Several lucid dream researchers have spoken of their lucid nightmares: bad dreams in which the dreamer is aware but loses the ability to willfully control events. The unconscious mind takes over and delivers a message to the dreamer in as much emotionally-wrenching graphic content as it deems necessary. A lucid nightmare.
I'm not talking about nightmares which turn into lucid dreams - or lucid dreams in which consciousness is lost and a nightmare takes over. This is a highly specific (and quite unusual) state of awareness in which we can learn a heck of a lot about our inner fears and repressions. Although possibly frightening, we can also take part in a kind of live dream (nightmare) interpretation and apply this knowledge to our waking lives.
What's going on here? As a lucid dreamer you know that when you have clarity of thought and you know you're dreaming, you also have the ability to wilfully guide the dream. No?
This was generally my interpretation - until I actually experienced my first lucid nightmare and discovered this is not always the case.
It's a well accepted fact that lucid dreaming simply entails self-awareness in dreams. Dream control is a welcome side-effect for most people but it comes with varying degrees of intensity - and is never 100% under the influence of the ego. You do not, for example, consciously create every cloud in the sky or every bird that flies overhead or every blade of grass underfoot.
In truth, the unconscious mind plays a very active role in lucid dreaming. And when the unconscious decides to air some anxieties, you have a nightmare. If you happen to be lucid at the time, your perception of the coming events will be considerably heightened.
When this happens, you still know you are dreaming and the intensity of the dream is incredibly real. But instead of consciously guiding your dream, you may become sucked in to a nightmare plot - and begin consciously observing whatever comes up. Your unconscious is so powerful in its intent, you can't overrule its manifestations.
You can experience the same thing in a regular lucid dream (ie not a lucid nightmare). In fact, many lucid dream researchers encourage it. I often relinquish control of my lucid dreams and allow my unconscious to show me what it wants. I am still lucid dreaming because I am highly self aware, the dreamscape is ultra-vivid and I can consciously react to the dream elements that are unfolding. "Passive lucid dreaming" as I've come to call it, can be far more enlightening than my conscious dream choices. Why let my flawed ego take control when my inner self has so much more to share?
In a lucid nightmare this passive following response can lead to disturbing imagery. That's not a bad thing. Think of it as an opportunity to face your inner fears and overcome them. You can seriously enrich your waking and dream lives as a result.
Sometimes conscious nightmares can be upsetting because you have no ability to control your inner demons and they terrify you. The childish method of shouting "WAKE UP" can help at this point - but I recommend confronting your demons or just letting the nightmare play out its message so you can gain a deeper understanding of the issue.
Remember, dreams and nightmares represent our nightly visit to the therapist's couch, and there is no psychological issue that can't be examined within the lucid state.
I recently had a long lucid nightmare in which I knew I was dreaming but I had no control of the experience. I don't remember choosing to relinquish control at the time; it just happened. The reason I define it as a nightmare is because it involved being pursued by evil forces, being drowned (and dying) and watching a murder.
For all its violence and intensity, the experience was no worse than a typical non-lucid nightmare - in fact I'd say it was better. It was enlightening. I was still buzzing from the fact that I had become lucid and the developments thereafter were just a story, like watching a movie (albeit in total high definition 3-dimensional glory).
I'm walking through my old school at night and suddenly realize I'm dreaming, because I haven't been to this school in years. Everything zooms into focus and I can hear cicadas in the trees. A man I assume to be the Principal says: "Do you want me to help you find that thing we spoke about earlier?" I say "No thanks, I already found it." I don't know what we're talking about, but something tells me this is part of my unconscious offering to show me something... (In hindsight my unconscious decided to show me it anyway.)
Instead, I walk to the main building and find G, who I haven't seen for years. I ask him to come with me. We sit on the wall out front and I ask what he's been doing with his life. Suddenly the view from the hill disappears and we're now facing a dark, choppy ocean. He explains "I've been working on a submarine for years and I don't even know what I've got to show for it." He shows me a daytime scene - via the dream - where he's some kind of scientist studying the ocean. Then it switches back to the dark sea in front of the school.
An old friend from school approaches us and warns us something bad is coming. So we get up and walk down an alley beside a river. It's still night time. I'm lucid and aware but am no longer controlling the dream. I get the feeling I'm being told a story by my unconscious now and I want to hear it.
G tells me to climb over a 10 foot metal fence, because he wants to look at the building inside. Before I can start climbing something pushes me up like there's a giant burst of air underneath me. I land safely on the other side of the fence. Inside it's like a high security car park. I'm wondering what to do next when a dark, stick-like man comes charging through the fence we just climbed over.
