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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


Between Sleeping and Waking: Psychology and Hypnagogic States of Consciousness

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, September 07, 2012

The hypnagogic state as an avenue of exploration and self-discovery

Very frequently in winter I’ll sprawl myself out onto a warm woollen rug beside the heater with a good book. There’s nothing quite like turning inward and losing yourself in vibrant fiction or non-fiction when things in the real world aren’t quite bending to your will as quickly and as easily as you thought they might. Or when the weather outside implies that another Armageddon is just around the corner.  True to form an indulgent pastime of this type induces a relaxation that seeps through to every part of the body and pushes one toward the jaws of sleep. Often the individual becomes aware of physical sensations and external stimuli such as the texture of a blanket tucked around the feet or the wistful moans of the wind outside. He or she might ponder the financial consequences of a job offer or the chronological series of events that led to an embarrassing public outburst. The tendency to entertain personal fantasies is powerful if not overwhelming. Letting oneself relax and blowing psychic steam induces the perfect mood for self-reflection, one that can be most satisfying if the bridge leading to sleep is sternly resisted. If one wallows in this international cosmic territory long enough the mind will eventually switch to a neutral gear and jump into the back seat of an automobile that is one’s own body. In assuming the role of a passenger the individual forfeits conscious control of the inner symbolic process; he or she is no longer a creator of images but an observer of ones that continue to fizzle up from the cavernous depths of the unconscious.

This autonomous march before the “eyes” of the observer is characterized by the transformation of one effervescent sound or image into another against an emotionally vociferous background that hints at implied meanings without coming round full circle. In waking consciousness words and phrases thought out aloud encompass both the vocalization and the meaning but in the hypnagogic state there is an absence of association between the two facets that is faithfully and inconveniently left to the intellectual aptitude of the personal conscious to link back together. What can further confuse an observer of these images is their spontaneous nature of generation and reluctance to yield to his or her will; what appears as a voluminous white spiral might unwind into an iridescent green snake that breathes fire for a while before the beast proceeds to mould itself into a loving face with sharp and prominent features of transcendent beauty. The images belong to an order independent of personal imagination and mental action and sometimes develop in a line of self-governing and coherent dramas that have a mind of their own but permit the supposed owner-observer of the psychic vehicle some active participation. A strong advantage the hypnagogic experience has over other states of consciousness is that information can be derived through a paradoxical combination of active and passive participation with the inner process and in a state of awareness responsive to both the former and the phenomenal world. This is otherwise known as double consciousness and its receptivity to external stimuli as well as its talent for direct intercourse with the inner process makes it an ultimate candidate for introspective reporting and experimentation on a level of cognizance other than the one with which we are causally familiar.

Some of my most memorable and potent experiences have come during the hypnagogic state. Once, when I was coming out of sleep, I had an eerie sense that there was somebody else in the room, somebody in close proximity. It wasn’t something that I could put a finger on; merely an intuition. “Is someone there?” I remember asking myself. “Someone care,” the inner process responded with a voice whose pattern of overtones was similar to mine. Actually, it was mine. The process had taken possession of my voice and was communicating with me. “Who are you?” I asked. “Blue true,” it responded. “True blue you mean?” Suddenly there was a light sensation on the nape of my neck.  I wasn’t sure if it was real or imagined so I all focused my attention on the intrinsic lights or eigenlicht seen in complete darkness. In my mind’s eye I suddenly saw the outline of a winged woman with chalk white skin and a aquiline nose bending over to kiss me. The sensation was so tangible and real that I immediately jumped out of bed and switched on the lamp to see if there was anybody in the room with me. Save for the fact that it was an obvious expression of self-acceptance and unconditional love, the occurrence forced me to question the nature of the transpersonal self; was it an unknown extension of self or was it a disembodied entity not indigenous to my own being such as a guardian angel?

