Like seeds dreaming beneath the soil, your heart dreams of spring.
Trust in dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
– Khalil Gibran
I think I used to lucid dream. More precisely, I’ve lost count.
The dreams were flint-sparks at first: I awoke in my sleep a few nights in a row but was quickly blotted out. The first full-length lucid dream was in a movie-theater. I was alone. A movie-projector was being projected on-screen. The movie projector on-screen was projecting the very screen on which it was being projected.
Something, I’m not sure what, impelled me to creep into the screen and take control of the reel inside. It wasn’t easy. Any sudden movements would smoke me right out of the dream-verse. Dreams are museums or temples of experience: touching any artifacts leaves you vulnerable to the fury of faceless forces. Faced with the terrors the lucid mind presents, knowing that the dream-verse is a simulacrum offers little solace.
Trial and tribulation, and my mind grew flexible enough to steadily behold the proto-world of reveries where the possible and the impossible coexist in riotous harmony. Just as actors perform their plot, disappear behind the curtains, strip off their costumes, and suspend their characters in the ether until they return—so it is with my intent, the actor manning the stern of my vessel. After performing its bit, my deepest spirit retires and suspends the skin of my wakefulness in a damp closet. It disappears to my sight and the world while it’s they that’ve been hung. (Death is the eternal hanging of all possible and impossible worlds.) As that most abysmal spirit slips from the shroud of spacetime, I catch glimpses of the theater-troupe’s afterparty or the encore—this is called dreaming—then I freeze until the polymorphic, universally renowned Actor inhabits my teeth again. In seconds which glimpses yawn into eons, lucid dreams reveal the underbelly of the theater. They are a tour of the generator and the employees electrifying the plant.
If you come across your mom in a lucid dream, she won’t be your mom. Don’t expect to have five fingers either, but rather bits and pieces of when you saw fingers in the recent past, roughly copied over each other like confetti on a collage.
I strained to stay aware in dreams for longer stretches of un-time. I learned to manipulate fire. I leapt over the law of conservation and created ex nihilo. I learned to fly. For a long time, I could only skid a few feet off the ground. It took a moment of crisis to fully sprout my wings.
I was trapped in someone else’s joke about a Venice-sized washing machine falling over Venice. I tried to wake but couldn’t. I looked up at the green monolith covering the neon sun. When the washing machine pinched the ground, I zigzagged across the city to flee the epicenter. I shot up and rocketed past the acrylic sky. When I approached earth’s uppermost halo, to my horror, I lost momentum.
I emanated tidal forces from my skull and tried to wake myself, but I still couldn’t. I reached up and grabbed the moon by its chin. I missed and fell to the sea and sank to the abyss, though I never drowned. A leviathan stirred from the deep and fished me into its mouth with a forked tongue.
I awoke eagle-spread on my stomach and choking on a pillow.
Images of Venice—the green monolith, the pointillist stars, the black and blue ocean, the great whale of Unknown—temporarily disabled me. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with vertigo.
Wakeful dreaming was harmful from the start, yet I did everything to return to the world of discord. In retrospect, I don’t know what I hoped to unearth in those bottomless catacombs. I experimented and developed tricks, then rituals, then advanced techniques for invoking lucidity. I’d write I am awake on the back of my hand so that at night recollecting the phrase would stir me; I’d switch lights on and off when I entered rooms since you can’t control lighting in dreams; I’d sleep longer than was normal or sometimes not at all. Most importantly, I faithfully nourished a dream diary. (The first entry is “I think I used to lucid dream.”)
“You look sick,” said my roommate.
“You’ve been acting strangely.”
“You don’t eat. You’re up all night. You stare off into space for hours,” he said.
To this day, I don’t fully believe him, although I do remember being unduly pigheaded and irritable at that point in life. I must’ve known I was scum because when he suggested that I join a lucid dream support group, my guilt led me to consider it.
“They meet on Fridays at 9 pm,” he said.
“I can’t miss a night of dreaming.”
“That’s the point. If you want, I’ll come with you.”
“Aren’t you curious? You can dream about the people there, too.”
