The hypnagogic state is a peculiar sensory experience that marks the onset of sleep. Also known as hypnagogia, it can include a mesmerizing array of visions, sounds, bodily sensations and insights as you sail through the borderland state.
Most people will be familiar with the geometric imagery of hypnagogia as they fall asleep at night, or simply remain quietly aware during meditation. This can evolve into the sight of familiar faces, landscapes, voices and even music.
As the increasingly complex patterns flow across your field of vision, you feel drawn into the hypnotic hypnagogic state which, with focus, can be manipulated at will. What many people don't realize (because they fall asleep) is that imagery can lead directly to the dream state and, for our purposes, lucid dreams.
The terms hypnagogic (sleep onset) and hypnopompic (awakening) were created in the 1800s. Hypnos is Greek for sleep; while agogeus means guide. It is so named because it is most intense as you switch between phases of sleep and wakefulness.
The hypnagogic state can summon an array of senses, and is by no means limited to visuals. Auditory hypnagogia range from household noises like phones ringing, to music, to voices calling your name, to the loud buzzing noise associated with the onset of an Out of Body Experience. What's more, physical hypnagogia can cause you to feel as if you are floating outside of your body.
While some people consider hypnagogia to be meaningless activity of the brain - a way of clearing out unwanted junk - others believe it has more value. Just like lucid dreams, hypnagogia can be consciously guided and interpreted as it happens, forging a basic two-way communication with the unconscious mind. Therefore, on one level hypnagogia is a way of leading us into the dreamstate.
Scientists have linked the hypnagogic state with NREM sleep, pre-sleep alpha waves, REM sleep and relaxed wakefulness. There is a theory that regular meditation can enable you to develop a skill to freeze the hypnagogic process at later and later stages. And from personal experience, hypnagogia can be extremely helpful in deepening the meditative state required for wake-induced lucidity.
Although it is most commonly associated with sleep, you can observe some mild hypnagogia right now, even though you are mentally alert and awake. Close your eyes and cup your palms over your eye sockets (without actually touching your eyeballs). Focus on the middle distance. What do you see?
At first there may be an afterimage from the glare of the computer screen, but then you should see some faint visuals in the darkness like holographic wallpaper lining your eyelids. They will typically appear as static, geometric patterns which intensify a little when you direct your focus towards them.
For more exercises like this one, do check out How to Visualize.
Observing and interacting with the hypnagogic state as you drift to sleep is one way of entering a lucid dream on demand. The most powerful technique is known as a Wake Induced Lucid Dream, which in some circles is known as the Hypnagogic Induction Technique because hypnagogia plays such an important role.
To begin, lay quietly in a darkened room as if you are going to sleep. (An even better starting point is any time you wake up in the night, already relaxed.) Allow your eyes to close naturally and observe the darkness. The goal is to relax deeply and convince your brain that you are trying to go to sleep. The challenge, however, is to quiesce your mind just enough (no mind chatter) while holding onto a thin strand of awareness.
For me, focused hypnagogia often begins with amorphous blobs of color slowly moving through my field of vision. Then they shape up into more interesting patterns. I then visualize new forms for my hypnagogia to take - by "willing" the visuals to form shapes with increasing complexity.
With practice, you will learn how to evolve these moving shapes into people and places, which helps dictate the nature of your upcoming lucid dream. At some point, your dreaming mind will take over, introducing new imagery from beyond your field of vision. I'd liken this to recalling a memory. The sensation and emotions and visual recall come to mind, from somewhere beyond the projected imagery.
And so the lucid dream begins...
If you remained aware, you will find yourself in a lucid dream. To be a true WILD, there is no lapse in consciousness. (You may lose awareness for a few moments, then remember you are dreaming. This is more aligned with a Dream Initiated Lucid Dream or DILD.)
Depending on your state of mind when the hypnagogic state began, it can take as little as a few seconds to turn the visuals into a lucid dream. Or it can take 20-30 minutes. After this length of time, it is a judgment call whether to keep going. If you are starting to feel restless, then it's time to stop. If you feel dreamy and sleepy, by all means keep going.
The hypnagogic-WILD method is a compelling way to explore the realm between consciousness and sleep. You will discover deep relaxation, trippy visuals, clarity of thought, stress-relief and new insights.
Some people find it difficult to master at first. Usually the hardest part is making the transition from simply observing the complex hypnagogia to interacting with the dream. However, it is worth practicing because this also serves as a powerful form of meditation which in itself aids lucid dreaming on many levels.
I've discussed multiple techniques on this site in which the hypnagogic state plays a role. To learn more, check out: