BEN J HENRY
BEN J HENRY
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Photo by Elizabeth Sagan
In a lucid dream, the dreamer becomes aware that they are dreaming. They ‘wake up’ within the dream, conscious within their subconscious. Lucid dreamers know that everything around them is a construct of their mind, and are sometimes able to manipulate the dream environment, generating landscapes, structures and characters at will. Each of us dream for two hours every night, and lucid dreaming is how to make the most of these dreams.
As interest in the phenomenon arises, more people are questioning whether they have experienced a lucid dream. Let’s explore what qualifies as lucid dreaming, and dispel some of the myths surrounding it. From habit making and breaking to boosting creativity, I’ll introduce you to some benefits of lucid dreaming, and why you should learn to do it.
Was that a lucid dream?
You walk into the room. Pause. Scratch your head.
What was I looking for?
You scan the tables and shelves, hoping that the phone, or the pen—or whatever it was you came in for—will make itself known.
We’ve all been there. We had a goal, got distracted by our thoughts, entered autopilot and then couldn’t remember what we were meant to be doing. Slipping in and out of daydreams, our conscious attention drifts between past, present and future events. We lose the present moment and forget the goal.
In a dream, there is only the present moment. Whether you’re chasing after a runaway pet or calling the police on Aunt Sally, you don’t always know how the situation arose, or where it might lead you. A dream is the present moment without the conscious attention. Nothing but autopilot. Unless, of course, you’re lucid…
In a lucid dream, you are fully aware of what you are doing. Those mental faculties that make us human, allowing us to think critically and cast our mind back and forth along the mental timeline—these are active in a lucid dream. We can ask ourselves what we were doing and how we got there. We step out of autopilot.
Have you noticed that in a dream you are rarely still? Our nocturnal adventures are filled with motion, perhaps allowing the brain to test motor circuits ahead of the new day. We’re always doing something. Cast your mind back along your mental timeline to the last dream you remember. Were you finding someone, fighting something, or heading somewhere? Were you dashing to make it to class on time in an unfamiliar building, trying to find the bus stop for the beach, or leaping out of a crumbling temple? (All of which I dreamt last week.) And these goals evolve. You might go to the beach to meet a friend and next thing you know, you’re in the water, swimming from a shark. That friend you were looking for? They’ll be lucky to get a second thought—it’s all about the shark now. And it will be all about that shark until the goal changes, or you wake up.
I’ve been lucid dreaming for half my life, and people often tell me that they might have had a lucid dream. ‘But I’m not sure…’
Let’s imagine you’re being chased by that shark and you fly out of the water, soaring into the sky like Superman. Flying—that’s got to be a lucid dream, right? You can’t fly in real life! Unfortunately, while many lucid dreamers enjoy the thrill of blasting through the clouds, an event or ability not possible in real life does not qualify as a lucid dream.
Taking the same example, imagine you escape the shark by conjuring a speedboat, or turning the shark into a goldfish. Control of your dreams—classic hallmark of a lucid dream! However, while it can be possible to alter the dream environment, we must look to the motivation. If you’re changing the dream to evade the shark, it’s not a lucid dream; if you knew you were dreaming, you would know that the shark was a figment of your imagination. So why would you fear it?
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Before achieving lucidity, dreamers may find themselves in an interim state, where they think they are dreaming, but continue following the same objective. They’re flying, firing lightning bolts from their fingertips—whatever gets their blood pumping—but they’re doing so to escape something, to get somewhere on time, or to impress the other people in the dream. Those lightning bolts may be cool, but those dream characters aren’t real. You’re impressing nobody but yourself.
Like believing it’s a dream, control of the environment does not in itself define a lucid dream. Often in lucid dreams, I have been perfectly aware that I was dreaming, but unable to fly or alter the dreamscape. It’s a battle of will versus expectation—you know you should be able to walk through that wall, or leap atop that building, but expectation is holding you back.
So, if flying, controlling the environment and believing it’s a dream doesn’t count, how do I know if I’ve had a lucid dream?
In a fully lucid dream, you are aware that everything around you, from the environment to its people, is a construct of your mind. You know that you are asleep in bed and that everything you see is a combination of imagination and memory. Unlike stepping into that room and trying to remember why you entered it, you know exactly why you got here: you fell asleep. Rather than trying to remember that goal, you realise that there are no goals here. You are free to do absolutely nothing at all. Or absolutely anything you can imagine.
