I’m a Travel Writer Who Stopped Traveling. So I Turned to Lucid Dreaming

Visiting places during REM sleep has done more than soothe my travel bug; it's also taught me to let go of my pandemic anxiety.

Long exposure shot of a pink ferris wheel at night, in an amusement park
Wolfram K/Pexels

In the before times, I visited a dozen countries a year for my work as a travel writer and TV host. I especially loved traveling to remote destinations like Easter Island, which swept me as far away as possible from ordinary life. I also sought out cultural experiences such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead, where parading skeletons made me feel like I was in a fantastical dream, but also gave me a glimpse of how families honored loved ones who had passed away.

But in March of 2020, when health experts recommended lockdowns to flatten the COVID-19 pandemic curve, I chose to follow the experts' advice and stay at home. A year later, I remain holed up in my apartment with no boarding passes on the horizon.

Many acquaintances assume that giving up the globetrotting lifestyle has been hard on me. But they don’t realize that in a curious way, I’ve continued to travel. I experience the exhilaration of befriending strangers, exploring far-off places, and choosing my own adventure almost every night, through the power of lucid dreams.

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Discovering the thrill and freedom of travel through lucid dreaming isn’t as implausible as it sounds, though it requires some practice. Since dreams have various levels of lucidity, almost everyone has had a lucid dream on some level. In fact, according to an analysis of 50 years of research, at least 55% of us have experienced at least one lucid dream. Like sleep stages, you can be on the shallow end, where you know you’re in a dream but have no power to affect its logic, or in the deep end, during REM sleep, where the dream becomes yours to shape.

I’ve been lucid dreaming ever since I was a child, but during lockdown I started having the most profound and vivid dreams of my life. The seeds of my dreams start in my waking hours, where I invariably catch myself daydreaming of far-off places. When I fall asleep, that’s when they start to germinate, blossoming into stories that feel indistinguishable from my real-life experiences of travel.

Where I Go When I Lucid Dream

Before the pandemic, I could recognize that I was in a dream, but this felt akin to watching a movie on a screen. In the past year, however, I’ve found myself increasingly able to control the dream’s narrative. When it comes to sights, sounds, sensations, and emotions, my lucidity has grown more stable and vivid in lockdown. Most nights, I find myself in far-off places that feel as real as the world I inhabit when I’m awake. There’s no distinguishable separation between traveling in my pre-COVID life and in dreams.

Before the stay-at-home order, I used to spend a lot of time sleeping in hotels. Now my lucid dreams have me checking back in. I’ll dream of wandering through maze-like hallways and staircases, unable to find my room number. Eventually, I’ll remember that this is a dream, and that I don’t actually need a place to store my luggage and rest my head. And so, I’ll head to the swank lobby bar and order the most luxurious cocktail on the menu.

I have a recurring dream set in a Japanese theme park. I'll hear sharp carnival ditties and see individual faces pass me by. It’s nearly identical to being there in the flesh. I’ll even run into problems where I come up with a solution, like the time I didn’t have enough tokens to ride the rollercoaster and thought: “Ah, there’s a group of Harajuku girls. I’ll approach them and see if they’ll spare me some.”

I’ve also found myself racing to an airport, frantic to catch my flight — an experience I’ve had one too many times in the past. Fortunately, in the dream-world, airport security guidelines carry no muster. I'll convince the baggage checker to let me through and slip into my seat at the last minute.

In fact, dream travels can be superior because the rules do not apply. I’ll “wake up” inside a subway surrounded by commuters without masks, or dance at a packed rave without the fear of getting sick. If I find myself stuck in NYC traffic, I’ll get creative and levitate 10 feet off the ground. Who needs trains when you can whiz away to any destination?

Lucid Dreams Have Benefited My Anxiety Too

One of my favorite resources for lucid dreaming is the book “The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep” by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Bon Buddhist master who uses lucid dreaming as a practice for attaining self-realization and flexibility of the mind. His writings have helped strengthen my understanding of the nature of consciousness, and my resolve to live a more balanced and fulfilling life.

I used to worry about not being able to travel again or being separated from my friends around the world. “If I’m not a professional traveler, then who am I?,” I would vent, getting lost in my anxious, racing thoughts. But thanks to my travels in the dream world, I’ve been better able to let go of grasping. I remind myself that my past and future travels are as ephemeral as the ones I have at night — so why fixate on a story of having “lost” something?

Now when I daydream about past travels or fantasize about the future, I don’t focus on the news around airport closures or travel bans. Instead, I summon the mental flexibility I developed in my dream states and take a pause. I look around and find ways to be awed by whatever is in front of me. I stay more present in daily life, rather than focusing on the unknown future.

Since I started having new and profound transformative travel experiences through the sleep world, I’ve developed a less anxious way of responding, without grasping or aversion. I’m better at accepting what arises — such as having to delay a trip yet again — without getting caught in desires and expectations. When these realizations break through, I no longer wind up feeling unsatisfied.

Finding Freedom Through the Art of Lucid Dreams

Until conditions are safe for travel again, I’m determined to experience both my “real” and “dream” worlds with greater clarity.

This can be a universal lesson. There is relief in activating our creative and positive responses to the stresses of life, as if we were awake in a dream. We can also let go of the delusion that any one thing, such as travel, could free us from discontent.

While science is still researching how deep the world of dreams go, including the benefits of controlling them, I’ve found that traveling in my dreams has brought similar benefits to real-life travel. I’m able to feel joy, live vibrantly, and appreciate every moment of my existence. I no longer feel constricted, by my mind or body, even during a pandemic.

As Tenzin Wangyal Rinopche writes, “Travel anywhere you have ever wanted to go. Go to the realm of the gods. Travel in hell, in the devil’s realm. It is just an idea, you will not actually be participating there. But you will be loosening the constrictions that bind your mind.”