On Dreams and Dreaming

on dreams, and dreaming

The hill was tall and rocky against a cloudy sky, with a stone lighthouse piercing the sky at the top.  I never understood why, but I felt I needed to get to that lighthouse more than anything else in the world, and scrambled feverishly up the hill towards it with every bit of my strength. My hands and bare feet were scratched, bruised and bloody by the time I crested the hill, and just as I found my footing it happened.  Just as it happened every time.

The lighthouse began to crumble above me, with a hailstorm of boulders burying me painfully underneath.  I could feel every strike breaking bones, crushing my body, and everything faded out to… myself lying in bed, aching almost as if it had actually happened.  As a child, my dreams were often vividly, lucidly real to me – right down to the pain and trauma.  Dream states have always been a curious mix of revelation, torture and wonder to me, since I was old enough to know the difference.

No stranger to night terrors as a child, I often tried to stay awake as long as I could at nights. Sluggish mornings were the price I paid to not have to face another near-lucid nightmare – let alone the ones that found me waking to ghost-white parents and family members who looked at me as if I was possessed by evil spirits.  Some of these nightmares were the normal dream variety, in which I woke in my bed rattled. But the night terrors were different, as I’d sleepwalk caught between the dream states and waking states. My mother told me my shrieks and facial expressions were truly the product of pure terror, and I could tell she was also shook by their voracity.  Although she usually masked her concern, my father was utterly creeped out by these incidents, no doubt about it. It was clear I was not exactly normal with my dream states, but it wasn’t until I got a bit older that I moved past fear and embarrassment and into curiosity and determination.

In college, I was exposed to a lucid dream study which paid $50 a night for students to wear an electronic mask, get hooked up to a variety of monitors, and carry out dreaming tests.  I’d heard about lucid dreaming – the ability to be fully conscious within a dream state – and figured it might be a good way to learn to control my night terrors (which had decreased significantly in frequency since my childhood, but persisted nevertheless).  After some coaching, we learned to “go lucid” when lights flashed in a particular pattern within our sleep masks, and then perform certain tasks between which we’d move our eyes in predetermined patterns – which could be read by the lab during our REM sleep.  Left-right-left-right-up-down-up-down was one of the patterns – I’d just look those ways in the dream and they could register the time in which it occurred, and over several sequences, start to correspond real time to dream time.  It was fascinating stuff, and I almost immediately found my night terrors getting fewer and further between as a result.

However, it also switched me over to a new type of dream state, which I believe is called lucid nightmares.  It’s like the opposite of a lucid dream, which you control to your own benefit.  For me, lucid nightmares saw me fully conscious in my dream – usually quite horrible and vividly painful – but not at all aware I was actually dreaming.  In normal lucid dreams you have to work to stay in the lucid state with a variety of techniques – spinning around, and just looking at my hands being the two I’ve most commonly employed.  But lucid nightmares were a new and uncontrollable beast entirely that only started after I learned to lucid dream.  Over the years I’ve been tortured, mutilated, beaten and flat out destroyed so many ways I’ve now lost count. Each of these incidents quite literally felt real in almost every respect – the pain, the agonizingly slow passing of time, the deep sense of anguish.  Yet despite the virtual trauma, I don’t slip out of my lucid state, or even become aware I’m in one.  I’m stuck in whatever gory situation I’m stuck in, unaware I’m dreaming. And it’s unbelievably realistic right down to pain impulses, sense of touch and smell- everything.

Yeah, my big ol’ brain can be a real treat at times.

I found out around shortly after the studies that smoking a bit of pot before going to bed would help curb my dreams entirely – including the bad ones.  It wasn’t really a sustainable cure though, yet if I didn’t, the bad dreams would quickly return. In my later 20s the horrors finally dissipated down to very rare events, and I felt that soon they’d disappear entirely like the non-lucid night terrors.  That hasn’t really been the case, though.

It was really hard after I got married, and even harder after my son Devin was born, as both of them became part of these dreams – and I’d be haunted by the experiences for days afterwards.  My ex-wife would often give the same look of fear and concern I recalled my mother wearing when I’d have night terrors, and it scared me even more.  Having horrible things happen to them in dreams was the absolute worse.  I can’t count the times I’d wake up and run into my son’s room just to assure myself he was really okay after waking from one of those episodes that featured him as part of my misfortune.

After my divorce, the lucid nightmares picked up again. I think they’re related to my emotional state, and rear their ugly heads when I’m most stressed. And although that sounds completely counterintuitive, it’s actually been a bit helpful in practice. The extreme stress of these dreams does wake me to a very rattled state, but that’s always followed by a deep sense of calm and introspection. Seems like they shock me into a more objective state, which is hard to come by on my own when stressed and emotionally stretched.

