Your Lucid Dreams
The next big step in mindfulness?
Posted March 19, 2018
Today, there’s plenty of buzz around the Buddhist principle of mindfulness, where we focus our attention on the present moment and become fully conscious of our thoughts, emotions, and experiences to develop greater presence of mind. This interest in mindfulness shows how many people are keen to wake up in their lives and live more consciously.
But what about the third of our lives we spend asleep? Based on the two hours a night we spend in dream-rich REM sleep each night, scientists estimate that we spend nearly six years of our life dreaming. How many years of enriching experiences do we lose through a lack of mindful dreaming? Isn’t it time to wake up to this hidden part of ourselves?
Is it possible to bring mindfulness into our sleep and dreams?
Yes—we can create healthy pre-sleep rituals to ensure we go calmly into sleep and benefit from a restful night; we can cultivate the habit of recalling our dreams in the mornings, and we can engage artistically or therapeutically with dreams. Simply sketching a dream we had is a form of mindful dreaming, as it brings awareness to the dream. Any of these actions invite mindfulness into this third of our lives.
On top of this, we can boost our overall mindfulness hugely through the practice of lucid dreaming. "A lucid dream is a dream where we know that we are dreaming. In 1975, British psychologist D.r Keith Hearne provided the first scientific proof of this naturally occurring phenomenon of sleep."(i) Anyone who has had the startling and awesome feeling of waking up inside a dream can attest to the extraordinary intensity of conscious awareness that comes with the realization that everything we see, touch, and feel is a dream. This euphoric consciousness boost can be described as akin to always seeing the world in black and white, then having it suddenly change to colour.
In lucid dreams, we find ourselves super-aware within the ever-unfolding present moment. We understand that we are in a thought-responsive environment, where our emotions, expectations and intentions instantly influence our surroundings. This focussed consciousness heightens the vividness of the dream imagery and often gives lucid dreamers the feeling that a lucid dream seems even more real than waking reality. This is mindfulness times one hundred.
Why be mindful in our dreams?
1) Promote creativity. Mindful dreaming is not complicated. It can begin with the simple step of recalling our dreams. "Dream recall can enhance our own unique brand of creative thinking, because when we’re dreaming, we all think more creatively."(ii) The act of becoming lucid in a dream and consciously seeking creative inspiration can really lift the lid off the seething mass of unconscious creativity we all possess.
My 2007 doctoral research with the University of Leeds, UK(iii), examined the role of lucid dreaming in the creative process. My case studies showed how innovative lucid dreamers can be in researching creative ideas. One artist walked into art galleries in his lucid dreams and stared at the painting he loved the most to imprint it on his brain before waking himself up and reproducing it. In my novel-writing process, I have advanced the plot by meeting up with my fictional characters in my lucid dreams to find out more about them.
2) Improve waking performance. "Non-lucid dreams are known to enhance performance, consolidate memory, and help us to hone skills,"(iv) but what happens when we add lucidity to the mix and ask research subjects to practise a particular skill in their lucid dreams? Exciting research from Dr. Melanie Schädlich at the University of Heidelberg shows that "sports skills ranging from dart-throwing to kickboxing and swimming can be improved by practising them in lucid dreams."(v)
The creativity of the lucid dreamers in Schädlich’s study is impressive—one subject created a flexible water column to spar with. Another created a swimming pool filled with honey to test the muscle resistance when he swam through it. Another subject slowed time down so he could perfect a complicated martial arts kick. Children are also having success with improving athletic skills in lucid dreams. In Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming, a 10-year-old recounts how she felt frustrated at not being able to do a particular gymnastics manoeuvre, so she practised it in a lucid dream. "When she woke up, she could do the move."(vi)
3) Overcome fears and transform nightmares. "A study by Zadra and Pihl into the effects of lucid dreaming therapy on recurring nightmares show that this can be effective in diminishing nightmare intensity and frequency."(vii) We can face our deepest unconscious terrors in lucid dreams and transform the dream into something healing. In Mindful Dreaming,(viii) I describe how I resolved my traumatic nightmares of finding a dead baby in a cot after my own baby nearly died. I became lucid in the nightmare and released all my pain, which transformed spontaneously into a buzzing sensation of total peace and harmony. My anxiety around my baby diminished rapidly, and the nightmares never returned. "Nightmare resolution seems a popular use of lucid dreaming: a study by Schädlich and Erlacher of members of a lucid dreaming forum found that 63.8 percent of them used lucid dreaming to turn their nightmares around."(ix)
Cultivate a lucid mindset
A pioneering study led by German psychologist Dr. Ursula Voss in 2014x found that a 40 Hz electrical stimulation of the scalp during REM sleep triggered lucidity in an impressive 77 percent of subjects, even though none of them had experienced lucid dreaming before. This electrical stimulation induced self-reflective awareness, prompting them to realise they were dreaming.
But who needs electricity to become self-reflective? When we cultivate daytime mindfulness, we train our minds to become alert, calm, and discerning. When we also approach sleep mindfully and practice lucidity techniques, this lucid mindset carries over into our dreams.
The average person has around six dreams a night, which works out at around 2000 dreams every year. That’s 2000 opportunities to become lucid and practice the art of mindful dreaming. Every lucid dream we have increases our overall awareness, and we may find ourselves becoming mindful in every part of our lives—whether we’re awake or asleep.
i Hearne, Keith. “Lucid Dreams: An Electro-Physiological and Psychological Study.” PhD diss., University of Liverpool, England, 1978.
ii Stickgold, Robert., L. Scott, C. Rittenhouse, and J. A. Hobson. “Sleep-Induced Changes in Associative Memory.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 11, no. 2 (March 1999): 182–193
iii Johnson, Clare R. “The Role of Lucid Dreaming in the Process of Creative Writing.” PhD diss., University of Leeds, UK, 2007
iv Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center website, ‘Dreams Tell Us That the Brain Is Hard At Work On Memory Functions,’ 22 April 2010.http://www.bidmc.org/News/PRLandingPage/2010/April/
v Schädlich, Melanie, “Motor learning in lucid dreams – quantitative and qualitative investigations.” Diss., University of Heidelberg, Germany, 2017.
Schädlich, Melanie, Daniel Erlacher, & Michael Schredl. (2016). „Improvement of darts performance following lucid dream practice depends on the number of distractions while rehearsing within the dream – a sleep laboratory pilot study.” Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(23), 2365-2372.
vi Johnson, Clare R. Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming: A Comprehensive Guide to Promote Creativity, Overcome Sleep Disturbances & Enhance Health and Wellness. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2017.
vii Zadra, Antonio, and Robert Pihl. “Lucid Dreaming as a Treatment for Recurrent Nightmares.” Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 66, no. 1 (1997): 50–55.
viii Johnson, Clare R. Mindful Dreaming: Harness the Power of Lucid Dreaming for Happiness, Health, and Positive Change. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press, 2018.
ix Schädlich, Melanie, and Daniel Erlacher. “Applications of Lucid Dreams: An Online Study.” International Journal of Dream Research 5, no. 2 (October 2012)
x Voss, Ursula, Romain Holzmann, Allan Hobson, Walter Paulus, Judith Koppehele-Gossel, Ansgar Klimke, and Michael A. Nitsche. “Induction of Self Awareness in Dreams through Frontal Low Current Stimulation of Gamma Activity.” Nature Neuroscience 17, no. 6 (2014): 810–812. doi:10.1038/nn.3719