I go through spells of insomnia. At first they almost panicked me. My great 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. At the worst of my insomnia, every time I started to drift off, I’d wake up with a start. Fear of not sleeping made me insomniac.
Not being able to sleep, I decided to exercise my mind and tried different forms of meditation. I controlled my breath and consciously relaxed 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 still rest my body, and I felt no fatigue when I got out of bed in the morning.
I decided not to resist the insomnia. Something in me was fighting off sleep for some reason, so I let it do its thing. 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 got down to trying to stop my mind completely.
After a few months of practicing this, I started to sleep again but very late and very little. And I almost never dreamed. But falling asleep had become interesting. For one, despite feeling the delicious tug of imminent sleep coming over me, I became curious to see something I sensed was coming.
I felt myself slipping into the twilight mental zone called hypnagogia. It’s a brief, intermediate state but can be dilated and prolonged and I enjoyed lingering there on the threshold.
It was always unpredictable as to what turned up on a visit to hypnagogia. I would pay attention to what I was thinking about just before drifting off. The 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 were common. Where was it all coming from?
But then I started seeing people, their faces, and up close. I can still see them, night after night, strange but uniquely real 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. Sometimes I found myself amid crowds of figures 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.
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 slightly 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. And despite my attraction to them, the ones I had come to know during my visits in the land of hypnagogia withdrew. I know they’re still there; but they have become much more elusive.
I like to reflect on these curious experiences. 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. Second, check out a previous post of mine about Mark Twain on 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 Shakespeare in 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 called hypnagogia—“leading to sleep.” The sense of being awake is intact but the perceptual environment becomes surreal. In that state, I watched an amusing hallucination of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
I woke up and resumed looking out the window. I reach under my seat and pull 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. Being in that odd state seems to have done something to my mental outreach—called clairvoyance.
A third possibility, I won’t rule out. Some of the faces are 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. Epiphanies and archetypes flashing through the aperture of fleeting mind flashes. Getting there through insomnia may be tricky but is a gateway to an unknown world, a territory worthy of exploration.