Inside The Lucid-Dreaming Craze
By Benjamin Svetkey
Photograph by Peter Rad
In lucid dreaming, every night offers up the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure—a dreamscape confined only by the limits of your imagination and entirely under your control. The horizon-expanding results are often felt long after you’ve awoken. Which is why a growing number of LD practitioners aren’t just having more fun in bed—they’re using their dreams to get ahead.
I’m lost in the woods. It’s nighttime. The light of a full moon shows me I’m surrounded by menacing-looking trees, curiously similar to the ones that pelted Dorothy with apples in The Wizard of Oz. Then I spot it, smack in the middle of the forest—a brightly lit office cubicle with a laptop inside. “That’s funny,” I say to myself. “You don’t usually see office cubes in the woods.” Suddenly it hits me: The cubicle is my dream sign, a signal to my subconscious that I’m actually asleep, that everything around me is a projection of my imagination. After weeks of practice, of studying ancient Tibetan dream techniques, of wearing a special sleep mask that flashed lights in my eyes in the middle of the night, of ingesting questionable subconsciousness-raising drugs purchased from untrustworthy sources over the Internet, I’m finally doing it. I’m having my first lucid dream.
This clarity hits me even within my dream state. I’m so thrilled by the revelation, I plop myself down in the cubicle and start typing. Yes, I wrote this story in my sleep.
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This is merely one manifestation of the state of being known as lucid dreaming. You’re asleep. You’re dreaming. But you’re aware it’s a dream—unconscious but conscious (or is it vice versa?). On the one hand, this is a common enough phenomenon—one study concluded that as many as 70 percent of people experience lucid dreaming at least once in their lifetime. On the other, the ability to have lucid dreams on demand can be a difficult skill to acquire. A growing army of LD practitioners are training their sleeping brains to take maximum advantage of that lucid state, learning to control it in search of a mind-blowing natural trip. Imagine turning the inside of your head into the ultimate virtual-reality chamber, living out your deepest, most daring fantasies and desires, all without ever leaving your bed. Go ahead, fly to Zanzibar in your underwear. Play guitar like Jimi Hendrix—with Jimi Hendrix. Steer yourself not to a cubicle but to the corner office. Have sex with a supermodel. Or two supermodels. Literally anything you can imagine is possible in a lucid dream, because you have the keys to your subconscious.
Of course, the desire to control one’s dreams is as old as dreaming itself, and unlocking the secret to lucid dreaming has long been a goal of philosophers, theologians, and scientists. Aristotle was said to have dabbled in it. Saint Augustine wrote about it. Eighth-century Buddhist monks devoted lifetimes to teaching a form of lucid dreaming known as dream yoga. Your hippie parents might have experimented with it at Esalen in the 1970s. But unlike many other New Age fads, lucid dreaming has a strong scientific foundation. And over the past 30 years, study after study has shown that lucid dreaming can have a profound impact on waking life. Researchers in Canada are using LD as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Sleep scientists in Germany are studying its applications for sports training—to improve both focus and performance in athletes. Closer to home, a doctor at a VA hospital in Los Angeles published a paper in January detailing the case of a patient with a 22-year history of chronic pain who cured himself overnight with a single lucid dream. “I’m no expert on lucid dreams,” says Dr. Mauro Zappaterra. “But the man woke up with no pain. He said it was like his brain had shut down and rebooted. A few days later, he walks into the VA pharmacy and actually returns his medication—300 tabs of levorphanol. To me that’s pretty convincing evidence.”