Lucid Dreaming – Step 3, Dealing with nightmares

This series of posts originally started with a question from a friend about dealing with nightmares. While there are many other things you can do once you start having lucid dreams, I’ll deal with this next, since it was what originally started me down the path of lucid dreaming as a child.

OK, let’s say you can remember your dreams, you know your particular nightmare inside and out, and you’ve succeeding in finding a way to realize that you’re in it when you’re in it (or maybe you could already do that with this particular dream). Now what? In my case, it was a while before I figured out what to do. At first, I ineffectually tried to keep the spiders from descending by thinking them away, but that never worked.

Eventually, I hit on the idea of waking myself up. It turns out that this is one of the easier things to do when in a nightmare (actually changing its course is much harder). Though it doesn’t let you change your dream, it does give you a certain power over it by being able to make it stop when you choose to. This seems to short-circuit it and eventually you may have the dream less often.

At this point, let’s make a short digression into nightmares, and the reasons (or lack thereof) for their existence. A nightmare may somehow represent a major issue you have to deal with, in which case, waking yourself up from it may not be as effective as working through the issue with a counselor, friend, or other resource.

Some nightmares, however, just seem to represent archetypal scariness, like my childhood dreams about spiders. Others may be caused by post-traumatic stress or anxieties over events long past, which serve no purpose in the present day and probably occur because these events have burned memories into our brains. Both of these kinds of nightmares have no particular benefit and you might as well banish them if you can.

Alright, here we are and the spiders are descending. How to wake up? At first, I just yelled at myself to wake up! wake up! This didn’t usually work. As far as my brain was concerned, I was already awake (in the dream). What eventually worked for me, with quite a bit of practice, was more of a visualization exercise.

I would visualize myself, lying asleep on my bed, dreaming this dream. Then I would think of myself opening my eyes – I would focus on just that one thing, willing my eyes to open. This caused all sorts of interesting results. Sometimes my physical eyes would open, but it would still take a while to actually wake up – sunlight or some kind of light in the room helps with this, as that tends to trigger a waking reflex anyway.

Sometimes I would come to consciousness or half-consciousness with my eyes still closed, like an inner set of eyes had opened but not the outer ones. Fair warning – there is a state of semi-consciousness where the mind is aware but the body cannot yet move. That can be frightening in and of itself, as there is also a tendency to hear strange noises in this state, but be unable to do anything about it.

Just know that all of these intermediate states improve with practice -and are almost always better than being in the nightmare. Eventually it is possible to snap awake at will, and it becomes more of a reflex than anything, as soon as you realize you’re in a nightmare. When you get to that point, it is worth the trip, because then you have real control over what you choose to experience or not.

The other night I even had a dream sequence that was just plain annoying. The plot was useless, it wasn’t related to anything real, and it was actually just boring. Partway through the dream, I remember thinking, this is pointless, and woke up. Told myself I would dream about something else when I went back to sleep, and I did :)

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Lucid Dreaming – Step 2, Knowing you’re in a dream

Once we can remember our dreams by day, the next step in working with dreams is being able to tell you’re in them while you’re asleep and dreaming. Most of us go through dreams thinking they’re real, or maybe not thinking anything at all, just experiencing. Often we have a sensation of disorientation when waking when we suddenly realize that what we were just doing, feeling, or thinking isn’t real, the situation is actually nothing like that, and the wonderful or terrible thing that was just happening fades into oblivion. Profound relief or disappointment can follow, or just a sense of puzzlement.

Remembering your dreams, and especially the part where you consciously experience the state between dreaming and waking, starts to blur the lines between the two states and allows for more exercise of consciousness while dreaming. You don’t have to do anything special to make this happen, it just does. On the other hand, if you’re in a hurry to get better at it, there may be some things you can do to improve this skill.