So, next time you wake up and wonder if you just experienced a lucid dream, ask yourself: ‘Did I know that everything around me was the product of my mind?’ If the answer is yes, welcome to the club.
We all slip from the present moment into the past and future, engaging autopilot during daydreams. Through the practice of lucid dreaming, you can train your mind to stay focused. To stay aware. To stay present and stop daydreaming through life. And that’s not the only reason why nearly 1 in 4 people dream lucidly every month…
What are the benefits of lucid dreaming?
Lucid dreaming is not all flying around, conjuring dream characters. For many oneironauts (dream explorers), productivity does not end when the lights go out. Lucid dreams provide fertile ground for self-improvement, and the chance to wake up a better version of yourself.
None of us is perfect. Through personality tests like Myers-Briggs, and more online quizzes than you could complete in a national lockdown, we judge ourselves on strengths and weaknesses. Some flaws may be hidden to us, and others we make our peace with (I’ll never be able to sing in tune; that’s fine!), but we all have aspects of our personalities that we would like to change. Identifying the traits worth changing can be challenging enough, and without the right strategies in place, what follows can be even harder.
Imagine you wanted to get better at public speaking. Not everybody aspires to be a politician, a comedian or a gameshow host, but the ability to speak before a group of people without trembling like a newborn foal is likely to come in handy for all of us. Perhaps you’re asked to speak at a wedding or a funeral, pulled into a boardroom to share your area of expertise, or convinced to talk at a job fair at your local school—it could happen! As you know, practise makes perfect, but it’s not like you can barge into the nearest assembly and make a request: ‘Anyone for a best man speech?’
And while testing out your material on Aunt Sally may prove satisfying (that smile!), it’s not the same as a room full of people judging you. Without large audiences to practise on, you may find yourself rehearsing that speech alone. Clowns aside, none of us want to trip up in front of an audience: there’s something in us—something primal—that lurches at the idea of being negatively judged. And the antidote to this tribal survival mechanism? Confidence.
Since confidence is a state of mind, the power of suggestion goes a long way. In hypnosis, suggestions are planted while the subject is ‘under’: not consciously aware, but absorbing those positive statements like a sponge. In a lucid dream, you don’t need an outside influence connecting with your subconscious: you can do it yourself. In a lucid dream, you tell yourself what to believe.
A study in Scientific American showed that people who were deprived of water before they slept felt less thirsty upon waking if they drank in their dreams. Crazy, right? Just the act of drinking in a dream was enough to reduce thirst. That’s how powerful the subconscious is. I’m not encouraging you to save on your water bill by drinking exclusively in dreams (Aunt Sally would be called on to speak publicly at your funeral pretty swiftly) but let’s consider what other influences we might have on the subconscious.
If I were to ask you to name one or two bad habits, what would you say? Smoking? Biting your nails? Interrupting people? It shouldn’t be hard to think of one or two. Rather than downloading the latest self-improvement app or enlisting the help of a hypnotist, why not try to better yourself through lucid dreaming? Pick a statement, and repeat it during a lucid dream:
I do not bite my nails.
I don’t need to shop online to make myself happy.
I will not download that app again!
That may sound like science fiction, but bad habits are simply the repetition of unconscious patterns. We can break these patterns, replacing them with more desirable ones.
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The same is true for habit forming. On the first of January every year, many of us generate a list of goals that we have either forgotten by Easter, or failed miserably. (I say many of us—perhaps you’re the exception? Well done you!) In order to form a habit, the desired pattern must be created. According to Dr Phillippa Lally at UCL, it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. Why? Because it takes time to train ourselves into thinking: this is what I do now.
While it’s important to make peace with our limitations, and be grateful for what we have, it’s also healthy to identify just one or two areas in which we could improve. Through lucid dreaming, you can take a proactive approach to realising these goals.
Can lucid dreaming boost creativity?
Whatever your creative interests, from art and architecture to photography and film, you’re likely to hit dry spells, where those creative juices that once flowed so easily appear to have evaporated. It’s not surprising that so many artists, like William Blake and Salvador Dali, found inspiration in the playground of their dreams. So what happens when you bring awareness into the dream state?