I’ve been dealing with a lot of stress again this year, on emotional, mental and physical levels. And as you’d expect, the dreams have been coming fast and furious as a result, hence this journal entry. But after a year of meditation and working on my empathic senses, there’s been a new twist. I can now shut off the lucid nightmares, and turn them back into something positive. Don’t get me wrong, some of the horrid fates I’ve beared in dream states lately have been truly Machavellian. But a trick I learned in my lucid dreaming days actually came back to give me a leg-up.  It’s something you do while awake. And it’s easy.

The best trick in controlling your dreams is just a simple step that you perform whenever you remember to, while awake during the day. Simply ask yourself the question “am I dreaming” either when you remember to, or whenever something interesting happens around you.  And then confirm your answer by a number of means.  An easy way to determine your awake/asleep state is to tell yourself you’re going to fly, and then jump up with that intent in mind.  If you fly, you’re dreaming. If not, you’re awake.

I’ve also found that looking at any written words, then looking away and then back again, is a key trick for finding out if you’re awake. In dreams, writing never stays the same when you look at it twice. A stop sign turns into ‘nyet’ or some other word. It’s silly, but also a bulletproof tenet of dreams you can rely on. And yes, I know it sounds equally silly to be asking yourself if you’re dreaming throughout your day, but it’s not about doing anything in your waking state. Simply making the habit of asking yourself this while conscious means that you’ll likely remember to do it in a non-lucid dream – and trust me, the first time you ask yourself if you’re dreaming in a dream… what happens next is amazing – the lucidity turns on.  And in the case of lucid nightmares – my biggest problem – the unconscious lucidity turns OFF and I realize again that I’m in a dream.  It’s then completely controllable.  Give it a shot!

The turning point happened shortly afterwards.  About 4 months ago I had a horrible dream in which I was duct-taped to a chair by thieves who had broken into my condo in the middle of the night, and they were causing me a great deal of pain with kitchen knives in order to get the password to my safe. I was resisting as much as I could, but the pain was so intense I seemed to be fading in and out of consciousness. It was then that I noticed the ‘Harvard’ t-shirt on one of the thieves – and realized just a few seconds ago it had been a Family Guy t-shirt.

Lucidity snapped in- I knew I was in a dream state. I ripped the duct-tape, and my arms, free from the chair like it was toilet paper. I then began beating the crap out of the two thieves, and although that woke me up entirely, the feeling when I awoke was one of almost euphoria – not terror or fear. I’d gone full Hulk on my assailants and saved my own ass for a change.  There was no confusion as I awoke, everything was crystal clear. And I felt like I was walking on clouds all day.  Amazing.

Since that episode, I’ve seen my dreams take a dramatic turn for the boring, the non-intuitive, the non-threatening. It’s like my dream state is scared of me for a change. And I love it.

I’ve been taking the opportunity to use lucid dreams for a number of constructive things – writing music, learning complex physical feats of balance and skill, even just meditating in a dream wakes me to an overwhelming sense of peace and wholeness, moreso than when I do it in a waking state. I recently stopped using clipless pedals on my bikes (largely due to the horrible accident I had with them a few years back), and haven’t been able to adapt quickly… until I started practicing aerials and bunny hops and manuals in my dreams.  The mechanics are all the same, but with none of the physical risk.  I can wipe out a zillion times and never worry about the scars, bruises or hospital visits. And the learnings translate to a waking state easily. It’s amazing.

Creative pursuits within a lucid dream are effortless, free, and directly connected to my soul.  Words fly out of my virtual mouth without friction, art flows from my fingertips, music is all around for me to simply remember, and bring out to the real world. And they don’t slip from my mind as quickly after awakening as normal dreams – they stick with me all day. It’s like my dreams have become my secret studio, where creativity can flow without any physical boundaries. Fucking unreal.

I know that there’s much more for me to learn about dreams, even given the amount of experience I have with them to date.  But this latest twist is the most positive, the most constructive. I’ve been able to literally forge my nightmares into a secret mental weapon.  And that in itself is probably the most positive outcome I’ve had with dreams to date- my biggest insecurites and fears recast into one of my most valuable assets.  If only the real world could be recast as easily… now there’s a heady dream to ponder.

A few months ago I found myself looking up at a lighthouse again, and the memory of my childhood night terrors came whirling back like old ghosts. The taste of fear started to rise in my throat, and I felt a bit queasy for a second. But this time, I laughed back in their face, and asked the world to do their worst. Bring those bricks down. And nothing happened.  So I stood for what seemed like hours under that lighthouse and kept laughing at it, and myself, knowing that I’d never be afraid again.