Jessica Bateman 16th October 2017
It’s a Sunday evening and I’m sitting in the basement of a central London art gallery. Colourful illustrations and neon signs hang on the walls. Upstairs, a cafe sells green smoothies and herbal-infused water. Next to me, a man in his late 20s is recalling a recent experience.
“I was falling through this dark nothingness, and there was music playing, and it just felt and sounded amazing,” he explains. “But then, I saw this huge shadow coming towards me. It was terrifying, so I decided to wake up.”
I’m at a monthly lucid dreaming meet-up. Lucid dreaming, put simply, is the act of being conscious while in a dream. If you’ve ever suddenly become aware that you’re having a dream then, congratulations, you’ve managed to “get lucid”. And once in the state, you’re free to fly, explore, and go on adventures of your own mind’s making.
While a lot of us might experience lucidity by accident at some point, particularly in childhood, the people I’m with tonight are intent on cultivating it as a serious practice. They learn techniques to help them get lucid for longer and more often, create dream plans’ of what they want to do, and discuss and analyse their experiences in detail.
While the most obvious reason to pursue lucid dreaming is that it sounds like a lot of fun – who wouldn’t want to go on adventures every night in your own personal VR simulator? – most people here believe it also serves far more powerful purposes. Around the room, claims are made that it can help with everything from trauma recovery to improved sports performance.
The meet-ups are run by Charlie Morley, a 34-year-old former hip-hop MC and the unofficial face of the UK’s burgeoning “dream scene”. As well as writing a book on the subject, alongside running regular events and workshops, he’s also the youngest-ever Westerner to receive permission to teach lucid dreaming within Tibetan Buddhism. He explains that lucidity is regarded as a serious spiritual practice within the religion, usually referred to as “dream yoga”.
“A lot of spiritual events, such as meditation retreats, tend to mostly attract middle-aged women,” he tells me. “But the crowd at dream-related events is usually much younger, and more evenly gender-balanced.”
Charlie lucid dreamed as a child but started exploring it more after becoming interested in Buddhism as a teenager. “When I was about 15 my lucid dreams just involved sex and skateboarding,” he laughs. “Then I heard people talking about it as this spiritual practice and I was like ‘Nah, it’s just for messing around.’”
However, he claims his interest developed after he managed to use lucidity to treat his own post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I overdosed on ketamine and acid when I was about 17, and for months I was having weekly nightmares where the trauma would come back,” he recalls. “I’d read that if you could get lucid and embrace the nightmare, it would stop.
“So I gave it a try. The next time I had a nightmare, I turned and shouted in my dream ‘I get it, you’re my mind!’ and the whole setting shifted into a paradise scene. The nightmares never came back. After that, I just started geeking out on the practice because I realised how powerful it was.” Incidentally, research is currently being conducted into how lucid dreaming could be used to treat PTSD as part of therapy.
Back at the meet-up, the 20-or-so attendees have wide-ranging views on what they feel the benefits of lucid dreaming are. Some are interested in it due to parallels they see with VR and AI, or just want to explore it for pleasure. Others link it to Freudian ideas about dreams being key to the unconscious mind. “We walk around on a base level day-to-day, thinking we’ve got it all figured out, but there are so many things going on under the surface,” one woman explains. “Lucid dreaming is a way to break through that barrier, delve through the emotional baggage, and find out what’s happening underneath.”
Some are interested in exploring spirituality more generally and say they also experiment with meditation or even ayahuasca (a Peruvian enlightenment drink) ceremonies – both practices that have gained popularity with Westerners over the past few years. Others believe that if you practice an activity – such as a sport, or public speaking – in a lucid dream, you will improve on it while awake, too.
“I used to lucid dream when I was a kid,” says Yana, 23, as we go around the circle sharing dream anecdotes. “As I got older, and life got more stressful, I lost the ability to do it.” She explains that, in her early 20s, she found herself stuck in a rut. “I hated my job, my relationship wasn’t working, I was no longer painting or doing anything creative.” One night, she experienced a powerful lucid dream in which she encountered her “shadow” – a terrifying figure that she believes represented the repressed parts of herself. “It was the real me, the me that was being buried. I had to turn and face it.”
After this, she says her life transformed: “I left my job, left my relationship. I started painting again. I’ve changed everything about my life, and I’m actually happy.”
The idea of this shadow figure comes up repeatedly in group discussion. Charlie explains that it represents hidden or repressed parts of our unconscious, and can take many forms. Apparently, you’ll recognise it simply by how scary it is. He urges people to – literally – embrace their shadow when they meet it in a lucid dream and give it a hug. Yet a man who spoke earlier in the evening says he was too scared to go near his shadow, or even stay in the dream. “Try again next time,” Charlie urges. Another girl says that her shadow figure usually appears as water. “It’s a bit tricky to hug the sea though,” she muses.
We also discuss “dream plans” – one woman, Nicole, says hers involve approaching the characters she meets to ask what their message is for her. “Characters in dreams represent different parts of ourselves,” explains Charlie. “It’s better to call out to the whole dream to ask what it has for you, rather than the individual elements.”
Nicole, 35, says she discovered lucid dreaming after being told about it by a friend. “I immediately had one that night, and have been having them weekly ever since.” She adds that, more recently, she’s been abandoning her dream plan and letting herself just explore. “The other week I ended up writing reggae music – different dream characters were coming along, picking up instruments and jamming with me,” she says. “I write music in real life, but not reggae, which is strange.”
All this talk is making feel jealous that I don’t experience lucid dreams myself. And so the golden question: how can I do it? “Everyone has the ability, but I’ve met people who’ve given up before they’ve stabilised it,” says Charlie. For some, just learning what a lucid dream is is enough to trigger one. Others need a bit of training. Charlie says the most important thing is to start writing down your dreams as soon as you wake up. “Set the intention before you fall asleep that you’re going to remember your dream,” he says.
After a while, he explains, you’ll start to notice patterns, or “dream signs”.
“For example, if you regularly see a giant cat, you can learn to recognise that it means you’re in a dream whenever you see it, and use it as a trigger to get lucid,” he continues.
There are then various reality checks you can carry out, to establish that you’re definitely in a dream. For example, the dreaming brain cannot recall lots of detail, so many lucid dreamers tend to look at their palms to check if they’re dreaming or in the waking state – if it’s the former, you won’t be able to see them properly.
Even if some of the claims about its powers might draw a raised eyebrow from some, there’s no denying the appeal of an activity that could turn those lost hours of sleep into something fun and exciting. “We spend a third of our lives sleeping, so why wouldn’t you want to use that time for actually doing something?” suggests Charlie. And who can argue with that?
Original illustrations by Catherine Amos. See more of her work on Instagram.
Jessica Bateman 16th October 2017