What is Hypnagogia?
We all know that there are two primary states of consciousness: wakefulness and sleep. But did you that there is also an in-between state? This state is called Hypnagogia, a word that derives from the Greek words “hypnos” (sleep) and “agogos” (leading), meaning the state that leads into sleep.
Have you ever had a nap and experienced a strange trance-like state in which images, colors, sounds, even dream-like stories play out in your mind? Have you ever found yourself falling asleep and seeing a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes fleet in and out of your mind … or strange things like horses turning into helicopters? These experiences are hypnagogia in action and it’s likely that you experience hypnagogia multiple times a week, or even every day before you fall asleep!
So how can this unusual limbo state contribute to our self-understanding and spiritual growth? In this article, I’ll explain how.
Types of Hypnagogia
Depending on whether you are primarily a visual (image-oriented), auditory (sound-oriented), or kinesthetic (physically-oriented) person (you can take a test here), your hypnogogic experience will vary.
Here are common ways hypnagogia is experienced:
- Images – e.g. monochromatic or colorful, static or moving, flat or three-dimensional – usually the images are fleeting but sometimes they form entire dream-like scenes
- Sounds – may be loud or quiet and involve hearing music, voices, snatches of conversation, rain, wind, white noise, repetitive words, having one’s name called, etc.
- Repetitive actions – known as the “Tetris effect,” when a person has spent a long time doing something repetitive (such as working, playing chess, exercising, reading) they may find themselves doing the same thing as they fall into the hypnagogic state
- Physical sensations – tastes, scents, textures, and sensations of coldness and heat may be experienced during hypnagogia, as well as feelings of floating, falling, leaving one’s body or having one’s body change shape
- Mental processes – at the edge of sleep thoughts begin to take a fluid and free-associative quality in which they morph and evolve in unusual, abstract, and innovative ways, uninfluenced by the ego
- Sleep paralysis – the temporary inability to move may, in some occurrences, accompany hypnagogia, however while this state may be alarming, it is harmless
It is also possible (and common) to experience multiple forms of hypnagogia. For example, you might visually enter a memory from the day that transforms before your eyes into an array of physical sensations and sounds. The combinations are limitless.
Spiritual Oneiromancy, Dali, and Dream Yoga
Artist Salvador Dali, writer Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), and inventor Thomas Edison are some of the most notable historical figures who have used hypnagogia to stimulate saucy new ideas. Both Dali and Edison, for example, used very similar techniques of sitting down with objects in their hands (a key for Dali and brass balls for Edison) and waking up once the object fell and hit the floor. This sudden awakening allowed them to quickly jolt out of their hypnagogic slumber and write down the thoughts and images that had been dancing through their minds.
In Tibetan Buddhism, hypnagogic states are used as a way of practicing “dream yoga.” Dream yoga is a form of spiritual practice that is based on the premise that dream-like states can be used to train the mind to enhance spiritual awareness. This self-discipline can contribute to the experience of enlightenment.
In the modern age, there’s a niche of people who refer to themselves as Oneiromancers; or individuals who use dreams as a form of divination. The word Oneiromancy comes from the Greek ‘oneiros’ (dream) and ‘manteia’ (prophecy). Such people commonly use and interpret dreams as a way of prophesying the future.
Even psychologists such as Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud have taken an intense interest in dreams and their potential meanings. Jung was notorious for his fascination with dreams and their connection with the unconscious mind since childhood.
I can’t personally vouch for the divination aspect of dreams (as in ‘oneiromancy,’ although I have had prophetic dreams). Furthermore, I believe that predicting the future is useless and a major distraction unless it is accompanied with work grounded in the present-moment. That is why my approach to dreams and hypnagogia specifically is targeted towards psychological growth. Without understanding yourself, meeting your shadow self, uncovering and dealing with old traumas and wounds, and integrating what you find, you won’t get very far. All of the dream work in the world will be just that: a bunch of fantasy.
How to Use Hypnagogia to Explore Your Unconscious Mind
Hypnagogia is the shortest path for communication from our subconscious — Sirley Marques Bonham, physicist
In the secular world, hypnagogia is often used as a way of stimulating creativity. But I propose, similar to the Tibetan Buddhists and their ‘Dream Yoga’ and Carl Jung and his technique of ‘Active Imagination,’ that hypnagogia can be used for deep psychological discovery as well.