Liminal dreaming is the swirling, kaleidoscopic, free-associative experience on the edge of your mind.
You’ll find it in the space right between awake and asleep. “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, which you experience as you’re falling asleep, and hypnopompia, when you wake.
These constantly morphing states cling to the edges of sleep.
What is 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. In hypnagogia or hypnopompia, you straddle conscious and unconscious states, experiencing both at the same time. This allows you to simultaneously access your logical, observational mind and your intuitive, dreaming mind.
Anyone can do it
Unlike many other practices, you don’t need to believe in anything, or to have a particularly spiritual approach to your own experience.
Organizations such as the American Sleep Association or the National Sleep Foundation recognize hypnagogia and hypnopompia as naturally occurring phases of sleep and dreams. In fact, you’ve probably already experienced liminal dreaming.
Fighting to stay awake at a performance, or slipping into a nap, perhaps you’ve experienced vivid or hallucinatory visions. That’s hypnagogia. You know you’re there when your arm or leg jerks. 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. That’s hypnopompia.
With practice, you can learn to linger in these extraordinary states. Learning it is so easy, now that you’ve heard of it, you’re very likely to encounter it. There are many ways to access liminal dream states.
Liminal dreaming exercise
The Feedback Loop
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. Over time though, this exercise will help you enter hypnagogia more easily, and stay there for long periods of time. Check out other exercises.
What about lucid dreaming?
Liminal dreaming isn’t to be confused with lucid dreaming.
In a lucid dream, your conscious mind arises in a REM (Rapid Eye Movement) dream and you can control what happens. REM is the sleep stage in which the sorts of dreams with which you’re already familiar happen.
Hypnagogia and hypnopompia are different brainwave states, as measured by EEG (electroencephalography), and happen at different points during sleep, solely in the beginning and end of the night.
In lucid dreams, you’re not aware of your surroundings, and although you can control the dream, you don’t have the same access to the waking mind. Liminal dreams tend to be more free associative and less narrative.
That said, liminal dreaming can be used to move into lucid dreaming.
Dreaming and meditation
Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali independently of each other came up with the same practice to harness hypnagogia, Edison to generate ideas for inventions and Dali to generate material for his artwork.
The famed biologist/geologist Louis Agassiz solved a milestone scientific problem in hypnagogia. Freudian psychologist Herbert Silberer conceived of autosymbolic phenomena, the idea that your physical or mental state appears in liminal dreams as symbol and image. By paying attention, you perceive things about the workings of your own mind. Yoga Nidra practitioners drop into liminal dreaming, a state of total relaxation that’s both healing and revelatory.
Liminal dreaming can be used as a mindfulness meditation; in dream incubation for problem solving; in active imagination exercises for self-actualization.
Liminal dreaming defies categorization.
It isn’t quite a dream state, at least not like REM, and it isn’t waking either. Although writers, artists, scientists, and all manner of consciousness explorers have dabbled with hypnagogia and hypnopompia, very little has been written on the topic. The same was true of lucid dreaming, before Stephen LaBerge first wrote about it in the 1980s. Now many people know about it. The edge states of hypnagogia and hypnopompia have begun to enter popular imagination, however. If you start experimenting now, you’ll be at the forward edge of exploring your mind with liminal dreaming.