On the back of a whale in the middle of an impossibly blue ocean, I was riding high, slapping high fives with the fins of great white sharks and taunting a giant squid. It was an amazing dream.Yet moments before, I'd been locked in a recurring childhood nightmare, the one in which I tumbled into the jaws of the sharks. This time everything was different: Still asleep, I realized I was dreaming and turned the scary dream into something beautiful. I awoke exuberant—and the nightmare never came back.
That was the first time I experienced a lucid dream: a dream in which the dreamer is aware of being asleep and can control the script. Lucid dreaming, also known as dream yoga, is gaining attention in the West. But the practice has been refined over the centuries by Tibetan Buddhists and Taoists, who use it as a tool for reaching enlightenment. Yogis, believing that the "dream body" is better able to feel subtle channels and chakra, have also used lucid dreaming to perform physical yoga and meditation, and to communicate with spiritual teachers. But the main point is to help you see that "reality" is like a dream—constructed in the mind. If you can see through the illusion of your dreams, you can more easily see through the illusion of reality, too.
Now that scientists in the West have begun to study dream yoga, they're discovering it has many practical applications. Research and testimony from practitioners suggest that lucid dreaming can help people boost creativity, shed addictions, transcend phobias, and improve performance in sports and at work. Sleep researchers say the method probably works something like creative visualization does—only more powerfully, because dreams feel more real and thus have a more profound effect on the body and mind.
Lucid dreaming can be particularly useful for breaking through negative emotions. For example, if you interpret a nightmare about a monster to be, say, fear about a relationship, making that mental association can be therapeutic. But in a lucid dream, you can confront or change the monster itself.
"When you escape from a nightmare by waking up, you haven't dealt with the problem," says Stephen LaBerge, a psychophysiologist who directs the Internet-based Lucidity Institute. "But staying with the nightmare and accepting its challenge, as lucidity makes possible, allows you to resolve the dream problem in a way that leaves you healthier than before."
LaBerge can take credit for many discoveries about lucid dreaming. In the late 1970s, it was his research at Stanford University that showed lucid dreaming to be both a common phenomenon and a teachable skill. "Yogis never needed any knowledge about neurology to do this," he says. "But it's important that we do the scientific research so we can talk to Westerners about it in their own language."
LaBerge has found that parts of the brain used in waking life can also be stimulated by dreams. For example, one of his studies at Stanford showed that subjects who had an orgasm in a dream had physiological reactions similar to those of a waking orgasm. It's that basic principle, says LaBerge, that makes dreams feel so real and makes lucid dreaming such an effective tool for creative visualization.
Just ask John Zay Maschio. "Lucid dreaming has completely changed my life," says the 28-year-old lead singer of the rock band Speed of Life. Maschio, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, learned to lucid dream about eight years ago, around the time he began a regular yoga practice.
Recently he had trouble hitting high notes, so he resolved to practice in a dream. In one lucid dream, a young singer stood in front of him and Maschio asked the character for advice. "I hit the high notes by opening the low end of my voice," the character said.
The tip made sense to Maschio. When he rehearsed later that day, he relaxed his voice and felt more comfortable at a high pitch. The dream encounter didn't change his voice but gave him a fresh insight to work with while awake.
Some lucid dreamers say physical healing is also possible in dreams. Ed Kellogg, a research scientist in Ashland, Oregon, says he was able to cure his swollen tonsils in a lucid dream, and is collecting evidence of lucid dream healings from others. "At times I feel like I've entered 'The Matrix,' " Kellogg says. "I still don't know how far the rabbit hole goes."
For those who've learned to lucid dream, the rabbit hole seems endless. But, as with any other kind of yoga, it's important to keep its origins in mind. For centuries, dream yogis have considered lucid dreaming a chance to "wake up," in the big sense, rather than have wild experiences.
I got a glimpse into this on a recent retreat on Pender Island, British Columbia, with my meditation teacher Steven Tainer, a longtime student of Buddhism and Taoism who's writing a book about dream yoga. Five days into the retreat, I had had only one lucid dream and was craving more. One night, I even dreamt I was looking for "Lucid Dreams" at a grocery store, as if they were a product I could buy. When I told Tainer about this, he laughed. "There's nothing inherently special about lucid dreaming," he said. "It's just another tool that can point to your nature."
Knowing he was right, I let go of my panicky search. And that night, I had a lucid dream. In it, I was at a picnic, but I wasn't sure who I was. The body I inhabited felt unfamiliar, like a shell. How strange, I thought, to be experiencing this dream through the eyes of this body when in reality the whole scene is my creation. Everything—the people, the rocks, the grass—they're all me.
When I remembered the dream the next morning, I was jogging to the beach. As it came back to me, I suddenly felt that, just as in the dream, I was my surroundings. The trees, sea, and sky all seemed to be my body. At that moment, a puppy ran up to me, black and puffy like a mini grizzly bear. I stopped to play with it, and as it tumbled and nipped under my hands I felt clearly that it, too, was an extension of myself. The old Zen koan, "Does a dog have Buddha nature, or not?" came back to me, and I had to laugh. So this is what those dream yogis were on to.
I suspect that as researchers delve deeper into lucid dreaming, we'll find ever more powerful ways in which this practice can be useful. But I'm convinced that using dreams to wake up from our living dream will remain the best discovery in this field for a very long time.