Thursday, April 4, 2013

Adventures in Sleeping

Dreams are funny things. Someone declares, "You all have to hear about this dream I had last night!" And then everyone listens in rapt attention as the person describes an experience that they themselves didn't really have.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dream
The dream is something our own brain conjured up. I mean, we don't make everyone listen to what we day-dream. (And in many cases, of course, we dare not tell others about them.) But if you dream something, you really do feel you experienced something transcendent. It's no wonder the ancients attached such importance to them, believing dreams to be messages from another realm.

When I was quite young I first experienced the phenomenon of lucid dreaming. The first time it happened, I was in a dream and suddenly came to the realization that it wasn't real, that it was a dream. What's strange about this is that even talented and prolific lucid dreamers still continue to have non-lucid dreams in which all manner of crazy things could happen, dogs turning into cats, etc, and the dreamer just kind of goes along with it without suspecting it's a dream at all.

I recently learned that another experience I have had since childhood was related to lucid dreaming. I stumbled upon an article by Christopher French in which he discusses sleep paralysis and how it relates to certain usually disturbing hallucinatory experiences. Prof. French is a partner in the Sleep Paralysis Project, directed by Carla MacKinnon. It is a "short film and cross platform research project exploring the phenomenon of sleep paralysis."

I can vividly remember the first time I had a bout of sleep paralysis. I was in 6th grade, trying to go to sleep, when suddenly I felt as if something had seized me and was holding every cell of my body in its grip. I tried with all my might to break out of it and could not. When finally I was able to shake this off, I went to sleep and slept normally. 

But the experience would continue to happen with some regularity into my adulthood. I would always, often with difficulty, break out of it before then proceeding to normal sleep. I was also, perhaps once a week or so, experiencing lucid dreaming of the sort where you start in a dream and come to the awareness that it is a dream.

One night, just a few years ago, I decided to conduct an experiment. Rather than fight the paralysis, I stayed in it to see what would happen. I mean, I guess I knew it wasn't going to kill me. I just assumed it was some sort of brain chemistry matter connected to fatigue. As it onset, I just tried to relax. It held me strongly but after a few minutes I felt it fading into the background. I then sensed I could move again. I lifted the bedsheets from my body and stood up next to the bed. And then I suddenly knew--I wasn't really standing at all. In fact, I could see myself still in bed. I was in a lucid dream that chose as its starting point the actual location of my sleeping body.

Now, some people might assert that what I'm describing is an out-of-body experience. I don't personally believe in that phenomenon. I believe that my experience is a by-product of sleep paralysis, which is, in essence, the phenomenon of having your body fall asleep with your conscious mind staying awake. And since my conscious mind is aware that my body is in bed, my brain chooses every time to set me loose from that exact spot.

Since the first time this happened, it has only increased dramatically in frequency. I have had stretches where I experience this, sometimes more than once a night, for seven days in a row. I do not remember the last time a week passed without it happening at least once.

And every time it starts exactly the same way. My body seizes in paralysis. I wait until I feel I can move again, then I get out of bed and head out into the adventure of that lucid dream.

I live in a house with my bedroom on the second floor. In the lucid dream, my upstairs is always identical to the real world, but I still always know I'm in a dream. I once took a shower in the lucid dream just to see if my brain would really be able to replicate the experience. I half didn't expect the water to come out when I turned the handle. But it did and I marveled at my brain's ability to match all the sensations associated with something so complex as hot water in a shower.

Going downstairs is where I invariably find things are out of the ordinary. First off, I do Crossfit, which means I'm always sore in the morning. But when I feel no soreness descending the stairs, it's further confirmation that just my mind is
My childhood home in Wisconsin
involved. Very often what happens is that I descend the stairs only to find myself in the living room of the house I grew up in back in Wisconsin. Sometimes my late parents are there. Sometimes, and this is very bizarre, while I know I'm in a lucid dream, I don't remember that they've both passed away. I'll talk to them for a bit before then deciding to explore outside the house. Other times I do know they've passed away. And in those dreams they also know they're dead. In those dreams, of course, I don't leave the house. I spend as much time with them as I can. I may not believe in out-of-body experiences, but I'd at least like to hope that perhaps, while I'm in that liminality between consciousness and sleep, that I am interacting with their eternal essence.

When I do go out the front door, that's the point at which limitless changes emerge. I've walked out the door and into every place I've ever lived.
Me in Iraq, September 2004
(With the sole exception of Iraq. I was there back in 2004 and since leaving, for some reason I have never once dreamed about being there. I would have expected the exact opposite.) Last night I left my house and found myself trudging through a foot of snow. I was barefoot and it was cold, but since I knew it was a dream, I kept forging ahead until I spontaneously woke up

Other people are relatively rare in my lucid dreams. Except for the possible visit with my parents in the house, once outside, I may go an entire dream without seeing another person. And I don't tend to interact with them when they do appear, since I know it's a dream. Only rarely have I encountered a force that seemed malevolent (such as other people frequently encounter with sleep paralysis). And even then, since I know it's a dream, they don't concern me much.

The length of these lucid dreams can vary wildly. Sometimes I haven't left my upstairs and I feel it just slip through my fingers and I'm fully awake in my bed. I can frequently jump right back in, the sleep paralysis returns, rinse, repeat. Other times the lucid dream can continue for what seems like hours. In one recent case, I was flying around as if I were Superman (a frequent source of entertainment for lucid dreamers). As I flew, I spotted the moon in the sky. And I decided to see if I could fly there. For what seemed to be hours I was flying through space as the moon slowly grew larger and larger. When finally I reached it, I didn't make a good landing, I tumbled and skidded on the rocky surface. And I stood on the moon and looked back at the earth. I explored just a bit there and decided, rather than fly all the way back, to just wake up.

I know that people who have never had a lucid dream envy those who have. But in my case it's so frequent, and at this point so predictable and similar, that it's as much a curse as a blessing. I sure hope that the REM sleep I'm getting in a lucid dream is restorative to my brain, because, if it's not, for as fun as it can be, I sometimes really just wish I could get a good night's sleep. One time recently, I went outside in my lucid dream and I sat down on a park bench. There was no one around. It was really quite boring. I stretched out on the bench and closed my eyes, wondering if I could actually go to sleep within this lucid dream. No such luck. I was already asleep.