Lucid dreaming means dreaming while knowing that you are dreaming. The term was coined by Frederik van Eeden who used the word "lucid" in the sense of mental clarity. Lucidity usually begins in the midst of a dream when the dreamer realizes that the experience is not occurring in physical reality, but is a dream. Often this realization is triggered by the dreamer noticing some impossible or unlikely occurrence in the dream, such as flying or meeting the deceased. Sometimes people become lucid without noticing any particular clue in the dream; they just suddenly realize they are in a dream. A minority of lucid dreams (according to the research of LaBerge and colleagues, about 10 percent) are the result of returning to REM (dreaming) sleep directly from an awakening with unbroken reflective consciousness.
The basic definition of lucid dreaming requires nothing more than becoming aware that you are dreaming. However, the quality of lucidity can vary greatly. When lucidity is at a high level, you are aware that everything experienced in the dream is occurring in your mind, that there is no real danger, and that you are asleep in bed and will awaken shortly. With low-level lucidity you may be aware to a certain extent that you are dreaming, perhaps enough to fly or alter what you are doing, but not enough to realize that the people are dream representations, or that you can suffer no physical damage, or that you are actually in bed.
Lucidity is not synonymous with dream control. It is possible to be lucid and have little control over dream content, and conversely, to have a great deal of control without being explicitly aware that you are dreaming. However, becoming lucid in a dream is likely to increase the extent to which you can deliberately influence the course of events. Once lucid, dreamers usually choose to do something permitted only by the extraordinary freedom of the dream state, such as flying.
You always have the choice of how much control you want to exert. For example, you could continue with whatever you were doing when you became lucid, with the added knowledge that you are dreaming. Or you could try to change everything--the dream scene, yourself, other dream characters. It is not always possible to perform "magic" in dreams, like changing one object into another or transforming scenes. A dreamer's ability to succeed at this seems to depend a lot on the dreamer's confidence. As Henry Ford said, "Believe you can, believe you can't; either way, you're right." On the other hand, it appears there are some constraints on dream control that may be independent of belief.
A mysterious and highly controversial phenomenon sometimes occurs in which people experience the compelling sensation that they have somehow "left their bodies." The "out-of-body experience" or "OBE", as this fascinating phenomenon is usually termed, takes a variety of forms. In the most typical, you are lying in bed, apparently awake, when suddenly you experience a range of primarily somatic sensations, often including vibrations, heaviness, and paralysis. Then you experience the vivid sensation of separating from your "physical body" in what feels like a second body, often floating above the bed.
It is important to note the distinction between the phenomenal reality of the OBE and the various interpretations of the experience. What is really happening when you feel yourself "leaving your body"? According to one school of thought, what is actually happening is just what it feels like: you are moving in a second body out of and away from your physical body--in physical space. But this "explanation" doesn't hold up very well under examination. After all, the body we ordinarily feel ourselves to be (or if you like, to inhabit) is a phenomenal or mental body rather than a physical body. The space we see around us is not physical space as "common sense" tells us, but as modern psychology makes clear, a phenomenal or mental space. In general, our consciousness is a mental model of the world.
OBE enthusiasts promote lucid dreaming as a "stepping stone" to the OBE. Conversely, many lucid dreamers have had the experience of feeling themselves "leave the body" at the onset of a lucid dream. OBEs can occur in the same physiological state as lucid dreams. Wake-initiated lucid dreams (WILDs) were three times more likely to be labeled "OBEs" than dream initiated lucid dreams. If you believe yourself to have been awake, then you are more likely to take the experience at face value and believe yourself to have literally left your physical body in some sort of mental or "astral" body floating around in the "real" physical world. If, on the other hand, you think of the experience as a dream, then you are likely to identify the OBE body as a dream body image and the environment of the experience as a dream world.
Upon hearing about lucid dreaming for the first time, people often ask, "Why should I want to have lucid dreams? What are they good for?" If you consider that once you know you are dreaming, you are restricted only by your ability to imagine and conceive, not by laws of physics or society, then the answer to what lucid dreaming is good for is either extremely simple (anything!) or extraordinarily complex (everything!). Lucid dreaming is the stepping stone to Dream Yoga, so we learn lucid dreaming with that ultimate goal. Here are some examples of the other potential uses for lucid dreaming:
- Adventure and Fantasy
Often, the first thing that attracts people to lucid dreaming is the potential for wild adventure and fantasy fulfillment. Flying is a favorite lucid dream delight, as is sex. Many people have said that their first lucid dream was the most wonderful experience of their lives. A large part of the extraordinary pleasure of lucid dreaming comes from the exhilarating feeling of utter freedom that accompanies the realization that you are in a dream and there will be no social or physical consequences of your actions. One might think that this is a rather intellectual concept, but an ecstatic "rush" frequently arises with the first realization that one is dreaming.
