Journal of Writing & Environment

We came to The Big Island to be awake in dreams, because lucid dreaming is something we do anyway, because we want to do it better, because we want to know how it works and what it means. We are a nurse from Australia and a folk singer from Los Angeles, a software engineer from Spokane and a barista from Sacramento, an oral surgeon from Colorado and a writer from New York. We are a chef and an architect and a retired philosophy professor, a man from Mexico whose wife was murdered and a woman from Ohio who took too much LSD as a child. We are all, perhaps, what, in the 1970’s, they called “Searchers.” Soon, we will also prove to be a flirt, a crier, a prude, and an adulterer, because waking life with its stresses and consequences will continue here too, but we don’t know that yet. We have just arrived.

Kalani Retreat Center on Hawaii Island’s East Coast is the joyful reincarnation of a former leper colony, shaded by twisted jungle vines and so green. Wide rope hammocks hang from star fruit trees, dirt paths wind around golden Buddhas, pool and hot tub are clothing optional. Three times a day, vegan-friendly meals are served at an outdoor lanai, announced by the low moan of breath through the folds of a conch shell. If we lose our way, and tell Kalani staff, they say, “You’re not lost, you’re right here!” Across the street, in the Tsunami Evacuation zone, the world drops sharply into the Pacific.

Dr. Stephen LaBerge is the man at the helm for these ten days, the psychophysiologist founder of The Lucidity Institute, a Ph.D. from Stanford with three published books. Wikipedia has dubbed him “a leader in the scientific study of lucid dreaming.” He’s a childlike Einstein recast as a Simpsons character, all wild white hair and Hawaiian shirts, erudite, enthusiastic, and socially awkward. We have come to LaBerge and his work for different reasons — because of Freud or Tibetan Dream Yoga, to inform a scientific inquiry or to research a film script — but we all want to know what he knows.

Morning and evening, we sit on mats in an octagonal room with a skylight and learn. We learn that forgetting dreams is a survival adaptation. For early man, with his lower IQ, dream recall would have been a liability; had our ancestors remembered their flying dreams, they may have attempted to recreate them from the tops of cliffs. We learn MILD, a method for lucid dream induction that requires doing dozens of “state tests” throughout the day to test if awake or dreaming. To perform a state test, look at anything with writing on it, look away, then look back. If you’re awake, the writing will remain fixed. If you’re dreaming, the writing will fly apart or crumble; it is a construct of the mind and cannot hold. We feel silly doing state tests all day, because we know we’re awake, but we do them anyway, to make a habit of it, one we’ll continue in sleep. This pays off when, at 2 a.m., we see dream writing melt into a Dali-esque mass of tangled black wires and know we are free to run amok.

At night, we walk through walls. We bounce on sidewalks as though they are trampolines. We move and alter objects without touching them. We have enthusiastic sex to completion in the back seats of red Corvettes, and we’re aware of it all. Except when we’re not. We fail to become lucid more often than we succeed, surfing the waves of our brains blindly and waking annoyed, the moonbeams having slipped from our hands. We came here to catch dreams. But being in this place is distracting.

In sunlight, we climb up volcanoes and hitchhike to black sand beaches. We plunge into a botanical garden full of moist, alien plant life, weaving through corncob flowers and cannonball trees. We soak in a lagoon where hot and cold currents meet, flanked by thousands of tiny black crabs. There’s Dr. LaBerge, up to his waist in the tea-green water, all fervent eyes and expressive hand gestures, lecturing in swim trunks.

Science tells us how it works and what it looks like: REM patterns and EEG waves, charts and graphs, data from controlled studies. Evolution and anatomy offer wisps of clues as to why. Then, there are ways of seeing. Tibetan monks practice dream yoga as a way of preparing for death: by learning to be lucid in sleep, they believe they can remain lucid through the final loss of consciousness and choose their next bodies, instead of being “blown like leaves into the next life.” Buddhists cultivate the Pure Light Dream, an unwavering awareness in sleep that reportedly produces a sensation similar to orgasm. There are professional tennis players who use lucid dreams to practice their backswings and psychologists who teach lucid dreaming for nightmare resolution. There’s dream sex, sleep paralysis, hypnagogic imagery, precognition, and neurofeedback. For lunch conversation, there’s Jung, astral projection, out of body experience, virtual reality, Inception — and which Dreamer went off to get “a tour of the grounds” with which Kalani yoga teacher.

