When my mother died I started lucid dreaming. I would catch myself mid dream; completely aware of being asleep and yet able to continue the dream without waking myself up.
I would fly over entire cities, breathe underwater, converse with people I had always wanted to meet and conjure entire self serving situations.
Even during nightmares I suddenly gained control; where once my legs became lead, I could run, when once I couldn’t move my arm, I could punch.
Most importantly, I would see my mum. I’d dream I was walking around a town, my town – and it was covered in corpses. I came across a temple, a haven from the outside world’s destruction. My mother was there. It was her temple. There were other people, devotees. I couldn’t converse with her. I did try though – I tried to ask everything I’d wanted to in waking life. But suddenly it didn’t seem important anymore. It was just important that I was there.
I remember hugging her in my dreams and thinking, remembering, that I wasn’t able to hold on to it or take it with me. Whether it was because I knew it was a dream, or that I had an understanding that she wouldn’t last forever, I’m unsure. I do however, remember the feeling – the embrace felt completely, unfathomably, physically, intrinsically, real.
Every night became a choose your own adventure story. I lived on the edge of sleep, exploring this dreamscape for months.
Lucid dreaming occurs when a part of the brain associated with memory, usually deactivated during REM sleep, is activated. Once “turned on”, the dreamer must be cautious to let the dream continue, but be conscious enough to remember that it is a dream. To constitute lucid dreaming, the dreamer must be asleep and at the same time aware that they are asleep. From there just about anything goes.
I assumed this started happening because I’d been doing a fair bit of meditation, experiencing similar dream like states on the edge of napping while sitting in silence. But there was a part of me that wondered if it was a gift from the universe as a consolation to the grief inflicted turmoil I was experiencing when I was awake.
There was something quite mystical about it, though I suspected it was a kind of healing my psyche was doing - because I was living out my greatest fantasies while dreaming and literally battling my demons during my nightmares.
My mother taught me how to meditate. It’s always been a part of my life but at the time it wasn’t something I was dedicated to doing every day. I just had a few techniques I could call on when desperate to escape some stress or get to sleep. But apparently lucid dreaming is called Dream Yoga within early Buddhist traditions and is an advanced practice passed on by qualified teachers. It is no surprise that this felt like synchronicity considering my “teacher” had just passed.
The answer to all of this is in how we make it happen: by paying closer attention to experiences when awake. By observing the minutiae of life, one is better able to recognise any breaks from reality, which indicate when you’re dreaming. So the more mindful we are when awake, the more mindful we are when asleep also. The mystical meets the scientific.
Listen: Mia Freedman speaks to Gold Logie Winner Samuel Johnson after the death of his sister Connie. Post continues.
Historically, lucid dreams have been used as a form of therapy. Australian psychologist, Milan Colic, has used lucid dreaming to reduce the impact not only of nightmares during sleep, but also depression and other problems in waking life.
It seems my suspicions were correct - my lucid dreaming was likely to be a psychological mechanism - a fantasy land into which I could escape and in doing so, heal myself.
And it probably occurred due to a higher than usual level of awareness during my waking life. Possibly thanks to meditation, possibly because of the simpler lifestyle I was leading to cope with such enormous change. Or perhaps I just stumbled across a very lucky experience.
In any case it started to dissipate with time and it is now only occasionally that I find myself asleep and in control. But it’s comforting to know that our minds can magically heal ourselves in times of crises, just by letting us control our own dreams.