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Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner's Guide

By Tim Ferriss / Author of The 4-Hour Work Week

From 1994-1995 I had the great pleasure of training with wrestling legend John Smith, 2-time gold medalist and 4-time world champion (domestic freestyle record of 80-0; international freestyle record of 100-5).

He was famous for his low leg attacks that made even Olympic finals look like textbook demonstrations.

The problem was, of course, that I was in New Hampshire at boarding school and had never met John Smith. I only trained with him 45-60 minutes per night while I was lucid dreaming. I went on to have my best career season, which culminated with a more than 20-0 record before the national championships…

I've since used lucid dreaming to:

  • Accelerate skill acquisition (example: yabusame)
  • Reactivate "forgotten" languages in less time
  • Cultivate zen-like present-state awareness and decrease needless stress

Lucid Dreaming 101

I applied to Stanford University because I wanted to refine my clinical understanding of lucid dreaming: the ability to become conscious during dreams and affect their content.

This isn't new-age nonsense, either. It's been tested in the strictest of lab settings.

Dr. Stephen LaBerge of Stanford was considered the world's foremost researchers in the science and practice of lucid dreaming, and he had pioneered proving its existence. How? It turns out that eye movement, unlike the rest of the skeletal muscular system, is not inhibited by REM sleep. Subjects could memorize horizontal eye patterns (e.g. left-left-right-right-left-right-left) and repeat the patterns upon becoming lucid, which researchers could observe, all while recording brain activity with an EEG to confirm that the subjects where, in fact, in a dream state. Tibetan monks have been practicing lucid dreaming for thousands of years, but it was considered fringe speculation until it was captured in a controlled environment.

There are now dozens of studies that explore the incredibly cool world of lucid dreaming and hint at applications.

I recently had dinner with former PayPal employee Mark Goldenson, who was a researcher in both Stephen LaBerge's lab and Phil Zimbardo's psychophysiology lab at Stanford, and the conversation convinced me that sharing the basics was worth a post.

For those interested in experiencing lucid dreaming, here are a few simple training methods, including:

Step 1) Develop dream recall -

Have you ever thought that you didn't dream on given nights, or perhaps not at all? If I were to track your REM sleep, as I have mine on even "dreamless" nights, you quickly realize that this isn't the case. Undeveloped recall is to blame.

Put a pad of paper next to your bed and record your dream immediately upon waking. Immediately means immediately. If you get dressed first, or even stare at the ceiling for a minute, dream recollection will be nil. Expect that you might not get more than a few lines for the first week or so, but also expect to get to multi-page recall ability within 2-3 weeks. This alone will make you look forward to going to bed.

Step 2) Identify dream cues and/or do reality checks -

Some people, like Mark, can use their dream log to identify common dream elements that recur from night to night. Water seems to be particularly common. These elements are then used for "reality checks": asking yourself if you're dreaming when you see these cues during waking hours, and then testing.

Testing entails doing something like trying to fly (not recommended) or looking at your environment for clear indications of dream state. The latter is my preference, and I typically skip the dream log and default to a few simple tests at set action (every time I check the time or walk through a door, for example).

Since working memory can only hold around 7 +/- 2 bits of information, and you are constantly creating your dreamscape in real-time, there are a few things that change if you look away and then look back at them:

a. Text (e.g., written signs)
b. Digital clocks/watches. Fascinatingly, analog clocks appear to keep accurate dream time, which, in my case, also corresponds to real time passing.
c. Complex patterns

For the last category, I like to look at wall brickwork or floor patterns, look away, and look back to see if their orientation (e.g. horizontal vs. vertical) or tile/block size has changed, asking "am I dreaming?" If there are changes, guess what? You are either on some strong hallucinogens or you are dreaming. If you're dreaming and answer in the affirmative, it is at this point that you will become lucid.

Step 3) Induce lucidity –

MILD

There are a number of techniques that help induce lucidity. One such technique tested by LaBerge, referred to as Mnemonic-Induction of Lucid Dreaming (MILD), involved — in my case — waking up in the middle of the night, setting the intention to lucid dream for 10-15 minutes, then going back to bed. I have found this to work best when I wake 5 hours or so after going to sleep (not just to bed).

Ancillary Drugs

Three drugs, in my experience, also seems to assist with induction: huperzine-A (200-400 mcg), melatonin (3 mg), and nicotine (standard patch). I don't suggest combining them.

Huperzine-A is an acetyl-cholinesterase inhibitor, tested in Chinese clinical trials for treating Alzheimer's, and will increase the half-life of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at the synapse. This is my preferred tool if I'm using chemical assistance. Melatonin is involved with setting circadian rhythm and its release is controlled by the pineal gland and suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). Dreams on melatonin tend to be more colorful and more chaotic, as is also the case with nicotine. Nicotine is my last choice, as it is addictive and can cause total insomnia if you don't time it properly. If you happen to be quitting smoking and will be using the patch regardless, be sure to put it on immediately prior to bed so the blood nicotine levels (and stimulant effects) peak well after you've fallen asleep. Mistime it and you'll be one grumpy bastard the next morning.

Step 4) Extend lucidity duration

This is where things get a little strange, or even cooler.

The first few times you achieve lucidity, you will likely be so excited that you will wake yourself up. Two effective techniques for extending lucidity are spinning (a la a piroutte in place) and looking at your hands. Both techniques, I believe, originated with Carlos Castaneda, but LaBerge was the first to test them and quantify the effectiveness of spinning vs. hand rubbing:

…the odds in favor of continuing the lucid dream were about 22 to 1 after spinning, 13 to 1 after hand rubbing (another technique designed to prevent awakening), and 1 to 2 after "going with the flow" (a "control" task). That makes the relative odds favoring spinning over going with the flow 48 to 1, and for rubbing over going with the flow, 27 to 1.

Step 5) Once you've flown all over and had sex with every hottie you can think of…

Try to explore memory and performance. Indulge in the flying and sex binge, as all newbies do — no reason to rush that phase, of course — but then expand your carnal horizons in other directions.

Have fun and sweet dreams…

Timothy Ferris is the author of The 4-Hour Work Week.

Related Article: How to Program Your Mind While You Sleep


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