareness of our potentiality in the waking state, just as we can move from our ordinary dream state into the realm of lucid dreaming?
Though we think of dreams as unreal and our waking experiences as real, each experience is as real as the other, in that both experiences take shape in our minds. We can awaken from both states into a heightened sense of reality. From the dream state, we can achieve lucid dreams. And from our waking state, we can experience our potential to manifest all that we can envision.
Both our dreams and waking lives are created by a mixture of sense impressions, thought, memory and imagination, all supported by our physical bodies. This combination ensures that each of us has a unique experience of reality. There is no one real world out there; rather there are as many worlds as there are individuals. In Emerson’s essay Experience, he illustrates this idea:
“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world with their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.”
Our mood, which is a synthesis of all parts of our being at any given moment, shapes our view of reality. The spiritual quest is to awaken from the dream of life—the “train of moods”—into an expanded awareness that is more fulfilling than the limited scope of our habitual, practiced reality.
This essay seeks to highlight methods for awakening to a heightened sense of reality from both the dream state and the waking state.
The Nature of Dreams
When you go to sleep at night and begin to dream, you are not conscious that you have just fallen asleep and are dreaming. As the dream takes over, you forget that your body is lying asleep in bed, and suddenly the dream becomes real to you. You have real thoughts and real emotions throughout the dream.
We do not question the reality of what appears in dreams. One night I had a dream where I was at a friend’s house and their dog walked into the room and started talking to me. I thought to myself in the dream, “How amazing that dogs now talk!” Even in my amazement, I accepted reality as it was presented to me: talking dogs!
When I awoke from the dream, I realized of course that I had been dreaming. But the reality of the dream had sprung from my own consciousness and was thereby a product of it — I both created the dream and accepted it as reality.
In the dream we dream ourselves into being. We are both the dreamer, the creator of the dream, and the dreamed character. I am creating myself and neither my body in bed nor me in the dream is aware of the dream process taking place.
What Is Lucid Dreaming?
A lucid dream is when one becomes conscious, in the midst of the dream, that they are dreaming.
Becoming lucid in a dream opens your awareness to subtle dimensions of your mind. Exploring these subtle dimensions can give you invaluable insights into yourself. In this lucid state you can also create any experience that you can imagine. The only limit to the lucid reality is your ability to imagine. My favorite reality to create is that of me flying; I always wake up the next morning with a visceral feeling of elation.
Lucid Dreaming Techniques
Lucidity can occur naturally when someone or something in the dream triggers an awareness that you are dreaming. I recently became lucid when I saw someone in the dream who had passed away a few years earlier, and it occurred to me in the dream that I must be dreaming. In other dreams, I interacted with my grandfather who had passed away years earlier, and I did not become lucid.
Aside from becoming lucid naturally, there are two basic methods to explore: either enteringthe dream state consciously or becoming conscious in the midst of the dream.
To become conscious in the midst of a dream, one technique is to use an alarm that plays a sound you would like to incorporate into your dream. I find that nature sounds, such as gentle rain, can easily become a part of my dream; when the rain appears, I remember that I am dreaming. I usually set that alarm for 1-2 hours before I have to get up so there is time to lucid dream. (I also set a regular buzzer alarm for the actual time I need to get up as it is easy to sleep through the nature sounds.)
Another technique, used to enter the dream state consciously, is to hold onto breath awareness while your body falls asleep and you take on a dream body. With this method, you gradually lose awareness of your physical body while falling into the dream state. Utilize your breath to guide you into a state of deeper and deeper relaxation. Just as you transition into sleep you take on a dream body. Staying conscious during this transition to the dream body takes practice and is challenging but possible.
One night, I fell asleep with a severe toothache. That night I had a lucid dream and noted to myself that there was no tooth pain. The pain was in my physical body and not in my dream body! As I began to awaken that morning, I became conscious of my physical body in bed and the moment I did the pain was waiting for me. This ability to disassociate from the physical body is used in many pain management techniques.
To learn lucid dreaming, I suggest books by Stephen La Berge, Ph.D. There are also devices you can use to help you become lucid, but I would suggest exploring those after reading a book or two. Modern movies such as Waking Life and The Good Night offer a straightforward look at the topic. The Matrix and Inception are also good but throw in plot twists and science fiction elements that can confuse and complicate the understanding of lucid dreaming.