To dream is to enter into a different world, and there are several different portals that lead to various versions of the terrain. One of the lesser known is liminal dreaming. It exists in a hazy, transitional state that we all experience at some point. Harnessed correctly, it has the potential to yield solutions to complex problems and provide intense kaleidoscopic visions.
As it’s name suggests, liminal dreaming exists in a transitional state. Namely, it exists between hypnagogia and hypnompompia — together called hypnoidal dreams — those trance states we pass through as we fall into sleep at night and climb towards waking in the morning. We also experience them when we settle down for a quick nap.
Most dream (and waking) states are marked by consistent measurements of Hz, or cycles per second. Hypnoidal dream states, by contrast, produce chaotic, inconsistent wave patterns. Think of the waking mind as the land and the sleeping mind as the sea. When you practice liminal dreaming, you surf the edge between, where random waves might suddenly carry you far, or fall off.
Although sleep patterns vary, they tend to follow a general trend. Wide awake and engaged, your brain waves cycle in beta, 13 – 30 Hz. Relax and you slow to alpha, 8 – 13 Hz. As an adult, you spend roughly half your sleep in theta, 4 – 7 Hz. Most dreams occur in REM, where brainwaves look just like they do in beta.
No such steady state exists in hypnagogia. Your brain shudders up through a series of micro awakenings and then sinks down toward sleep, ricocheting between alpha and theta. Your body twitches just like your brain waves do. Those little physical jolts, called myoclonic or hypnagogic jerks — sometimes accompanied by the feeling of falling — let you know that you’re in liminal dream territory.
In hypnopompia, your brainwaves are already undulating at a waking speed, so the ride back and forth across the boundary of the conscious-unconscious feels less bumpy. Thinking becomes dreaming becomes imagining.
We probably only spend about 5 percent of your sleep in hypnoidal states. But with practice, the time can be widened and one can learn to linger in the liminal dream. Why would you do such a thing?
Artists and thinkers have long cultivated hypnagogia for creativity and problem solving. Chemist August Kekulé famously figured out the structure of the benzene ring — a problem he’d been pondering for some time — in a hypnagogic state. Nikola Tesla and Sir Isaac Newton used liminal dreaming to arrive at ideas, as did Marcel Proust, Emanuel Swedenborg and Rudolf Steiner. Liminal also provides a clear path toward the practice of dream incubation, a rich tradition of using the dream for healing that goes back to the Ancient Greek temples of Asclepius.
And it also highlights metacognition — the awareness and understanding of your own mental processes. As you flow into hypnagogia, your increasingly drifty mind maintains efforts to think rationally. This combination can produce what’s known as autosymbolic phenomena: images, symbols, and perceptions that represent your physical and mental state. Instead of interpretation, think of this as thinking in a different form of language, like a rebus, one of those puzzles where words are represented by images.
Hypnopompia has a slightly different flavor, since you’re moving from dream back into waking consciousness. But there too you can find the paradoxical place where the waking part of your mind is self-aware enough to track the free associative workings of the dreaming part.
Useful though it is, you don't need any reason to try liminal dreaming beyond the desire to explore your own mind. REM dreams tend to maintain the basic perception that one is a person moving through a world where things happen, but hypnoidal dreams offer a more fluid, free associative experience. Between thought and hallucination, the meandering mind rehashes and remixes abstract ideas and memories while slipping in and out of the visionary animation of the dream.
It’s quite possible to be 10 or 70 percent dreaming, to watch images pirouette through thoughts or hear alien radio stations beam sounds that resemble music but aren’t quite. Humans are hardwired to experiment with consciousness. The liminal dream state offers an easily accessible and fascinating method for pursuing this worthwhile goal.
If you’re interested in springboarding into the soporific realm, try these techniques
1. Feedback Loop
This exercise is about surfing the edge of consciousness, moving back and forth between thought and dream. It’s a great way to learn the basics of liminal dreaming.
In bed, relax your body and mind as much as possible. Then, with eyes closed, start to look for whatever visuals appear in your mind’s eye. Breathe slowly and softly into the image, allowing it to take shape, to move and shift on its own. Let your mind wander undirected.
If you find yourself thinking too hard to fall asleep, unfocus your attention. Let the shifting visual and drifting thought shift into dream. If you start to fall fully asleep, sharpen your consciousness.
The trick is to do it only slightly, so you don’t completely wake. At its best, this exercise allows you to surf the edge of waking and dream for long spells of time. This is a great exercise to teach yourself the art of liminal dreaming.
2. The Dali/Edison Method
Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison independently of each other invented more or less the same exercise for working with hypnagogia, one you can adapt to suit your purposes.
When feeling tired, each man would sit in chair holding something in one or both hands (Edison used balls, Dali a solid, brass, Spanish key) over metal plates placed on the floor that would produce a clanging sound when the thing held in hand dropped. Edison kept a pad nearby to write out ideas. Dali kept a sketch pad. Each would sit in the chair and start to drift off.
Once hypnagogia gave way to sleep, the balls or key would drop onto the plate and wake the holder. This exercise works well during the day, at nap time, or else when tired at night before bedtime.
3. The Morning Linger
While most of the exercises listed here are specific to hypnagogia, the morning linger is a way of working with hypnopompia. If you have the time to wake slowly and aren’t the kind of person who wakes up completely and pops out of bed (i.e. someone with a short circadian rhythm), then this is a great practice for you.
To practice the morning linger, try to wake as slowly as possible, staying relaxed and keeping the mind calm and unfocused. Move into a position in which you frequently sleep and relax into it. (the thinking is: Dreams that you might not have remembered will be unlocked by putting your body into the posture it was in when you had the dream) Lie there with eyes closed and left your mind drift. It will hopefully cross that permeable border between thought, imagination, and dream. Once you’ve spent some time there, shift into one of your other sleeping positions and try again.