Start with a recurring dream, as these are ones you are most likely to be able to recognize while you’re in them. Whether good or bad, these can be used for practice. If used with a nightmare, it may help you eventually “cure” them, or learn to deal with them effectively. If used with a nicer dream, you may eventually be able to direct your experience in that dream and enjoy it more fully.

Pick out a detail or two to focus on that is always or almost always a part of the dream. It helps if it’s a nonsensical detail, something that couldn’t happen in daily life. Before you go to bed each night, preferably when you are relaxed and approaching dreamstate, tell yourself that if you see that detail in a dream, you will know you are in a dream and that what you are experiencing isn’t real. Make that detail a trigger and imagine your consciousness coming on line as soon as you see that part of your dream. Actually see yourself in the dream realizing that it is a dream and having full awareness of that fact.

While it may not work the very first time, keep reinforcing this idea each night before you go to bed. When you wake up and are working on remembering your dreams, note details of them that could have triggered a realization that this is a dream and not real (something that couldn’t be true or wouldn’t be happening in “real” life).

Eventually, you will have your first realization that you are in a dream. It may be a bit frustrating at first, because initially it can be hard to do anything with this except observe the dream with a different state of consciousness. Making the dream do anything different can be difficult at first, particularly if it is a dream with well-ingrained pathways in your mind. Trust that eventually it can be done, and at least enjoy the realization that you’ve succeeded in this step. Don’t forget to write down this aspect of your dream when you wake up!

Lucid dreaming – Step 1, remembering your dreams

A friend recently asked me how you learn to wake up from nightmares. It can be done, but it does take practice. I wrote a bit about this in a previous post, but it was a bit stream-of-consciousness. Here, I’ll try to summarize the steps toward lucid dreaming, which is the key to dealing with nightmares, and has a host of other interesting uses as well.

Step 1. Remember your dreams. One of the most important steps in working with dreams in any way is to be able to remember them. While it might not seem like this could help you while you’re in a dream, it does. Being able to remember your dreams when you’re awake somehow helps you become more aware that you’re in a dream while you’re dreaming. The line between dreaming and waking becomes less absolute, which is a good thing. Most people go through their lives remembering almost none of their dreams, losing all the insights their dreams can bring, not to mention being helpless within them.

Remembering your dreams is basically just a matter of practice, day in and day out (or night, as it may be). If you’re the journaling type, keep a notebook beside your bed. Every time you wake up, and I do mean every time, stop and think about what you were just dreaming about. If possible, do this before you move your body or even open your eyes – there is a state of semi-consciousness just before fully awakening that is very conducive to dream retention, but dreams fade within a matter of minutes after that.

Take that time to go over and over your dream in your mind – everything you can remember about it, no matter how strange or meaningless. Take the time to go through the various senses – did you dream in color or black and white? Could you smell, feel, or taste anything? You might be surprised that your other senses can be engaged in a dream. Once you have your dream cemented in your memory, get up and write it down.

If you’re not the type that likes to journal (I’m not), come back to your dream several times throughout the day and see if you can still remember all the details. If you have a spouse, friend, or family member that’s interested in this, tell them all about your dream, or trade dreams (telling someone else helps imprint it in our memories). Do this for as many different dreams a night as you can remember, and every day. With practice, remembering your dreams will become much easier.

If you’re having nightmares that you want to start working with, start with those. Most of us have, or have had, recurring nightmares that we can remember with much greater accuracy than most of our dreams. This may be because the adrenaline rush that occurs while in these dreams has a way of imprinting memories in our minds, whether awake or asleep. Start by remembering all the details you can in a waking state, then add to them each time you have the dream. This is the prelude to Step 2 – knowing when you’re in a dream.

Anxiety dreams…

So this weekend, I bought a house :) I haven’t talked about it much, because of what happened with the last one after the inspection (scroll down if you really want to know). Sometime this week we’ll have the inspection, and I’ll get the financing and insurance going, and then I’ll feel safer!

