Unlocking Lucidity – What I learned from my month-long quest for dream lucidity
Introductory Musings About Dream Lucidity
The following is a humble exploration of the unconscious and the interplay between mind, meaning and matter. This is a tale of my own subjective experience and the insight I gleaned from it. At no point will I presume to tell you what dreams or even lucidity are. These things differ from person to person. That said, let’s dispel a few things at the outset.
The dream realm is not some sort of Star Trek holodeck-style VR fantasy that’s there for you to master. In fact, I encourage you to be dubious of anyone claiming it is, especially if they have something for sale. The subconscious mind and the information flowing forth from it is more vast and stochastic than we can possibly understand. As author and seasoned oneironaut Robert Waggoner says (hear our podcast with him here), “the sailor does not control the ocean, just as the dreamer does not control the dream.”
Perhaps this goes without saying, but dreams are also not simply the incoherent babbling of the high horsepower contents of your cranium. Nor are they merely an inconsequential world of illusion and nonsense as some propose.
Though I said I wouldn’t define dreams, I’m comfortable saying this–
Everything we’re talking about here is but a minuscule feature of ceaseless information processing, encoding and rendering. It’s just a fraction of the infinite push and pull between your personal, outward-facing awareness and your subjective inner universe. The sum of this process isn’t just dreams, it’s the totality of your qualia. It’s consciousness itself. In fact, once you begin to focus your witnessing eye (more on that later), you’ll find that there’s really no division or difference between any of it. It’s all part of your ocean.
As slippery as all of the above is, I think it’s important to keep it open-ended, flexible by design. So with that, let’s wrap our oneironautic lexicon there.
Set and Setting
For me, this is a time of transformation. In the last year I’ve started a new show, made some of the most important friendships and creative connections of my life and I’ve been lucky enough to create a space for a truly lovely community of curious wonder-seekers via my podcast and media vessel, Third Eye Drops. It’s also been a fascinating year from an internally-facing perspective. I’ve not only taken up a dreaming practice, I’ve done quite a bit of Wim Hof-style cold exposure, breath work, meditation and had a number of entheogenic experiences. Without question, there’s a theme. A theme of boundary-pushing and limit-testing, both internally and externally.
Perhaps I’ll get into all of the reasons why in future musings, but for now, we’re talking about the realm of dreams.
Before this particular experiment, I would have considered my dream life fairly run-of-the-mill. To give you an idea, I’d have something like one memorable dream a week, I’d never had a lucid dream and have only had a handful of what I’d consider remarkable or mystically (for lack of a better word) significant dreams in my entire life. You know that cliche that goes something like – “You dream every night, even if you don’t remember it.”? I’m not even sure if I believed that. Now I know it to be true.
Disappointment Gives Way To Insight
Upon kicking this exercise off, I had pretty grand aspirations that require a little background. There’s an idea among lucid dreamers that within the dream realm there’s an intelligence. According to oneironauts, you can, over time, learn to interact with this intelligence. Carlos Castaneda referred to it as the “dreaming emissary.” My goal for this experiment was to become aware of that intelligence and ask it a question.
Which brought me to another question: How do I become aware within a dream?
That query lead me to a number of techniques, which I eventually turned into a sort of ritual. Though some aspects of it fell away, the following exercises were pretty concrete for the first week or so.
- I began keeping a dream journal and writing in it both before and after bed
- I cleaned and consecrated my room, thinking of it as a sacred space
- I lit incense
- I did a mindfulness meditation to sharpen my awareness before sleep
- I often ate an Eat Dream Be dream bar, had tea and/or took supplements rich in things like Tulsi, Mugwort, Choline and 5-HTP
- I made an effort to stare at my hands obsessively throughout the day so that I’d be trained to check them for anything strange when I was dreaming
- I used the power of suggestion, telling myself: “Tonight in my dreams I will be critically aware, notice when something is strange and realize I’m dreaming” (credit goes to author Robert Waggoner on that technique)
Then there were a whole set of exercises after waking as well. After all, dreams are incredibly ephemeral and once they’re gone, they’re often gone.
