From OBE to Lucid to Nonlucid:
A Qualitative Dream Diary Analysis

Class project with students in1997 at Augustana University College

Jayne Gackenbach, Chris Andrew, Margaret Marean, Linda Massimo, Michelle Worth,
Lana Burnstad, Ann Hemingson, Maria Mayan, Xiumei Zhang, Heather Crump,
Tatia Lee-chan, Marya Owen and Florence Percy


A 26 month dream diary (30,000+ words) was content analyzed using qualitative methods by three groups of graduate students in the mental health field under the guidance of the first author. Three phases characterized the diarist growth starting with an obsessive pursuit of OBE's which turned to a similar pursuit of lucid dreams. When the diarist was able to let go of the mechanics and the theory of "how to" he embraced the poetic, metaphoric aspects of his "ordinary" dream life and found a measure of self-awareness and understanding.

From OBE to Lucid to Nonlucid: A Qualitative Dream Diary Analysis

In several previous papers I have cautioned that when lucidity is pursued as an end in itself without a conscious effort to integrate this and related experiences into the context of the rest of one's life, the lucidity in sleep experience can amount to a defense against self-awareness rather than a deepening of self-awareness (Bonime et al, 1990; Gackenbach, 1987, 1991; Gackenbach & Bosveld, 1989; Gackenbach & Hunt, 1992). This is an important point in the face of the amount of media and public attention being paid to these experiences as well as the marketing perspective on dream lucidity which has emerged. This concern is illustrated herein in the dream diary which is content analyzed from a qualitative perspective.

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The present inquiry is from one individual's dream dairy kept over a 26 month period. The author, "WN", was a 21-year-old African male who was living and pursuing undergraduate studies in the United States at the time the diary was written. WN's father was employed in diplomatic service and WN appeared to have travelled and lived in a variety of locales. At the time WN initiated his dream exploration and journaling he had an interest in "paranormal" dream occurrences such as out-of-body experiences (OBE). During the period of the record keeping (Feb. 21, 1989 thru March 27, 1991) WN read books related to dreams, altered states of consciousness, lucid dreaming, OBEs and related spiritual/philosophical issues. His diary was sent to the first author with permission to examine and write about it as she saw fit.

In a graduate course on research methods the first author used this diary (with all identities disguised) as a research project on qualitative methods. Because of the first authors previous position, it is methodologically important to point out that although she had skimmed the diary in order to hide the diarist identity she did not read it in any detail and was unaware of the direction the groups analysis would take until the end of the class. Thus it is unlikely that any prejudice of the first author played a significant role in the judges evaluations. In fact, the judges were initially put off by the "bizarre" content of the diary and had to be convinced that these sorts of experiences were in fact worth exploring both personally as well as in the form of a research question.

Following a brief lecture on lucid dreaming and related concepts (OBE's, false awakenings, dreams), the 12 female mental health graduate students broke into three groups of four students each according to major. The majors were Educational Psychology, Nursing, and Social Work. Each group consulted with the first author about their content analysis but were instructed to otherwise work on their own. Because of time constraints each group had to narrow the focus of their inquiries more so than might ordinarily be the case with a qualitative content analyses. But because each group focused on a different aspect much of the whole is retained.

Because this project was being done for course credit all groups were especially sensitive to methodological issues in their analysis. So, for instance, in order to keep in touch with personal biases group members would, as relevant, periodically meet to check their impressions, keep a log of personal reactions to the material, and make very clear individual bias relative to the sensitizing concepts they chose. Even their professional training was flagged as potentially a source of bias as their sensitivity to the differential use of dreams as counseling majors might drive the direction of the analysis.