Many of us dream of the same locations, repeatedly visiting places that we have never seen in waking life. These locations can become as familiar as places in the real world, with the dreamer knowing what to expect when they turn each corner—each subsequent dream reinforcing their expectations. It is impossible to know whether this unfamiliar location is a place or a combination of places that you once experienced, or entirely the product of your imagination. Could you have seen that house with the grand spiral staircase in an advert last month? Regardless of where it came from, why do you keep gravitating to it?
In a lucid dream, we can choose the locations. We can explore our old homes and favourite childhood spots, venturing into rooms and seeing what memories unfold. Literally walking down memory lane, we sift through our memory banks like old photo albums, waking with a compulsion to reach for Whatsapp: ‘Do you remember that time…’
Or we can choose to create something else entirely. Once I have planned to write a scene for my novel that involves a new location, I visit this location in a lucid dream. I explore the scene, searching for details that I might capture, in an environment infinitely more engaging than closing my eyes at my desk. In a lucid dream, you co-create with your subconscious.
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We all fantasize about that perfect place: a treehouse when you’re younger; that dream home or beachside villa when you’re older. Grand or cosy, replete with gadgets or stripped back to the basics, we design a slice of personal paradise. Technology strives to help us realise these dreams: if you buy a sofa online, you can use augmented reality to see what it would look like in your home. In the 2020 television adaptation of Huxley’s Brave New World, the characters wear biomorphic contact lenses to ‘show’ each other potential outfits for the evening. Technology continues to bridge the chasm between what we see and what we ‘have in mind’. In a lucid dream, there is no chasm. You can experiment in the highest definition, designing your perfect outfit, your new bedroom, that dream house…
Or that dream world. Remember the fantasy landscapes you constructed with a few crayons and a generous take on physical proportions? We’ve always hungered for the otherworldly. As James Cameron used lucid dreaming to inspire Avatar, so might we use those two hours of dreaming every night to get creative.
For those who have already started lucid dreaming, I’ve found the best way to change your location is to throw yourself through a window. Disclaimer: this is not effective in waking life. In the dream, picture where you want to go—that beach, volcanic peak, or whatever backdrop you need as a canvas—and then hurl yourself through the glass. This gives your brain the opportunity to generate a new landscape, drawn from your expectation.
But perhaps you’re not ready to lucid dream. Is there something holding you back?
Is it bad to lucid dream?
When the topic arises, I occasionally hear: ‘Is lucid dreaming dangerous?’. Over the past three years, I have experienced nearly one hundred lucid dreams, and do not consider the practise remotely dangerous. There are, however, considerations for those with existing mental health conditions.
In people who have certain mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, lucid dreams may blur the line between what’s real and what’s imagined. It is therefore not advisable for individuals with schizophrenia, or similar mental health disorders, to engage in the practise.
For the vast majority of the population, lucid dreams are perfectly safe and healthy, so long as you continue to get the natural sleep that you need. Sleep is a fundamental biological need, and must be prioritised, so lucid dreaming can only be considered ‘bad for you’ if you are constantly changing your sleep patterns. Since lucid dreaming takes place in the REM phase of sleep, when the body is not repairing and regrowing tissue, you should wake well rested after a lucid dream. In fact, I often feel more energised upon waking, buoyant with energy following the creative experience.
Some of the techniques suggested to achieve lucid dreams involve waking up and going to sleep at certain times. I suggest avoiding these techniques at first, and using them sparingly if you do choose to take a more proactive approach to increase your chances of lucidity. Lucid dreams may be the best way you can spend your sleeping hours, but the techniques to achieve them should not compromise a healthy sleeping pattern.
While on the subject of mental health, lucid dreaming has been used to treat acute nightmares, and is being researched as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. At the Brain Institute and University Hospital in Brazil, Dr. Mota-Rolim believes that lucid dreaming could be an effective way of treating the recurrent nightmares of PTSD patients. Research into the scope of lucid dreaming for psychological benefits is still in its infancy—watch this space.
How to lucid dream?
Anyone can learn to lucid dream. 55% of people have already experienced lucid dreaming, and 23% wake up within the dream at least once a month. If you are one of these people, why not lend a helping hand and share your success stories on my Facebook page.
If you know which habits you want to make or break, need inspiration for an architecture project or interior design, are choreographing a dance, looking to break a pattern of nightmares, desensitise yourself to a phobia, or just want to know what a steampunk version of Aunt Sally would look like, check out my FREE GUIDE. This 20-minute read includes step-by-step instructions on how to achieve a lucid dream and make better use of that month of every year that you spend dreaming.
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