In the space between waking and sleep lies the liminal dream.
This easily cultivated dream state offers some of the most remarkable and unusual experiences you’ll ever have. You can learn to liminal dream purely for the wild ride it offers, or you can pursue it in the service of a selection of purposes, including accessing creativity, healing, and as a meditation method. You can also locate and linger in liminal dreams as a stepping-stone on the path toward developing lucid dreaming skills.
Liminal Dreaming: Exploring Consciousness at the Edges of Sleep, published late May 2019, offers in-depth explorations of hypnagogia and hypnopompia, the two states that make up liminal dreams, and describes ways people have used these unusual forms of dreaming to experiment with consciousness. Among the tales that make up much of the book, you’ll find histories of and instructions for the use of liminal dreaming to access lucid dreaming.
What is Liminal Dreaming?
As you slip into sleep at night, or during naps or fatigued delirium, you pass through hypnagogia. But you might first notice it when you are fighting to stay awake. In a darkened theater or alone on your couch at night waiting up for someone to come home, you might experience hypnagogia as a kind of exhausted hallucination. As you slip into a nap, it might manifest in the form of vivid visions. When you drift off in bed, perhaps you see faces turning toward you, hear alien radio stations, or jolt out of the feeling of falling. When your arm or leg jerks involuntarily, you know you’re experiencing hypnagogia.
In the morning, you surface from sleep through the swimmy realm of hypnopompia, the twin of hypnagogia that emerges on the other end of sleep. 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. Memory shifts into story as you realize your mind is sinking back into dozing, or that you aren’t actually as awake as you thought you were.
We tend to think of waking and sleep as binary, on and off, but this is not the case. When you begin to access liminal dream states, you realize that there’s a continuity of consciousness, a series of stops between the poles of daytime and nighttime mind.
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limen, which means threshold or doorway. As in-between zones, liminal states are simultaneously neither and both. In the case of hypnagogia and hypnopomia, you are neither awake nor asleep, and yet you are also simultaneously both.
What’s the difference between liminal and lucid dreams?
In a lucid dream, your waking consciousness arises within the dream world. You have access to your daytime thoughts and memories, and this familiar “you” can take control of at least part of the dreaming narrative and environment. You can fly, breathe underwater, or manifest particular people and places.
In a liminal dream, you straddle the dream world and the waking world. Because you’re not fully asleep, you can generally maintain awareness of your actual physical environment. You can identify where you’re lying, hear the sounds in the room and know what they are, and sometimes even converse with someone.
But in a lucid dream, you’re fully immersed in the dream world, just as in ordinary REM dreams. Your daytime consciousness has managed to penetrate the dream, but remains separate from the circumstances of the waking world. While you can control lucid dreams, at least to some extent, liminal dreams move too fast, present too much material, and are simply too far outside normal experience to be able to reliably manipulate. What you can do is maintain detached awareness of what is happening even as you move deeper into dream space.
Developing this awareness is how some Tibetan Buddhists begin to train for lucid dreaming.
Whereas lucid dreams (like all REM dreams) generally feel like the world, only weirder, liminal dream space doesn’t have the same narrative or environmental structure. In waking life, we all move through the 3D world with our personalities, desires, and thoughts intact. The same holds true in lucid dreams. You’re a self “in here” dealing with a world “out there.”
This condition breaks down in liminal dreams. Though some liminal dream experiences do insert you into a specific—if weird—place, much of the time there’s no storyline, no you, no “world” you move through. Because this experience is so unfamiliar, it is harder to map your everyday experience onto the whirling kaleidoscopic excess of hypnagogia and hypnopompia. I find these experiences vastly stranger than REM dreams. In terms of the exploration of consciousness, liminal dreaming is just more far out.
Most of us need to teach ourselves how to lucid dream. But we’re all natural liminal dreamers. Every day we move through a series of bran wave states marked by EEG. Among those are hypngogia/hypnopompia (though to be fair, some argue about whether hypnopompia should count, or whether it should just be lumped in with hypnagogia). Our ability to naturally move into hypnagogia/hypnopompia can be harnessed to help us move into lucid dreams. The schools of Tibetan Buddhism that teach lucid dream practices knew this to be true, and started the process of learning lucid dreaming by developing facility with liminal dreaming.
Whether you’re interested in liminal dreaming as its own experience or as a bridge to lucid dreaming, these basic exercises can serve as a starting point.