Each group chose different sensitizing concepts which they demonstrated emerged from the diary. Group 1 choose states of consciousness and phase of dream diary to construct a three by seven typology. This group first divided the document into three phases:

1) an initial experimental/mechanistic phase (Feb. 21, 1989 thru Nov. 4, 1989 or about 8 months) 2) a middle transitional/theoretical phase (Nov. 17, 1989 thru Feb. 21, 1990 or about 3 1/2 months) 3) a final self-aware/reflective phase (Feb. 26, 1990 thru March 27, 1991 or about 13 months)

States of consciousness were drawn from WN's own categorization of his dreams/experiences and were:

1) OBE/Projection - a felt sense of being out of one's own body; 2) pre-lucid - false awakening; awareness of incongruities while dreaming; dreams about dreaming; 3) lucid - knowledge that one is dreaming while dreaming; 4) trance/hypnagogic - relaxed state in between waking and sleeping where one is no longer focused on external stimuli 5) dreams - includes nightmares and sleeping dream states not containing the characteristics of the four previous categories; 6) other - cannot be determined to fit into any of the above categories, includes substance induced altered states of consciousness; and 7) awake state - includes narrative and interpretive statements made by WN during the waking state.

In an attempt to understand his suicidal/depressive ideation, the second group felt that focusing on the spiritual and emotional aspects of WN's diary would be useful because of their apparent centrality to WN. Spiritual encounters is a broad term used to describe conventional representations of Christianity less conventional spiritual manifestations, as well as other undefined beings which emerged in WN's dreams. It was decided to use Christian concepts of the divine as it was clear from the subjects own comments that Christian cultural symbols were the ones which emerged in his diary. This did not preclude more ambiguous references such as bright light depending on context.

The categories for spiritual encounters were divine representations, such as church, God, heavenly beings and music, angels; undefined beings, such as presences, things, beings, bodies, an existence, someone; and evil representations, such as demons and dark man. The definition for emotional states is simply the feeling state that WN experienced in his dreams. The categories for emotional states are distressed/fear, no emotional impact and pleasant/appealing.

These position statements of the groups 2 members illustrate their bias and fairly well represent the breadth of reactions of all 12 student judges to this material:

Researcher 1:A Catholic, of the Christian faith.

"I believe something is driving him to explore. The question I had while reading this was whether or not he was seeking something to fulfill a part of him that was missing. While reading the document, the OBE experiences evoked fear in me."

Researcher 2: An agnostic religious viewpoint; "I believe there is a super power."

"I think his reading really embellished his true accounts of dream experiences. I'm not saying that I do not think they are real, I just think he may have exaggerated a bit and perhaps confused 'dreaming' with 'imagination'."

Researcher 3: A Christian of no particular faith.

"I do not think spiritual experiences (e.g., OBE's, fortune tellers, voodoo, etc.) are 'evil' in themselves; it is what people do with them that may become self-serving or evil. I think they are very real, very powerful; I'm intrigued. I must say though, that I am a bit annoyed that these experiences happen to people who seem to be depressed and in trouble. This looses both mystique and credibility for me."

Researcher 4: A devoted Lutheran of the Christian faith.

"This stuff really turns me on. I think it is a healthy way to pursue the potential of the human mind. My Mom hates this stuff and calls it the work of the devil. I was thrilled to read this diary but must admit it got a bit exhausting and out of hand."

The third group selected control/power for their sensitizing concept and focused on several specific dreams from each phase identified above. Additional word count analyses were done later to further develop the control/power dimension identified by group 3.

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At the close of the data analysis/writing period of the course on this project the entire class and the instructor met to compare the conclusions of the various groups. Even though the three groups focused on apparently different aspects of the diary there was considerable agreement on one major point. WN went through a clear growth in personal awareness during the 26 month period of this diary. Each groups results will be discussed separately, but first lets look at the number of words in the diary as a function of phase.

In Table 1 the total number of words is more in the dream (3rd) phase than in the first two, but the length of this phase is significantly longer. A more accurate look at amount of writing WN did in his diary as a function of phase is the average words per month (phase 1 (OBE) = 1300, phase 2 (Lucid) = 2877, phase 3 (dream) = 966) and per states of consciousness episode (phase 1 (OBE) = 190, phase 2 (Lucid) = 180, phase 3 (dream) = 203). Although there was no difference across phases as a function the amount written per episode, the most writing occurred in the middle or lucid phase as a function of time. This is, of course, because there are so many episodes in phase 2 given its brief time (n=46; also see Table 2 below).

