Saturday, March 31, 2007

From My Archives of Consciousness

For a couple of years when I was a kid I had these horribly scary hypnagogic hallucinations. They were awful: I'd be lying there in bed, lights on, fully awake, and I'd start to hear this buzzing sound, which would grow louder and louder until it was a shriek that filled the room. As the buzzing got louder it would be accompanied by angry, echoing voices shouting at me in pure hatred.

It was way too bad to tell anyone about. So I didn't, and I faced the terror alone, and as much as I hated those experiences then, I'm really glad now that I had them. For one thing, they taught me to observe my state of mind, which ended up being pretty reassuring. After a while, it occurred to me (though at 10 I couldn't have expressed it this way) that if I was able to detach from and watch this weird thing that was happening, and was able to predict what was going to happen, then I was in some way in control of myself. I finally understood that, as scary as the experiences were, nothing truly bad was going to happen. Then I was able to endure them with something approaching jocularity--"Oh, here's this again. I hope it hurries up so I can go to sleep."

Then they went away, and I've had hypnagogic states very rarely since--a handful of times in the ensuing 30 or so years. The most memorable one happened in the recliner I'm sitting in as I type this, to which I'd retreated one alcoholic night and fallen asleep in and which, at some point, I felt plummeting through space with me in it. I cried out--this was the period of my first guru, so I called to her, and sure enough she or my neurons stayed the chair's descent and all returned to normal.

It would probably be too predictable for me to now get on a tangent about how "real" unreal experiences can seem, or about how the lines between real and unreal are soooo I won't. Nor will I speculate on why hypnagogia so often involves hearing voices, and I certainly won't drag my Angel's name through the mud with even a hint that Her sweet voice might be related to any hallucinatory ones.

But it's interesting. In hypnagogia people hear voices, and they often feel a "presence," and, according to the Unusual Sleep Experiences survey I took at this design-challenged but hugely informative page, they even sometimes see the covers on their bed being pulled off by someone...or some...
thing. Some people have out-of-body experiences and even see "beings." And so you have your researchers who ascribe alien abductions and tales of demonic possession to hypnagogia, which certainly meets my cherished analytic standard of parsimony as well as dovetails with Hume's very useful criterion for miracles. Naturally, shamans and magicians use the hypnagogic state for their own ends; if my brain were not a blancmange right now I'd cite somebody I read a while ago (Kenneth Grant maybe? Austin Osman Spare?) on the magical uses of near-sleep the meantime, there's an article by Gary Lachman about it here.

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