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 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 (when you lose lucidity).
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 unconscious dreaming mind (the one that loves surreal symbology) and the conscious self. In normal dreams, the unconscious has basically all control. In lucid dreams, the conscious self 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 unconscious mind that produces this experience. 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.
When 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, drowning and dying while in a lucid nightmare and my dream self automatically moved "out-of-body" where it was no longer painful and I could keep observing.
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 considerably compared to normal dreams, but some aspects are still very different from what you experience in waking life. Location awareness is one of them.
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 so instead focuses my awareness only in the immediate vicinity. 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. Sometimes, however, such thinking only serves to wake you up prematurely.
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. That's because large parts of your brain are inactive during sleep and it can be difficult to rouse them, even when you become conscious inside the dreamworld.
In normal dreams, you have little memory of your real life, and sometimes you even have false memories to make the dream scenario fit. Even the memory of the dream itself fails to lock into short term memory very accurately. In other words, your dreaming memory rather sucks.
Lucid dreams are only a notch or two above this. Waking memories can be hard to grasp while lucid, and the lucid dream must be recorded immediately upon waking or you risk losing the detail forever.
The moment I become lucid, I try to recall my lucid dream intention (my goal for the dream). Usually I'll set this the night before, when I'm going to bed, or earlier in the day during meditation. Sometimes I can't remember any particular intention, which is frustrating if I had a great one lined up, but I always have a backup plan to simply explore the local dreamscape, ask general probing questions of fellow dream figures, or let the dreaming mind take over.
Long term memory in lucid dreams is also off the radar. Like 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 the future. My lucid dream self lives in the present moment and cares little for childhood memories or abstract intentions, unless I make deliberate attempts to focus on them.
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 unconscious will fill them in for you, evolving the dream on your behalf.
The intensity of feelings in lucid dreams can be the same, or more intense, as feelings in real life. The main difference you'll notice 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 with lucid emotions is being overcome with excitement - especially 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. This is undesirable because it vastly increases your changes of waking up. Besides, in my experience it's universally true that other dream characters really don't care that you've become lucid anyway. Go figure.
So in your early lucid dreams I recommend taking extra care to remain calm. You can do it. All it takes is the simple acknowledgement right now that you won't run off on like a raving luncatic.
Eventually you won't need to ground yourself like this and you can let your emotions run a bit more free. But until you've mastered that minimum level of focus required to keep the dream running, just tone down the jubilation.
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 or paradigm-shifting. 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. Simply stop what you're doing and address the dreamscape:
"How can I feel at total peace with myself?"
"How can I find true love?"
"What is the meaning of life?"
"Can you show me a totally original dream?"
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.