The Beginner's Handbook to Lucid Dreaming
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
Lucid dreaming is very exciting, but it can also be super confusing. If you’re new to lucid dreaming, the amount of information and terms can be overwhelming. This article will simplify things for you. It will cut through the noise and give you everything you need to start your lucid dreaming journey. Sound good? Yes? Then let’s jump right in!
What is Lucid Dreaming?
The textbook definition of lucid dreaming is pretty boring, but it’s worth knowing and understanding. Basically, lucid dreaming is knowing you’re dreaming while you’re having a dream. When you’re aware you’re in a dream, we call that “being lucid”, or “lucidity”, or we say "you're lucid". When you’re lucid in a dream (i.e. you know it’s a dream), that dream is called a “lucid dream” or colloquially a “lucid”. When you aren’t lucid in a dream (i.e. you don’t know it’s a dream), that dream is called a “non-lucid dream” or a “non-lucid”. So there are lucid dreams, and there are non-lucid dreams. You are either aware you are dreaming or you aren’t. It's a binary thing: you are lucid, or you aren't lucid. The awareness that you are dreaming might be very subtle, or it might be very obvious. Some people may refer to this as being "semi-lucid". But to keep things simple, any level of awareness that you are dreaming counts as lucidity. Many people in the community will further categorize lucids into two types of lucid dreams:
Lucid dreams where you realize you are dreaming while you’re dreaming. This is commonly called a “DILD” which is shorthand for “Dream Induced Lucid Dream”.
Lucid dreams where you transition from a waking state directly into a lucid dream. This is commonly called a “WILD” which is shorthand for “Wake Initiated Lucid Dream”.
This categorization convention was popularized by Dr. Stephen LaBerge through his book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. It has since been co-opted and expanded by the lucid dreaming community over the years. The countless acronyms ending in "ILD" are a symptom of this expansion. For your own sanity, there's absolutely no need to learn the ins and outs of this categorization system. It's a relic of the past that has become bloated and corrupted beyond usefulness. There are some techniques and methodologies that are worth your time to learn, and we'll go over those later, but in general, you can ignore most things ending in "ILD". Pro-tips:
Always remember: your goal is lucid dreaming. And if your goal is to lucid dream, you should focus on learning the fundamentals of lucid dreaming.
Approaching your lucid dreaming practice with a "fundamentals first" mindset means you don't need to memorize acronyms. You don't need to worry about whether you had a DILD or you had a WILD. You just need to know that there are lucid dreams and there are non-lucid dreams.
The actual methodology used to become lucid isn't the point. The point is to have a lucid dream. Full stop.
Put another way: do you want to memorize a dictionary or do you want to lucid dream?
How to Lucid Dream
Lucid dreams occur when key areas of the brain become active during sleep. The purpose of every lucid dreaming practice is to "strengthen" those brain regions. The more you use these regions, the more connections they'll build, and the more likely they are to activate when you're asleep. You don't need to know what these regions are, but if hearing about brain regions piques your interest, then I encourage you to seek out the scientific literature and do some research. For the sake of practicality, you only need to focus on four lucid dreaming fundamentals. They are as follows:
Each of these fundamentals are fairly deep. On their own, each one could fill entire books or articles. But to get you started, I'll briefly cover each fundamental and illustrate simple ways to practice them.
It helps some people to think about the fundamentals like stats in a video game. Everything in your lucid dreaming practice will raise one or more of these stats. The higher these stats get, the easier it is to have lucid dreams.
Lucid Dreaming Fundamentals
Criticality may be better understood as a "questioning curiosity". Criticality is asking "why" and "how" whenever you learn something new. Criticality is not accepting everything you hear at face value, but instead demanding verification and proof of claims or ideas. There are countless ways to strengthen your criticality, but in practice, many lucid dreamers boost their criticality with frequent "reality checks" (you will frequently see people abbreviate this "RC"), which are a way to test if you are asleep or awake. A common and reliable reality check is called the "nose pinch" test. To perform this test, pinch your nose so that no air can pass through, then try to breathe through your nose. If you can't breathe through your nose, then you are awake. But if you can breathe through your nose, you're dreaming!
It's important to never make a habit of reality checks. Remember, it's not the reality check that makes you lucid, it's the criticality behind the action. When you reality check, you should really be testing to see if you're dreaming. Don't believe you are awake just because you assume you're awake. Be skeptical and prove it to yourself.
Memory takes many forms. One type of memory beneficial to inducing lucid dreams is called "prospective memory". Prospective memory is remembering to remember something. A great example is remembering to do your homework or to pay your bills. Unless you religiously use an organizer or calendar, these are things you often need to remember to do, either later in the day, or later in the month. In practice, lucid dreamers will improve their prospective memory by setting intent. By simply reminding yourself that you're going to have a lucid dream tonight, or recalling a specific goal (like flying), you work to improve you prospective memory. It's not too different from intending to do your homework or intending to pay your bills or intending to play Minecraft after school/work. These are all things you plan to do, things you intend to do. Beyond training prospective memory, lucid dreamers train something called "working memory". Working memory is the brain's way of processing and dealing with temporary, short-term information. One very important way that lucid dreamers improve their working memory is by recording their dreams with a dream journal. Without getting overly technical, lucid dreamers actively strengthen their working memory by training themselves to retain more and more details from their dreams.
