My dreams are not healthy.
They are pale and wan, insignificant little wisps of things. They are the Charles Dickens’s waif of dreams. They are as thin as the last corner of butter scraped over a piece of toast. They are fading away before my eyes, like Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine in A Star is Born. Basically, they are so inconsequential as to disappear every morning. I can’t remember my last dream. Or the one before that. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I woke up and remembered a dream.
This is bad. I’d like my dreams to be sturdy and robust. I want to dream them all night long and wake up with a fistful of big, chunky memories I can force upon my friends at brunch. If this is your reality, well, just know that I envy you. I envy you and your stupid, show-off, easy-to-remember dreams. If my dreams are Jackson Maine, sweaty and incoherent, then yours are Lady Gaga’s Ally, booking the finale of Saturday Night Live after the release of just one single. In her immortal, albeit paraphrased, words: Why’d you come around me with a dream like that?
I’ve been thinking about dreams a lot recently, and I’m not the only one who is. The sleep economy, or the cottage industry set up to help you get a more restful night in bed, is estimated to be worth $28.6 billion in the U.S. alone. There are sleep trackers, sleep apps, special sleep blankets that will swaddle you like an oversized baby, sleep yoga, sleep podcasts and every kind of sleep pillow — ones with hoods and armholes, ones you can spoon, ones that are shaped, rather unsettlingly, like Bobba Fett’s helmet — you can possibly imagine. All these products have been engineered to help herd us into sleep. Now, that same commerce machine has shifted focus to what happens after our eyes close.
Very little is known about the dream state or why we experience it. We know that most dreaming occurs during the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle. Studies have shown that REM dreaming can help us process stress and anxiety. Some believe that lucid dreaming, when you become conscious during your dream, can lead to creative inspiration, or that recurring dreams can be a shortcut to your subconscious. That’s about the extent of it.
But it is precisely because what happens when we dream — and the reason we dream in the first place — is so fundamentally unknowable that it’s proven such fertile ground for the wellness industry. In the last few years, the acts of cultivating a dream practice, working with dream shamans, dream journaling and learning how to lucid dream as part of an overall wellness routine have all grown in popularity.
I may have more than a dash of cynicism in me, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by this particular wave. I want to dream!!! Is that so wrong? I decided not, so in honor of Dream Month at Man Repeller, I decided to set out on a one-week endeavor to overhaul my dream practice by every measure possible.
“Dreams are kind of like Post-It notes from the universe about what’s going on in our waking life,” Colleen McCann, a former fashion stylist turned shamanic healer and author of the book Crystal RX tells me as I set out on my dream journey. She lists 14 different crystals, from amethyst (good for dream interpretation) to agate (protection from bad dreams), which should be tucked under my pillow or kept in my hand as I sleep, as a way for me to start nursing my dreams back to health. She also tells me that I need to switch my phone to airplane mode before bed and put an end to all my rock’n’roll late nights watching The Good Place while simultaneously scrolling through Instagram. Instead, I should try doing three “big yoga breaths” before sleep to unwind and keep a journal next to my bed in which to recount my dreams within 90 seconds of waking up. “I’m a practical shaman,” she says with a shrug.
That night, I dutifully find a notebook, breathe in deeply and curl up under the covers. For the next four hours, I toss and I turn as my neighbor blasts Whitney Houston and smokes weed until my flatmate storms downstairs to demand that he either find something new to play at a civilized volume or hold off on playing “How Will I Know” for the 29th time. Unsurprisingly, the following morning arrives with zero dream memories, which is probably a good thing as I can only imagine they involved exacting revenge on my neighbor in Scandi noir fashion. The next two entries in my dream journal are just a series of question marks.
So far, not so good. Next, I splurge on a jar of Moon Juice’s Dream Dust, a blend of “adaptogenic tranquil superherbs” designed to “soothe tension for more restful sleep,” as founder Amanda Chantal Bacon tells me. It’s a mix of chamomile (I know what this is), jujube seed and schisandra berry (I don’t know what these are), and it looks like actual dust that you mix into a herbal tea. It arrives at the same time as a package containing Paper Crane Apothecary’s Dreamcatcher Sleep Spray, recommended to me by McCann. It boasts “sonically tuned water” and a mix of oils including sweet orange, patchouli and chamomile, again. Clinking around at the bottom of each bottle is a handful of “reiki-charged” crystals. Both these brands are stocked on Goop.