But the truth is, I’m not worried. This is a much newer house and there isn’t all that much to be wrong with it that isn’t visible, not like the older craftsman-style houses I’ve been looking at. I’m pretty excited and can’t stop thinking about all the little details of where I’ll put everything, paint, garden, etc.

One of the main reasons I chose this house, aside from the house itself, is the neighborhood. It’s in a little planned community called “The Woods.” And unlike so many of those, the woods are still there! The houses were built in the late 80s and it appears they left most of the trees and forest vegetation. There isn’t a lawn in sight. Each house has its own little garden courtyard, and the rest is very foresty. The times I went there to look at it, it was very quiet and peaceful – nothing to be heard but birds and wind in the trees. No traffic, no barking dogs, no lawnmowers (no lawns!).

Earlier I posted about different kinds of dreams, including “anxiety dreams.” Night before last I had a classic, just after I found out my offer had been accepted. I dreamed that the new house was on a lake (it’s not), and I had just moved in when I heard a noisy sound. Next door was a jetski rental place and they were training little kids to ride them, and the kids were zooming up and down the lakeshore right in front of my house :D

I had to giggle at myself in the morning. Probably my biggest nightmares anywhere I live have to do with noise and sound, since I am ultrasensitive to noise and work and sleep strange hours. This house looks like it will be as perfect for that as anywhere can be :) but obviously some little place in my subconscious is worried! Hopefully it’s out of my system now.

And if you’re curious, here’s the link to the new house. One reason it took me so long to get around to looking at this one is that the pictures really don’t do it justice. I’ll post some better ones later this week. The colors are not as they appear, the floor is tile (not linoleum), and the pics were taken on a gloomy day! This really has a very pretty little sunny courtyard, which the previous owners have not done much with. But I intend to :)

Sometimes a dream is only a dream…

… and sometimes not. Dreams have a lot of different functions, and seem to come in several basic types. Here are my observations over many years of experiencing and remembering my own dreams, on what kinds of dreams there are and generally what they mean. I’ll treat some of these in greater depth in later posts. The categories below move generally from the least significant to the most significant.

Random Noise – There’s a lot going on in our heads at night, and I think some of it is just “clearing the decks.” This is house-keeping of the brain, sweeping out the debris, resetting our neuronal states, replenishing neurotransmitters, what have you. In the course of all this, there may be some random excitation of this and that spot in the brain, which our minds try to link together in a dream. These dreams are pretty meaningless and mostly make no sense, no matter how we try to slice them. My guess is, there’s a lot of this that happens that we don’t bother to remember, because there’s nothing real in there to remember.

Daily Processing – Different from the former but sometimes hard to distinguish, these dreams consist of the brain sorting out the events of the day and deciding where to put them. We receive a lot of stimuli of various kinds during the day varying in significance from snippets we read in the newspaper, to new things we’ve learned, to important life events or relationship shifts. Studies have shown that a lot of our memories are formed at night, and that sleep plays an important role in that. Many of our dreams, especially those that seem to key off of something that happened during the day, are probably related to this activity of processing daily information and events into the larger framework of our minds – short-term memory, long-term memory, building relationships and networks to other information. These dreams are experienced as being somewhat more coherent than those above, but in and of themselves don’t contain any special significance.

Anxiety Dreams – Sometimes we live through events or periods of our lives that elicit such a strong emotional response that some of it gets buried deep within our psyche. Long after that period is over, we have dreams about the events. A very common one is dreams about school – not being prepared, not knowing where your classes are, failing all your exams, not graduating. It may be about a job environment, a bad marriage, or an addiction from which you’re in recovery. What these dreams have in common is that they occur after the event or period is over, and slowly they help you work through the residual fear, anxiety, and negative connection you still have to that time period. When the dreams end, you can feel confident that that issue is released.

