How I Taught Myself to Lucid Dream, and Lived to Regret It
The perks and pitfalls of mindful dreaming …
I was still a little boy when I became terrified of falling asleep. You see, I was being murdered in my dreams. Sometimes, my stalker was me.
Looking back, I think it was the onset of an early adolescence that triggered the nightmares. My old self had to die, my subconscious was telling me, and a new self had to take his place. But I wasn’t thinking that deeply about it back then.
All I knew was that sleep meant entering a world of assassins with unlimited powers. And when they had me cornered, I became paralyzed. I know now the immobility was triggered by my brain trying to wake itself up, placing me into a kind of semi-sleep in which my dreaming brain tried to move my real body but couldn’t, due to the muscular paralysis that keeps us from acting out our dreams. And so, my dream body also could not move. Nor could it shout for help.
My parents told me, “Nothing can really hurt you in your dreams. You’ll be OK when you wake up.” I said I knew this when I was awake, but while I was dreaming it all seemed real. The terror of being stalked, of watching the knife come out and the blade come toward me while I lay helpless, that was real. Absolutely real.
And so I’d lie awake until exhaustion took me. Some nights I was still awake when the sky started to pale through the window, silhouetting my feet.
A new hope
Then, one morning at breakfast, I read something on the back of a cereal box, one of those little stories they used to put there to keep children amused. It was about a tribe somewhere who interpreted their dreams. It got me thinking.
And so began the magic.
I cannot know why my subconscious mind, the source of the torment I was so desperate to escape, decided to hand me the key to my torture chamber. But he did.
I was sitting at a table in the elementary school library with two friends. I don’t recall now what we were talking about, but I will forever remember Scott saying, “What difference does it make, this is just a dream.”
And at that moment, I realized — it was! And I could know it.
The instant I knew the power existed, I was obsessed with learning to wield it. Waking after dreams, I’d go over in my mind how they were different from being awake, so I could recognize the state.
And it wasn’t the obvious, the surreal worlds with their own freakish Dalí-esque scenarios. No, it was a few consistent oddities. The paralysis, first off. But also, I couldn’t read in dreams. The letters refused to form words. And if I looked closely at my hands, they lacked detail. It took many months before I could recall these checks while asleep, but by reminding myself every night when I went to bed, eventually the knowledge carried over.
At first, it was just the occasional dream here and there. But by the time I entered middle school, I had not only learned to remember my dream-checks, I had come to recognize how dreams feel. They’re different from waking reality, you know. And unless a dream was hyper-realistic, I could tell it apart from wakefulness as intuitively as I could tell a forest from a city.
More importantly, I could change it. Fitfully at first, then with increasing strength and ease, I learned to make objects vanish and appear, to fly at will, to melt buildings or erase vehicles in order to escape them.
At 12 years old, I was master of the dreamworld.
Or so I thought.
The subconscious strikes back
When I noticed the rat-faced man following me through the circus, I figured I’d lose him in the crowded midway, being a small boy and hard to spot. But I couldn’t shake him. Just when I thought I’d juked him out, he’d show up again. Following, smiling.
One thing I could not do in dreams was alter another character. My subconscious has never allowed that particular assault. His creatures are sovereign.
But I could violate the laws of physics, so I walked through the canvas of a bigtop and joined the crowd inside, facing the entrance. After a moment I sensed him. Looking over my shoulder, I spotted him at the back, standing just inside the tent, smiling as always. Time to deal with this.
I walked up to him. Smiled back. Then made a carving knife appear in my hand.
As he pulled a gun from his waistband the grin grew wider on his rat face. He said, “I know it’s a dream, too.”
The best way I can describe the feeling of forcing yourself out of a dream is, it’s like swimming up from the bottom of a pool of Jell-O. I awoke in an exhausted, heart-pounding terror. It wasn’t so much the gun, but knowing that the dreams had taken control again, that I was once more at their mercy.
That is, until I realized I wasn’t.
Return of the dream master
There’s this little trick I’d learned from Jesus and Obi-Wan Kenobi, both of whom loomed large in my Deep South 1970s childhood — the power of the sacrifice play.
I think it was literally the next day when it dawned on me, the dream villains could go ahead and do their worst. Fire away. Take a stab. What did I care? Dream bodies are like cartoon bodies — they come with unlimited refills.
With that final piece of the puzzle in place, I spent the next 30 years or so, the remainder of my childhood followed by my adolescence and youth and the lower slopes of middle age, blithely waltzing through my dreams without a care in the world. Vaporizing threats, changing the scenery as needed, literally flying from danger, and when forced into a confrontation simply taking on the full brunt of the assault like Wile E. Coyote, defeated for the moment but ultimately none the worse for wear.