Learning Liminal Dreaming
We all know the feeling of lying in bed at night and drifting off, then feeling an involuntary jolt in our arm or leg. These are called myoclonic jerks, from the Greek myo, which refers to muscle, and clonus, also a Greek word, which means turmoil and which refers to tumultuous motion such as a jerking arm. Unlike the regular patterns of most brain states, hypnagogia creates chaotic, irregular patterns, like ripples, bursts, and flattening. A myoclonic jerk is your body doing a similar thing: jolting and twitching erratically.
You also likely know the experience of trying to stay awake when you’re extremely tired, maybe at the movies or in the passenger seat of the car (hopefully not the driver’s seat, but that happens too), and starting to hallucinate in a minor way. Trying to keep my eyes open in a darkened room at a meditation retreat, I once embarrassed myself enormously by yelping at the large snake that suddenly crawled across my field of vision. In fact, it was a hypnagogic dream snake.
You’ve surely passed through liminal dream space before. But you may not have thought of it as a destination. The following simple exercises will help you identify when you’re there, and help you stay in the space.
It’s easier to teach someone how to discover hypnagogia than hypnopompia. Hypnagogia happens as you fall asleep, which means you have way more opportunities to try it, since you can just lie down for a nap to give it a spin. Although you may have an easier time inhabiting hypnopompia—shout-out to all the late risers, like me, who love to spend a long time in bed in the morning—you have to have been asleep for a while to get there. And some people very rarely even get into hypnopompic states. That probably includes those of you who jump out of bed in the morning, fully awake and ready to start your day.
You can try the following exercises at night when you normally go to bed. Keep in mind, though, that if you try these exercises as you drift off for a long sleep, you probably won’t remember much in the morning about your hypnagogic experiences. You’re likely to remember that it happened, but since you’ll have the experience and then fall asleep, it may remain hazy. That may suit you fine.
It’s totally OK to have an experience just for the sake of having it in the moment. Don’t stress about whether or not you can recall it later, especially if you know you found it interesting as it happened. Once you try accessing liminal dream states more often, you’ll find you remember more of what happens there.
If you fall asleep very quickly, or if you want to try to recall more, you should try these exercises before taking a nap. At the point in the day when your energy dips, lie down on the couch or a bed. If you find you just conk out immediately, try sitting up in a chair. If you prefer to listen to someone lead you through these sorts of exercises, you can go to the practices section of www.liminaldreaming.com and listen to audio of me leading you through the Feedback Loop practice. You can also explore any number of free online yoga nidra exercises, which can get you to the same place.
Feedback Loop (for hypnagogia):
This exercise is about surfing the edge of consciousness, moving back and forth between thought and dream.
1. Lie or sit back and relax your body and mind as much as possible.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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. But over time, this exercise will help you enter hypnagogia more easily, and stay there for long periods of time.
The Vanishing Point (for hypnagogia):
The basic idea here is to try to stay awake long enough to become aware of the very moment when you fall asleep.
1. Lie down and get comfortable. Wait until you already feel sleep tugging at you and then begin.
2. Really pay attention to your thoughts. Monitor what’s happening in your body as your limbs relax and your breathing slows. Move your attention around your limbs and body, relaxing each part in turn. Watch the darkness on your inner eyelids.
3. Follow your drifting mind very attentively. When you start to fall asleep, give yourself some mental juice, as if you’re revving an engine or preparing to watch a movie you have been looking forward to seeing. But, as much as possible, don’t move your body. Keep in mind that you are trying to get to the furthest edge of sleep, so you want to feel relaxed enough that you’re going to nod off at any second.
4. Try to ride the edge of your consciousness as it slips into darkness. As your body relaxes, your mind also drifts off. It’s a fine line, but you may learn to actually become aware of the moment you fall asleep. However, that’s not exactly the point. Before you reach that moment, you may well find yourself in hypnagogic dream space.
It took me a long time to develop the skill to find the vanishing point, but it’s been one of my most rewarding hypnagogic dream producers. I’ve definitely had some of my trippiest dream experiences with this one. Several times, I’ve had the experience of my body falling completely asleep while my mind remains conscious. Fair warning, though: this isn’t a great exercise if you have a hard time falling asleep and aren’t getting enough rest. Trying to retain sharp focus when drifting toward sleep may keep you awake for a bit longer
Using Liminal Dreams to access Lucid Dreams
Some people naturally become lucid in their dreams, beginning at a young age and maintaining the ability their whole lives. Most of us, however, spontaneously have some lucid dreams then have to cultivate the skill, and stay practiced at it, in order to regularly achieve the state. Liminal dreaming is comparatively easy to learn and practice, and can be used to help you achieve lucid dreams. Once you learn how to enter and maintain liminal dream space, however, you may decide you prefer it to lucid REM, as I did.
