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The lucid dream spectrum


Green Park Tube, Fast, 2005 
Photo Credit: Nancy Chan

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In 1913 Frederic Van Eeden, an early twentieth century Dutch writer, philosopher and psychiatrist coined the term 'lucid dream' in a scientific paper called The Study of Dreams. He described a lucid dream as a dream where the dreamer remembers physical waking life in perfect awareness. It is a state of mental clarity.

When you ask people about their experiences with lucid dreams they usually describe the rational and non-rational aspects of the dream, but remain unclear how to classify them. In a lucid dream, or conscious dreaming, the dreamer knows she or he is dreaming, but this realization serves as only one kind of classification for the experience. Conscious dreaming involves a transparency of thought and the ability to perceive the truth directly.

A Los Angeles dreamer named Carla wrote:

I was standing outside my father’s old house. He was fixing his car and listening to the radio. Then the radio was full of static and it took some time before another song played. As I looked out onto the neighborhood street I realized I was dreaming. I didn’t know that much about it, but I’d heard about flying. I got on the roof and jumped. I floated for a little while, got scared and started to fall. Was that a lucid dream?

Knowing you’re dreaming doesn’t guarantee complete awareness or full rationality. Sometimes, we try things that would hurt us in the real world, as Carla did. Other times, we simply avoid making any wrong moves, just in case it isn't a dream. No matter what the situation is, full lucidity lands on a broad spectrum where awareness can fluctuate, making only some parts of the dream fully lucid. One way to understand lucid dreaming is by classifying its different levels.

  • At a minimal level the dreamer only knows it’s a dream, without understanding how the dream world differs from the waking world. This is common for first time lucid dreamers.
  • Additionally, at this stage the dreamer would not have all rational capacities intact, therefore more likely to mistake characters, situations and consequences with physical waking reality. In Carla’s dream she held the conviction that jumping off the roof meant falling and getting hurt, a course of action all too real in waking life. But if she’d held the belief that flying was possible who knows where the dream may have taken her. Remember Neo trying the jump program in The Matrix? The same idea applies here. You must free the mind.
  • Minimal lucidity would also involve the dreamer treating the dream figure as a figment of the imagination. If you tell a dream figure, “You don’t exist” or “This is my dream” the dream figure may become antagonistic. The end result: you’ll question whether or not it’s a dream and wake up.
  • At the highest level, the dreamer is dreaming consciously and possesses a rich understanding of the dream world. The dreamer would therefore behave humbly according to this knowledge through thoughts and actions. After Neo learns to believe, he does his Superman thing clearing thousands of miles in mere seconds.
  • Also, at the highest level the dreamer would be able to develop a relationship with recurring dream figures. This increased awareness regarding dream figures would involve treating them with an attitude of respect. There isn’t anything wrong with a little curiosity, but with humility the dreamer would learn how he or she sees people and relationships. 
  • Delving deeper, the dreamer and the dream figure may begin to discuss the paradox of the lucid dream experience. The dream figure may ask, "What is it like to live Los Angeles?" By answering this question you experience mental clarity, where you are aware of the distinction between physical waking life and the dream.
  • By interacting with recurring dream figures and developing a kind of relationship with them, you could involuntary begin to live a parallel life. Remember, dream figures can be guides, friends, lovers and exceptional sources of inspiration.

    No matter how frustrating the process may seem, if you practice staying lucid you'll move further along the spectrum. You'll increase the frequency of lucid dreams and stop waking up before you can let yourself enjoy the totality of the experience.

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