Dreams at the Edge of Sleep

Dreams at the Edge of Sleep

A practice for accessing the power of liminal dreaming


Liminal dreaming is a remarkable mind state, one you can channel for creativity or problem solving, use as a form of metacognition to explore your thought processes, or simply play with as a form of consciousness exploration.

There’s a swirling, kaleidoscopic, free-associative experience on the edge of your mind. You’ll find it in the space right between awake and asleep, where your meandering consciousness mixes memory and thought with visionary imagery. I call this experience liminal dreaming. “Liminal” refers to the spaces in between things, the transitional condition of thresholds or boundaries. There are two dream states that, together, make up liminal dreaming: hypnagogia and hypnopompia. These constantly morphing states cling to the edges of sleep. You’re probably familiar with both, but you may never have given them much thought.

As you slip into sleep at night, or during naps or fatigued delirium, you pass through hypnagogia, but you might first notice it when you are fighting to stay awake. In a darkened movie theater, in an overheated lecture hall, or alone on your couch late at night waiting up for someone to come home, you might experience hypnagogia as a kind of exhausted hallucination.

As you slip into a nap, it might manifest in the form of vivid visions. When you drift off at night, perhaps you see eerie faces turning toward you, hear alien radio stations, or jolt out of the feeling of falling. When your arm or leg jerks involuntarily, you know you’re experiencing hypnagogia.

In the morning, you surface from sleep through the swimmy realm of hypnopompia, the twin of hypnagogia that emerges on the other end of sleep. Lying warm and cozy in your bed as you slowly awake, you might notice that something that began as a thought has become a dream. Memory shifts into story as you realize your mind is sinking back into dozing, or that you aren’t actually as awake as you thought you were.

Hypnagogia and hypnopompia provide some of the strangest, loveliest, and most interesting dreams. They’re quite unlike what you experience during REM (rapid eye movement), the phase of dreaming you’ve probably heard of. Most people know that dreams happen during REM, but not many understand that dreams happen in other phases of sleep as well.

Liminal dreaming is a remarkable mind state, one you can channel for creativity or problem solving, use as a form of metacognition to explore your thought processes, or simply play with as a form of consciousness exploration.

As with any kind of dream practice, one crucial component involves finding a method to record your dreams. Journals help you remember your experiences beyond the time when you first wake up. But you don’t have to record your dreams by writing them down if that’s not how you roll. Do whatever inspires you. Make a sketch or collage. Write a song. Create whatever sort of method that moves you to pay attention to your dreams.

Recording your dreams is important in large part because it requires you to devote energy to this pursuit. When you keep a journal, you pay more attention to your dream life.

Beginning Exercise

You’ve surely passed through liminal dream space before. But you may not have thought of it as a destination. The following simple exercise will help you identify when you’re there, and help you stay in the space.

It’s easier to teach someone how to discover hypnagogia than hypnopompia. Hypnagogia happens as you fall asleep, which means you have way more opportunities to try it, since you can just lie down for a nap to give it a spin.

Hypnagogia is a wild psychedelic ride. If you’ve ever wished for a powerful fifteen-minute visionary journey that leaves you totally clear-headed afterward and produces no hangover, look no further.

You can try the following exercise at night when you normally go to bed. Keep in mind, though, that if you try this exercise as you drift off for a long sleep, you probably won’t remember much in the morning about your hypnagogic experiences. You’re likely to remember that it happened, but since you’ll have the experience and then fall asleep, it may remain hazy.

That may suit you fine. It’s totally OK to have an experience just for the sake of having it in the moment. Don’t stress about whether or not you can recall it later, especially if you know you found it interesting as it happened. Once you try accessing liminal dream states more often, you’ll find you remember more of what happens there.

If you fall asleep very quickly, or if you want to try to recall more, you should try these exercises before taking a nap. At the point in the day when your energy dips, lie down on the couch or a bed. If you find you just conk out immediately, try sitting up in a chair.

Feedback Loop (for hypnagogia): This exercise is about surfing the edge of consciousness, moving back and forth between thought and dream.

1. Lie or sit back and relax your body and mind as much as possible.

2. With your eyes closed, let your mind drift, but don’t fall asleep. You’re waiting for something: an image, an idea, a hazy memory, perhaps a distant sound. You might imagine it as much as see, hear, or feel it. Allow your waking, rational mind to loosen its hold on your experience. Open yourself to whatever arrives.

3. Eventually, something will appear. It might just be a little visual glimmer, or a drifty thought. Maybe it’s a slight tone, or distant voices, or an unfamiliar emotion. Whatever it is, once it’s in your mind, breathe slowly and softly into it, allowing it to take shape, to move and shift on its own.

4. Use your exhale to relax your body even further. As you breathe out, imagine you’re animating whatever it is that you’re perceiving, like watering a plant with your attention. The exhale removes tension and energy from your mind and body and transfers it to the hypnagogic dream that’s taking shape.

5. If you start to fall fully asleep, sharpen your consciousness. The trick is to do it only slightly, so you don’t wake up completely. Try paying a little more attention to the act of paying attention.

6. As you breathe your energy into the dream, hypnagogia will become easier to perceive. Especially at first, your hypnagogic dream may simply be moving points of light or color, faces turning toward you, or flashes of thought that shift into dream. The phenomena may also end quickly. But over time, this exercise will help you enter hypnagogia more easily, and stay there for long periods of time.

Some people have an easier time practicing liminal dreaming when they shake up their sleeping situation. Bed partners can make a big difference. If you live with a cat or a dog, they’re usually pretty willing to help you with daytime naps. Animal friends are usually great allies in liminal dream work.

If you share a bed with another human, you may find that sometimes creating a separate sleep situation promotes your dream work. Of course, it may be the opposite. Some people don’t sleep well without their partner in their bed. If this is the case for you, you can go the opposite way and pursue liminal dream work with whomever shares your bed.

More on dreams:

Meditation for Sweet Dreams: Wildflower Fields

Translating the Secret Language of Your Dreams

The Brain Benefits of Dreaming

Adapted from Liminal Dreaming by Jennifer Dumpert. Published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Dumpert. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

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