There were barrels of fresh Colombian coffee, energy drinks, and cigarettes at the meeting. All of it was untouched. While we waited for the session to start, my friend and I mingled with the people there.
I met an old Jewish woman who was convinced everything was created on Thursday.
“But we have evidence of Wednesday.”
“Memories of Wednesday and everything before and after were made on Thursday, too.”
“What happens when you die?”
“I’ll wake up on Friday, younger than I am now.”
It was Friday. “And then?”
“No one knows. But I won’t remember a thing.”
By 11 pm, the group leader hadn’t arrived. We grew restless. We had lives, families, friends to get back to. And we had early curfews. If we were going to lucid dream and wake up for work, we had to leave soon.
When members began dozing off, a dream-junkie suggested that we pair off and keep watch over each other. I was assigned a rough-necked man from Boston. Lucid dreaming had been in his family for generations. Someone on his mother’s side was burned at the stake for predicting the death of John Winthrop’s daughter before she’d landed in Massachusetts. The accused said the truth was revealed by an incubus while she slept. Winthrop didn’t recognize the voice of God, so he condemned the Lord’s priestess.
I turned to my roommate and saw that he’d fallen asleep. I told my partner that if he let me go to the restroom, unaccompanied, I’d let him sleep until I returned.
He hugged me. “You can fight this.”
I took another approach. I described my most vivid dreams in great detail. He listened attentively. He eventually reconsidered my proposition. He closed his eyes while I snuck off.
I found a restroom on the far upper corner of the building next door. I entered the stall, pulled my pants down, and pretended to shit. I snapped off my higher cognitive functions and plunged into a gaping coma. The raw elements of the world mixed and misted, and wide voids wheeled overhead.
My eyes darted. The support group burst into the restroom banging trash bins and setting off airhorns. They throttled the stall and begged me not to sleep. I had everything to lose if I gave in. I pulled my pants up and flushed, still trying to conceal my guilt.
“I was using the restroom.”
“Why doesn’t it smell?” asked a round middle-aged man named Zeus. He was the group’s counselor. During the day, he was as an art model at the community college where the therapy sessions were held. (I later asked about his name. He claims it’s been in his family since they lived in Morocco, generations ago. The lucid dreaming also stretched back to Africa.)
“I don’t usually leave a smell.”
“What dream-level are you?” demanded Zeus.
Level-zero is a state of rare or no lucid dreaming. Most people never leave level-zero. Their lucid dreams can only land dead on arrival.
Level-one lucid dreamers dream 3+ nights in a row (a statistical trend) and can induce dream-epiphanies through “reality-checks”— or “invocations of dream-radicals” as Zeus calls them—revealing the deceptiveness of the surrounding world. Dream-radicals are invisible particles which cause reality-checks to fail. Dream-radicals swell into monstrous tsunamis that untwine the fabric of dream-verses.
Level-two dreamers can activate dream-radicals without error. The ensuing unreality reveals the truth of the world. The truth of the world is that there’s none. The world is its own impossibility. Dream-radicals are the way to truth. They are the perennial outliers threatening to spoil the show or knock pieces off the board. It may take all of time, but a dream-radical always comes.
Hordes of rules are suspended in level-zero and level-one dreams. At this stage, it’s still easy to segregate dreams and non-dreams. Reality-checks determine which side of the fence you’re on. They should be easy to fail in dreams but hard to fail while awake. Babies and animals live in worlds with no fixed boundaries between chimeras and data. Since their feats in waking life often fail, reality-checks can’t be deemed successful or unsuccessful by them. Only those whose foolish sense of worldwide stability has been established and dispelled can craft reality-checks.
My first reality-check was elegant. I set an alarm for every thirty minutes and counted five fingers when it went off. While awake, I celebrated the ritual’s uneventfulness. Because the brain can’t steady itself under the weight of dreams, when I recollected the same process in dreams, by finger number two, my dream-fingers were distorted, missing, or overabundant, or I began to count undiscovered sequences.
