The following is an edited extract from chapter2 of my book ‘Waking Dreams’:
Everyone is imaginative. To imagine is an innate ability that can be enhanced with the appropriate care and attention. What creates the belief of not being an imaginative person is usually the assumption that imagining is a kind of alternate realm separated from normal everyday life—a fantastical, three-dimensional, virtual reality with dancing dolphins in surround-sound stereo—only available to special “creative types”.
But this view only directs attention away from discovering a realistic experiential understanding of what it actually means to imagine, a crucial first step towards recovering and enhancing imaginative life. This first in the series of Waking Dream chapters, therefore, begins with a clarification of the quality of imaginal perception needed to enter a waking dream—both the conventional “eyes-closed” variety and the novel “eyes-wide-open” application in generic psychotherapy and everyday life.
The psychological term for imaginal perception in a waking dream is a Hypnagogic State. Derived from the Greek hypnos (sleep) and agogeus (guide) it was coined in the early 19th century by French psychologist L.F. Alfred Maury during his studies on wakefulness within the dream state, such as can happen spontaneously for a few moments, either upon falling asleep or waking up, when there is the awareness of being in a dreamscape alongside a recognition that we are also safely tucked up in bed.1
In a normal dream there is only a single awareness, one of being in a dreamworld that convinces us entirely that it is the only reality; whereas, in the hypnagogic state of a waking dream, there is a dual awareness where, as the Jungian therapist Robert Bosnak writes, “you participate in two equally true realities simultaneously: the world that is imagined and [the physical world]”.2
The hypnagogic state is the quality of perception that occurs in the overlap of imagined and physical realities, a threshold consciousness in between waking and dreaming, hence a “waking dream”. A hypnagogic overlap of imaginal and physical that we can see in the working definition, established in chapter 1, of imagination as “the perception of images arising in between self and world”. To imagine is synonymous with the in-between overlap of the imaginal and physical.
My viewing of The Bedroom painting by Van Gogh, which I used in chapter 1 to illustrate this imaginal, is an example of being in a hypnagogic state: the imagined world of the painting coexisted alongside an awareness of it as a physical image on a laptop screen in the same way that a dreamworld can coexist or overlap with an awareness of lying in a physical-world bed. To view a painting is not to disappear into the single awareness of an entirely imagined alternate reality, like the scene in Mary Poppins where they jump into the pavement chalk painting. The imagined world of The Bedroom with its cooling breeze passing through the green-tinged window overlapped with an awareness of street-traffic noises coming through my physical world window.
Viewing a painting is just one example; all the arts are hypnagogic. The imagined reality conjured by a photograph, movie, or novel overlaps with the physically sensed reality of the photographic print, movie screen, or text. When a long-forgotten song is played on the kitchen radio (physical reality) and takes me back in time to the events of a teenage summer romance (imagined reality) this is again a hypnagogic state, an evocation of memory that is a key component of any psychotherapy, in which the events of the past (imagined reality) overlap with the awareness of sitting on a comfy chair opposite a therapist (physical reality).
Indeed, how a client perceives a therapist—the story they tell themselves about the therapist’s thoughts and feelings and life beyond the consulting room—is an imagined reality that overlaps with the posture, gestures, facial expression, and tone of voice in the physically sensed therapist. In all these ways and more, the hypnagogic state can be seen in everyday life. All we need do is learn to notice and let it grow.
The practice of waking dreams is one way to notice the hypnagogic state. While spontaneous waking dreams on the threshold of sleep usually don’t last very long, the practical conditions and skills needed for an extended exploration can be cultivated.
We begin to do this in the following exercise exploring the hypnagogic state present in any memory. The aim is to give an experiential taste of this subtle imaginal perception by remembering your bedroom, or any other place whose details can be easily recalled. The instructions build up a 360-degree assemblage of imaginal details, as a writer might describe a scene in a novel. In order to avoid drifting off into a daydream, the sensations of breathing are used to maintain the hypnagogic overlap between the physical breathing body in the present and the imaginal memories from the past. I suggest you read through the instructions and then first do the exercise as an “eyes-closed” waking dream. With practice, you will be able to sustain an increased imaginal awareness for longer periods that will carry over into “eyes-wide-open” waking dreams.
Exercise: Waking Dream Memory
Sit comfortably in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
Spend a few moments attending to the physical sensations of breathing: the rise and fall of your chest; how long or short each breath is; the slight pause between each breath.
Continue to follow your breathing as you now also imagine standing in your bedroom, looking out the window.
Notice what you see through the window: any objects or movements that attract your attention; the quality of light, the weather etc.
Notice any sounds and how warm or cold it is to stand beside the window.
Allow the colours, shapes, textures, and sounds to become ever clearer.
Now very slowly, imagine turning to face into the bedroom.
Notice any items that particularly attract your attention in the room; whether the bed is made or unmade; whether the door to the hallway is open or closed; any sounds or smells.
Allow your breath to help you focus on the images.
Allow the colours, shapes, textures, and sounds to become ever clearer as you simultaneously notice your feelings and thoughts about the bedroom.
Take your time and finish the exercise when you are ready.
1. Gary Lachman, Lost Knowledge of the Imagination (Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 2017), 96
2. Robert Bosnak, A Little Course In Dreams (Berkeley, CA: Shambala, 1986), 44