Until one day I saw this documentary about dreams and why we have them. It turns out, at least part of what’s going on is that our brains are putting us through our paces, throwing challenges at us so we can learn in a virtual space without hurting ourselves.
For example, in one experiment researchers had subjects play a snowboarding video game and monitored their progress from day to day. But at night, they would wake these poor folks up when brain monitors showed they were in REM state, to see what they were dreaming about. As you could probably guess, in a lot of those dreams they were doing the same sorts of tasks they had to do in the game.
Suddenly it made sense why I so often woke up with the solutions to work problems in my head. I even kept pens and slips of paper on my bureau so I could write the ideas down before I forgot them.
It made me wonder what other sorts of issues I hadn’t been working on all those years because I was controlling my dreams, weasling out of the very challenges that might have made life easier for me, or made me a better person. My fear of nightmares had ended up cheating me out of valuable opportunities for improvement.
No wonder I had so many recurring dreams, some replaying for years, even decades. I was refusing to learn from them, taking the easy way out by manipulating them instead of running their symbolic obstacle courses to master their lessons. And so I got put back at the end of the line.
I decided to stop. But quitting wasn’t easy.
My first successful nightmare came a few months later. I was on a tiny raft inside what looked like a cavernous stone aqueduct with small openings overhead like barred windows that I passed under at intervals. As I floated with the current, the windows drew closer and went by more frequently — the tunnel was narrowing, steepening, and the flow of the water quickening accordingly.
Before long, I was racing out of control. It was too late now to try steering the board to one side and stopping it. The current was too strong, too fast. By the time the openings were close enough for me to reach for the bars, I couldn’t have attempted it without breaking my hand. And then, there were no more windows. I could feel and hear the stone walls closing in around me as the last of the fading light revealed an impending downturn where there would be no air. I was about to drown violently, alone, in darkness.
Despite my dread fear of drowning and confined spaces, I let it happen. When the water took me, I held my breath for just a moment. Then, I inhaled.
I woke up shaken and gasping, but proud. I had survived the test.
The force sleeps
From then on, I was able to give up the manipulation, although I still knew when I was asleep, unless the dream was extremely true to life. I put up with the abuses — elevators breaking their cables, being shut up in coffin-like enclosures, coming home to find a woman’s body dismembered in the bathtub. If I fought back or defended myself, it was only with what I had at hand within the dream.
Then one day in winter I was on vacation with friends at a family farm one of them owned. The rising sun glinted across the undisturbed snow on the stubbled field as I walked from the farmhouse to the barn. But my friends weren’t there. The barn was empty.
I walked back outside looking to find them, and noticed the red sun was still hugging the horizon, exactly where it had been when I left the house. And there were no footprints in the snow. This one had fooled me.
Now I still can’t explain why I did what I did next. My feeling is that I was angry because of the nightmares. There were too many, and they were too abusive. I couldn’t see the point in them. But for whatever reason, I shouted at the sky, “If you want to fight me, come out here and fight me!”
Like an idiot, I’d expected him to take on a form like mine. To show up on my terms, walking across the field to confront me.
Instead, the earth, the horizon, and the sky began to fold in on themselves, like an enormous paper box with me inside it. The snow turned to tightly woven carpet, the treeline morphed into paneled walls, and the open sky was now a ceiling illuminated by dome lamps.
I stood in the windowless hallway of an art deco hotel which turned a blind corner at either end. Its doors were set into recesses so I could only see the ones directly on either side of me, which were closed. There was dead silence.*
Suddenly, the fear was in me that I hadn’t felt since I was nine years old. I was at his mercy now. This was his world, and he was this world. In all those years, thinking myself the master of dreams, it never occurred to me that I’d only had the powers he had allowed me.
I stood frozen in place. Where could I go? There would be no escape unless he created it. And whatever was behind those doors and around those corners was under his control.
At one end of the hall, I heard a door open. It was coming for me.
And then I was awake. The tightness was still in my chest and my throat. But I had learned my place. He had gotten my attention, and my respect.
That was seven years ago. Since then, there are fewer nightmares, and the recurring dreams seem to have finally run their courses. We are exploring new territory now, which is more creative and more interesting.
I cannot regain those lost decades when I refused to learn, all those truant years spent indulging my own whims rather than meeting challenges. I cannot repeal my arrogance and my heedlessness. The past can’t be wished away.
I can only hope that finally I have gotten the message. And that I no longer need to be at war with myself.
After more than forty years of struggle, I have at last opted to let myself grow up.
*The folding world and the deco hotel strongly echo elements of the film Inception, which came out about 4 years prior. My subconscious mind appears to have borrowed them for this dream. It’s satisfying to know he can be as lazy as I am.
Read every story from Paul Thomas Zenki (and thousands of other writers on Medium).