So you know the psychological definition of lucid dreaming and how it's all supposed to work - but what do lucid dreams feel like?
Years ago, before I had my first lucid dream, I had a very specific idea about what a lucid dream would feel like. I thought it would be very intense and magical and perhaps a bit spooky. Turns out I was right on all fronts.
But there is a heck of a lot more about the sensation and perception of lucid dreams that I have learned about since then. While no two lucid dreams are the same (and while it's no substitute for experiencing a lucid dream first-hand) I have tried to define my own experience of a lucid dream for the uninitiated.
I've broken it down into physical, mental and emotional components:
Your physical experience is made up of sensory interpretations, like the feel of the ground underneath your feet, or the smell of the ocean. In waking life, this information is received via the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. The stimulus is real and your brain interprets the data.
In dreams, this information is 100% synthesized by the mind - from memory and imagination. And yet, when lucid, it can feel just as "real" and vivid as waking life. Sometimes that's very intense and pleasurable (which is why many beginners go in search of lucid dream sex) or sometimes it can be dulled down (often when you lose lucidity or are directing your focus elsewhere).
Here are some examples of physical lucid dream experiences:
It may be a cliche that women love chocolate - but it's a cliche for a reason.
So naturally, I have eaten some truly delicious chocolate cake in my lucid dreams.
Imagine the smoothest, richest, creamiest chocolate cake in the world. It's perfection embodied in a dessert. Now intensify that experience and you're getting close to lucid dream cake...
When lucid eating, chewing and swallowing takes less time and it's all about the flavor and texture of the food. What's more, your taste buds never become accustomed to the flavor so each bite is like your first. And of course there's no need to feel guilty about consuming unnecessary calories.
While chocolate cake is right up there, you can of course eat anything imaginable in a lucid dream. It can be a favorite childhood meal or even something you've never tried before (would that taste be authentic?)
Remember that your expectation of it being totally delicious makes it so. Which means you won't get gristle in the world's best beef burger, nor a floppy bit of lettuce. Expectation is why eating in lucid dreams is so awesome.
Aside from skydivers, base jumpers and other extremists of that ilk, most people have never experienced the physical sensation of flying freely. Yet the lucid dreaming mind simulates it in extraordinary physical detail.
In my flying dreams, the sense of weightlessness, whooshing and wavering in the air is incredibly authentic (or at least how I imagine it to be). This awareness is critical to the experience, and your mind can even play tricks on you, like suddenly falling and simulating that stomach-dropping feeling.
Your dreaming mind may add more sensations such as feeling the wind in your hair, rain hammering on your skin, or the warmth of the sun on your face. If you have any doubts about your new skills, you may unexpectedly whack into a powerline mid-flight - which brings me to the subject of pain in lucid dreams...
The lucid dream is co-created by two players: the subconscious dreaming mind (the one that loves surreal symbology) and the conscious ego ("you"). In normal dreams, the subconscious has basically all control. In lucid dreams, the conscious ego steps in and starts to tweak little things as it desires.
Both can technically create pain in lucid dreams, although it's most likely the subconscious mind that produces this experience. (I'm yet to meet anyone who has deliberately induced pain in lucid dreams.) Pain is a result of pre-conceptions and established neural pathways: if you hit your thumb with a hammer, what do you expect? The brain simulates dream pain because this is its reality.
So, if you fall onto a bed of spikes in your lucid dream, you might just find out what it feels like to be impaled. But fear not - you can will the pain to stop instantly or even wake yourself up. And I'm sure it won't be a patch on the real life experience of being impaled - but rather a toned-down imagined version.
The few times I've experienced pain in a lucid dream, it was very different from real pain. It was inconsistent with the cause, and stopped abruptly when the dream moved on. What's more, there was no psychological component, which can make real life pain so much worse.
I have also experienced choking and drowning while in a lucid nightmare and my dream self automatically moved out-of-body where it was no longer painful.
Now let's move to the cognitive experience of lucid dreams: how it feels to be aware, process information, recall memories and mentally control the dream.
In lucid dreams, your focus is expanded somewhat compared to normal dreams, but in my experience it is still very different from real life.
For example, sitting at my desk right now, I am aware of the room around me, the house beyond that, the garden, the village, the New Zealand landscape, and even a sense that I am on planet Earth. I know my location in the grand scheme of things and I know this is a solid, reliable construct.
But the lucid dream world is much more fluid. When lucid, I am most often in unfamiliar places which have no GeoTag. I accept this automatically, knowing that I can teleport to a new location any time. It's as if my brain has no intention of placing my location (why bother?) so instead focuses my awareness only in the current one. The best way I can describe it is becoming absorbed in a video game or a movie and forgetting the real world exists beyond it.
