Most of us have experienced it: you are in your bed, awake, but completely unable to move, terrified, seemingly for ages. You can see your surroundings but sometimes you can see other things as well, in a kind of half-dreaming, half-awake awareness of your body but no way to control it. This is called sleep paralysis. It affects many, some far worse than others, and it can be an obstacle to approaching the question of lucid dream practices. Yet, there are ways of understanding and overcoming this perfectly natural event.
The brain during sleep paralysis is very similar to the brain while in REM sleep, and occurs either upon going to sleep or upon awakening, when the body is still paralyzed as in REM sleep, but the person is awake. Often the experience of sleep paralysis causes overwhelming fear, made all the more terrifying by the fact that one cannot move a muscle. Many cultures in the world have personified sleep paralysis as some kind of entity, malign and menacing, that sits on a person’s chest sometime during the course of sleep. In almost every language, the word for sleep paralysis usually means something akin to pressing on something, or “that which presses one down in sleep,” either a ghost, demon, or other creature.
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How They Are Different
Sleep paralysis is kind of like the dark twin of lucid dreaming. Sleep paralysis is lucid but with the sensation that something heavy and cold is sitting on one’s chest, or similarly restraining, with no ability to do anything about it. With lucid dreaming one gains the ability, after exploration and practice, to affect any change they want in their environment, to seek whatever they desire, and to learn from the experiences and bring them back to normal, waking life. One is coerced, dominating, oppressive. The other is self-induced, liberating, uplifting.
Many of us experience lucid dreaming when we are going to sleep, or when we are waking from a dream, or re-entering a dream. These are also the times when many people experience sleep paralysis, an occurrence anyone would like the ability to overcome. The most important thing, as with every psychic event, is to try and understand why it is happening to us. Is there anything that has been bothering us, scaring us, stressing us? If we can try to divine some kind of cause for these experiences, we can neutralize them to a great degree, and deal with our problems more directly and viscerally.
What We Can Do
A way for a person who is suffering from regular bouts of sleep paralysis to begin to understand and overcome this obstacle is to practice, mindfully and patiently, various methods of basic lucid dreaming techniques. These techniques allow us to grasp more awareness and control over our state when we are dreaming, and therefore to understand our waking lives and what issues are most important for us to embrace and resolve.
If we can get more into the habit of attaining degrees of lucidity while dreaming or daydreaming, it becomes possible to use the same mental skills accumulated through this practice in order to counter the occasional visitation of the darkness pressing down on us during sleep paralysis. If we remember that internal experiences always happen for a reason, then every time we try to understand them, we are looking into the mirror and trying to understand ourselves. Through practicing to dream lucidly, we gain a lever of control over nightmarish experiences, and have a place from which to bravely face them, learn from them what we must, and banish them. This brings an increased level of calm and a feeling of being more in control of things in one’s life, of more courage, and of more insight.