But the brain never tires of clarifying experience. Its fetish for symmetry ruthlessly tidies the fountains of shredded paper where dreams spring. The more I counted in dreams, the better I became at replicating reality. Counting to five became uneventful in and out of sleep.
“You’ve reached the second rung,” Zeus explained. “You get a free coffee mug if you return to level-one.”
He showed me a pyramid diagramming his theoretical system of lucid dreams. The closer to the tip, the closer you are to eternal misery and enlightenment. He pointed to the second tier. “You’re here. Your brain already knows reality-checks are temporary roadblocks. You have to make tougher reality-checks, or it’ll be impossible to tell dreams and waking-life apart.”
“Can you make an unsolvable reality-check?”
“No. Why would you want to?”
As I slept, I fashioned a reality-check I was sure would always guarantee lucidity: telling others that they were in my dream. I quickly learned that it doesn’t help to tell dream-characters they’re fictions. They’ll try anything to convince you you’re not dreaming, often successfully.
I buried myself in failed reality-checks, each time certain that I’d created a Gordian knot. Suppose I never found what I was looking for. As soon as the possibility struck, it was followed by a mirage. To write is to dream in daylight. To read is to interpret such stuff as dreams are made on. What would happen if I interpreted dreams while dreaming?
Dream-reading proved to be an infinitely dense process. Letters shutter and switch. Papers fold into wings and flutter away. For the first time since level-one, I regained my confidence in crafting labyrinths.
I told Zeus I fashioned a diamond immunity to dream-radicals. He begged me to get natural sleep.
I was dream-reading a dream-menu in a dream-restaurant. I was with my roommate. I couldn’t decipher what I was ordering. I was in an illusion.
A dream-waitress came to take our order, and I took her by the waist. She looked distressed and backed away.
“Lazarus, what are you doing?” asked my roommate. (Lazarus isn’t my name.) He pulled us apart.
I was in the throes of a conundrum: if I take the dream-waitress without her consent, though I have the consent of her soul, which is my soul, am I taking what is not rightfully mine? The waitress screamed. Everyone at the restaurant shot to their feet and threw their hands on me. I tried fighting off their fingers, but they overcame me and ripped me to pieces.
When I awoke, I felt shame. What I did was wrong, but I couldn’t see how.
I was gyrating through zeotropic streams of memory. There was a knock on my door.
I stirred. “Go away.”
It was my roommate. “Can you come out here?”
“What is it?”
“Just come here.”
I rubbed my eyes and put clothes on. I walked to the living room. Zeus was there. My roommate and his girlfriend had called him.
“You haven’t been coming to meetings.”
“Haven’t had time.”
“Your roommate called because he’s worried.” Zeus went on to tell me I was sinking into something I didn’t understand, and I’d suffer greatly if I didn’t change. Those around me would suffer most. I owed it to them. Tough love didn’t work, so he offered himself as an example. His wife had divorced him three years ago when he tried running away with what turned out to be a dream-mistress. He lost custody of his kids.
“I’m sorry that happened, Zeus. But what’s that got to do with me? If the world is inauthentic, the only thing that’s real is inauthenticity,” I said.
“Stop arguing. Just listen to him,” said my roommate’s girlfriend.
“It’s ok,” said Zeus. “If the only authenticity is inauthenticity, the only inauthentic idea in the world is authenticity. You’re living a lie.”
“He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about,” my roommate said.
Their intervention had been a pathetic ambush from the start. I returned to my room.
“Let him go,” said Zeus. “He hasn’t hit rock bottom yet.”
Zeus’s warning hardened into fact. The deepest depths of slumber solved the riddle of literature. The trick is the same whether asleep or awake: lead with your gut, hope for accuracy.
My roommate said I was drowning. I told him he was jealous that I’d scooped out hidden chambers of time. I was a pioneer of existence.
I condescended to pronounce little paradoxes for him to show him what I’d discovered. “Might the world be founded on the subjunctive and interrogative modes, not the declarative?”
“Do you hear yourself? You sound like a lunatic and an ass.”
Despite outward appearances, I was panicking inside. It was getting harder to wake up.
