Last Updated: April 9th, 2019I read a story years ago that opened my eyes. Or maybe it closed them. You see, this is a story about dreaming.
A dream city
As many stories do, this one starts with a young boy facing a problem. The boy is a vivid dreamer and every night he suffers from violent nightmares that leave him terrified and exhausted. After failed trips to the doctor, his mother (a psychologist), persuades him that his stuffed polar bear can follow him to sleep and protect him from these frightening apparitions. That night, he slips into another nightmare to find that, lo and behold, he’s not alone. His polar bear is there as his guardian, and not just as his guardian, but as a companion who takes him to visit new and fascinating dreamscapes. Over the course of the following nights, the boy slowly learns to take control of his dreams and shape them according to his will.
As the boy gets older, he experiments with what he can create, and as he pushes deeper into his own mind, he starts encountering characters that represent different aspects of his psyche. Through conversations with them, he develops more of an awareness of his own subconscious. But when these characters begin spilling into his daydreams and speaking to him while he’s awake, he panics and needs to find a way to control them. Chains won’t bind them; walls won’t hold them. It’s not until he speaks with them individually that he discovers they each need a home for themselves. So he sets himself to building them each a house, until he has dreamed a small city into existence. Intrigued by the possibilities, and with all his emotions comfortably housed, the boy begins designing buildings for other purposes: a gate to hold back migraines, a movie theatre to relive memories, a drawing room to plan for life in the waking world.
Unfortunately, that’s where the story ends, unfinished and groaning under the weight of possibility. It’s a true story, written by a boy as a high school student.
Dream research and conflict at work
The story above set my mind on fire, and I spent the next few days feverishly researching dreams. This type of dreaming, in which the participant is aware they’re in a dream, is referred to as lucid dreaming. It can range from the simple awareness that you’re dreaming all the way to the exquisite control exercised by the boy in the story. I studied the techniques that allow beginners to enter this somnolent realm—keeping a dream journal, performing reality checks and setting an intention to dream each night as I lay in bed.
It was during this time that I came into a conflict. I’d messed something up at work, and instead of being understanding, as he usually was, my boss acted in a way that crossed the line from displeasure into disrespect. Now, I can often let my ego get the best of me, and this situation was no exception. What amplified the situation was that this wasn’t only my boss, but a close friend and a man whom I respect greatly.
I was holding onto a lot of resentment, though I knew I was partly to blame. During the daytime, my thoughts kept skipping, like a broken record, back to old conversations. I hosted arguments inside my head and crafted clever monologues that were sure to put him in his place. At night I lay awake, tossing and turning. The lack of sleep did nothing to improve my mood the next day, which made it even harder to find sleep. I passed two nights and three days like this. Then, on the third night, I had a dream.
My dream and conflict resolution
I found myself at work. Though I had the vague awareness that I was dreaming, I had little to no control, riding as a passenger in my own body. In that dreamscape twilight, the familiar train tracks seemed solid as always. To my left were the backs of warehouses—cream-coloured brick interrupted by graffiti and blackberry bushes. To my right were three pairs of steel rails stretching down concrete ties, curving in the distance in front of me. There was no sound other than the dusty crunch of gravel under steel-toed boots as I walked toward our site trailer, towards my boss.
He had his head down, smoking a cigarette, and looked up as I approached. I slowed until I was standing before him, eye-to-eye. I opened my mouth, but instead of delivering one of my monologues, I apologized. I apologized unreservedly and without trying to justify my anger. He was relieved and apologized for his part in prolonging the conflict. We shook hands and the dream faded.
I awoke the next morning without a trace of anger, feeling calm and rested.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m a proud person. Admitting to myself that I’m wrong, let alone admitting that to someone else, doesn’t come easily to me. But overnight, my ego had disappeared. There was no more emotional stress, because the situation was already resolved. It was behind me. All that was left was for me to simply make the apology in person, which I did that morning. Of course, it was accepted and we both moved forward feeling satisfied.
Lucid dreaming is a safe space
This whole experience got me thinking about the potential lucid dreaming has to help people work through troubling emotions.
Our dreams can be workshops where we take apart our problems, examine them and explore solutions with no real-world consequences.
I’d already realized the benefit of analyzing my dreams and the insight it gave me into my subconscious. Now, I considered the advantages of taking this one step further, like the boy in the story, and actively engaging with my mind rather than passively observing it. Here was an arena where someone could step outside the self of the waking world, that self that’s wrapped so tightly in the ego that our issues and insecurities become part of our reality.
Dreams can be a safe space free of judgment from ourselves and others, a place in which we can imagine realities unobstructed by the ego and the emotional baggage we drag around in our waking hours. Our dreams can be workshops where we take apart our problems, examine them and explore solutions with no real-world consequences.
Lucid dreaming is a form of self-awareness
Now, I’m far from the first person to arrive at the conclusions above. Aside from the boy who inspired me, growing research on human consciousness has prompted scientists and psychologists to examine the therapeutic potential of lucid dreaming.
As it happens, the type of dream therapy that I was envisaging is strikingly similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness meditation. At the centre of all three approaches lies the concept of metacognitive awareness—the ability to step back from your current reality with the hope of achieving insight into it. Studies examining lucid dreamers in MRI machines have shown that “Brain regions involved in meta-cognition are among the most activated in lucid dreaming.”
This would suggest that lucid dreamers are practicing a type of self-awareness familiar to those who engage in mindfulness meditation—an uncritical inventory of the thoughts and feelings that flow through our minds at any given time.
This also raises the exciting potential for dreams to be used in similarly beneficial ways. For those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or related illnesses, dreams could be a safe place to work through trauma. For those with anxiety, the pace of life can move so fast that they feel swept up and out of control, but by practicing lucid dreaming, we practice taking conscious control of our thoughts and emotions. Even for those of us who bear lighter burdens, taking the time to be self-aware can help us develop into more confident and compassionate people.
Perhaps, if we use our dreams to live as better versions of ourselves, our dreams won’t fade when we open our eyes.