- Overcoming Nightmares
Unfortunately for many people, instead of providing an outlet for unlimited fantasy and delight, dreams can be dreaded episodes of limitless terror. As is discussed in the books Lucid Dreaming (LaBerge, 1985) and Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (EWLD) (LaBerge & Rheingold, 1990), lucid dreaming may well be the basis of the most effective therapy for nightmares. If you know you are dreaming, it is a simple logical step to realizing that nothing in your current experience, however unpleasant, can cause you physical harm. There is no need to run from or fight with dream monsters. In fact, it is often pointless to try, because the horror pursuing you was conceived in your own mind, and as long as you continue to fear it, it can pursue you wherever you dream yourself to be. The only way to really "escape" is to end your fear.
Unreasonable fear can be defused by facing up to the source, or going through with the frightening activity, so that you observe that no harm comes to you. In a nightmare, this act of courage can take any form that involves facing the "threat" rather than avoiding it. For example, one young man dreamt of being pursued by a lion. When he had no place left to run, he realized he was dreaming and called to the lion to "come and get him." The challenge turned into a playful wrestling match, and the lion became a sexy woman (NightLight 1.4, 1989, p. 13). Monsters often transform into benign creatures, friends, or empty shells when courageously confronted in lucid dreams. This is an extremely empowering experience. It teaches you in a very visceral manner that you can conquer fear and thereby become stronger.
Lucid dreaming is an extraordinarily vivid form of mental imagery, so realistic that the trick is to realize it is a mental construct. It is no surprise, therefore, that many people use lucid dreaming to rehearse for success in waking life. Examples of such applications include public speaking, difficult confrontations, artistic performance and athletic prowess. Because the activity of the brain during a dreamed activity is the same as during the real event, neuronal patterns of activation required for a skill (like a ski jump or pirouette) can be established in the dream state in preparation for performance in the waking world.
- Creativity and Problem Solving
The creative potential of dreams is legendary. The brain is highly active in REM sleep and unconstrained by sensory input, which together may contribute to the novel combinations of events and objects we experience as dream bizarreness. This same novelty allows thought to take on forms that are rare in waking life, manifesting as enhanced creativity, or defective thinking depending on one's point of view (As Roland Fisher put it, "One man's creativity is another's brain damage."). The claim of enhanced creativity of the dream state is supported by LI research: One study found word associations immediately after awakening from a dream to be 29% more likely to be uncommon compared to word associations later in the day (NightLight, 6.4, 1994). Another study comparing a variety of kinds of experience including daydreams, memories of actual events, and dreams, found that dreams were judged as being significantly more creative than both daydreams and memories (NL, 4.1, 1992). In any case, many lucid dreamers report using dreams for problem solving and artistic inspiration.
The effects of visual imagery on the body are well-established. Just as skill practice in a dream can enhance waking performance, healing dream imagery may improve physical health. Medical patients have often used soothing and positive imagery to alleviate pain, and the dream world offers the most vivid form of imagery. Thus, some people have use lucid dreams in overcoming phobias, working with grief, decreasing social and sexual anxieties, achieving greater self-confidence and by directing the body image in the dream to facilitate physical healing. The applications, which are described in greater detail in EWLD, deserve clinical study, as they may be the greatest boon that lucid dreaming has to offer. Other potential healing applications of lucid dreaming include: practice of physical skills by stroke and spinal cord injury patients to encourage recovery of neuromuscular function, enjoyment of sexual satisfaction by people with lower body sensory loss (fully satisfying dream sex requires only mental stimulation!), more rapid recovery from injury or disease through the use of lucid dream imagery, and an increased sense of freedom for anyone who feels limited by disability or circumstance.
The experience of being in a lucid dream clearly demonstrates the astonishing fact that the world we see is a construct of our minds. This concept, so elusive when sought in waking life, is the cornerstone of spiritual teachings. It forces us to look beyond everyday experience and ask, "If this is not real, what is?" Lucid dreaming, by so baldly baring a truth that many spend lives seeking, often triggers spiritual questioning in people who try it for far more mundane purposes. Not only does lucid dreaming lead to questioning the nature of reality, but for many it also has been a source of transcendent experience. Exalted and ecstatic states are common in lucid dreams.