This one is a bit tricky to explain. There's no word in English that correctly encapsulates this fundamental, but "awareness" comes closest. Keeping it simple, you can raise awareness by taking time in your day to pay attention to your surroundings. Really notice the world around you. Look at everything as if you're seeing it for the first time. Take in as much detail as possible and let yourself exist in the present moment.
For those just getting started, it's enough to pay attention to the world around you a few times a day. Eventually, the goal is to become aware of that awareness. This meta awareness, which some call "self-awareness", results in a self-sustaining state that very closely resembles what it feels like to be lucid in a dream. If that's confusing, don't worry about it, it's a tricky concept, and definitely something that's easier to understand after experiencing your first handful of lucid dreams. Another common way of increasing awareness is by interrupting your sleep cycle. People in the community call this Wake Back To Bed (WBTB), and as the name suggests, it involves waking up after you've gotten 4-6 hours of sleep. Waking up like this during the night temporarily improves your awareness, making it that much easier to lucid dream. Naturally, you can use other methodology--like intent setting--during the time you are awake between sleep cycles.
Presence is presence. It's how grounded you are in the moment. It's feeling and knowing your physical state of being. Presence is feeling how your body feels. Hearing what your ears hear. Smelling what you smell. Tasting what you taste. Presence is how tuned into your body's sensations you are. In practice, presence tends to be overlooked by most lucid dreamers. Thankfully, all the best lucid dreaming methods incorporate presence in some way. One powerful method in particular involves cycling between touch, sight, and hearing during a sleep interruption (WBTB). The technique was originally developed by "CosmicIron" who named it "太玄功" which translates to "A Very Mysterious Technique". Despite the name, there's nothing mysterious about it. It simply serves to powerfully boost the dreamer's sensory presence immediately before sleep. English speaking communities will refer to this technique as "SSILD". If you want a very straightforward way of practicing presence, simply take note of your body and your sensations at the same time that you practice awareness during the day.
When you learn about various techniques and methods, always ask yourself "which fundamental(s) is this technique trying to improve".
Knowing the fundamentals allows you to be creative in how you practice lucid dreaming. You aren't limited to performing a set of instructions over and over until they work. Be creative, find a hobby you enjoy that forces you to use one or more of these fundamentals. For instance, you could learn an instrument, learn to dance, etc.
To hasten the process of strengthening fundamentals, you can increase your neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is essentially a measure of how easily your brain changes and reconfigures itself as it learns and processes new information. It can be increased through exercise, meditation, reading fiction, and flexing your creativity.
A Sample Lucid Dreaming Practice
A handbook like this wouldn't be complete without a concrete way to become lucid. Keep in mind, what's presented in this section is only a starting point. All the best lucid dreamers eventually develop their own practices. Over time, you will learn what works well for you, what methods you like, and which ones you don't like. But until then, I've got you covered.
Mindset is an extremely important part of any lucid dreaming practice. Sometimes, the only thing keeping someone from frequent lucid dreams is their mindset. A good mindset informs how you practice, how you learn, and how you think. Your mindset will change over time, and that's okay.
When you are just starting out, for best results, always try to keep the following ideas in mind:
There are lucid dreams and non-lucid dreams. I want to have lucid dreams. It doesn't matter how I get them.
I don't need to learn acronyms to become lucid, I just need to focus on learning and strengthening the fundamentals.
Lucid dreaming is a skill. It's like learning an instrument or a sport or a game. It takes time to master.
Lucid dreaming is inevitable for me, because I am a lucid dreamer. As a lucid dreamer, having lucid dreams is just something I do.
Having a goal is just as important as your mentality. Having a goal motivates you to keep practicing and to stay consistent with your practice. Your goal can be anything, and I wouldn't presume to tell you what your goal should or shouldn't be. Some people want to fly, others want to overcome nightmares, some want to study for tests, practice a physical skill like martial arts or basketball, and a few seek to build out vast, persistent universes in order to live out a second life within their dreams. Imagination is the limit, so use yours and imagine a goal that gets you excited.
Lucid dreaming practices are split between "Day Practice" and "Night Practice". Your day practice is what you do during the daytime to improve your lucid dreaming fundamentals. And naturally, your night practice is what you do to improve your fundamentals at night.
For your initial day practice, perform the following daily ritual. Do each item listed in sequence, as often as you'd like. Once a day is great. Five times a day is even better. If you can manage it, try to do these all day, every day. Just be careful not to habitualize this process. Every time you perform this small, daily routine, it should be like you're doing it for the first time:
Each morning, when you wake up, lie still and recall your dreams. Do your best to recall every detail. Work backwards through these memories. See how they link together. Then, once you finish stepping through your dreams, get out your journal and record your dreams. If you can't recall anything, write that down.