For several nights, we wear LaBerge-proprietary black sleep masks called Novadreamers. These masks track our sleep cycles, and, right as we’re about to drop into REM, flash red lights we can see through closed eyelids. Dr. LaBerge hopes these red lights will integrate themselves into our dream worlds. If we can train ourselves to be on the lookout for flashing red lights, awake or asleep, and do state tests whenever we see them, boom! (in theory) — lucidity. Some of us aren’t fans of the Novadreamers, because the red lights wake us when they flash. Some of us report having thrown them across the room. Maybe we just need to get used to them? We’ll keep trying, and try harder. But it’s hard to try while sleeping. What does it say about us, that we want so badly to control something so ephemeral?

There’s one last tool on offer, the big one. We came to the Big Island to ingest small doses of an experimental substance called Gallantimine, thought to induce and enhance lucid dreams. In high doses, Gallantimine is used to treat Alzheimer’s. We sign waivers and commit to consuming, in the unmarked capsules of a blind trial, on three consecutive nights, 4 mgs, 8 mgs, and a placebo. We are lab rats and we love it. For maximum effect, we must take the Gallantimine after completing three or four REM cycles (5-6.5 hours of sleep) and remaining awake for 40 minutes.

When our alarms go off at 4 a.m., we struggle up through five layers of consciousness and out of our beds, change into bathing suits, and go out into the dark stillness. We pad barefoot across damp grass, the world silent but for the insistent whine of coqui frogs. Floating in the pool, we crane up at the bright balls of swirling gas in the black expanse above us. We perform state tests with the “Pool Rules” sign and the tile marked “6 ft.,” not entirely certain what the outcome will be.

We gossip. The married entrepreneur from New Jersey and the artist from Oregon were spotted naked in the hot tub late last night. But perhaps their indiscretion isn’t real? We’re half asleep, but bear with us…in dreams, we sometimes find the most basic parts of our brains taking over. We’ll become lucid in a dream, scan eagerly for the closest attractive body, and if that body is willing (not a given), go to town. The committed among us don’t feel guilty taking orgasms from a perceived someone else. How different is this? Or should we feel guilty in dreams?

We don’t know. But it feels good to be with others who think it’s an interesting question, who also suspect there’s something in the things our brains do at night, who understand the rush of inhabiting our own avatars in consequence-free, Technicolor worlds…We return to our bungalows and swallow the lurid purple capsules, turn out the lights, and try to push down our excitement enough to sleep.

For most of the dosed among us, it happens as soon as we drop into REM: the dreams form around us like fully rendered realities. The Gallantimine world is shockingly concrete, complete. There are smudges on the glass of windows, water drops on the leaves of trees, and the dream doesn’t threaten to fade, it holds fast. We’re so much our waking selves, only dropped in dream places: a crowded elevator, a snowy mountain peak, a dim Chinese restaurant.

Flying is tempting, but it’s time to go deeper; a chance like this may not come again. We cut ourselves with broken glass to examine the sharp feeling of pain. We manifest museums and study each piece on display, aware that we ourselves created — are, right now, creating — everything in sight. We throw our perspectives into other bodies. We conjure friends, or the dead. We ask the dream world to provide a guide, and watch as a man in a Hawaiian shirt appears, holding a map. He leads us down dirt paths that wind up the sides of volcanoes, past tea-green lagoons. We are looking for something that wasn’t around in the daytime — but what? An object, a person, a sign? Some kind of answer? Or just the right question? We’re looking for something we know but we don’t know. Something we’ve been hiding from ourselves. What does it say about us, that we feel the need to perform excavations on our own minds in sleep?

We may find something, or we may not, or the things we find may be hard to decipher: the face of a dead girl in a mirror, giggling.

But breakfast tomorrow won’t feel this real.

Years later, those Gallantimine dreams will feel like actual memories of lived experience, filed away in our brains between Thanksgivings and first kisses. Years later, we may find ourselves staring out windows, or at cups of coffee as they grow cold, wondering if we’ll ever feel as awake, in our waking lives, as we once did in sleep.