"Oh great," I say, as I realize my lucid dream is turning into a nightmare and I'm losing consciousness. Then I say "No, I can deal with this!" and consciously start floating up in the air with G. More and more creatures congregate in the car park below and I realize they're like super alien zombies from the movies.
I surrender control back to G (or the dream, whichever it is) but maintain the desire to keep floating up and away from the creatures. We float up through a kind of warehouse in the sky which harbors lots of baby alien fetuses, incubating in tubes like little pupae. They suddenly fly off the shelves at us, trying to attack. "G, come ON!" I say and we float higher into the night sky.
We float up and up. Then I realize we are so high up, I can see the whole globe, all of it plunged in darkness with the smattering of lights in the cities. We are in space. I realize there should be no gravity here and we start twirling round and round, not knowing which way is up. Then G pulls us back to the intended plot.
He is suddenly up against a wall in some kind of futuristic caravan or self-contained unit (in hindsight, a submarine). Water begins to seep in then. Soon it is gushing in and G is sucked off to the other end. The water turns murky yellow and green... and as I look out the tiny window I see the alien pupae banging on the glass. I am cornered. Seems this can only end one way now.
Soon I have run out of air and I float in the submarine completely filled with dirty water, choking and drowning. I seem to have moved out of body and am observing myself dying from a third-person perspective. I think about how I once heard someone say that their soul chooses to dream of stuff they don't want to experience in real life. It seemed like quite an important insight at the time, even though I'm not sure I believe that.
It takes a few more seconds to drown and the main thing going through my mind is how violent it is. It's different from anything I've seen in the movies. It's like a cramping in my chest and knowing that there is no way to get past the suffocating water. I experience it as a fraction of the real pain my body must be experiencing because I am floating next to it, and I can see she is suffering.
I see the body finally give up and bump against the wall, the hair splayed in every direction, everything limp and lifeless. I see now, it's not me, it's a pale woman with long, thick blonde hair. Her skin is already swollen with the water.
The dream goes black.
I am zapped into my next life, maybe 30 years in. I feel a crunching pain in my chest for a moment and wonder if the drowning carried on into this next dream life. The next scene is also vivid and nightmarish, but I'm again experiencing it in a calm, almost indirect way so as not to be overwhelmed and wake up.
I zoom out to watch it as a third person again. I see that I am now a skinnier, slightly older woman with short dyed white hair. I am preparing to kill a man. He is sat down on a wooden chair, groggy and with his hands tied. What happens next grosses me out a little but I am glued. I still know I'm dreaming.
The woman (who is now definitely a third person, despite starting off as "me") cuts the man's throat and blood quickly seeps out. He raises his head, annoyed but clearly drugged, and says "What d'you do that for?" She tells him to shut up and quickly wraps a yellow string around his throat and pulls it tight. It cuts through the blood and his neck opens a little wider and I have the front row view. She then slaps a piece of silver masking tape over his mouth, yanks on the string one last time and shouts "Oh my god! Oh my god!" leaping away from the body.
People come running in from the next room - and she acts like she just found him. He's not quite dead though and his head rolls around as the blood spurts out. I know there's more to this story but I feel myself waking up and sensing my dog on the bed next to me. I try to hold on but my lucid nightmare is going... I feel my eyes opening and when I get up I realize I have way overslept.
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On the surface, this seems like an odd question to ask. Everybody feels like they have their own free will - whether it's a big decision like choosing their life partner, or a minor call like whether to keep reading this article. But when you break down the neurological process of conscious decision making, there is a distinct lack of evidence for free will. Scientific theories on cause and effect - and philosophical theories about the self - frequently rule out any need for a conscious decision maker at all.
If you saw the Christmas edition of Charlie Brooker's awesome Black Mirror [spoiler alert] you would have watched Jon Hamm mentally and emotionally torture an innocent woman living inside an egg. Ok, back up a bit. She wasn't really a woman. She just thought she was. One week earlier, Hamm's technical team implanted a 'cookie' into a real woman's eyeball. The cookie was an artifically intelligent computer chip. And over the next seven days it learned the personal preferences, thoughts and emotions of its female host. It even took on her life's memories.
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I'm half-asleep in bed, aware of fleeting dream images behind my closed eyelids. I start saying "I'm dreaming" in my head and shape the hypnagogia into a view across a lake. I place every detail in my mind's eye: the stillness of the water, the distant trees on the horizon, the twilight of the sky. I imagine my whole body in this space and it soon "pops" into existence and becomes a lucid dream. I cement my lucidity and breathe in the night air. It is beautiful. I must be somewhere in Scandinavia and this gives me the idea to summon the auroras.
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