Lauri Loewenberg’s client called her out of desperation.
“She walks into her bathroom to find her infant daughter forgotten in the tub, drowning. The baby’s lips are turning blue, she’s not breathing, and her mother runs to pull her out of the water. But before she can save her daughter—she wakes up.”
Loewenberg's client’s recurring nightmare—that her now grown daughter was an infant again, drowning in the bathtub—deeply disturbed her. It seemed there was nothing she could do to keep from having the dream over and over again, like a tragic, slumber-induced version of Groundhog Day. Loewenberg urged her to explore not the subject of the dream, but the underlying, subconscious message. “Your dreaming mind is your true mind, and sometimes it’s brutally honest,” she says.
Anyone who’s ever woken up in a cold sweat from a nightmare knows how realistic dreams can feel. But what if you knew you were dreaming—despite how real your surroundings seemed—and instead of feeling trapped or victimized you could control the outcome of your actions, do anything you imagined, or even make important decisions?
Try lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming can happen when you’re fully asleep, but become consciously aware that you’re dreaming. When you realize this, you’re completely in control of the outcome of the dream. And you can pretty much do anything: Fly, walk on water, travel the world, visit your childhood home. “It’s the coolest experience ever. It’s better than sex!” says Loewenberg with a laugh. She herself chooses to lucid dream about once a month and coaches her clients on how to get to a lucid dream state.
If you’re shaking your head in disbelief, you’re not alone. A controversial topic in the 1960s and '70s, lucid dreaming has garnered more believers since scientists started studying the brain during sleep. Researchers have been able to record the psychophysiological effects of lucid dreams—even catching a woman having an orgasm while in a lucid dream state.
Although perhaps not as restful as a regular night of sleep, lucid dreaming is beneficial for plenty of reasons, including serious and deep introspection. “A lucid dream can tell you how you’re really feeling about something, what you need to work on, and what you need to be aware of in your life,” explains Loewenberg. “Once you’re consciously aware you’re dreaming, you can have a conversation with your subconscious mind.”
In other words, partaking in lucid dreaming is like seeing a built-in therapist, with whom you can work through issues that might leave you totally stumped in waking life. The activity has even helped creative types beat writer’s block. And Loewenberg's client who kept having that recurring nightmare? As soon as she addressed the real issue—she'd abandoned a personal project, her "baby," and started working on it again—her bad dreams ceased.
Itching to try it for yourself? There are a few ways you can hack your dream agenda and start lucid dreaming.
Get comfortable with your regular dreams. During the average night, you'll go through about five dreams (whether you remember them or not). Loewenberg recommends keeping a dream journal. The more you write down what you recall of your dreams, the more you’ll train your brain to remember them.
Trick yourself into lucid dreaming. A trick to get into your lucid dream state: Set your alarm for 20 to 30 minutes before your normal wake-up time. Let the earlier alarm wake you up, and then allow yourself to fall back asleep and into your dream. Because you’re not in your deepest REM sleep, you’ll be able to control your dream more easily.
Use something to help you. Loewenberg acknowledges that it’s easier for more creative types to break into lucid dreaming. But even the most left-brained people can usually harness their dream power with the help of natural herbs like Valerian root. The popular holistic herb is most often used to help people fall asleep, but many people report that lucid dreams—or intensely vivid dreams—as side effects. Try it before bed to reach another level in dreamland.
If you don't get it right away, don't worry—over the course of your life you'll have 100,000 dreams, so you have plenty of time to practice.
Illustration by Karley Koenig