That night, I dust the dust and spray the spray and suddenly we’re cooking with gas. The first dream I have is a cinematic one that involves driving across a desert with my brother looking for a Santorini-themed hotel en route to a Kevin Bacon concert (?). We are eating chips the whole time, many different kinds of chips of many different outlandish flavors.
The next night, I dream that a childhood friend appeared in my apartment with a group of children and demanded that I take her to the specific train station we used to take to school back home in Australia. The next evening, I have the simplest, though most revealing dream yet: I dream that I am seeing A Star Is Born and that my boyfriend — Bradley Cooper — is with me, and that I am nuzzled into his grizzly, bearded neck the whole time. He smells so bad. My best friend is there, too. (Perhaps unrelated, but I had seen A Star Is Born the prior evening.)
That both these products work as well as they do, let alone in the first place, floored me. Perhaps the effectiveness has something to do with the ritual of winding down before bed, of dusting a mug of tea and spraying my pillow and breathing in deeply, none of which are bad ways to silence the mind. It might also have to do with the fact that, like a muscle, dream recall strengthens the more you flex it. Even though I couldn’t remember those first three nights of dreams, the act of simply trying to remember them might have primed the pump for later dreams. Maybe. The only thing I know for sure is that this is about as far from an exact science as anything could possibly be.
At this point, though, I feel smug. I have conquered dream recall in a matter of days. Now that I can walk, I’m going to run…a marathon. Next stop, lucid dreaming.
Cyrena Lee, a writer based in Brooklyn, has been lucid dreaming since she was 24. She started by learning to meditate and then applying those same tools of mindfulness and being present to become conscious in her dream state. Now she estimates that she has a lucid dream, often involving flying or fantastical landscapes, “a few times a month”.
The first step towards going lucid is to practice what Lee calls “reality checks” throughout the day — little actions that remind you that you are awake, such as turning on and off the lights or examining every finger on your hands. If you can make these things more of a habit, then the next time you perform them during a dream and notice something isn’t quite right — like the lights won’t turn off, say, or your hands look different — you’ll become conscious that you’re dreaming.
I do the reality checks every hour for the rest of the week but I have yet to experience a lucid dream. (A friend catches me studying my hands while we wait for scrambled eggs at brunch, and when I explain the situation to her, she looks at me as if I have lost my mind.) I’m still drinking the Dream Dust — sweet, like the first taste of licorice before it turns salty — and spraying the dream spray. I’m still journaling, and my dreams are still coming thick and fast, but I have yet to have one where I know that I am dreaming. Which is strange, because the Bradley Cooper one should have been a dead giveaway. Of course he smells good.
Lee assures me that it took her two months before she had her first lucid dream, and that it’s not going to happen overnight, pun very much intended. The point is to keep trying, she says, because gaining control over our dreams through lucidity is about expanding our consciousness and reconnecting with our desires. “Dreaming is what makes us human,” Lee says. “If we don’t address what is happening in our dreams, in our subconscious, I think we’re completely neglecting what we truly want and, in some ways, who we are.”
Although awake-dreaming continues to elude me, the recent time I’ve spent with my dreams — thinking about them, nurturing them, training for them — feels like an achievement in self-exploration, one that I enjoyed much more than I anticipated. So much so that I intend to keep journaling. I might even keep dusting, considering I spent $38 on the stuff and still have almost an entire jar of it in my pantry. A little dust goes a long way.
What have I learned about myself, you ask? That I have stamina, for one. This exercise wasn’t for the faint-hearted — all that sleep, you know — but I stuck to it and was rewarded with real, tangible results. I also learned that nurturing dreams back to health is surprisingly simple. That adding powder to drinks will never not be weird. That I often dream about food. That vehicles (trains, planes, automobiles) feature frequently, which I intend to overanalyze (where am I trying to go?). And finally, that I’m really, really obsessed with A Star is Born. Only now, I’m happy to announce my dreams are more so on the Ally spectrum: confident, ascendant and very much on their way to being lucid.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.