Sleep Paralysis–what kind of experience is it?

Have you ever had a dream experience in which you were convinced that you were awake, but you could not move or make a sound?

This experience is often referred to a ‘sleep paralysis’. It’s not the same for everybody, but several of the following characteristics are often present:

  • a feeling of not being able to move
  • a feeling of not being able to call out or speak
  • a sensation of being held down, or having something heavy on the chest
  • a sense that there is a ‘presence’ in the room, or just outside it
  • a confusion about whether one was awake or asleep during the experience
  • the setting is often the place where one is actually sleeping, which contributes to the shockingly ‘realistic’ sensation.

What is happening in these experiences? Sleep researchers believe that, on a physiological level, the experience of sleep paralysis is caused by a problem in the mechanism that is responsible for transitioning us between the states of sleeping and wakefulness. We all possess the ability to ‘turn off’ our bodily movements while we are sleeping and dreaming, a phenomenon known as REM muscle atonia. If this were not the case, we would be enacting the movements of our dreaming bodies and things could get quite chaotic in bed! If we imagine this ability to be like a ‘switch’ that moves us between the asleep position and the awake position, then sleep paralysis could be understood as this switch being stuck in an intermediate position– we are neither asleep or awake, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say we are in a non-ordinary state where we are asleep and awake at the same time.

If we look at it this way, sleep paralysis is not just an unfortunate physiological glitch; perhaps it is potentially something much more significant. Medical anthropologist David Hufford drew wide attention to the phenomenon of sleep paralysis in the 1980’s. His research revealed something fascinating– sleep paralysis shared something in common with other non-ordinary experiences, including visitation dreams from dead loved ones and OBE’s (out of body experiences). All these experiences are associated with what he calls: ‘REM intrusions into wakefulness’. In other words the REM (rapid eye movement) state, typical of the sleeping and dreaming mind, is happening during the awake state. The two states, normally kept quite separate and distinct, are overlapping to create a third, non-ordinary, state.

What can happen in this third state? In Hufford’s 2005 article ‘Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience’ he makes the case that sleep paralysis can, potentially at least, be a gateway to a profound spiritual encounter. This is what I have experienced in my own dreamworking practice. The ‘sense of a presence in the room’ (which occurs in approximately 50% of sleep paralysis episodes) is exactly that–an opportunity to encounter a presence of some kind.

Unfortunately, for most people who experience sleep paralysis, the ‘presence’ generates so much fear that the encounter cannot happen, or if it does happen, it is experienced only as a tormenting nightmare. But…does this need to be the case? In working with sleep paralysis episodes, I have found that the work tends to be plagued by the very same problems that arise when working with other frightening dreams– there is too much fear and not enough awareness. If we can manage to change these, then the stage can be set for the kind of spiritual encounter that Hufford describes.

Several years ago I worked with a woman in her 40’s, who suffered from frequent recurring episodes of sleep paralysis, so disturbing that she dreaded going to sleep. In these episodes two genderless ghosts would enter her bedroom and begin to destroy it, while she lay frozen and terrorized in her bed. Our work together (described fully in my book Dreamworking, p.345) consisted of imaginally re-entering this dreamscape (if indeed it was a dream) and changing the two critical factors– increasing the awareness and reducing the fear. After a few sessions, and several more practice sessions done on her own, the episodes began to change. The setting (her actual bedroom) and the narrative (a presence entering the room) remained similar, but the feeling evolved steadily from terror, to curious apprehension, to fascination, and finally to a sense of a divine encounter with a glowing female Buddha figure.

I believe that a similar kind of evolution could happen for many sufferers of sleep paralysis, if only the conditions can be created for a fully embodied and proactive encounter with ‘the presence’. So, if you are having experiences like these, try changing yourself from a sleep paralysis sufferer to a sleep paralysis explorer. Go back into one of your episodes, using your imagination while fully awake. If you can change the fear level and the awareness level, then you may be able to change the entire experience.

I will be doing a presentation on sleep paralysis on Wed Feb 17th2021, from 7-9 pm, as part of The Toronto Dreamers Meetup series. After a short introduction we will be doing some dream sharing, and you will have a chance to hear and share some real examples of this fascinating phenomenon. If you are interested in joining us check out the events page on my website for more info.  

–Christopher Sowton

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