This certainly seems to imply more attention to events in this phase. Interestingly the number of words of narrative (nonepisode writing) per month dropped in the last phase of the diary (phase 1 (OBE) = 400, phase 2 (Lucid) = 510, phase 3 (dream) = 200). During the first year of the diary (phases 1 and 2) he had more commentary than during the second year (phase 3). This might indicate a decrease in the enthusiasm for the project. But more will be reflected about this change as we go through the results.

Group 3 Results/Discussion

The three phases identified by group one were also characterized by specific types of experiences as shown in Table 2. The first phase was characterized by OBE's while lucid and prelucid dreams dominated the second phase and the third was primarily although not exclusively "ordinary" dreams. The first two phases were dominated by obsessions with getting first an OBE and then a lucid dream as illustrated by these quotes:

  • phase 1: I managed to separate for three seconds this morning after spending all of spring break trying.
  • phase 2: My interest in lucid dreaming has grown tremendously in the past couple of weeks.

However, by the second, transitional, phase some flickerings of self awareness and reflection are evident:

My life was clearly a mess and this was due, in no small part, to my obsessive interest in lucidity and the occult in general. Further the language seems to be less mechanistic and more theoretical in this phase. For instance, when these words, try, attempt, trick, technique, experiment were counted as a function of phase, they were used 79 times in phase 1, 35 in phase 2 and 29 in phase 3. Toward the end of this phase WN appears to be moving away from a preoccupation with specific dream state:

This disruption was short lived and I was soon drifting back to sleep. As this was happening I found myself pre-occupied with a single thought. My life was clearly in a mess and this was due, in no small part, to my obsessive interest in lucidity and the occult in general. It was only too clear that I needed to pay a lot more attention to the details of day-to-day life. The word that came to mind was "desire". In "The mystical life", JHM Whiteman, a South African with more than a quarter-centuries' worth of experience in this field cautions against excessive desire. It is his opinion that those who desire mystical consciousness too much, either fail to attain it, or have nightmarish encounters. There and then I decided to stop looking for lucidity. The ironic thing is that as soon as I had come to this decision and gone back to sleep I began having bizarre dreams. Within 3 or 4 hours I had no less than five lucid dreams, all of them nightmarish.

This entry seemed to mark a powerful turning point in the life WN and he begins to reflect on the meaning and purpose of the dream in terms of himself. In the third phase his language became more flowing and metaphorical. His attitude of an almost desperate need to have these extraordinary experiences was followed by some beginning insights through lucid dreaming in the middle phase and culminated in an acceptance of his dreams as they happened in phase 3. In the last phase WN became aware that dream content related to his waking life and began to see the symbolic, metaphoric messages and implications therein. Here is an example from this period:

Last night I had a dream that directly relates to the fact that my father is in New York. The dream is long and complicated. I miss a "lucid cue" when I fail to connect the downward count on a recorded message to a LaBerge trick that I had been thinking about the night before...Anyway the relevant part of the nightmare involves a drunk, whom I fail to pacify with words and from whom I eventually have to flee. He keeps smashing glass bottles near me (and in this I see a clear symbolic representation of "shattering the peace"). I give up and decide to run away.


1. Shattering glass: disturbing or shattering the peace. 2. Unpacifiable drunk: probably well-meaning, but father who just cannot be reasoned with (does this mean that calling will be of no value?)

Group 2 Results/Discussion

The results from the second groups analyses on spiritual encounters and emotional states is portrayed in Table 3. Not surprisingly a strong pattern between these two variables can be seen such that divine encounters and pleasant emotional experiences and evil encounters and distressed emotional experiences are related. Each cell has the same number of idea unites (n=12).

