I spent the summer of 2011 digging holes and talking about my dreams. Within two weeks, I had blown through the novels I’d taken to the remote Andean town of Nepeña, where I was excavating Moche remains with my classmates and a Peruvian professor. So when my friend James passed me a beat-up paperback whose cover showed a man’s brain being magically penetrated by a ray of sunlight and a puff of clouds, I willed myself to set my scepticism aside. I didn’t always trust his recommendations, whether for books or mind-altering plants; James was flattered when, a couple of years later, our college class elected him “most likely to be a cult leader”.
As I scanned the contents, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at chapter titles such as “Life is a Dream” and “Rehearsal for Living”. I cringed at the exercises: the eerie-sounding “twin bodies technique”, the ludicrous “dream lotus and flame technique”. Stephen LaBerge’s Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming had all the trappings of some New Age screed, but with the closest English-language bookstore a six-hour bus ride away, I started to read.
“Proverbially, and undeniably, life is short,” LaBerge wrote. “To make matters worse, we must spend between a quarter and a half of our lives asleep. Most of us are in the habit of virtually sleepwalking through our dreams. We sleep, mindlessly, through many thousands of opportunities to be fully aware and alive.” In what he called “lucid dreams”, a sleeping person could become aware that she was dreaming and, with practice, influence the plot of the dream. I was hooked.
Most people, I learned, experience a lucid dream at some point in their lives: your teeth are falling out one by one, say, and you realise you’re having a nightmare. But for some, lucid dreaming is so frequent and pleasurable that it becomes a hobby, a kind of self-help. Lucid dreams can provide a high as intense as psychedelics, and even deliver sexual gratification. Of all my memories of that summer in Peru – drinking pisco in the desert; finding a mummified baby and unwrapping it under less-than-scientifically-optimal conditions – the one that stands out most is my first lucid dream.
At nine o’clock, I climbed into the bottom bunk and curled up in my sleeping bag, worn out from the monotony of digging. I set my alarm for 5am and drifted off almost immediately, my body too tired to let my mind wander down its usual anxiety-laden paths. And then the scene changed. It was a summer afternoon – not the Andean summer, with its thin warmth and cloudy nights, but a real summer, the kind of heat so extravagant you jump in the water and dry off in the sun. I soaked up the warmth, treading water in some bucolic pool I’d never seen before. I don’t particularly like swimming in real life; I don’t like exercising in any form without the distraction of podcasts or Spotify. But this was different – effortless and sensual. I had a heightened awareness of every part of my body, the physicality of the cool water and the bright air and a surreal forest enclosing the pool in magnificent foliage. I woke up euphoric.
The memory had none of the haziness that usually clouds dreams, and it remains perfectly crisp years later. My jaunt in the pool had shaken my sense of what was real. All I knew was that I wanted to do it again.
James and I spent the summer practising LaBerge’s tips. We recounted the previous night’s dreams while we scratched the grime off ancient pots. We repeated his mantra: “Tonight, I will have a lucid dream.” We learned to recognise clues that we were dreaming, such as finding ourselves flying or meeting dead people. Every few hours, we would do what LaBerge called a reality test, asking ourselves if we were awake or asleep – a trick that, once ingrained, he promised would trigger lucidity.
After I left Peru, even when I had more than four people to talk to, and books to read, I couldn’t stop thinking about dreams. I became so obsessed that I decided to write my first book about them, and, five years after discovering Stephen LaBerge, I flew to Hawaii to meet the master – and his super-fans – at his annual lucid-dreaming workshop. If the group of fledgling dreamers had anything in common, it was a fluency in the literature on near-death experiences and extrasensory perception. Seventy-year-old Michael hoped that if he learned to recognise when he was dreaming, he’d stand a better of chance of noticing when he arrived in the afterlife. It was a morbid project, but he had a sense of humour. “Ticktock,” he said. “I’m cramming for finals.”
LaBerge, blue-eyed and frequently barefoot, taught us to build our days around dreams: from journalling in the morning to questioning the state of reality throughout the day, meditating before bed and waking up at strategic points in the night. The intensive programme worked: I had more lucid dreams during the workshop than I’ve ever had in a single week. When we left we were – despite our guide’s promise – the same people. If anything, we were more ourselves: we knew who we were in our dreams, too.
Three years after Hawaii, eight years after Peru, I’m back in my less-exotic Brooklyn home. But I’m still adventurous in my lucid dreams. In one, I decided to go skiing and to hang in the air whenever I went over a mogul. In another, I escaped a car crash by floating up into a rainbow-filled sky.
When I want to incubate a lucid dream, I’m extra-diligent about my dream journal. I wear the blue bracelet LaBerge gave out in Hawaii, a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. I use a meditation app on my phone. I often wake up in the early hours and I appreciate the chance to focus on my intention to become lucid when I fall back to sleep. One of the pleasures of learning to lucid dream is the way the training exercises sharpen the experience of reality. Those middle-of-the-night hours are imbued with a sense of opportunity instead of anxiety.
Alice Robb is the author of “Why We Dream” (Pan Macmillan)