Earlier today I was asked a question about why our dreams are random and how we can force ourselves to dream about specific things.
So what needs to happen in order for us to dream about the things we choose? To shape our dreams, we need to do three things: clear out any junk from our minds, plan our dreams before we sleep, and visualize the dream we’ve planned as we are falling asleep. When we do this, the foremost thing in our minds when our dreams begin to form is often the dream that we’ve planned. In this article, we’ll go over each of these so that you too can start to have the dreams of… well… your dreams.
We get to choose a lot of things in life: our careers, partners, the books we read, the movies we watch, the sports we play, the things we learn as adults, and the things we do for fun.
And for many of us, a third of our life is spent sleeping, which means that if we cannot choose what we dream about each night, a good portion of our lives is outside of our control.
Fortunately, dreaming about specific things is a skill that can be learnt. If you want to learn to shape your dreams, there’s a simple process used by shamans and lucid dreamers that you can follow.
So where do we start?
To begin, if we want to be able to consciously choose the content of our dreams beforehand, it’s important to have an appreciation of the purpose of our dreams.
The purpose of our dreams
So what exactly are our dreams for?
Our dreams seem to do two things. They help us to organize the information that we’ve gathered over the day. And they help us to integrate that information with all of our other memories.
Dreams help us to organize stuff we’ve experienced and to integrate it with our other memories.
On the face of it, this might make it appear that attempting to shape our dreams would be futile.
The Content of Our Dreams
However, the manner in which this organization happens is highly abstract. The organization of information happens at a level well below our threshold of conscious awareness. In practical terms, the dreams themselves can be about anything.
You see, inside our minds, everything is connected to everything else that’s associated with it.
You’re probably reading this article on a device of some kind. Inside your mind, an association has formed between this article and your device. The same is true of the website you’re reading it on, and the concepts of dreaming.
And when you sleep, your mind will sort out those associations a little.
You might dream of trekking through the Sahara and finding an oasis, and have it seem completely real. And in doing so, your brain has reorganized things a small amount. The oasis might represent a single new learning. Maybe there’s a particular pattern you notice in the sand that seems familiar, and your brain has said to itself something like let’s move this thing over here a bit, and put it with these other things.
Our minds associate things with everything else that happened around them.
For a simple example, consider a typical computer. It can do many things, and so long as you have a graphical interface, regardless of whether it’s Windows, MacOS, X, or something else, there’s probably a background image on the desktop.
The Background of Your Dreams Can Be Whatever You Choose
That image doesn’t do anything other than make your computer feel more personal.
It’s nothing more than a decoration.
Your computer will still do its job regardless of what background image you choose to place on your desktop.
That background is a bit like the places and events of your dreams. For the most part, they are a decoration. We can usually change them about as much as we like without impacting the underlying operation of our dreams.
And since everything is associated with everything else inside our minds, it doesn’t matter much what we dream about. The important thing is the underlying structures. Regardless of the content of our dreams, our unconscious minds will build that structure all by themselves.
What shapes our dreams?
Once we appreciate that the content itself isn’t that important in regards to the underlying purpose of our dreams, we’re in a position to begin to take control of the shape of our dreams. In order to do that, we need to know what causes our dreams to take on a specific form.
While it might seem random to us, our brains actually follow a simple and structured pattern for choosing what we think about.
The Source of Dreams
At any point in time, we have information flowing into our minds from our senses. This includes everything that we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Along with a host of other senses that aren’t usually talked about outside of the fields where they’re studied.
On top of the sensory data, we also have a constant stream of incoming information from our thoughts.
When we sleep, we lose a lot of the data feed from our senses. As a result, our thoughts have a higher weighting. In short, there’s not much coming in from the things around us, so we get to dream without distraction.
In a sense, our dreams are our thoughts without current interference from the outside world.
These thoughts are shaped by a simple prioritization system that I won’t go into too much here. All you really need to know for the purposes of starting to control what you dream about is a handful of simple rules.
Dreams Are Shaped by Emotion, Recency and How Much We’ve Been Thinking About Something
First, when we have thoughts with strong emotions attached, these can tend to become more prevalent. Such thoughts can strongly influence the overall tone of our dreams. If we’ve had a terrible day filled with anger and unhappiness, it’s likely we’ll have nasty dreams. That is, unless we do something to inhibit those bad dreams.
Second, the more recently we’ve experienced stuff, the stronger the influence it has on our dreams.
And third, the more space something occupies in our brain, the more likely it is to be in our dreams. If we spend 80% of our waking hours working or thinking about work, it’s likely to form a significant part of our dreams as well.
We’re more likely to dream about things that take up more space in our minds, that are more recent, and that have stronger emotions attached to them.
At first this might seem like we’re doomed to always dream about work. Luckily our brains don’t perceive time in the same way as a clock.
It turns out that when we’re doing things in a flow state, which is often the case when we’re at work, we don’t perceive anywhere near as much time.
And when we’re discovering new and novel things, we perceive a lot more time.
Read more: How to Bend Time with Hypnosis
In practical terms, this means that if we want to effectively control the shape of our dreams, we need to come up with lots of details.
How to plan your dreams
Now that we know what kinds of things shape our dreams, we’re in a position to do some of those things to deliberately control the form of our dreams before we sleep.
We do this with a process from lucid dreaming known as dream planning.
A dream plan is exactly what it sounds like. We grab a sheet of paper and a pen, and write out a few sentences of what we’re going to dream about tonight.
The best time to do this is right before you go to bed.
It’s important that your dream plan is specific and that it has the right level of detail. Usually a few sentences is about right.
In writing your dream plan, be sure to specify the location, what you will be doing, who will be there with you, and to give a few concrete details.
A dream plan should include details of the location, events, people and other things you’d like to be in your dream.
With time and experience, you will discover the amount of detail that’s right for you.
When you’re starting out, it’s more important that you write out a dream plan consistently every night than it is that you get it exactly right.
How to minimize the risk of nightmares
One thing that people often worry about is having nightmares, and even getting stuck inside them.
Nightmares happen because we’ve been having negative thoughts.
Negative Thoughts Can Lead to Nightmares
It stands to reason that if we can somehow clear out these thoughts before we sleep, we’ll be more likely to have dreams that we enjoy. Since the locations and events of our dreams can be anything we choose, those negative thoughts can be sorted out just as easily by playing with a kitten as they can by facing demons. And I know which one I’d rather do.
So how do we clear out those negative thoughts?
The reason that we keep having the negative thoughts is that our brains run in loops and tend to treat stuff that happened more recently as being more important right now.
What’s needed is a way to break this pattern.
Move the Negative Thoughts Outside Your Mind
Due to a happy set of circumstances, our minds are set up in such a way that when we write something out by hand on paper, it tells our brains that we don’t have to think about that thing for a while.
Break out of negative thought loops by writing them out on paper. Then meditate for a few minutes before you start on your dream plan.
Not only that, but we can only hold an emotion for about 90 seconds or so unless we actively do something to keep it going.
This means that quite often, all you have to do to clear out those negative thoughts is spend a few moments writing out everything that’s been bothering you. The first time you do this, it might take some time. After you’ve done it a few times, most people find that there’s not that much to write about.
When you write out your negative thoughts, don’t try to create anything new. Just let it all out on paper. You’ll know when you’re done.
Then follow it up with a few moments of peace to allow your mind to settle.
In short, to minimize the risk of nightmares, write out by hand whatever’s been troubling you, and then spend a couple of minutes meditating before you create your dream plan.
Read more: How to Meditate When You Have No Time
How to control what you dream about
Now that we’ve covered the purpose of our dreams, what kinds of things can shape them, how to plan our dreams each night, and how to minimize the risk of nightmares, it’s time for a step-by-step process that you can follow each night to take control of your dreams.
- Take a few moments to write out anything that’s been troubling you throughout the day.
- Briefly meditate to clear any remaining negative emotions and calm your thoughts.
- Write out a dream plan with specific details. Include the location, events, creatures, people, and anything else that you’d like in your dream.
- Go to bed and read your dream plan.
- Give yourself the best chance of success by taking a few moments to hypnotize yourself. This step takes me under a second and gives much better results, so it is very worthwhile investing the small amount of time required to learn how.
- Close your eyes and visualize your dream plan as best you can. When you do this, try to engage as many of your senses as you can. Imagine the colors, fragrances, textures, and so on.
- Look around inside your visualization for a doorway.
- Step inside that doorway.
- Count yourself down to sleep from 100.
- When you lose the numbers, look around your visualization again and allow yourself to become lost in your dream.
When you’re starting out, do this for only one dream each night. Dream planning is a skill like any other, so expect to get it wrong at first, and know that if you persevere, you will get there quite quickly.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I used to be really bad at dreaming, and when I first learnt these techniques it took only a few days for them to begin to work.
If you’d like to know more about taking control of your dreams, my book Lucid goes into detail on every aspect of it.
The key to success with lucid dreaming is keeping track of what works for you. And what doesn’t work. This enables you to build a map, and once you have that map you can use it to make tiny steps towards that success.