During the day, remember to pay attention to your surroundings. See what you see, feel what you feel, hear what you hear. Allow yourself to become aware and present in the moment. However you do this is correct, so relax and just allow yourself to exist and live in the moment without judgement.
While you are paying attention to your surroundings, consider that you might be dreaming. Really consider it, be critical. Take note of how you feel, your senses, and how the world around you looks and feels. Get a sense for whether you are awake or dreaming.
Once you've got a sense for whether or not you're awake, put that idea to the test. Pinch your nose and try to breathe through your sealed nose. If you can't breathe through your nose, you are probably awake. If you can, then you know for certain that you're in a dream.
Whether you're awake or dreaming, remember your goal. If you're certain that you're awake, instead imagine that you're lucid dreaming. Take a deep breath and envision yourself being lucid. Imagine yourself following through with your goal. Really feel what achieving your goal would be like.
Do the following each night:
Meditate. Set aside at least five to ten minutes each night to sit with your thoughts without any distractions. Turn off your phone, your tablet, your computer and just sit in a quiet place. Take a few deep breaths and observe your thoughts. Don't interact with your thoughts, don't judge your thoughts, just watch them. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions those thoughts dredge up. Just let yourself be aware and present in the moment.
Near the end of your meditation, set your intent to lucid dream. There are lots of ways to set intent. The simplest way is to remind yourself that "yes, I will lucid dream tonight". There's no need to repeat this. Remind yourself once, know that your intent is true, and that's enough.
As you go to sleep, perform a technique of your choosing. It's okay to rotate through techniques to gain familiarity with them, but only if you aren't neglecting the rest of your day and night practice. Think of techniques like a short-term buff that temporarily boosts one or two of your fundamentals. If you don't know any lucid dreaming techniques, that's perfectly fine. You can either skip this step entirely or take the time to learn a few techniques. Two techniques worth learning include mnemonic techniques (the community commonly calls these "MILD")--which LaBerge's covers in his book--and sensory cycling techniques (called "SSILD")--which you can learn more about here.
At least once a week, when you get into bed, set an alarm to wake you after 4-6 hours. When your alarm wakes you up, record any dreams you can remember in a dream journal. You journal can be physical, digital, or you can use a voice recorder. Don't bother trying to write down every detail, just record the key ideas. If you can't recall anything, try to remember your dreams anyways. While actively trying to remember, record that you don't recall anything.
After your alarm wakes you, and you finish recording your dreams, take some time to get comfortable. Get out of bed, go the bathroom, and relax. You can put on some music if you'd like, read a paper book, anything that keep you calm and relaxed. When you've been awake for at least five minutes, it's time to go back to sleep. As you're falling asleep, repeat the technique you used earlier in the night. If you don't know any techniques, that's fine, just recall your intent to have a lucid dream, remember your goals, and then go back to sleep. If you know how to perform a WILD, this is the perfect time to give it a go.
Notice how everything in this routine builds or engages the fundamentals in some way.
Every good lucid dreaming practice will invariably work to not only improve these fundamentals, but ensure each activity creates a link--a bridge--back to lucid dreaming.
When you start putting together your own practice routine, be sure you don't neglect any of the fundamentals.
Consistency is important. The longer you practice and strengthen the fundamentals, the easier it becomes to lucid dream. Stick with your practice for a month or two, then reassess. Maybe something is working well. If so, do more of that thing. Maybe you can cut back somewhere. Use criticality as you adjust and improve your practice.
Controlling Your Dreams
Dream control is a separate skill from lucid dreaming. As such, controlling your dreams is beyond the scope of this article. If you want a strong foundation for dream control, I recommend reading through our articles on the topic. Much like how this article introduced you to lucid dreaming fundamentals, my articles on dream control will teach you how to control your dreams from the ground up.
Some other pieces on dream control worth your time include the following:
How to Improve
This section is applicable to any skill. Inevitably, no matter what skill you're learning, you will hit roadblocks and these roadblocks will lead you to questions. Asking questions is great, but it's important to ask good questions. Good questions are specific and give context to the person you're asking for help. Next time you ask someone a question about inducing lucid dreams, tell them what you do for your day practice and your night practice. Then ask about the problem you're having. Don't ask "how do I lucid dream?" or "do you have any tips?" Instead, practice your criticality. Identify the specific issue you're having and come up with a question that addresses that issue. Or better yet, do some research and answer the question for yourself.
Improving is all about identifying areas that can be improved, asking the right questions, applying what you've learned, and then repeating this process over again and over again. Improvement is slow, methodical, and deliberate. And what's more, it requires criticality.
I genuinely hope this little handbook helped you get a handle on what lucid dreaming is, how to think about lucid dreaming, and how to have your own lucid dreams. I know it's a lot of information to digest, so take it slow. If it seems like a lot, let these ideas sit for a day or two, and then revisit them. Maybe even ask a good question or two in the comment section below. Always remember: lucid dreaming takes time. There's no need to rush.
So until next time.
Stay critical. Stay present. Stay aware. And remember...stay lucid.
©2021 by Mzzkc - Cover Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash