Most people experience isolated sleep paralysis [ISP] at least once in their lives. This peculiar conscious vision state occurs at the boundaries of sleep, when we feel aware and awake. Sudden feelings of paralysis in bed — can’t move, can’t scream — give way to a terrifying encounter with a shadowy figure in the bedroom. Sometimes the figure materializes — the Stranger — who may sit on the side of the bed or on your chest, and breath its putrid breath into your face as it glares with glowing red eyes. This phenomenon is known around the world by different names. The Hag Effect. Ghost oppression. Supernatural assault. The Succubus.
In the West, no term has survived of this physiological state (SP) and its attendant hypnagogic visions. On this point, medical anthropologist and sleep paralysis expert David Hufford said in an interview in the 2008 documentary Your Worst Nightmare, “We have erased knowledge of these experiences from the cultural repertoire while these experiences are continuing to happen. That’s dramatic. That’s a level of social control that’s very impressive.”
But these negative manifestations are only one side of the coin. When isolated sleep paralysis is encountered with courage and intention, other doors open. New kinds of mythological creatures emerge. Some can be benign, and even helpful. This excerpt from my ebook Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer’s Guide explores these other kinds of meetings and journeys that are possible once the dreamer/visionary is ready to meet the SP encounter with open eyes and an open heart.
In Chapter 4 of the book, the ‘terrorizing Stranger’ is demystified as a visionary figure amplified by fear and distrust. However, this does not mean that is all it can be. When positive feelings of love, acceptance, and trust are focused upon these apparitions, they can transform into comforting presences that are literally the stuff of legend. At other times, the apparition may keep its original form, but become more communicative and less threatening when we become more accessible. Nature reflects the face turned towards it.
Rather than menacing black dogs, you may find your loved childhood pet. Instead of a creepy old hag, you may receive advice from a venerable wise woman. Succubi give way to pixies and aliens to angels. Let’s review some of the classic manifestations that occur when we swallow our fears.
Visitations of the Dead
Of all the non-threatening ISP encounters, seeing and talking with a deceased person is one of the most common. The figure may sit on the side of the bed and radiate warmth and love, or he or she may have some questions for you. The encounter can happen immediately after the person has passed away, or it could be years later. Furthermore, the ghost may manifest as someone you don’t know, a figure from an earlier age.
It’s important to realize that, psychologically-speaking, the dead do not emerge for the same “reasons.” Robert Moss, author of The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead, suggests that the spirits may have messages for dreamers, or the spirits may themselves be looking for information. Sometimes they may have messages to pass on. And of course, making contact with the dead can be cathartic if you have something to tell them that you never had the chance to say. There is a real opportunity for closure and forgiveness.
One night in July 1961, Mr. Ishida, a chief mechanic, had a dream of a sailor while he was sleeping in a dormitory room at Tsuiki Air Force Base, Kitsuki County.Tsuiki Airforce Base, Fukuoka Prefecture, was a commando-type air force base during World War II. The sailor wore a uniform and said he had been killed by being caught in a spinning airplane propeller. While he was dreaming, Mr. Ishida felt a heavy weight in his breast and couldn’t move an inch, though he struggled to. Mr. Ishida examined the history of this air force base and learned that there had been such an accident in the past.
Whether or not you believe that this vision is “physically real,” there is no doubt that these experiences can be healing and restorative, if not for you personally, than perhaps in service to others, or your culture at large. For those wishing to investigate ghost hauntings and sacred sites through the lens of SP/HH, a high level of empathy is necessary to witness the vision without overlaying it with our own fear projections.
Historical accounts of angel visions sound suspiciously like sleep paralysis/hypnagogic (SP/HH) encounters, suggests consciousness researcher J.A. Cheyne. Some of these tales are hidden in our oldest and most trusted sources. In Genesis 32:24-32, for example, Jacob “wrestles a man until daybreak.” Finally, Jacob shows he is not afraid by asking to be blessed. The figure blesses him and Jacob later interprets the experience as a meeting with an angel of the Lord. Many people have described SP as “wrestling with ghosts,” and the fact that Jacob had this meeting until daybreak is a tempting signal that he was asleep when the encounter occurred.
Cheyne also notes that the Muslim prophet Muhammad had some visitations that resemble sleep paralysis visions. Religion scholar Karen Armstrong describes this famous account:
“Muhammad was torn from sleep and felt himself enveloped by a devastatingly divine presence … he said that an angel had appeared to him and given him a curt command: ‘Recite!’” When Muhammad refused, “the angel simply enveloped him in an overpowering embrace so that he felt as if all the breath was being squeezed from his body.” Finally, after three terrifying embraces, Muhammad relents and recites a new poem. This is the beginning of the Qur’an––also known as the Koran––which means “the Recitation.”
Eighteenth Century scientist and Christian mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg also wrote about angel visitations with whom he had lengthy philosophical conversations. These visitations came at night, in dreams and visions. While the connection of SP to Swedenborg is probable, as he writes of wrestling demons in his personal dream journal, he was undoubtedly a master of hypnagogia, as he wrote about how to induce vision states that “come in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness.”
As David Hufford reminds us, many people believe in spirits even after they learn about the physical correlates to these visions. This disconnect may have historical roots. After all, science as an enterprise has stayed out of the question of meaning and subjectivity ever since the Enlightenment, when the Church threatened death to scientists who committed heresy by opining on their turf. This is, no doubt, why even Rene Descartes kept his dream journal a lifelong secret. Rationally speaking, SP/HH is where mystics have visions, the religious encounter God, and where seekers of all kinds can communicate with uncanny sources of wisdom.
Dream researcher Robert Van De Castle uses the phrase “Internalized Self Helper” for these archetypal characters that clearly have something to teach us. Whether you believe divinity comes from within or from beyond, these otherworldly dream figures want to help, and SP/HH seems to be a way to communicate with them. Trust and listen carefully.
The Guided Journey
When the Stranger comes and you are not afraid, sometimes there is another opportunity: to go with the apparition on a guided dream journey. You may suddenly find yourself flying over a forest with this guardian figure or transported to a great castle where you meet a king or queen. Or you may descend into a cave beneath the earth of your present sleeping location and meet indigenous-looking peoples who are just as curious about you as you are about them. These encounters are unforgettable and can be life changing.
Here is an example of a guided journey I had several years ago. I was sleeping in the room of my fiancée’s grandmother, a woman whom I’d never met nor knew much about.
I wake up in the bedroom and feel a presence in the room. Then I feel the presence sit down on the bed next to me. I am frightened and then I remember that my fiancée’s grandmother died in this room. I relax, no longer threatened, but still a little nervous. I then see an older woman standing in front of me. She is clasping a ream of papers in front of her chest. She communicates to me that she’s been doing research and has been writing stories. She doesn’t speak this; it’s just an understanding. She seems excited. I say to her, “Show me,” and I instantly melt through the bed and am now flying through a vast misty space. I then see the earth is far below me, and I move through more layers of clouds. I’m flying but not in control—it’s like I’m being brought here. The mists clear and I see I am flying over a glowing red ocean of lava. Then more mists, and I fall through the sky for a long time. I stay open to the experience: I cannot see but I trust as best I can. Below me now is an ocean with blue rolling waves. I land in the ocean and tread water. The sea is active with big waves, and a storm is approaching…. I wake up.
I told the dream over breakfast the next day to my fiancée’s parents. Her mother got very quiet when I mentioned the ream of papers. After I finished, she told me that her mother was, in fact, a writer in her youth but had to give up her dream of being a writer to raise a family. She had often spoken of all the stories in her head that she had never written down. Maybe, this was just a coincidence. Then again, unusual coincidences, or synchronicities, like this seem to happen a lot around SP visitations.
Recommendations for Guided Journeys
In my own guided journey, when I said, “Show me,” the encounter quickly became a lucid dream journey. It was effortless on my part because that’s where the dream-vision wanted to go. That is the key to a successful journey: not forcing it but going with the flow.
I recommend a guided journey only if you truly trust the visitation figure. Trust first, but be discerning. Of course, this is a dream, and since you have the power to keep your fear at bay, you also always have the power to wake up when you want. All of the dream-waking techniques from Chapter 1 are at your disposal.
Stay emotionally grounded. In the dream above, I needed to “check in” with myself on several occasions and find my trust. This “inner knowledge” of confidence will keep you grounded no matter how high you fly above the earth and all the heavens.
Once you awaken, write down the account as soon as possible. In particular, try to recall the exact words that the guide said to you. Let the dream rest for a few days, and then, take a look at the account again. What was discovered? Where did the guide take you? What did you take away that you did not have before?