Liminal Dreaming Exercises
The Dali/Edison Method
Many people have tapped the creative potential of hypnagogia. Both Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison independently of each other invented more or less the same exercise, 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 in both hands, Dali a solid, brass, Spanish key in one hand) 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.
The Vanishing Point
The basic idea here is to try and stay awake enough to become aware of the very moment when you fall asleep. Really pay attention to your thoughts. Monitor what's happening in your body as your limbs relax and your breathing slows. Follow your drifting mind very attentively. It took me a long time to develop this skill, but it's been one of the most rewarding dream producers. I've definitely had some of my trippiest dream experiences with this one. Fair warning, though: this isn't a great exercise if you have a hard time falling asleep and aren't getting enough sleep. Trying to retain awareness with such focus when dropping off may keep you awake for a bit longer. Well worth it, though, when it pays off.
This exercise is about surfing the edge of consciousness, moving back and forth between thought and dream. It’s also a great way to practice the Vanishing Point exercise. 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 you 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.
An oneirogen is any substance, practice, or experience that promotes or enhances dream states. Many of the oneirogens used for the Oneironauticum can also be used for liminal dreaming. Most notably, a 3 mg dose of melatonin is particularly effective for inducing sleep paralysis during hypnagogia, especially if you’re prone to this experience. Sleep Paralysis occurs when the mind awakens but remains partly in the dream, while the body remains paralyzed as during sleep. While some people find sleep paralysis terrifying, embracing it and working with it can yield fascinating results. Check out Sleep Paralysis, a guide written by my pal Ryan Hurd, who runs dreamstudies.org. Two other consumable oneirogens that work well for liminal dreaming are Calea Zacatechcichi and Galantamine, or red spider lily. Follow the instructions I provide on my Oneirogens page, expect take them 30 – 45 minutes before bed rather than right before. Unlike most dream practices, liminal dreaming works extremely well in combination with mind altering substances. If you’re someone who tweaks your consciousness with such methods, try the Feedback Loop exercise.
In recent years, several technologies have been developed or popularized as means of experimenting with mind. As an early, active member of the Consciousness Hacking movement, I’ve spent some time exploring technologies that can be used in liminal dream practices. Although they’ve been around since the 1970s, binaural beats are currently undergoing a resurgence of interest thanks to the large number of phone apps that can so easily produce them. The basic idea? Tones or frequencies are used to entrain brainwaves. When two different frequencies enter the head through the right and left ears, the brain synthesizes the difference between them. This creates a rhythm that simulates or triggers a brain state. There are a wide range of binaural beats apps that attempt to trigger hypnagogia. Experiment with different apps to find the one that works best for you. You can also try working with a voice activated sound recorder (there are several phone apps that do this). Simply lay it on the pillow when you nap or when you go to sleep (it’ll still be there in the morning) so you can narrate your experience as you move in or out of the liminal dream state.
The Morning Linger
While most of the exercises listed here are specific to hypnagogia, the morning linger is a way of working with hypnopompia. We often wake from REM, a state in which brainwaves, measured by EEG, look the same as they do when you’re fully awake. If you have the time to wake slowly and aren’t the kind of (short circadian rhythm) person who wakes up completely and pops out of bed, this is a great practice for you. Anyone who plays an instrument or has a physical practice like yoga or dance knows that the body has memory. Sleeping isn’t as far from that as you might think. We tend to sleep most often in the same three or four positions. For example, I often lie curled on my left side with my left fist against my forehead. To practice the morning linger, try to wake as slowly as possible, staying relaxed and keeping the mind calm and unfocused. Move into one of the positions in which you frequently sleep and relax into it. 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 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.
This one requires traveling in a vehicle in which you can sleep. Obviously, that means you can't be driving. You also have to be able to get comfortable enough in the vehicle to doze off. I drive a VW camper van, so it's easy for me. I just lie on the back bench while my spouse drives. Any backseat of a car will do, as long as it's sufficiently sized for you to nap. This practice works best if you're traveling for some length of time, maybe an hour or more, and if you're driving when you're sleepy. It’s a great exercise for road trips. I recommend keeping something with you that allows you to voice record. A smartphone with a recording app is good. Alternately, just share any dream experiences you have with the driver upon waking.
To undertake this exercise, you need to have enough confidence to nap someplace public, as the name suggests. I had really good luck doing this at a party. I've also done this in Golden Gate Park to good effect. If there's a time of day when you start to feel groggy, or even better if there's already a time of day when you sometimes nap, try leaving your home and napping someplace less private. I've napped in my VW van parked on the street. You do have to feel secure enough to doze off, so if you can't imagine going to the beach and lying down and napping on your own, take a friend to watch over you. Voice recorders or a pen and paper are good tools to have at hand.
This exercise builds on the Morning Linger. Dream incubation is an ancient practice of planting the seed of an idea you want to work through in your dreams, maybe an issue in your life you want to solve, a creative idea you’re working through, or even code you’re trying to build. When you go to sleep at night, lie in one of the positions in which you normally sleep and contemplate the idea you’re planting in your mind. Meditate on it, let it seep into your body like the way you feel a drink of hot liquid warming your stomach. Make sure you do this when you can stay in bed a long time the next morning. When you wake, practice the Morning Linger, except concentrate on the position you laid in when you set your intention. Keep a voice activated recorder (probably an app on your phone) next to you so you talk through what you’re experiencing without changing position.