Hypnagogic Experiences


Francisco de Goya, Preparatory drawing for The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1797

From Harper’s:

I’ve long been haunted by the Buddhist idea that we die and are reborn dozens of times per second. The ancient maxim intimates that beneath the scale of consciousness and conventional experience lies a ceaseless torrent of change, a swarm of chasms and metamorphoses. In one sense, it’s a kind of therapy for the fear of death. If you are afraid of dying, think of how much you have changed since you were six—since you were a fetus—since before that—can you imagine a greater change? My hypnagogic experiences suggest that similar changes are constantly taking place beneath the illusory continuity of ordinary waking consciousness.

The idea that we are subject to an incessant stream of transformations would seem to disintegrate the idea of death. Hypnagogia turns this abstract, mystical idea into experience, supplies it with a kind of empirical evidence, albeit one accessible only from the first person, evidence as individual as one’s own death. Just below the surface of wakeful awareness, just a minute or two under it, everything is change. The mandalas hypnagogia relentlessly sketches under the eyelids don’t so much provide a respite from the distractions of ordinary consciousness as a shocking realization that the sluggish movements of regular experience might be composed of millions of shining, vibrating filaments.

And this is sleep? I think, jettisoned into wakefulness by the sound of my iPad. This is rest? This is unconsciousness?

I experience a vague horror. I feel, very slightly and for the first time, how one might long for nothingness. I feel a new sympathy for the expressions I’ve sometimes encountered among the old, the ill, the insane, or the ancients—expressions of the desire for everything to stop. When I finally quit using the Dormio, it’s because I’ve grown a little afraid of what it reveals.

This helpless creativity of my mind, this incessant hypnagogic generation of forms and worlds, isn’t like the productions of human artists. Looking at surrealist images by Dalí or even Max Ernst while my vision is still saturated by the shapes and colors of hypnagogia, I’m most taken by the way, in the pictures, creativity has stopped. It’s suspended, pinned like a butterfly between the wooden edges of the frame. But the images of hypnagogia never stop; the creativity of the dreaming mind is a transformative force defined by the fact that it can’t be distilled into intelligible sentences, paintable images, tolerable music.

“Night Shifts”, Michael W. Clune, Harper’s

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