For years, I’ve had a spiritual practice of cultivating lucid dreams (dreams in which we’re aware we’re dreaming). Here’s what I’ve learned about what we can do when we’re awake to increase lucid dreaming when we’re asleep.
First, try to be as present as possible while you’re awake, by doing a wide range of spiritual practices. For me, that means meditating at least once a day (and preferably three times), doing yoga, qigong, ecstatic movement, and exercise, and generally energizing my attention throughout the day. Doing some spiritual practices right before bed seems to help. For instance, last night I energized my attention by doing some ecstatic movement right before bed. I then had a wonderful night of dreaming, including several “clear” dreams (not quite lucid, but with a high level of clarity and spiritual/psychological meaning) and one lucid dream. You can bet I will be doing an ecstatic movement practice before bed more often now.
If, like me, you tend to wake up in the middle of the night, try meditating while you wait to go back to sleep, rather than lying there letting your thoughts churn. In fact, avoid all states of prolonged involuntary thinking like the plague. These states are basically the waking equivalents of “samsaric” dreams (dreams of low clarity, low meaning, and low presence, that we’re glad to wake up from).
Speaking of waking up in the middle of the night, one thing that can really help foster lucid dreams is to intentionally get up a few hours before you normally would, stay awake meditating—or even working—for a while, then go back to sleep with an intention to have lucid dreams. Lucid dreams occur most often as the last dreams of the night; the longer you can postpone those final hours of sleep, the more likely it is you will have a lucid dream. When I’ve done this practice consistently, I have found that it actually doubles my rate of lucid dreaming. (I don’t often do it though, because it disrupts my sleep somewhat.)
Another factor that’s important for lucid dreaming is the strength of your intention. For instance, if you want to have a lucid dream tonight, start now by mixing awareness of dreaming into your waking life. Set a strong intention to have a lucid dream, and remind yourself of that intention throughout the day. Imagine what you will do in your lucid dream. Periodically ask yourself, “Am I dreaming now?” Don’t just dismiss the question; make a serious effort to discern the answer.
One thing I have not tried is taking herbal supplements to promote lucid dreaming, though I have heard others report positive results from this practice. So far, my brain seems to be working pretty well, and I treat it with a lot of respect; I have had a bias against directly tinkering with its chemistry.
For me, lucid dreams are wily and unpredictable. Despite all the work I have put into lucid dreaming over the years, at this point, I usually only have one lucid dream every other month. Still, I’m delighted with every lucid dream that arrives. Even when my preparations don’t actually result in a lucid dream (or a clear dream) on a given night, I still find that those preparations are worth it, because of the way they increase the quality of my waking life. When I do have lucid dreams, I take notes about the circumstances (including what I did the day before) so I can notice trends and learn what works for me.
There is a wealth of great material out there about spiritual practices related to sleep and dreaming. There are also many interesting dream-related practices that are beyond the scope of this article.