Messages from the Inner Mind – These are key to understanding what is going on in our lives. Our subconscious knows so much more than we do. It sees body language, takes in all kinds of information that our conscious mind filters out. I have often found myself having dreams that felt real and true about other people I am in a relationship with or a current situation on which I need guidance. I find that I can count on this information like a direct message from my intuitive self saying, “see what you have missed; know what you really know.” This can clue us in to people’s true motivations, the actual states of our relationships, our own fears or desires, and what we need that we aren’t taking care of. I have had several life-altering insights from dreams of this nature, and to me, this is probably the single most important reason to be able to remember your dreams.

“Real” Dreams – Dreams that are more than messages from our inner selves. These are dreams that are real in the sense that they connect with something or someone outside of ourselves. I have rarely had these, but can think of several clear instances where the person I was dreaming with also had the dream, or remembered the conversation, or felt my presence. I don’t pretend to be able to explain these, rather, I am observing them. I believe in my own reality, especially when it is corroborated by others.

More to come – specific examples and discussion welcome!

The stuff dreams are made of

I would like to write a little bit about dreams – specifically, what various kinds of dreams there are, and what they mean, and what you can do with them. This may be a series of posts, depending on how long-winded I end up being :) This is something I’ve been working with most of my life, and I’d love to hear others’ experiences.

How did it come about that I became interested in dreaming? In my childhood, I often had nightmares, particularly about spiders. These were not little spiders. They were great big hobbit-eating-size, Hogwarts-forest-size spiders. In my dream, I would be running through a forest, and I would get to a place with four trees in a perfect square. Giant spiders would drop down and begin making webs on all four sides, to trap me. I always had to try to run out under one of them, or through a web (and get stuck)… and the shock of that part and what could happen would wake me.

I didn’t like this much, and at some point decided I should be able to figure out that I was in one of these nightmares and wake myself up. This proved to be easier said than done. Eventually, I was able to recognize when I was in a dream, starting with the recurring ones. Those are the easiest ones to identify because they fit a particular pattern. Thinking about that pattern during the day and just saying to yourself, “when I see this, I’ll know I’m in that dream again” eventually does work.

Then, I had to wake myself up – in time for the spiders not to get me. This was a struggle. I’d try and try, but just waking up wasn’t happening, no matter how much I would yell “wake up!!” in my head. Then I got the bright idea of trying to open my eyes, really hard, physically open my eyes. Sometimes I could do that, but still not wake up right away. Eventually the light streaming into my eyes (if it was morning) would wake me up, for real. After a lot of practice with this, it has somehow become reflexive and I can now wake myself up if I need or want to.

After I had mastered this, at some point in my teens I got interested in whether I could make myself dream about something I wanted to dream about – like flying, or seeing my father. It turns out there are several parts to this one too. First, you have to remember what you dream about to know whether you’re succeeding. That takes quite a bit of practice all by itself. Then, you might try thinking about what you want to dream about right before you go to bed. Sometimes this works, but I have never found it to be all that reliable.

Third, if you should get lucky enough to find the object or action of your dreams, being able to direct the course of your dream is nice. And then of course, that requires knowing that you’re in the dream of your choice. I never did get really good at this. Sometimes I could dream about something I wanted to, like flying, but as soon as I realized I was flying in a dream and couldn’t fly in real life, I would tend to crash ;D

Probably the most important skill I learned out of all this was how to remember my dreams. This turns out to be the key to a lot of useful insights later on, which we’ll discuss more in future posts. The best way to do this is to start with those dreams we have right before waking, or right before we wake up in the middle of the night. Always keep pen and paper next to the bed, and no matter how sleepy you are, write down what you can remember the minute you wake up.

Since I always hated writing journals (odd that), I actually did it another way, by lying in bed and going over and over any details I could remember until they were fixed in my mind. Then later I might tell someone about it to further cement it in my mind. In general, if we don’t do something with our dreams in the first minute or so after waking, we tend to lose them altogether – with the exception of the few most powerful and memorable dreams. It’s good practice to do this every day, and eventually it will become second nature.

Next time we’ll talk about classifications of dreams and what they represent.