Why is it so hard to motivate people to sleep better? Sleep is vital to human health, yet many of us get much less of it than we truly need. Sleep deprivation causes devastating personal and social damage, including more frequent accidents, injuries, illnesses, and behavioral problems. But people rarely make a serious, sustained effort to improve their sleep habits. Why not?
One reason is the common assumption that sleep is just an empty void, a barren gap of nothingness between times of being awake. Who wants to prioritize something that’s empty and blank?
But here’s the thing: that common assumption is false. Sleep is not empty. It includes a highly active mode of brain-mind functioning that has stimulated the creative works of artists, visionaries, and innovators throughout history. The better you sleep, the more fully your mind can enter into this natural mode of enhanced mental creativity. Once you become more conscious of your mind's activities in sleep, you can begin to develop its powers and focus its creative energies wherever you choose.
Psychologists call this “lucid dreaming,” a modern term for an experience that was well-known to ancient cultures. Early teachings from Hinduism and Buddhism talked about conscious awareness in sleep as a kind of meditation that goes beyond the waking state. Philosophers from classical Greece admired the potential in sleep for a pure form of mental clarity. In many indigenous cultures, shamanic healers were trained to become conscious within sleep so they could seek out cures for people who were sick.
The human mind is capable of becoming conscious and active during the state of sleep—that’s the common thread in all these historical traditions. Combining this with the findings of modern psychology, it becomes clear that lucid dreaming is a natural power of the human mind. Everyone has this potential in their sleep. You have this potential. It’s simply waiting for you to actualize it.
A good way to start that process is by observing and identifying the levels of awareness in your current sleep and dreams. You may be surprised to find there are already many elements of lucidity in your dreams right now; you just hadn’t noticed them before.
The practice is easy. When you go to sleep each night, repeat to yourself: “I’m going to be more aware tonight when I sleep and dream.” When you wake up each morning, write down whatever dreams you can remember. If nothing comes to you, that’s fine, don’t worry about it. If you do remember a dream, write it down and give it a score based on the following scale of awareness, which I’ve adapted from Purcell et al., 1993:
Levels of Lucidity
- You are not present in the dream, and the content is vague. (For example, “Something about chasing.”)
- You are present as an observer, and the content includes some details. (“I see someone being chased by a monster.”)
- You observe and think about the content, which includes more specific details. (“I see a dark-haired man being chased by a monster near a house, and I wonder where they have come from.”)
- You are a character in the dream, but with no power or agency. (“I am being chased by a monster in my house, and I can’t get away and I start to panic.”)
- You are a character in the dream, with some power and agency. (“A monster chases me, and I decide my best option is to hide in the basement.”)
- You gain some control of the dream contents. (“While a monster looks for me upstairs, I realize my car is outside, and I drive away to safety.”)
- You gain full control of the dream contents. (“A monster comes into my house, but I calmly turn on the television really loud, and the monster goes away.”)
- You gain some control of the process of dreaming. (“A monster comes into my house, and I magically pause the dream to block it from getting me.”)
- You gain full awareness and control within the dream. (“A monster comes into my house, but I know that’s the start of a chasing dream, so I switch the scene to a beach where I’m flying over the ocean.”)
- You actively shape the unfolding of the dream with your conscious intentions. (“I realize I am dreaming, and I decide I should go back in time to my family home, where I can learn more about my childhood hopes and fears.”)
Most dreams are in the 1 to 6 range. Many people have experienced dreams at the 7 and 8 levels, but rarely. Only a few people have experienced dreams at the 9 and 10 levels, although virtually anyone with the right training and practice has the potential to experience dreams reaching the highest levels of conscious awareness.
If you record your dreams using this scale, you will quickly discover which scenarios bring the most lucidity into your sleeping mind. You will learn what kinds of dreams stimulate your consciousness, and what kinds of dreams block or diminish it. Maybe you have dreams with less awareness during the week, and dreams with more awareness on the weekends. Maybe there are certain things you do during the day, or people you see, or places you go, that have a direct impact on the lucidity levels of your dreams. Perhaps your awareness varies depending on what you eat, or when you exercise, or what you watch on TV.
This is valuable information to know about yourself, and you can use it to guide the development of a lucid dreaming practice that is focused directly on your needs and interests.
There are many different methods and techniques available for increasing the frequency of lucid dreaming, all of which have their pros and cons depending on the individual dreamer. A method can be very effective for some people, but completely useless for others. You will have an easier time finding the approach that works best for you if you start by learning about your own natural patterns of awareness in sleep.
Once you establish a solid foundation of healthy sleep, you can train your mind to become an amazing source of creativity and innovation. I suggest you begin your journey of lucid dreaming by reviewing your sleep and making sure you are doing everything possible to settle your body, deepen your rest, and prepare your mind for new adventures in the growth of consciousness.
Purcell, S., Moffitt, A., & Hoffmann, R. (1993). Waking, dreaming, and self-regulation. In A. Moffitt, M. Kramer, & R. Hoffmann (Eds.), SUNY series in dream studies. The functions of dreaming (pp. 197-260). Albany, NY, US: State University of New York Press.