An illustration of positive/divine is:

The early morning dream had me entering a church which had recently reverted to an ancient, and barbaric practice of worshiping with animals. Having little tolerance for any kind of religion I arrogantly walked into the church with the intention of sneering at the worshipers. I soon found myself at the alter. Suddenly I became aware of the great potential around the alter for an ecstatic experience. I knelt down, bowed my head and concentrated. The lights quickly dimmed and a great blackness fell. I found myself being projected into the unknown at an incredible speed; this was clearly a very powerful rapture.

While here is an illustration of the evil/negative:

The situation was so distressing that I hurled myself out of the dream and woke up to find myself moving rapidly out of my body. It began with a warm, wet sensation all over my back. ... After all, the dream had been an evil one. What if some evil discarnate entity had orchestrated the whole thing to lure me into a trap? This may sound ridiculous but at four AM, alone and just out of a nightmare it seemed to be a legitimate concern. I chickened out and got back into the safety of my body.

However, the most frequent cell was undefined beings/distress-fear (n=20). For instance, WN writes:

I was rudely awaken by powerful vibrations 20 minutes later. Even in my dazed state it was obvious that two things? on either side of me were trying hard to get my attention. Suspicious and unwilling to leave the safety of my body before being sure about the situation I began to withdraw (i.e. decrease the vibrations). Suddenly I was momentarily unable to breathe. For a split second I felt like I was being choked. I withdrew even more and all of a sudden I felt this firm and painful pinch on my left nipple (which was swollen). (10-3)

About these he comments:

This feeling of being grasped by unseen presences is quite common (for me) when 'out-of -body', and is one of the reasons that the proper 'stabilized' lucid dream has become a more attractive alternative. At this point I am unsure as to the objective reality of these disturbing experiences, but they have not yet manifested themselves during a fully lucid state. (24-1)

An interpretation of the development of WN's spirituality is in WN's relationship to/attitude toward God. God takes on more significance in WN's dreams especially in the latter part of the document, suggesting that this belief becomes perhaps more important to WN as he develops through his dreams. It also could be looked at as WN becoming more stable or convicted in his belief as time progresses. Instead of questioning who to turn to in times of thankfulness or distress, he immediately turns to God. Regardless if God responds, the action of turning to God shows a development in a belief or faith in a God.

Although it may appear that WN's experiences are dominated by evil, demonic and distressful dreams, this statement made in the course of his experimentation with lucid dreaming should be taken into account, "the positive aspects of lucidity have greatly outweighed the negative aspects."

Group 3 Results/Discussion

The final sets of analyses dealt with power and control. Group 3 decided to examine this aspect after several readings of the diary and a systematic clustering of apparent themes. Control or lack of control seemed to cross all the clusterings. Lack of control was associated almost exclusively with nightmares and other people whereas all other sensitizing categories (i.e., elements, transportation) were associated with control.

Power was used interchangeably with control based on the definition of control, "the power to regulate and direct". When power or control were absent themes of depression seemed to emerge. The negative or nightmarish dreams highlighted by group 2 seemed to occur in the earlier parts of the diary whereas they seemed to drop off in the later, healing part.

In each part of the diary a single dream which was thought to represent that phase was selected for analysis. So that in the OBE obsession period WN writes, "After nearly two month I had my most vivid and controlled OBE . . . I feel that a door that had been closed is now open again and inviting me to wander inside." WN interpreted this gain in control as a result of the increase of power internally:

There is something about the blowing wind, the flashes of lightening and the driving wind that seems to have filled me with some sort of vibrant power.

He did not seem to be sure of the amount of control he possessed at this point (i.e., "Figuring I had nothing to lose...."). Control issues in this part seemed to be tied up with level of skill attainment.

The next dream examined which was from somewhat later on in the diary continued with the theme of control or its lose. By the middle of the diary it became apparent that themes of flying were becoming more frequent. When he is able to fly it seems that this is a symbol of power because with this power he is able to plan his course of action.