Another memorable one used to unfold during the early hours of the morning. There would be a great many days in which my calorie intake had fallen below that of the norm for the optimum functioning of a body that was accustomed to vigorous physical activity. This was brought to my attention by recurrent midnight awakenings characterized by stomach rumblings and extreme hunger pangs. On a great many occasions the little food demon within would win out and I would find myself raiding the refrigerator for sweets, chocolate bars, biscuits, and carb-rich desserts. Upon returning to bed I would become riddled by a deep guilt for having capitulated to my shadow. Just as I was about to slip back into unconsciousness I would ask myself, “Did you really have to do that Paul?” The inner process would promptly answer, “Not you Paul.” Somewhat baffled by the response I would encourage further clarification. “What do you mean?” The hypnagogic would proceed to answer the question but through the language of internal imagery and intuition. I would abruptly receive the impression that I had never left the bed and that the person who’d gone to the refrigerator wasn’t me but a different person altogether, a tenant with identical psychological impulses as myself. The inner process inferred through the use of vivid images that I would be allowed to fall asleep as soon as the other ethereal “person” had infused himself back into my psyche. For a while I wasn’t sure if this was simply the hypnagogic’s way of trying to stamp out swelling guilt so that I could enjoy uninterrupted and peaceful sleep or if there was really another entity inside me of which I was hitherto oblivious. It scared the wits out of me and for a while I questioned my own sanity.          

Little is actually known about hypnagogic phenomena, a transitory state between sleeping and waking or waking and sleeping. A more correct term for the former is hypnopompic but for the purpose of keeping this investigation free from the technical jargon of psychology I will adhere to the term hypnagogic as a descriptor of both states. Strictly speaking, hypnagogia might be described as a psychic pocket in which the ego suffers complete dissolution and the individual becomes a passive observer of an autosymbolic process. What do we mean by this? Basically you enter into communion with your own self as you exist at that moment in time whilst your conscious will remains enfeebled. It’s as if some malicious sorcerer has duplicated your mind without your consent, infused it into a silver mirror and reflected its light back upon your own being for the sake of teasing and taunting you.

Associated with the hypnagogic are sharp and comprehensive three-dimensional visions spawned in all sensory modalities–visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile–that parade before one like coloured films on a cinematographic screen or military marches. This personal film or march might be inaugurated by an agglomeration of geometrical patterns or miniscule suns gyrating at some ridiculous speed before evolving into more complex symmetrical patterns and intelligible configurations like animals, human faces, landscapes, and other scenes. The microscopic and vivid detail in which these features are spontaneously produced facilitates an overall sense of heightened reality and titillation far exceeding in brilliance and aesthetic scope anything that might be experienced during the normal waking state. Moreover, hypnogogic imagery is often interjected by multiple sensory modalities, a phenomenon which reveals the underlying unity of the known physical senses. Unlike conscious existence in the spatiotemporal universe where the experience of one sensory modality may appear disparately related to another, hypnagogic phenomena bequeath to the observer the gift of synaesthesia in which sensations belonging to one modality readily call forth those of a different one. This, and the fact that the images are stand-ins for the observer’s dispositions and sentiments puts one on a path about the nature of reality that leads to two sweeping but unlikely deductions. First and foremost is the notion of alternate realities; if self-awareness can somehow split in half and concurrently operate within two realms adhering to dissimilar sets of laws and demarcations, then a whole ladder of realities should become available to the individual who has learned how to change the trajectory of consciousness at will. Secondly, the relegation of the ego-image to a passive-receptive role of observer forces the entertainment of some pretty humbling and schizophrenic prospects; are we really undisputed rulers of our own minds? Or is there another hitherto unacknowledged occupant living upstairs? Am I the sole master, presenter, and host of my own thoughts? Or is my head a radiofrequency spectrum that picks up different stations and voices?      

Whatever the case may be what remains certain is that hypnagogia is a transient state like a winding staircase leading up into the towering mounts of sleep and back down to the fragmented prairies of everyday wakefulness. These individual steps basically represent a hierarchy of levels separated from one another by clearly discernible characteristics. The first of these is typified by relaxed perception and the atrophy of thought processes that leads to spontaneous proliferation of phrases and images that seem to come from someone other than the one experiencing them. Radiance and intensity of patterns, colour spots, sounds, voices, and other seemingly incongruent sensory perceptions are much more aesthetically pleasing than their corporeal counterparts. A further turning inward generates double consciousness and the individual becomes highly suggestible and concurrently open to the influence of internal and external processes. In other words it is perfectly possible to conduct a conversation with someone sitting right beside you and at the same time remain focused on the hypnogogic parade of images appearing and disappearing in your mind’s eye. Not uncommonly the shallow-to-middle hypnagogic state can initiate a separation of consciousness in which the hypnagogic imager acquires an ability to see, feel, drift, fly away from, and look upon his or her own reclining body as if he or she was a different person. Some psi states like telepathy, exomatosis, clairvoyance, and clairaudience are purported to occur in this phase of hypnagogia. Further up is a middle-to-deep step quantifiable as a shift in mental activity and the nature of qualitative thought. This is the autosymbolic domain where experience of reality can unfold as a conversation between the bundle of psychological impulses identified as the ego and a much more prudent and comprehensive inner process that frequently incarnates in the guise of a free-spirited and candid stranger. The knowledge and wisdom that can be derived from this level by questioning oneself is indispensable. Questions cognized at this level are all answered by a little voice uncannily identical to one’s own. On the step closest to sleep the two voices perceived as distinct entities unite to form a blissful, enlightened state reminiscent of satori before plunging the individual into the full-scale depths of unconsciousness.

Many people profess that they’ve never had a hypnagogic experience. The truth of the matter is that they probably have but that they can’t remember. They are much more common than people think. Some of the most famous esotericists, spiritualists, and intellectuals made some of their most striking and innovative insights about the psyche and the nature of reality through ample use of this state. Two people who benefited immensely from its wisdom, beauty, and natural depth are Emmanuel Swedenborg and Carl Jung. The personal account of heavens and hells described by Swedenborg in his Spiritual Diary and Journal of Dreams as well as the extrasensory perception which developed during the latter half of his life were both by-products of frequent dabbling in hypnagogia. Any systematic examination of the works The Essential Jung and Memories, Dreams, Reflections along with the irruptions of personal unconscious contents that were recorded in the Red Book reveals the same to be true for Jung; he had precognitive visions during hypnagogic states. Many studies that have attempted to link the latter with psi states and practices found that the two share numerous characteristics; both transpire when the individual finds himself or herself in a state of psychophysiological relaxation and both are antecedents of imminent sleep.  

Furthermore non-analytic and regressive mental activity is an indigenous feature of both. In many cases it is merely religious and philosophical parameters that account for differences between them. It is not rare for a hypnagogic imager to experiencing “waking visions” where a deceased relative might deliver news of looming personal and collective disasters or for answers to riddles and other mindboggling problems to be granted. As the psychologist Harry Levi Hollingworth (1880-1956) noted the hypnagogic experience allows for a continuum of thoughts, strategies, and wishes not readily available to fully unconscious states (i.e. sleep and dreams) that can advance uninterrupted along a train of reasoning fully comprehensive to an individual as long as they remain in the hypnagogic state. The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596–1650) pioneered an exalted philosophical system that sought to unify the arts and sciences through the mediation of hypnagogia. Though he had probably stumbled upon it by accident, what is clear from his biographical account is that some of his conclusions were reached before waking fully. What the abovementioned seems to suggest is that the fine gap between the ingenuity we associate with personal intellect and the madness which abounds in the deeper layers of the transpersonal self can best be reconciled by making the most out of the shared pathway (i.e. hypnagogia) on which they intercept. Always experiment with one foot planted firmly in contracted three-dimensional reality.

In paying attention to such experiences we come closer to the creative wellspring from whence our individual and collective psyche has sprung forth and develop our creative stream tenfold. We also begin to trace parallels between the different states of consciousness; we see that despite their many differences, implied understandings relating to thoughts, images, and dramas that might play out in each one don’t necessarily depart from the unerring and concrete logic with which our personal minds are familiar. This reassures us of the interconnectivity and correspondence between all things in the cosmos. We live in a world of melodic associations separated by harmonic intervals. One cannot dabble in the hypnagogic realm for too long without realizing that the inner process is something far more comprehensive, wiser, and beautiful than what the limited arc of our intellect believes it to be. Contemplating the rich tapestry of meanings and suggestions spewed forth by hypnagogia we become far more modest with respect to our own personal powers and refrain from making despotic and dogmatic statements about an entity whose nature we have only just begun to understand.



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