I go through spells of insomnia. At first they almost panicked me. My fear was that I might no longer be able to fall asleep. It’s usually so easy, but I couldn’t do it any more. If this keeps up, I will go crazy, I concluded. I would go two or three nights in a row, and not recall falling asleep. Fear of not sleeping made me insomniac.
Not being able to sleep, I decided to try different forms of meditation. My basic move was to control my breath and consciously relax my muscles, especially the muscles in my face, throat, tongue, and eyes. As a result, I rested and stopped feeling the need for sleep. I realized I could stay awake, and I felt no fatigue when I got out of bed in the morning.
I decided not to resist the insomnia. Go with the insomnia, I said. Thinking about being awake was keeping me awake, so I stopped trying to sleep. But to do that I had to stop thinking. So I tried to stop my mind completely.
After practicing this for a while, I started to sleep again but very little. And I almost never dreamed. But falling asleep had become interesting. Despite feeling the delicious tug of imminent sleep coming over me, I became curious about something else.
I felt myself slipping into the mental zone called hypnagogia. It’s a brief, intermediate state that transpires just before falling asleep. But I liked to linger there on the threshold, both awake and immersed in dream space.
It was always unpredictable as to what turned up on one of my visits to Hypnagogia—that strange country between dream and reality. As part of the experiment, I would pay attention to what I was thinking about just before drifting off. The results? The hypnagogic images that flashed on my mind’s eye were always discontinuous; they showed no connection at all with my preceding thoughts. Landscapes, buildings; quick, disjointed scenes from unknown latitudes of mind at large were common. Where was it all coming from? My own jumbled memory or fragments of a greater mind I was learning to tune into?
Anyway, let me describe the contents of my more recent bouts of hypnagogic reverie. I started seeing people, their faces, and up close. And during this period of time I saw them night after night. Strange but uniquely real-looking people would appear before me—and very close, breathing close. At first the figures emerged nearby but looked away, as if they were not aware of me at all; I peered at the details of their skin and features, eyes, nose, mouth. Incredibly, emitting the aura of breathing reality. Sometimes I found myself amid crowds of people in noisy, unfamiliar neighborhoods.
Once I recall two men drawing close and facing me but almost with indifference. Then I started to see women up close and others who seemed to approach me. I knew they were phantoms, quasi-dream figures, but I found the sense of them being real people compelling and therefore extremely puzzling. I wondered if I had drifted into a region of lost souls, victims of metaphysical displacement.
Other times the figures began to look as if they were conscious of me, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attract their attention. A few times the women leaned toward me and muttered something I couldn’t quite hear. I wanted to observe them but it began to feel as if they were observing me. The beings that crowded around me night after night made more aggressive gestures. They would come at me and I would feel forced to open my eyes and wave them off. I became fascinated but also slightly unnerved by my insomniac visitors.
Legions of twilight beings of unknown provenance seemed to hover around me, but by this time the insomnia was in abeyance. I wonder about those staring, poking phantoms that turned up in my nights of insomnia. Right now I can think of three possible explanations.
Begin with the most obvious. The phantoms I saw were nothing more than creatures of my own dream life. As far as the realism, originality, and uniqueness of the faces; first, we build up a store of memories of thousands of faces we might evoke in a hypnagogic reverie. We have to acknowledge the dream-artist within us all, the incredible power of the dreaming imagination to conjure up scenes, characters, and dramatic events in compelling detail. Imagine—a secret Shakespeare inside us all!
A second possibility is that I’m picking up on the dream life of other people. Studies show that dreams are a common vehicle for telepathy or precognition. I know from experience that the hypnagogic state is, as they say, “psi-conducive.” I was dozing on a bus ride to Provincetown, and slipped into that mental zone we’re calling hypnagogia—“leading to sleep.” The sense of being awake is intact but the perceptual environment becomes surreal. In that bus ride I drifted off and hallucinated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
I woke up and resumed looking out the window. Impulsively, I reached under my seat and pulled up some newspapers (never seen before) and open at random to a page with a feature story about Walt Disney, the creator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! Coincidence—or clairvoyance?
A third possibility, I won’t rule out. Some of the faces seemed like apparitions of dead souls. Perhaps a brief glance into what seems like a world intensely concrete but also quite fleeting. Mavromatis’s findings confirm my experience of the otherness of the hypnagogic state, which is as uncontrollable and unpredictable as it is strange and mysterious.
Hypnagogia is the original twilight zone. Getting there through insomnia may be tricky but is a gateway to an unknown world, a territory worthy of exploration.
 The book to read on this subject is by Andreas Mavromatis, titled Hypnagogia.
Michael, what if our dream states represent an alternative reality (a bardo) that we automatically enter into when we sleep? Perhaps the same alternate reality that we access when experiencing certain other altered states of our consciousness or when we find ourselves under certain unusual personal circumstances, such as at some point after bodily death? Furthermore, suppose that when we find ourselves in that alternative space, those creatures, spaces, and situations that we create unpredictably and uncontrollably in our dreams, have some sort of objective existence in that alternative reality/dimension? If so, all three of your explanations could be simultaneously valid.
I agree with your point, Miguel, and the several possible ways of looking at our dream life; the reality of our mental existence is richer and more complex than our everyday waking reality would suggest. But something drastic or unusual has to happen before the hidden possibilities are revealed. The most drastic would be near death--or perhaps powerfully psychedelic.
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