To further extend this groups analysis to the whole of the diary the number of references to control/power and flying as a function of phase of the diary were calculated. As can be seen in Table 4, while control/power decreased from the OBE to the lucid phases there was an increase in both with the third, "ordinary" dream phase. This is especially marked with power. On the other hand flying shows a steady increase across phases. Thus the simple association of power/control to flying does not seem to be held up in terms of word count at least. But herein lies the difference between a qualitative and a quantitative analysis. Where the former allows us to develop what is only implied by the latter. So that although control type issues were high in the beginning and at the end the quality of that control changed from a mechanistic experimenting attitude to a control which is not overwhelming and unhandelable.That he has a different type of control if not more control later in the diary is illustrated by this where he is "the focal point of a mass of swirling, highly confusing and charged forces of energies . . . that I do not even pretend to understand . . decide to switch from 'passive' to 'active' mode; as I do this the event climaxes in an extremely satisfying and dramatic manner." The dream does not dissolve into a nightmare because of his control which had been the case too often earlier on. His lack of control is indicated by his feelings of "a mixture of envy and contempt" for former classmates, with whom he finds himself in the same classroom. In order to regain some control, he conjures up a scene of a spectacular view, and then he begins to fly.

By trying to control his dreams/experiences he may be trying to control his life. But we see this attempt for control deteriorating into an obsession, where many times his dreams seem to be controlling him more than he was controlling them. Not surprisingly this seems to correspond with a period in his life where he was depressed and confused. As his later dreams move from the nightmarish quality to an apparent emotional improvement it is apparent that his increased control and flying is associated with acceptance and peace. Sometimes we need to relinquish control, so that we actually gain control, as in this:

One resolution I've made is that instead of using lucidity to escape from my next 'hurtling elevator' dream, I'll actually encourage the nauseating acceleration in order to see where it leads. He lets go of control in phase two and thus gains power and control in phase three as well as the freedom of flight. This shift is especially evident in WN's lucid and prelucid dreams. Although the absolute number of these three words and their derivatives is quite small, it is interesting that there is more in lucid dreams from the third dream phase than from the lucid phase when lucidity was the focus. Certainly there is a learning effect, none-the-less this qualitative analysis shows that the healing "power" of lucid dreams can be best reached in a manner that appreciates all dreams for their inherent ability to deepen self awareness.

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The major characteristics of each phase in WN's dream diary are as follows, OBE's were the focus for him in phase 1 and here we saw control and mechanistic words peaking. Phase two although brief, was a period of a lot of journaling and focus on lucid dreams. This could be seen as a period of processing by letting go and embracing. The final and longest phase was dominated by ordinary dreams, flying and power words and positive associations to God.

It can be seen from the analyses of all three groups as well as the additional word count analyses that this young man went through a powerful growth experience during the time of his diary. What began as an obsession eventually led him to a deepening of self awareness. Would he have found the value of self discovery in dreams had he not started wanting to get something? For some people who are naive about the psychological impact and importance of inner life but at the same time are intrigued with the amusement park aspect of a fully experienced fantasy life just this sort of obsession may be the only entry. But is there a cost? And what are the responsibilities of those who "promote" these states of being?


Bonime, W., Gackenbach, J.I., Garfield, P., Gendlin, E. King, J. & White Lewis, J. (1990). Panel discussion: Should you control your dreams?, Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 29-44.

Gackenbach, J.I. (1987). Clinical and transpersonal concerns with lucid dreaming voiced. Lucidity Letter, 6 (2), 4-7 and reprinted in Lucidity: Commemorative Issue 10th Anniversary of Lucidity Letter, 10(1&2), 415-418.

Gackenbach, J.I. (1991). Frameworks for understanding lucid dreaming: A review. Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, 1(2), 109-128.

Gackenbach, J.I. & Bosveld, J. (1989). Control your dreams, N.Y.: Harper & Row.

Gackenbach, J.I. & Hunt, H. (1992). Lucid dreaming as a transpersonal (meditational) state: A potential distinction from dream-work methods. Journal of Mental Imagery special issue Prolucid Dreaming (Akhter Ahsen, Ed.), 97-102.


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