“My name is Lazarus, and this is all a dream.”
The dream-librarian smiled and recommended a certain section of the library.
“No, I need to wake up. Show me how.”
He tried to calm me, but when I struck myself he called security. A man in uniform ran to me. It was Zeus. He raised his hands. “You’re all right. This is a dream. This time, the dream has a riddle for you. You’re trapped until you solve it.”
I scouted for the exits, but when I walked out of one door I walked right back to where I was. I tried to shatter the windows, but they were indestructible. I attempted to set the place on fire, but it was fireproof. After a few decades, I realized I was looking in the wrong places. I escaped through one of the books.
My time in the dream-library was productive. Zeus taught me to kill and pardon many demons. And I realized that the corrective drive within me isn’t unique to dream-me but is identical to learning. Learning is seeing the world less impossibly, and human history is built on the futile ostracism of dream-radicals. The destiny of conscious beings is to leap from one failed reality-check to the next. Epochs of enlightenment identically ascend Zeus’s ladder and plunge into wider pools of timelessness.
Level-three is the temporary inability to induce dream-radicals. Level-three is the converse of level-two: all reality-checks must fail, yet logic can’t pin the irrational soul for good.
Level-four is nested in level-three: level-two leads to level-three and level-three to level-two, et cetera ad infinitum.
Zeus stepped down from his post. He confessed to me privately that he relapsed. He’d dreamt so vividly that his dream somehow connected with mine.
“That was actually you.”
“My wife found out.”
“I went on a bender. She tried to get in touch with me. I didn’t respond, so she came by.” Zeus’ case to regain partial custody of his children was ruined. He cut off contact with me.
Uncountable intervals of time later, a former close friend of mine committed suicide hours after we’d said goodbye. I puzzled over weeks whether his death was a dream-radical overturning the validity of the world. The day after the funeral or dream-funeral, I was summoned to the foot of a mountain. A storm spun out of the horizon as the sun set in the East. The astronomical absurdity shook me. A cold swarm of dream-radicals deconstructed me. As I breathed my last, I ordered God to unveil himself. I would no longer be a Pythian plaything. And God appeared as a pig’s head hovering over the mountain. The Lord squealed and the mountains fragmented into dust.
The next time I awoke before the same mountain or dream-mountain, in the midst of the same storm or dream-storm, I called out—only I asked my subconscious to disrobe itself. Three purple clouds swept overhead. They transmogrified into three sphinxes bejeweled with golden armor, precious stones, and black capes. I trembled and bowed, but they shrieked and clawed me into ribbons.
Level five is breached when reality-checks fail in waking life. It is still possible to distinguish reality from dreams while at the same time level-five dreams eternally revolt against reality. Henceforth dreams cascade into nesting-dolls of waking within dreams within waking within dream, et cetera ad infinitum.
I awoke from a particularly steep sleep-spiral with a blistering migraine. I sat up and looked at my hands. They were distorted. I got up to look in the mirror. In the reflection, I was still in bed examining my hands; in the reflection, I stood and walked to the mirror. I was petrified as the reflection caught up to me. I regained motion when the image and I coincided. Nothing changed: my hands were still disfigured. I was still sleeping.
I ran to my roommate. I awoke him and his girlfriend. I insisted that I was dreaming. They tried to convince me I wasn’t. But I was past level-two. I snapped my arms to my sides. Their jaws dropped as I flew away.
I awoke into a level-three dream. I can only awaken so.
My roommate explained what I thought was flight was just me throwing myself across his bedroom destroying everything. He and his girlfriend managed to restrain me and call the paramedics. I was admitted to St. Anthony’s Medical Center. My fluids and schedule were manipulated to starve me of lucidity. The concentrated bouts of nothing were good for me. I was monitored for a little less than a week.
I checked out with great calm. I had the conviction that perceived wakefulness is the Self falling into deeper layers of sleep. I will never return to the person who first dreamt me. That most distant, outer-me is still resting in bed. Reality is a feeling and not a fact, a conviction but never a proof.
I asked the three nurses wheeling me out, “What day is it?”