Maybe the vast majority of your recollected dreams involve public speaking in the nude, or repeatedly failing your college chemistry final. Or maybe you don’t recall having any dreams at all. According to Thomas Peisel, both scenarios are a profound missed opportunity: while you were helplessly flunking exams or snoring into a subconscious abyss, he’s been flying through the sky like Magneto and receiving sage advice from flame-covered monsters. And doing it all with complete cognizance.
Peisel, a long-time lucid dreamer, is the co-author of A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming: Mastering the Art of Oneironautics (Workman, 2013). The book is a collaboration between Piesel, Dylan Tuccillo, and Jared Zeizel, all three of them filmmakers and avid lucid dreamers (who also happen to be roommates). Designed as a step-by-step manual for lucid dreaming novices, the book offers tips on how to achieve lucid dreams — essentially sleep states you can consciously control — and sage advice on how to navigate and master them. It also digs into the centuries-old history of dreaming, and the current social and scientific lenses through which dreams (lucid or otherwise) are perceived. For particularly fervent readers, the trio are now working on a website, Dream Labs, that will offer "an interactive dream university" with video lectures and experiments users can partake in. On a set break in Wisconsin, where his day job has him filming a bacon commercial, Peisel shared a few more thoughts on adventures in slumberland.
Most adults, myself included, have never experienced a lucid dream — but you’ve been doing it for more than a decade. When did you start lucid dreaming, and what was the experience like?
"I was actually a closet dreamer, you could say, until a few years ago."
I actually first had lucid dreams as a kid, but I didn’t really know what they were or that they were anything special. I’d tell my mom about them and she’d just tell me I had a really vivid imagination, so I didn’t think much of them and they went away for awhile. But when I was a teenager, they actually came back, and they came back as nightmares, which was quite scary. By then, of course, I was lucky enough to have the internet — I started looking this stuff up online, and found the support I needed to actually train for lucid dreaming and learn to control the dreams.
But I was actually a closet dreamer, you could say, until a few years ago. When I mentioned it to people, they seemed to think it was really weird, like "whoa, what is with this guy?" And my former girlfriend was definitely weirded out by it, so I mostly considered lucid dreaming something to keep for myself, instead of sharing it with other people.
There’s obviously a lot of scientific research in the realm of sleep, and a lot of questions that remain unanswered. How has scientific inquiry yielded insight into lucid dreaming, and how do you respond to those who don’t take it seriously?
To be honest, I don’t think that scientists still know a lot about lucid dreaming, how it works, why it happens, what it means. I mean, we still have no firm consensus on what dreams really are, or why we even need to sleep. One really interesting experiment at the University of Hull, which dates back to 1975, used EEG to chart the brain activity of a patient who was familiar with lucid dreaming. They were able to show using EEG that he was sleeping, and he was able to move his eyes in a certain pattern to show researchers that he was dreaming in a conscious way. [Ed: A subsequent study at Stanford independently corroborated this finding.]
Research like this is neat, but I also think that science tends to look purely at the physical: well, what happens in the brain? How can we show this? That’s not the bigger picture for me, and I encourage people to just know what lucid dreaming is through experience. If you’re skeptical, give it a try. There will be a moment of lucidity, whether it’s tonight or nine years from now, where you’ll realize that this phenomenon is valid.
Lucid dreaming actually freaks me out a fair bit, and I don’t think I’m the only one. What do you and your co-authors tell people who aren’t sure they want to give it a shot?
"We already breathe, but we can choose to breathe mindfully. The same goes for dreaming."
People can have a lot of trauma around dreaming — maybe they have a history of nightmares, or they associate dreams with feeling uncomfortable or uneasy. But look: we all have dreams, for around two hours every night. That’s just the way it is. So the way I like to see it is that we each have two hours every night to access a rich area of experiences. We already breathe, but we can choose to breathe mindfully. The same goes for dreaming. We can decide to do it in a different way, and we can all train ourselves to do exactly that.
And the best part is, when we dream mindfully we can actual control what’s going on. Even if the situation is terrifying, we’re the ones who can alter it, we’re the ones in complete control. We’re always safe. I give this suggestion to kids, when I train them to lucid dream, but it can work for anyone: I tell them to put on their "dreaming parachute" before they fall asleep. And if the dream gets too scary or overwhelming, they just pull the cord on that parachute, and it’ll wake them right up.
In the book, you describe society’s relationship with dreams as "a bit ass-backwards." I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that perspective?
I don’t think we value dreams for the unique experiences that they are. Instead, I think there’s a tendency to brush them off, or ignore them, or think of them as a distraction. We’re not taught to be curious about dreams, or to consider what their meaning, or their value, might actually be.
We’re missing out on something important and universally true for all of us, I think. Which is that each one of us has access to these unique events, and that these events can be as meaningful and transformative as anything that goes on in our waking life. They can teach us things, they can help us grow, and we can all access them. This should be empowering: whatever is going on with you, if it’s conscious or even if it’s subconscious, you can take ownership over and responsibility for.
For people who aren’t lucid dreaming, maybe they dream about their day, or something from their past, or they dream about the future. Maybe they dream about visiting old friends or lovers, or someone who has passed on. And that’s all great. But lucid dreaming gives dreams the capacity to be so much more powerful — I think that lucid dreaming changes the way you move through the waking world. It does for me.
For one thing, I find that lucid dreams often come when you need them, and they can help you with your perspective on events in the waking world and how you interact with them. One nightmare came to me during transitions in my personal life and at work, when I felt like I couldn’t make the life I wanted, and it gave me exactly the message I needed. I don’t react to life by just reacting to what’s coming at me. I live from the inside out — the dreams will help you change yourself. That’s hard to explain if you haven’t been lucid dreaming, but if you have it might make more sense.
And to be honest, I now sometimes feel like it’s all a dream. For example, I just got back from the West Coast where we were doing book readings and TV appearances. It was surreal, in a lot of ways, and it was like the dreaming world and the waking world were interchangeable. On second thought, I don’t know if that’s the most reassuring thing for people to hear if they’re considering lucid dreaming [laughs]. But it is what it is.
Photo credit: Kyle O'Tain