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WHEN Caroline Coronel set eyes on her father Henry, she was overwhelmed with joy. After they embraced, they sat down for a long-awaited catch-up. ‘As always, he asked me how I was, about the rest of the family and if I had enough money,’ says Caroline.
‘I took his hand, squeezed it and told that him I loved him. It was incredibly cathartic.’ However, this was no ordinary reunion. Caroline’s beloved father, a former antiques dealer, had died three months earlier, in December 2011, and their conversation was taking place in Caroline’s dream.
Of course, it’s not uncommon for deceased loved ones to appear in dreams. But Caroline, 37, had chosen to dream about her much-missed father after learning an extraordinary technique known as ‘lucid dreaming’.
She is one of a growing number of people who claim to have trained themselves to control their dreams through force of will.
They say they can realise they are asleep and dreaming, then decide the dream’s content and control the action — playing out fantasies that range from talking to deceased loved ones to making love with a perfect partner.
Controversially, the practice is also being touted as a form of therapy that can stop nightmares and insomnia and even help cure post-traumatic stress disorder. And while lucid dreaming might sound bizarre, it is indeed a recognised scientific phenomenon — first recorded in 1913 by a London psychiatrist.
Most of us dream for around two hours each night, during the ‘REM’ stage of sleep — though the majority of our dreams are forgotten because our brains don’t store them. While dreaming we see a succession of images, much like watching a film.
But during a lucid dream, devotees say they are not just spectators — they can consciously interact with their dream worlds, much like playing a video game.
Recent research from Harvard University in the U.S. has revealed that during these dreams, the brain shows the same level of mental activity as when we are awake. Studies suggest that one in eight of us will experience the occasional lucid dream, often when we’re on the cusp of sleep and wakefulness.
There has been an explosion of interest in this field since the 2010 blockbuster Inception, which was based around the theme of dream control — leading to a rash of courses promising to teach you how to take charge of your dreams.
These range from £15 seminars to £1,500, week-long retreats. Such is their popularity that in November, Europe’s largest ever conference on lucid dreaming is to be held in London.
On these courses, which take place around the world, participants use exercises to train their minds to become conscious while asleep.
They’re taught to think about triggers that apparently spark an awareness that they are dreaming, such as trying to switch a light on or off (said to be impossible to do in a dream).
They are also given recordings to lull them into a relaxed state and suggest what to focus on while falling asleep.
Caroline, a musician from London, went on one of these courses after a neighbour recommended it as a solution to the nightmares that had been dogging her since she was five.
‘I dreamed of being chased by monsters,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t think of a reason for these nightmares — I had the perfect middle-class upbringing, went to a private school in Surrey and had a creative outlet thanks to piano lessons. But my dreams were troubled and haunted me into adulthood.’ The death of her 88-year-old father from blood poisoning made her nightly ordeal even worse. ‘It was so sudden that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye,’ Caroline recalls.
‘He told me he didn’t want treatment but I told his doctors to do whatever it would take to save his life. When he died a day later, I felt like I’d betrayed him and I was consumed by guilt.
‘I went to see a therapist about my nightmares but that didn’t help. When my neighbour mentioned lucid dreaming, I was sceptical but decided it was worth a shot.’
Caroline signed up for a £50 overnight course run by bestselling author and lucid- dreaming teacher Charlie Morley.
‘One of the first techniques we learned was the “back-to-bed” method,’ says Caroline. ‘You set an alarm clock to go off after six hours of sleep, get out of bed and stay alert for between 20 and 60 minutes.
‘Then, you relax, switch off the light and think about what it is you want to dream about before you fall asleep, to get your mind focused on that image.’ Caroline was also taught to ‘prime’ herself during the day by looking at familiar objects — such as her hands — and asking herself: ‘Am I dreaming?’ This is because they will invariably crop up in dreams, acting as a trigger to become conscious. Writing a dream journal was also recommended.
‘My first lucid dream was very simple and a week after the course,’ says Caroline. ‘I was playing the piano and singing but I realised I was dreaming — it felt like magic and got easier and easier.
‘From there, I experimented with flying and talking to dream characters. I even tried martial arts and acrobatics that I couldn’t do in real life.
‘Then three months after my father’s death, I decided to try to reach him in my dreams because I wanted to see him again. The first time I tried, I dreamed I was in my bedroom, and at the end of my room I could clearly see my dad. He looked younger, at the age I remember him looking his best.
‘I ran over to him and gave him a massive hug. Although I knew I was dreaming, it felt like I was seeing him in person. When I felt myself waking up, I told him I loved him and that I would be back soon.
‘The heaviness and sadness that I had been carrying around instantly lifted. The guilt over his death disappeared because I understood he was no longer suffering and that the past didn’t matter any more. No amount of therapy could have brought me that peace.’ ‘ But despite experiences such as Caroline’s,Sleep not everyone is convinced. Dr Max Blumberg, psychology researcher at Goldsmiths University of London, says many scientists are sceptical of escape The average has between 2,190 dreams each lasting to 30 luciddreaming because it is so difficult to analyse what happens inside the brain during sleep.