If you research lucid dreaming, you’ll find several popular induction techniques, or methods for becoming lucid in a dream. These include WBTB (Wake Back To Bed), MILD (Mnemonically Induced Lucid Dream), and Reality Testing. The method I find most successful is called WILD (Waking Induced Lucid Dream), though in some circles it is known as the Hypnagogic Induction Technique.
WILD draws heavily on Tibetan Buddhist dream yoga practices . Both use liminal dreaming as a bridge that allows practitioners to move directly from the waking state through hypnagogia into REM without losing daytime consciousness. This method works best when you already know how to get yourself into a hypnagogic state, so try the liminal dream exercises above, or any of the others provided on the liminal dreaming site or book.
You’ll drastically improve your ability to move from liminal dreams into lucid dreams if you also develop your visualization skills. In some Hindu traditions, practitioners train their imaginations around yantras, visual diagrams that can be something as simple as a triangle inside a circle to extremely complicated designs, like the nine interlocking triangles inside a circle known as the sri yantra. One way to practice your visualization skills is to play with imagining yantras. Visualization techniques abound, however, and any of them will serve this purpose. You want to get good at forming images clearly in your mind. Once you have developed these visualization skills, this exercise will come to you much more easily.
Waking Induced Lucid Dream, or WILD (for hypnagogia):
Most people respond best to doing this method with visual images, although some people have stronger aural senses, and find that sound plays a stronger role in their hypnagogic experiences than vision. If this is true of you, feel free to create soundscapes in your head instead of the visualizations I will emphasize here.
1. Lie down comfortably. Some sources recommend the corpse pose (savasana) from hatha yoga—on your back with your arms away from you at 45 degree angles. This position allows for regular blood flow throughout your body so no limbs go to sleep. I suggest experimenting to find the position that works best for you.
2. Get yourself into a hypnagogic state using the Feedback Loop or the Vanishing Point exercise, or any other liminal dream method. Maintain enough awareness so you can direct your dream state into lucidity.
3. Create some simple visualizations, such as a circle or a triangle. If you have an existing visualization practice, do it. Play around with the picture in your mind’s eye to get the hang of manipulating it. Change its color, brightness, or size. Try moving it around. Bounce it, stretch it, send it rolling, whatever.
4. Visualize a dream environment. If you frequently visit someplace in your dreams, that works well. Try a place you’ve visited in a recent dream, or imagine an exotic place you’ve visited and loved. Picture your setting as clearly as you can.
5. Now insert yourself into your dream setting. Use your faculty of imagination to listen to the sounds or sense the textures of the environment. Is the sun hot on your skin? Can you hear the surf crashing on your dream island? Move around in your dream space and get accustomed to occupying your dream body.
6. As you pass into hypnagogia, maintain your awareness of yourself in this environment. You’ll probably drift away from your visualization. That’s OK. Gently guide yourself back to your dream environment.
7. Eventually, your waking consciousness will use the liminal dream space as a bridge to lead you into a lucid dream. You’ll find yourself in REM, still in the dream environment you created, and still awake.
Lucid dreams generally happen in REM states, which become longer throughout the night. If you want to take advantage of that, you can wake up five hours after you’ve gone to sleep and try this exercise. You might find it easier to slip back into liminal dream space if you don’t wake up fully.
You can also try this exercise with hyponopompia, which occurs as you surface from sleep in the morning. At the end of the night, you usually move from REM into hypnopompia. This creates an ideal circumstance for using WILD to move back and forth between liminal and lucid dreams, since at this point in your sleep the stages you want to bridge naturally occur right next to each other. Surface into hypnopompia without fully waking and take it from step 2.
Liminal dreaming and lucid dreaming are two of the strangest states in the continuity of consciousness. The combination of waking awareness and dream states in both offers an incredible outlook on our own minds, as well as wild and sometimes revelatory experiences.
Liminal and lucid dreaming are by no means exclusionary practices. Indeed, liminal and lucid dreams are intimately connected. Maybe you want to try to use liminal dreaming as a springboard to lucid dreams. Perhaps you’re interested in playing with many different forms of consciousness experimentation as you can get your hands on, or mind on.
Or you might decide, as I did, to concentrate your efforts on liminal dreaming, which some find both easier to access and, in some ways, even more marvelous. But both offer extraordinary experiences.
About the Author
Jennifer Dumpert is a San Francisco-based writer, lecturer, and consciousness hacker. She is the author of Liminal Dreaming: Exploring Consciousness at the Edges of Sleep and the founder of the Oneironauticum, an international organization that explores the phenomenological experience of dreams as a means of experimenting with mind.
She also teaches the practice of Liminal Dreaming—surfing the edges of consciousness using hypnagogic and hypnopompic dream states.