Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Lucid Dreaming: Control and Choice

Lucid dreaming is paradoxical by definition: in a lucid dream, I am asleep and dreaming, but also fully aware that this is a dream and capable of making choices and taking action as if awake.

I wrestle with another paradox that goes along with lucid dreaming, and relates to waking life as well: how to find a balance between “free will,” and letting go into the unknown. To what extent should I try to take control of events in a lucid dream (or in my waking life), and to what extent should I allow the dream (or my life) to unfold around me and invite my participation? This is really a very big question.

I feel strongly that the kind of control advocated by some popular books on lucid dreaming is misguided. Such books suggest that as soon as we realize we are dreaming (which can happen spontaneously, or as a result of practices like the one described in “Threshold Experiences: Dreaming and Waking”), we should start doing the things we’ve always wanted to do: go to Paris, have sex with someone famous, swim with dolphins, etc. Although I think it’s not a bad idea to try new things when lucid dreaming—such as flying, moving through walls, asking questions of other dream figures—I think it would be a waste of a good dream to actually decide what the dream reality is going to look like. I also think it’s not really possible. I suspect that those who do this kind of “lucid dreaming” are probably at least partially daydreaming or fantasizing rather than fully immersed in the dream state.

“The multitude of lucid-dream stories that come from the Tibetan and other Asian traditions suggest that no matter how dedicated and skilled the lucid dreamer, the dream remains autonomous and defies counterproductive manipulation and control.”   -Jeremy Taylor

Dreams go beyond our conscious minds, beyond our wishes and desires—and thus have the capacity to expand those minds and show us more possibilities, more choices, than we could ever consciously invent.

During the years when I was single, I often tried to imagine the ideal partner and the life we might have together. When I finally met Holly, she turned out to be infinitely more interesting than my “ideal,” and the life we’ve had together has been much, much more complex, subtle, satisfying, exasperating, heart-breaking and heart-opening than anything I could ever have imagined. That’s just how real life works. Even the best fiction writer in the world does not come close to conveying the richness of the moment-by-moment unfolding of reality. Dreams are like that, too. Why settle for a cardboard stage set of your ideal vacation spot when you can explore a whole new world?

On the other hand—there is some truth in the truism that I “create my own reality”—in my dreams and in waking life. The things I believe will happen tend to happen. It’s not as simple as having a wish or a fear and seeing it manifested, because many of the things I believe or imagine are on an unconscious level. When the dreams I’m having are threatening, or ugly, or boring, it’s generally because, on some level, part of me believes that’s the way things are—even if I consciously think I have a positive outlook most of the time.

(Let’s not take this too far, however. It doesn’t mean we make bad things happen, in dreams or in our lives, because we believe in them or have “bad thoughts.” The nature of life, and dreams, is to include both pleasant and unpleasant—sometimes terrible—experiences. But our beliefs do have some influence on how we respond to these experiences, and in dreams those beliefs can directly shape the form the experiences take.)

I often come to highways in my dreams that I need to cross, and as I begin to cross, I remember that this is a dangerous thing to do and I probably can’t do it safely. Immediately, there are speeding cars in both directions. One time, I became partially lucid in this dream situation and thought, “I always seem to find the highway too busy to cross—what if this time it’s quiet, and I just walk to the other side?” Sure enough, I notice that it is just before dawn, and the road is free of cars. Yet, as soon as I start crossing, the cars start coming again, and I have to stop on a highway island, unable to go forward or back. My unconscious idea of the uncrossable highway was stronger than my semi-conscious intent for the way to open.

The dream was telling me something about myself and my beliefs (i.e. getting from where I am to where I want to be feels dangerous, and the fear makes me stop in the middle)—something that I couldn’t consciously control. In waking life, too, there are circumstances that I can’t change by exerting control. But, it’s important not to feel like a victim of circumstances, in dreams, or in waking life. Even when I can’t change the circumstances—or, as in a dream, don’t really want to change them because they are offering me an opportunity to learn something new—I can change my approach. This is where choice (rather than control) in lucid dreams can be wonderful. If I had been fully lucid (fully aware that it was a dream) on that highway island, I could have tried flying over the cars, or even standing out in the road and letting them drive through me.

In the actual dream, I’d lost my lucidity and didn’t realize that such different approaches were possible. Yet just by becoming aware that this was a familiar dilemma and intending to change it, I’d opened up the possibility that the dream could move forward in a new way. I am on that highway island with cars zooming by—and I slip between two trees and then find myself getting off a bus on the other side of the road. Wow.

But, as in waking life, that wasn’t the end of it. Once the highway crossing problem had finally been solved, the dream moved on to the next problem. The bus lets me off at the wrong stop, and  I can’t find the house I’m looking for, and there is this scary-looking guy working on his car… You get the idea. 

Finally, all dreams offer the opportunity to look at familiar situations in new ways, and lucid dreams can even give us the option of choosing to take creative liberties with our experiences. With full awareness that this is a dream, fear of consequences doesn’t need to be an obstacle. The lucid dreamer can experiment even with the scariest situations. But the dream has a life of its own, and I don’t want to take shortcuts through what it might have to teach.

It’s up to each dreamer to determine where the balance lies between creative choice and manipulation of the dream. Sometimes, I feel like I’m in a tug-of-war with the dream for control, and that usually suggests I’m in a similar tug-of-war with events in my life! Who decides the outcome?



  1. Cynthia Bauman

    Thank you! Your balanced and thoughtful words elucidate the paradox that I struggle with when asked “how can I control/direct my dreams.” Thank you for sharing your insights! —

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for the kind words, Cynthia!

  2. traviswernet

    This is so helpful to me Kirsten… truly lucid words and insights about the very topic of lucidity. I so appreciate the context of dreams and waking life that I hear you commenting on and it feels really balanced. I consider this a great “wholisitc” platform form which to seek further understanding of dreaming and lucidity and allowing these to inform and affect everyday life.

    Many Thanks, Travis

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Your word “wholistic” is perfect, Travis–and also, “balance.” I find that every time I say or write something about dreams, I also need to add that the opposite can be true as well. Neils Bohr said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.” A “wholistic” and “balanced” perspective is essential to dreamwork–and you always seem to be thinking in that way yourself.
      Thank you for your wonderful comments!

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