Of course, with conscious effort, you can recall that your real body is lying in bed and that you are going to write an article about this tomorrow.
But generally (for me, anyway) the default setting is to focus on the pretty colors in in front of my face right now. This is why it's a good reason to set up a lucid dream intention while awake, because it's hard for the conscious dreaming mind to imagine new places from scratch. If you have no pre-set intention, just allow the dream to take over and show you an unlimited amount of cool new stuff. This is where the best creativity arises anyway.
Your memory works differently in the dream world. In normal dreams, you have little memory of your real life, and sometimes you even have false memories to make the dream scenario fit. Lucid dreams are only a notch or two above this.
The minute I become lucid, I try to recall my intention. It has to be recently ingrained or I won't have any passion for it. Sometimes I can't remember, which is frustrating, but I always have a backup plan to either explore the dreamscape, ask questions of fellow dream figures, or let the dreaming mind take over.
I haven't spent much time exploring long term memory in lucid dreams but in general I can say that it's off the radar. Like the location awareness, unless you are specifically trying to access a piece of information, the awareness of past memories are simply absent - or out of focus. This is equally true of thinking about my real life future. My lucid dream self lives in the present moment.
Dream control is a cognitive aspect of lucid dreaming because it's all done through willpower and mental focus.
Contrary to popular belief, when you become lucid you don't automatically have total control over your dream environment. Lucid dreaming only means to have conscious self-awareness within the dream state. Sometimes this means controlling many aspects of it, sometimes just a few key expectations, and sometimes you may choose to relinquish all control altogether.
"The sailor does not control the sea," as lucid dream researcher Robert Waggoner puts it. You may navigate your ship (consciousness) through the ocean (the dream) but you do not have to consciously populate every dream scene with every leaf and blade of grass and wisp of cloud. The dream populates itself while we consciously frolic within it. Sometimes that means a bird flies of its own accord, or a dream figure behaves autonomously. It is all still classified as lucid dreaming.
Beginners often run into the trap of trying to control major features of the dream with only a partial sense of lucidity. This can be frustrating and disheartening. To overcome this obstacle, employ these tricks for increasing and prolonging your lucidity. Only then can you master full dream control (if you so choose).
When you do exert greater control over the dream, the world is your oyster. You can paint the sky with a sweep of your hand. You can burrow down into the ground and journey to the center of the Earth. You can fight zombies, become Iron Man, or even create an entirely new civilization. Absolutely anything is possible - unless you have a preconceived limiting belief about it.
For instance, if I told you it was impossible to fly into the sun in a lucid dream (and you really believed me) and then attempted it, you'd probably hit some kind of psychological roadblock. Perhaps you'd melt and emerge in a new scene. Or perhaps you'd hit a wall like Truman Burbank when he reached the edge of his "world".
When it comes to dream control, your expectations are paramount. And if you have no conscious expectations of a certain event, your subconscious will fill them in for you, guiding the dream on your behalf.
Lastly, what is the emotional experience of lucid dreaming and is it possible to enhance the intensity of emotions while lucid?
The intensity of feelings in lucid dreams are exactly the same as feelings in real life. The only difference is that because you're having such a jolly wonderful time, the emotions are more along the lines of awe, ecstasy, excitement, lust, gratitude, love and all that other fluffy stuff.
The big problem here is being overcome with excitement the first few times you achieve lucidity. It's tempting to jump for joy, shout and tell everyone in your dream that you are in fact dreaming (which they don't really want to hear anyway).
So in your early lucid dreams I recommend taking extra care to stay focused and not run away with yourself. All it takes is a calm acknowledgement that if you carry on like a raving lunatic, you'll wake up. And you don't want that.
This isn't a major issue though. After a few lucid dreams I managed to put a lid on my excitement and retained enough mental focus to have more meaningful lucid dreams. Eventually you won't need to ground yourself at all and you can let your emotions run free. But until you've mastered that minimum level of focus required to keep the dream running, just tone down the jubilation please.
Eventually you may start to look for a deeper meaning in your lucid dreams. Don't get me wrong; you'll still have plenty of ego-gratifying activities you want to do. But none of it will be too original. That's when it's time to turn inwards.
One of the more profound applications of lucid dreaming is to communicate with the dream itself by asking questions. This is like talking to your subconscious inner self. Instead of focusing on your physical needs, focus on your emotional needs.
Ask questions of the dream, such as: "How can I feel at total peace with myself?" or if you're really bold: "What is my greatest fear?" Then let the dream reveal itself.
When you probe your dream self you will very likely start to experience more intense emotions and take-home lessons in your lucid dreams, learning about the true nature of your basest self. For more ideas on this, see Robert Waggoner's insightful book Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self.