Richard G. Petty, MD

Hypnagogia: The Waking Dream

Most of us have experienced the brief transition between wakefulness and sleep as we fall asleep. This is the hypnagogic state, though it has been known by many names: “the borderland state," the “half-dream state,” the “pre-dream condition.” The name for these strange hallucinations is “hypnagogia.”

Although there are innumerable books about dreams, there is to my knowledge only one book in English that is dedicated to hypnagogia, by the psychologist Andreas Mavromatis. There are also not that many good websites dealing with the phenomenon, though I’ve found one or two really good ones. This is a little surprising, for the hypnagogic state is one of the most fascinating altered states of consciousness that we can experience without the use of drugs, and there are dozens of spiritual schools that encourage their students to work with these hypnagogic hallucinations. They are different form the hallucinations that may occur in neurological problems: those tend to occupy only one sense at a time, while the hypnagogic hallucinations, though sometimes no more that flashes of light or odd shapes, can be highly complex and involve multiple sensory modalities: what we call multi-modal hallucinations. Some people may feel as if they are floating, and it is not uncommon for people to kick out or grasp as they feel as if they are falling from a great height.

The term “hypnagogic” was coined by the 19th-century French psychologist Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury, and is derived from two Greek words, Hypnos (Sleep) and agogeus (A guide, or leader). Some years later, the English poet, essayist and psychical researcher Frederic William Henry Myers coined the term, “hypnapompic,” to describe similar phenomena that may occur as we wake from sleep.

Long before Maury, many writers commented on these odd experiences. Here are just a few that I’ve heard about:

  1. Aristotle spoke of the “affections we experience when sinking into slumber, and the images which present themselves to us in sleep.”
  2. Iamblichus of Chalcis, the third century Neo-Platonic philosopher, wrote of the “voices” and “bright and tranquil lights” that came to him in the condition between sleeping and waking, that he believed were a form experience sent by God.
  3. There is some evidence that the alchemists of the Middle Ages made use of a form of hypnagogia during their meditations, preparations and distillations. I’ve seen it suggested that the weird characters and eerie landscapes that seem to fill alchemical illustrations might have been the fruits of focusing on hypnagogic hallucinations, though they could just as easily have come from dreams or drugs.
  4. In 1600, the Elizabethan astrologer and occultist Simon Forman wrote of his apocalyptic visions. He saw mountains and hills that came rolling against him on the point of sleep and beyond which he could see vast boiling waters.
  5. Thomas Hobbes spoke of images of lines and angles seen on the edge of sleep accompanied by an “odd kind of fancy” to which he could give no particular name.
  6. Emmanuel Swedenborg the 18th century philosopher, scientist and visionary developed a method of inducing and exploring hypnagogic states, during which he claimed to have traveled to Heaven, Hell and other planets. He recorded several other techniques that he used to gain his insights, including a particular type of hyperventilation.
  7. The theosophical writer Oliver Fox used the hypnagogic hallucinations as a “doorway” through which he was able to go astral traveling.
  8. Rudolf Steiner, advised that the best time for communicating with the dead was in the period between waking and sleep. He claimed that if you asked the dead a question as you fell asleep, they would answer you the next morning His records look very much like hypnagogic hallucinations.
  9. The Russian writer and philosopher P.D. Ouspensky is someone else who made a detailed study of hypnagogia. Like many of the others that I’ve mentioned, he made a number of interesting discoveries about the Universe while in this state. It is these insights, and their similarities across cultures that suggest that there’s more to hypnagogia than random neuronal firing.

It is interesting that although hypnagogia can produce millions of different experiences. When people start using them for exploration, they seem to generate many similar insights. This is rather different from the mystical experience. In which peoples’ experiences have similar form, but different content.

The most widely used criteria of the mystical experience were assembled by the English philosopher W.T. Stace, who taught at Princeton for many years:

  1. Deeply positive mood
  2. Experience of Union
  3. Ineffable sense
  4. Enhanced sense of meaning, authenticity and reality
  5. Altered space and time perception/transcendence
  6. Acceptance of normally contradictory propositions

I shall have more to say about mystical experiences in another posting.

For now, if you are interested in doing some self-exploration, and you are not using either medications or alcohol, the hypnagogic state is a great place to start. Occasionally people find the exploration scary, so only do this if you are up to it, and don’t if you are given to nervous or psychological problems. When I’m working with people I always ensure that they are in tip top condition before trying ANY kind of psychological exploration.

Try becoming aware of the transition between wakefulness and sleep. At first you will fall asleep, but with a small amount of practice, most people can quickly begin to keep themselves in the state, and then start exploring. Many people find that they get some profound intuitions while in the hypnagogic state, and unlike the kinds of “insights” that people get while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they make sense in the morning. Relax, keep a diary, take it in easy stages, and see what you can discover for yourself. If you come across anything unpleasant, stop, and we can try some different exercises.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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