You’ve surely passed through liminal dream space before. But you may not have thought of it as a destination. If you’ve ever been trying to stay awake and slipped into a hallucinatory swirl, or if you’ve simply noticed the kaleidoscopic half waking dreams you have as you’re falling asleep, you’ve experienced hypnagogia. If you wake up slowly enough, you’re probably also familiar with hypnopompia, a soft drift between thought and dream.
Everyone is a natural liminal dreamer. You already do it. You already know how. The beginning exercises, below, will help you figure out how to find hypnagogia and hypnopompia. Once you get the hang of finding those spaces, you can start playing with any of the other exercises.
The beginning exercises are always here to help people new to the practice. The other exercises change from time to time. You’ll find many other exercises, as well as background about traditions from they came, in my book.
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. Although you may have an easier time inhabiting hypnopompia—shout-out to all the late risers, like me, who can spend a long time in bed in the morning—you have to have been asleep for a while to get there. And some people very rarely even get into hypnopompic states. That probably includes all of you out there who jump out of bed in the morning, fully awake and ready to start your day.
You can try the following exercises at night when you normally go to bed. Keep in mind, though, that if you try these exercises 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.
- Lie or sit back and relax your body and mind as much as possible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The Morning Linger (for hypnopompia)
To practice the Morning Linger, try to wake up as slowly as possible.
- When you first become conscious, as your mind comes back online from sleep, stay relaxed with your mind calm and unfocused.
- Keep your eyes closed and try to not move. Let your mind drift. You haven’t yet woken up all the way but your rational mind is starting to get into gear. This produces a hypnopompic dream space, where the boundaries that separate thought, imagination, and dream become extremely permeable.
- Lie in the midst of hypnopompia and experiment with shifting between thought and dream. With practice, you may find yourself able to spend more time in a mind space balanced between the two.
Accessing hypnopompia is also the best way I know to recall the REM dreams you’ve had during the night. As you sink back into an unconscious state, let your mind dwell on whatever images or thoughts arise. You may find that you begin to remember dreams from the night.
Forgotten dreams can also be unlocked by putting your body into the posture it was in when you had the dream. You probably sleep most often in the same three or four positions. (For example, I often lie curled on my left side with my left fist against my forehead.) If you don’t already know your sleeping positions, pay attention to how you naturally place yourself when you lie down, or how you’re posed when you awake. When you are attempting to remember any REM dreams, or if you’ve exhausted the store of what you can remember in one position, slowly move into one of your other positions and relax into it. Anyone who plays an instrument or has a physical practice like a sport or yoga or dance knows that the body has memory. Sleeping isn’t as far from that as you might think.
Once you can find hypnagogia and hypnopompia, you can start experimenting. But please keep this in mind: you don’t need to do anything with your liminal dream practice. If you want to just lie back and enjoy this amazing experience of your mind, give yourself permission to do that. If you find joy delving into your own consciousness, I assure you that alone is good for you. Happiness is medicine. That said, you can use liminal dreaming for a wide variety of purposes.
Generating Ideas and Creativity
As a bridge between conscious and unconscious mind, liminal dreaming provides a unique opportunity for approaching creative, emotional, and even quite practical questions. To explore liminal dream space for creativity, try this exercise
The Dalí/Edison Method (for hypnagogia):
Many people have tapped into the creative potential of hypnagogia. Both Salvador Dalí, the surrealist artist from Spain, and the American inventor Thomas Edison conceived more or less the same exercise independently of each other. When feeling tired, each man would sit in a chair holding something in his hands. Edison held balls in both hands, whereas Dalí placed a solid brass Spanish key in one hand. Beneath them lay metal plates placed on the floor. Each would sit in the chair and start to drift off, until the balls or key dropped onto the plate and woke the holder. Edison kept a notepad nearby to write out ideas. Dalí kept a sketchpad. Here’s one way to adapt this practice, though you can find alternatives quite easily.
- Wait until you naturally feel sleepy. Thanks to chronotypes and circadian rhythms, most of us experience an energy dip in the afternoon. Just before bed is also good.
- Sit comfortably in a chair. If you’re at work, try this at your desk. You can also recline. If you really can’t nap, even lightly, sitting up, go ahead and lie down.
- Hold onto something that will clatter loudly when you drop it. You can try holding something over metal plates. You can also hold a bell, a handful of change, or a jingly dog toy. If you’re lying down, just raise your arm in the air.
- Keep something next to you to record your ideas. Pen and paper or a digital sketchpad work, as do voice-activated recorders. You can also just dictate into your phone, but set it up first so it’s ready immediately.
- Drift off into hypnagogia.
- Once you drop what you’re holding, or your arm drops, without doing anything else start capturing what’s in your mind.
Problem Solving and Healing
Marriage of the logical with the intuitive provides the foundation for many of the ways that people work with dreams, both today and traditionally. You might think that seeking healing and wisdom through dreams is a contemporary, “New Age” concept. But people have been practicing oneiromancy—a form of divination through dreams—and dream incubation—a method of seeking wisdom through dreams—in the service of healing for a very long time. The origins of Western medicine lie in the temples of Asclepius in ancient Greece, in which pilgrims used their dream states to receive prescriptions of sorts from their gods. It’s an old idea, but as a modern exercise it works quite well!
Dream Incubation (for hypnagogia and hypnopompia)
- Go to bed. Lie in one of your normal sleep positions and form a question, or just get a clear mental image of the issue you want to address—anything from a broken heart to broken computer code. Your question can be as simple as how to arrange the furniture or as complex as how to choose a life path. Meditate on it; let it seep into your body the way a sip of hot liquid warms your whole insides.
- Try to maintain awareness of your question through hypnagogia. Breathe slowly and deeply. Relax, but do your best to keep your question in your head right up until the moment you fall asleep. Like the many artists and thinkers who have used hypnagogia to get in touch with their creative juices, you may find that the hypnagogic dreams themselves already offer powerful insights.
- Next, literally sleep on it. That phrase exists for a reason. Let your unconscious mind churn whatever you’re cogitating. Your dreaming psyche approaches problems at a very deep level.
- In the morning, awaken as slowly as you can. Linger in the gentle, open, sweet space of hypnopompia. One part of this experience will involve thought. As you surface into consciousness, you’ll start to have ideas and memories. But the other part of your mind will loiter in dream. To try to recall more of the dream world, shift into your different sleep positions and drift off again. Your body memories will help concretize the intentions you set in hypnagogia as well as any dream revelations from REM.
- Keep something by your bed to capture whatever comes into your head. Maybe you like the Voice-Activated Recorder Method. Perhaps you prefer a notepad to write down thoughts, or a sketchpad to draw images. You can even just tell a friend. I do recommend doing something to capture any dream revelations you get. Sometimes it helps to come back to these records later, even if what you receive seems really clear at the time.
As with all practices, the more you do this, the better you’ll get at it. And again, patience and persistence pay off. Once you get in touch with your dreams, you’ll be amazed by the treasures they can offer.