On occasion I slip into bouts of insomnia, and, as a result, have some unusual experiences. The net effect of these episodes suggest to me that we’re immersed in a world busy with invisible mental traffic--spirits, ghosts, memories, phantoms, archetypes, landscapes, cities—an infinite world of dreams, we could say. Normal brain function in tune with the demands of normal life is oblivious to all this mental traffic. The insomniac brain, however, hanging out on the edge of sleep, is more likely to “see” or “hear” something of the ambient mental traffic.
The form of my insomnia was severe. There were nights I could not sleep at all and was forced to rise and live the next day without any sleep. I found I could function, and did my best to do what I had to do. I learned to relax my body and not waste energy or make undue effort, and above all I would resist the temptation to catnap during the day, which might ruin my effort to sleep at night. On several occasions I was unable to fall asleep for two days and nights, which I found a bit more tiresome than the one night. There was a slight paranoid halo around everything I did and looked at, a feeling that something might jump out at me from nowhere.
That fear was grounded in the layers of consciousness between waking and dreaming, the state of falling asleep, and just prior to sleep, called hypnagogia, literally, in Greek, sleep-going. The curious thing about hypnagogia; it is distinctly dreamlike and hallucinatory, but you are conscious, rather like what’s called lucid dreaming. Lucid in that you know you’re dreaming and can, to some degree, control and reflect upon the dream. My experience, lying in bed, body relaxed, breathing consciously, has often led to hypnagogic reveries. I’ve learned to float on the edge of sleep, my eyes almost closed. I see a forest landscape of colored lights, alive and changing their shapes.
What I most hallucinate, with my eyes shut, are faces. These are absolutely real faces of people, men or women. Some of them don’t see me but are looking past me. Some are looking right at me, curious, searching glances; and some get so close I back off and look away. They all look incredibly real, and it seems to me that I am seeing ghosts wandering in afterworld spaces. What a weird gallery of souls I have somewhere inside my psyche, I thought.
Consider a recent insomniac adventure. It would occur during a day I had not slept at all. Why do we sleep? For one thing, to dream—a fact even more puzzling than sleep. If we don’t sleep, the need to dream may try to assert itself, push its way into our waking consciousness. Something I’ve noticed when I haven’t slept for days; it can happen when I’m reading or watching something on television. For a split second I nod out and see a sunlit landscape or the figure of an old friend I haven’t thought of for years.
It was impossible to guess what might pop out of my mind during the hypnagogic state. For example, the other day I was reading something scholarly and abstract and I remember my head drooping, and my waking consciousness shrank to a point on the ground. Suddenly, from that point and in one long instant the body of beautiful woman fully emerged, smiled, kissed me on the lips and vanished. Any ideas how we can make this a repeatable experiment?
One way I was able to explore the hypnagogic region of conscious life was through painting. During a spell of insomnia, I doodled a lot and decided to make a painting in the spirit of hypnagogia. See attached. The idea was to let my subconscious self do its thing, be spontaneous, follow the path of least resistance. The result in this case is to produce paintings that are hard to pin down with a title. What interests me is trying to understand hypnagogia, the state that combines ordinary awareness with super-ordinary phenomena. Ideas? Experiences to share?
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