Photo by geralt via Pixabay
by Emily F. Butler © 2018
I’ve been lucid dreaming since I was a young child. As a result, I’ve had well over a thousand lucid dreams. Among those, there are two dreams which stand out among the rest, and both could be described as nightmares.
Due to my lifelong interest in lucid dreaming, I ended up teaching a course on the subject at North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Massachusetts. It was a relatively popular course, and its popularity is a testament to the profound curiosity most people have about the topic.
Teaching this course taught me about the most common mental blocks which prevent people from learning how to lucid dream. These include the difficulty of committing to performing reality checks or keeping a dream journal. For those who do persist through these initial steps, there comes another tier of difficulties to overcome, such as waking up immediately once lucid.
The hardest roadblock for many, though, comes when they face the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.
This natural physical phenomenon is a state of full-body paralysis, which occurs during R.E.M. sleep, and affects all sleepers whether they are aware of it or not. Becoming aware of your body’s state of paralysis, however, can be extremely terrifying.
Once in a state of sleep paralysis, you can focus all your energy on moving your body, and you will eventually be able to. But this can take several minutes of anxious struggling. Another option, which many people find impossibly frightening, is to relax and fall back asleep into a new dream.
It’s not surprising that learning to lucid dream can cause you to experience sleep paralysis.
Lucid dreaming is, after all, a state of awareness. It is the awareness of your body and mind’s true state of being while asleep.
You dream every night, but you are not always aware of it. Similarly, you are paralyzed every night, and usually do not realize it. Becoming aware during the dream state, as well as during the transitions from wake to sleep and vice versa, can cause you to be aware of sleep paralysis.
As I said, this information can be enough to turn off potential lucid dreamers from pursuing this skill. Those who do end up experiencing sleep paralysis tend to want to avoid the experience at all cost. I think that is a shame, because the two most profound lucid dream experiences I’ve had have both been difficult, frightening ones — and one of those involved sleep paralysis.
The first lucid dream which I want to relate did not involve sleep paralysis, but it was a lucid nightmare.
After keeping a dream journal and practicing lucid dreaming for many years, I started to have more and more lucid nightmares. What essentially happened was, I became all too familiar with the ways that a dream could become suddenly frightening. My lucidity started to trigger these frightening experiences immediately.
In this particular dream, I became lucid at my childhood home and decided to walk down the street and merely observe. But soon after, I started to feel anxious, and sensed a presence behind me. I turned around and saw a horse. (There is a horse barn on this street in real life.)
Many of my nightmares involve being chased by wild animals, and I was extremely frightened, even though I knew I was dreaming and that none of my perceptions were real. Luckily, I remembered advice which I had read in Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge, which, to paraphrase, recommended that dreamers confront the source of their anxiety. LaBerge specifically recommends asking frightening figures “what they want.” So, I asked the horse what it wanted.
The horse didn’t answer me in words, but I understood telepathically that it wanted me to ride it. I got on the horse, which no longer scared me, and began to ride. I never would have thought to seek out a horse in a dream, and I found riding it to be a thrilling activity, worthy of any lucid dream. Then the horse lifted off the ground, and we both flew into the sky. This experience taught me that I had the ability to turn a dream from frightening to beautiful, all through facing my anxiety head on.
If I had given in to fear, if I had run from the horse, I never would have ridden it into a gorgeous dream sky. I believe this is analogous to shying away from sleep paralysis, whether that means avoiding lucid dreaming altogether in order to avoid it, or fighting against sleep paralysis when it occurs until your body manages to move. As someone who has experienced sleep paralysis hundreds of times, I understand viscerally how terrifying it can be.
That being said, though, the most vivid and in-control lucid dream I ever had began as a bout of morning sleep paralysis: I assured myself that I was in no real danger. I had to withstand some difficult physical sensations and perceptions, including a high-pitched sound which increased in volume to a piercing level. But, by relaxing and focusing my attention instead on my breath, and the act of falling back asleep, I was able to generate a dream from scratch. This made it easier to create the scene I wanted, as I didn’t have to override existing visual material.
I built a beach in my mind, complete with all the sights, sounds, feelings, and scents I had stored in my memory associated with beaches. It was perfect, and aligned completely to my expectations. Once I entered the dream, I found that I had an unprecedented level of awareness and control.
The lesson I would like potential lucid dreamers as well as sufferers of sleep paralysis to take away from this article is one and the same:
Don’t give in to fear. Don’t be so afraid of lucid nightmares that you never learn to lucid dream. Don’t be so afraid of sleep paralysis that you always choose to fight it until you wake up.
What lies on the other side of your anxiety may be the most vivid lucid dream you’ll ever have.
Emily F. Butler’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Halfway Down the Stairs, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Moonglasses, Bone Parade, Waxing and Waning, and The Wire’s Dream. Her chapbook, Self Talk, is forthcoming from Plan B Press. She has a YouTube channel where she discusses lucid dreaming as well as stand up comedy and other topics. You can follow her on Twitter @EBetcetera.