I found that if didn’t want to lose a dream, I really had to make every effort to do the following:
- Don’t move and try to keep an uninterrupted continuity of awareness between dreaming and waking
- Memorialize your dream memories in a journal as quickly as possible upon waking
- Capture as much detail as you possibly can, even if it seems inconsequential
- If possible and if you have time, you may be able to go back to sleep and return to a dream after waking if you can maintain your continuity of awareness
- Do a dream-share a couple of times a week with close friends to solidify and help ascribe meaning to your dreams
Given that all of this was new, it was pretty anxiety inducing. The opposite of what I’d imagined in some ways. After the first week or so, I felt like the pressure to have dreams and achieve my goal was actually compromising the quality of sleep and, in turn, my dreams. I was double-wicking the candle, working on various projects throughout the day as usual, then having to also focus on and stress about something I was doing not only at night, but as I slept. It was at that point that I started to rethink my approach.
Novelty, Not Control
As I mentioned near the outset, it’s not just a platitude, dreams really do happen every night whether you remember them or not. As that fact began to manifest, I realized I didn’t need to go to a tremendous amount of pomp and circumstance as some sort of ritualistic gesture to gain this hypothetical dreaming emissary’s favor. I just needed to relax, be mindful and pay attention. After all, this really is an exercise is mindfulness. If you can’t be present and in the moment during the day, you’re not going to be able to do it in the unconscious either. Upon that realization is when things started to happen. I began to see a connection between
what I was carrying in my mind and how it impacted my subconscious and, in turn, my dreams. I did my utmost to carry what I’ve come to call a “witnessing eye” from waking, through the hypnogogic realm (the liminal portal between waking and sleeping). I found that in this in-between space, there’s a sort of handoff and relinquishment that occurs. I imagined myself as Hermes carrying the caduceus of my consciousness between the realms of here and there (wherever “there” is).
Actually, I’m not sure if terms like “here” and “there” really apply because it implies that waking and dreaming are disparate states. As I’ve developed my witnessing eye the, feeling that there’s some sort of discontinuity between dreaming and waking has begun to fade. Perhaps the transition between waking and sleeping is less of a handoff and more of a dampening. In other words, the volume on outward-facing, sense-based consciousness is turned down and what’s left is the quiet hum of your mind. The engine of your imagination. The gateway to thought, novelty and the unconscious.
As insightful as that was, as hard as I tried, I found that a part of you goes through the transition, but a lot of you doesn’t. That’s where the relinquishment comes in. Even if you do manage to bring the “witnessing eye” through to sleep, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will gain control of your dream. It’s as if you’re watching a semi-interactive 360-degree movie in a language you barely speak and half the time you’re not even aware of the fact that you’re watching it. Still, these realiziations felt like a significant step toward understanding dream lucidity.
The Path Isn’t Linear
I would love to tell you that dream exploration is a skill like any other, but it’s not. Practice doesn’t lead to a linear boost in proficiency. This isn’t like a doing subconscious pushups. As I’ve learned firsthand and heard from other experienced oneironauts, it’s normal to go long periods of time where you have no lucidity in your dreams. You might not even remember any for a stretch of time (in fact, I’m in a bit of a slump right now). This is an extremely important point because there’s a lot of people out there claiming to have mastered their dreams. Steer as clear as you can from that sort of expectation, it leads to disappointment. Remember, what we’re dealing with here is inherently slippery and fleeting, it’s not something you can wrestle into submission. That said, be persistent. Yes, earlier I said too ornate of a bedtime ritual can be counter-productive, but you do need something of a structure and practice.
I want to stress that this is what worked best for me personally. It’s certainly not a panacea. In fact think all of the techniques I listed above are useful. That said, my ritual wound up looking something like this:
- No screen time for at least 30 minutes before bed
- Brew up some bedtime tea, eat a Dream Bar and/or pop some supplements
- Rev-up the theater of the mind with a (preferably esoteric) book and some meditation
- Be mindful or “watch” yourself falling asleep and maintain that witnessing eye for as long as possible
- When you wake up don’t move, do your best to recall whatever you can and immediately write in your dream journal
Trippy, Esoterically Significant and Possibly Lucid Dreams
Let’s get to the creamy center of all of this. I did have a few extremely notable dreams throughout this process.
The first came after reading a particularly trippy section of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (like I said, woo-woo reading helps). Specifically a portion in which the text discusses the significance of various colors of light and beings you may encounter upon dying.
While dreaming that night, I came into contact with something remarkably similar to what I’d just read about. An amorphous, seemingly intelligent field of disembodied consciousness. It’s hard to put into words precisely why, but it felt like the representation of a lineage or a collection of teachings. It felt as if it was saying “we’re here” inviting me in if I wished to enter it.
Though I don’t recall lucidity per se in this particular dream, it blew me away. I had never experienced anything like it.
Another peculiar and thought-provoking one had to do with a different sort of foreign intelligence. This may also be the closest I got to my original goal of wielding my will to commune with the dreaming emissary.
A little context- a close friend and I went to a conference that was positively soaked with self-proclaimed star children. One guy in particular who was sporting a tennis ball-sized crystal of some sort around his neck actually claimed to be an extraterrestrial. A fact he was apparently very eager to reveal considering he told us within roughly 20 seconds of shaking our hands. Anyway, that encounter led to a sort of running inside joke between this friend and I, but it also led to some serious thoughts. Specifically, how does one sincerely arrive at the conclusion that they’re an alien? As out-there as that question sounds, it’s actually quite a rabbit hole and it stuck with me for quite sometime.
Now that we’ve established my mind-scape, one evening, in the wake of E.T. Gate scenario, as I drifted off to sleep I came into contact with something. It was enormous, sentient, disembodied and alien. Again, it was quite eager to portray itself as such. For obvious reasons, something felt off. I knew this had to be a dream. So I fired at it with a skeptical sentiment amounting to something like: “How do I know you’re not me?” It seemed surprised by my question, paused and responded “I am you.”
I have a lot of thoughts about this dream. For instance, what if I had chosen to take the amorphous UFO at its word? What if I had believed it? Maybe I could have convinced myself I met an alien, or even came to the conclusion I, myself, was one like our crystalline friend. Also, could this intelligence have been the dreaming emissary or the manifestation of some sort of Jungian archetype?
But that wasn’t the only UFO.
As related as this may sound to the previous dream, it actually stems from another source of inspiration. For several nights in a row, I fell asleep reading Terence McKenna’s Archaic Revival, a collection of his musings that deal heavily with encountering what he calls “the other,” “the soul,” “the transcendent object at the end of time” or the “UFO.” If you’re not familiar with his philosophy, you may need to contextualize those terms a bit to see how they relate.
Anyway, on one of my McKenna nights, upon dozing off and entering hypnogogia, my mind’s eye encountered something not dissimilar to a fractal tryptamine haze, similar to what you might see upon ingesting a sufficient dose of Psilocybin. The similarities between hypnogogic swirls and psychedelic visions had occurred to me before, but on this evening with McKenna’s words fresh in my mind, I felt as if I was having visions of not just random fractals, but a massive object. Somehow, I was able to zoom-out my awareness until it appeared to be a gigantic swirling galactic fractal comprised of countless smaller atomic fractals.
At first, I didn’t consider this to be a lucid dream, but upon sharing the dream and thinking about it further, I believe I was consciously interacting with it and exploring it.
Was This Experiment Successful?
Did I have some wild insights and borderline lucid dreams? Yes. Am I now an expert lucid dreamer? Absolutely not, in fact, I’m not sure I’m particularly gifted in this area. Perhaps this answer is a bit of a cop out, but the best thing I can come up with is that there really is no success or failure to be had here. This exercise is exploratory. In fact I’m tempted to rattle off fluffy platitudes about how life is about journeys, not destinations. As true as that is in this (and all other inward-facing endeavors), I’ll spare you of that.
My advice to you as a human being with a vast inner-world capable of conjuring and experiencing limitless wonder is this – start playing, it’s your birthright. Actually, the fact that everyone isn’t exploring themselves more through the vessel of dreaming boggles the mind. In doing so, you’ll learn your hidden language. You’ll get to know parts of yourself you didn’t even know existed. I’m talking deep-seeded elements of yourself beneath the shroud of ego and culture.
Grab some paper, set a goal, curate a ritual, gather a tribe, don’t get discouraged, rev up your mind with some wonder, focus and see what happens.