Can you teach yourself to control your dreams? In search of "lucid dreaming."

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July 17 2009 10:23 AM

I Believe I Can Fly

Can I teach myself to control my dreams?

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Initially, my dreams didn't seem to have much in common, except perhaps a somewhat depressing number of pop-culture references. (In my first recorded dream, I was attending a day camp aboard a Star Trek-style spaceship; in another, I was studying photos of Elvis—only to realize that his signature hairdo was actually a toupee!) I did find one genuine dream sign, however: bathrobes. More than once, I had variations of the classic naked-in-the-classroom anxiety dream that involved me being out in public in just a bathrobe. But let's not think too hard about what that means and move on to the final, and most challenging, step.

Step 3: Redistribute Your Sleep
For the first month or so of my experiment, everything was going according to plan—I was writing down dreams in my journal and performing regular reality checks. But I still hadn't experienced the slightest hint of lucidity. And as the weeks wore on, my resolve started to slacken. Work became unusually busy and I began neglecting my dream journal, forgetting to do the reality checks, and generally feeling frustrated with the whole experiment. Lucid dreaming seemed destined to join my personal graveyard of overambitious projects: the theremin I tried to build after high school, the novel I tried to write after college, the 100 pushups program I've been trying to follow for the past several months.

I was also, frankly, avoiding Step 3. According to LaBerge and Rheingold, the most reliable method for inducing a lucid dream is to "redistribute" your sleep. It works like this: Set an alarm to wake you two hours earlier than normal, "go about your business" for those two hours, and finally go back to sleep for at least two more hours. The idea is that this delayed final stretch of sleep is particularly rich with REM activity. When I called up professor Siegel at UCLA, he confirmed that this method had some validity—late-morning dreams are typically the longest and most intense.

But, man, what a hassle. I finally worked up the motivation to try it one Tuesday night, setting my alarm for 4 a.m. (ugh). The next morning, after a good half-hour of riding the snooze button, I dragged myself out of bed and proceeded to putter about the house in the dark. But without my usual two cups of coffee—which I figured would prevent me from going back to sleep later—I couldn't manage to do much other than stare at the wall, unload half the dishwasher, and aimlessly surf the Internet.

Jumping back into bed at 6 was bliss. And waking up to full sunshine at 8 felt wonderfully lazy. If I could actually do some work during those first two hours, I think I could get used to this schedule—it combines early-a.m. productivity with the delicious feeling of sleeping in. Getting out of bed twice in one morning, however, is a bitch. (I was also a good 20 minutes late for work.) As for the dreams, I definitely felt as if I had more of them during the delayed sleep—but, alas, none were lucid.

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For the next two mornings, I tried, and failed, to rouse myself again at 4 a.m. Finally, the weekend rolled around and my schedule allowed a little more flexibility. On Sunday morning, I woke myself up at 6, did some reading and light housework, and then spent several minutes, as LaBerge and Rheingold suggest, picturing myself having a lucid dream. I closed my eyes and imagined stepping off a dining-room chair—but instead of landing on the floor, I hover midair, levitating around the room like David Blaine.

At 8, I crawled back in bed and drifted into a light sleep. Like last time, the delayed sleep was rich with dreams. In one, I'm walking up a path into the lobby of an old apartment building, but the door is blocked by a couple in the midst of a heavy make-out session. Oops. I walk to the next building—this one is definitely where I live—but as I'm going for the door, a very tall man grabs my shoulder and spins me around. Behind him is another, even taller man. They're accosting me for some reason that is obscure now. But in the dream, instead of being threatening, the men seem silly. So silly, in fact, that the situation finally trips my reality-check reflex. I don't need to stare at my hand: Obviously, I'm dreaming. This is it! I look at the very tall man in front of me and I think: Now's your chance—take flight! And, sure enough, I begin slowly to float up off the ground, until I'm up to the tall man's shoulders, and then to his face, and then I'm looking down at him from above. I feel a suffusing sense of giddiness, a kind of euphoria even, as I rise up into the sky, accelerating rapidly, the ground disappearing far below me.

And then I woke up. I tried to go back to sleep, to get back to the dream, but it was impossible—I was wide awake. I felt great, too. And now I can happily report that this lucid dreaming thing is for real, although it's not exactly as I imagined it. I felt capable of moving about within the dream—and taking flight was easy, natural even—but it wasn't as if I could suddenly plant myself in the final seconds of the Super Bowl and mount a game-winning drive or steal a car and go joyriding along the coast. It was a much more diffuse feeling, closer to an out-of-body experience than hanging out on the holodeck.

Granted, I'm still an amateur. Despite my high hopes to the contrary, in the weeks since that first lucid dream, I have failed to experience any new episodes. I'm largely to blame: I haven't managed to drag myself out of bed early enough to repeat the experiment under ideal conditions. And, frankly, it doesn't seem worth it. Lucid dreaming was nice, and maybe it gets better, but it hardly seems like something that's warrants rearranging your life.

Later on the same morning of my brief lucid dream, I downloaded Bob Dylan's new album. In the song "I Feel a Change Comin' On," Dylan neatly sums up my attitude toward the whole experience.

Well now, what's the use in dreamin'?
You got better things to do.
Dreams never did work for me anyway.
Even when they did come true.

Mason Currey is the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.