Even the most advanced brain scans provide limited information, leaving researchers largely reliant on anecdotal evidence, which may not be accurate.
‘There’s no evidence lucid dreaming actually exists,’ says Dr Blumberg. ‘Most people who say they can experience lucid dreams are in a state similar to daydreaming, where they are physically awake — possibly only briefly — and simply deluding themselves into thinking that they are having a lucid dream, perhaps because they’ve read so much about them.’ Dr Blumberg is also concerned that the practice may even be harmful. ‘From a psychological perspective, by trying to treat nightmares with lucid dreaming, you may be ignoring an underlying mental-health condition,’ he says. ‘A lot of people will exploit vulnerable people, offering quick cures for something that needs a long-term therapy, and that is dangerous.’ Such warnings aren’t stopping women from flocking to luciddreaming seminars.
Myra Nicol, 54, a teacher from West Sussex, decided to try lucid dreaming after suffering nightmares as a result of an abusive seven-year relationship. The bad dreams led to bouts of insomnia, which in turn caused her to pile on the pounds.
person 1,460 and a year, five minutes ‘When I woke up I’d binge eat — anything to stop my mind from dwelling on the nightmares,’ recalls the mother of four. ‘I put on two stone in three years, going from a size 8 to a 14.
‘I was in a new relationship, but our nights together were often disturbed by me screaming out. My new partner was incredibly supportive but also worried about me.’ She decided to give lucid dreaming a go after attending a lecture given 15 months ago by Dr Keith Hearne, who’d conducted research at Hull University on the phenomenon. Myra says: ‘When I saw my ex in my dreams it used to terrify me, but now I can direct my dreams so I’m the one in control. I push him away and slam the door in his face. It’s so therapeutic.
‘I’m no longer plagued with insomnia either — I’ve lost all the weight I gained and I feel good about myself.
‘I also have uplifting dreams. I have a favourite place in my garden, where I have a summer house. I go there in my dreams to feel safe, and I can even smell the honeysuckle and hear the birds singing.’ She adds: ‘Two of my adult children are currently away, in Malta and Thailand, and my son’s partner had a baby three weeks ago who I haven’t seen yet. I can pull them in and sit next to them and talk to them.’ Former air hostess Sinead Flannery, 43, has also found lucid dreaming a comfort.
She says: ‘I’d suffered from terrible nightmares since the age of six and tried everything, from herbal supplements to prescription sleeping pills, to get rid of them. I was desperate to get them under control.
‘As cabin crew, I had to sleep alone in hotel rooms, and that would make things worse as I’d wake alone and terrified in a strange place.’ At home, things weren’t much better. Sinead would thrash about during her nightmares, waking her husband Jason, 44, who works in human resources.
‘It had a terrible effect on my marriage, says Sinead. ‘Although Jason was patient with me, we were both exhausted, tetchy and irritable.’
Then, last September, while looking for a cure on the internet, Sinead read about lucid dreaming and enrolled on a seven-day retreat in Birmingham. The £1,295 course included lectures on meditating to get into a lucid-dreaming state, as well as classes on making dream-friendly lifestyle choices, such as cutting out stimulants like coffee and alcohol. Three days later, Sinead had her first lucid dream after listening to relaxation tapes. It was about her grandmother, Christina, who had died in 2005. ‘She was sitting in a hotel foyer, wearing a bright-green dress with a white collar. It should have been shocking but I felt really peaceful and calm,’ says Sinead, who is now training to be a clinical hypnotherapist.
‘I became conscious I was dreaming, and I knew I had to ask her one of the questions I’d been taught on the course. I turned to her and said: “What is the purpose of my life?” She just gave me a hug. I woke up weeping.’ Last November, Sinead used lucid dreaming to defuse a recurring nightmare that had plagued her since childhood. ‘I always dreamed I was being chased by a hideous monster, so I decided to address it using one of the techniques I’d been taught,’ she says.
‘Rather than running, I faced it head-on. I remembered the advice to hug your demons — so that’s what I did. The creature smiled and disappeared, and that’s the last I saw of it.’ Since then, Sinead has used lucid dreaming to fly like Superman, visit Stongehenge and the Pyramids and even take the role of a prima ballerina — though she can’t dance in real life.
While she, Myra and Caroline are totally convinced of the power of lucid dreaming, non-believers still continue to question its validity as a therapeutic tool.
But Caroline insists: ‘It’s given me a new way to look at life.
‘Fear puts your brain into a tunnel vision, where all you see is the negative. Now I’m more relaxed, less stressed and so much happier.’
HOW TO HAVE A LUCID DREAM
1. WRITE a dream diary to plug into your subconscious and begin to understand the ‘language’ of dreams. Put a notepad and pen on your bedside table and write down anything you remember the moment you wake.
2. ‘PRIME’ yourself by looking at everyday objects such as doors or your hands and asking yourself if you are dreaming. When you are asleep, you’ll begin to ask yourself the same question when you see the object, and thus become aware — and lucid.
3. SET intentions, such as meeting a deceased relative, for your lucid dreams. After getting into a relaxed state, simply focus on the thought before you sleep and have confidence it will happen.