CHAPTER 8: When Sleep Means Death

Search the Internet and you will find all sorts of truly heartbreaking stories of people who fear that they will die if they go to sleep. These troubled insomniacs are frantically searching for answers to the problem. Many of these people have experienced the death of someone close, a friend or family member, and ever since suffered from this malady. Others fear going to sleep for different reasons, so let’s see if what we have learned about hypnagogia and hypnopompia can offer some insight and/or help.

Will the Transition Trek Help?

The most obvious help may well come from normal use of the Transition Trek. Without the trek, when you go to bed and wait for sleep to come, your intellect is in limbo. Your mind has nothing to do but ruminate over your problems and fantasies. This allows all your insecurities to surface, and for some of us that includes the fear of dying if we go to sleep. But the Transition Trek offers something specific for your intellect to concentrate on to keep it from indulging in thoughts of death. If these thoughts do intrude on your trek, do not become overly concerned. Simply direct your thoughts to the trek and continue. I realize that this won’t be easy, particularly at first. But once you have established the trek as your going-to-sleep ritual, it should become your predominate mental process. Your fear will still be there but gently pushed aside by the Transition Trek. If anything in the trek relates to your fear of dying, feel free to change it to something more benign.

Effects of Deafferentation

The deafferentation process mentioned earlier in Chapter 3, which occurs during hypnagogia, may play a part in some people interpreting going to sleep as dying. Scientists believe that Thalamocortical neurons play a part in creating consciousness:

…sleep onset is associated with a massive and radical electrochemical deafferentation [interruption] of the Thalamocortical neurons that are believed to be the critical elements in the origins of consciousness. [“Sleep-Onset Mentation,” by Robert Stickgold and J. Allan Hobson, in Sleep Onset, Normal and Abnormal Processes, edited by Robert D. Ogilvie, PhD and John R. Harsh, PhD, page 142]

Information from the physical senses to the cerebral cortex is blocked by deafferentation, thus the conscious mind is deprived of much of the information from the outside world, which then reduces consciousness. This increases your focus on the psychic senses during hypnagogia and in all probability contributes to the feeling of dying. You are losing touch with your body. The old cliché that describes sleep as being “dead to the world” comes to mind as being a result of deafferentation. The person fearing that sleep means death could be experiencing a powerful emotional response to deafferentation as it deemphasizes the physical body in favor of the psychic body. The physical body is always there, keeping us in this world and is at the ready should it be needed for real-world activity, but for some reason, these people don’t experience it that way. At least, this is one theory.

The Wager

Here is an exercise to bring your fear of death into the real world, and bringing your nightly triumph over death into hypnagogia. Before you go to bed each night, make a bet with yourself that you are going to die in your sleep. Bet one dollar in coins — nickels, quarters, whatever metal money you have available. Lay the money out on the dresser top so you can see it. When you wake the next morning, put that wager that you just lost in a cloth or leather pouch and leave it there on the dresser.

The next and each following night, first open the pouch and look at all the wagers you have lost, and realize how mistaken the feeling was. If you feel that you are going to die that night, put down another dollar in coins. And the next morning when you haven’t died, put those coins in the pouch with all the rest of the money you have lost because you didn’t die. The accumulation of coins will then be a visible real-world verification of how unfounded your fear of impending death really is. Shake the pouch. That jingling is the sound of survival, your triumph over death.

Also, the second and each following night — and this is really important — when in bed with eyes closed, hold the image of that money bag, all that money you lost previously for being wrong about dying, in your mind’s eye for a few seconds. This is the image of survival. Imagine you shake it. Those jingling coins are the sound of survival. All that money is the image of life overcoming death. Imagine you take out one copper coin and bite it. Notice how hard it is. Notice that copper taste. This makes the money real in the imaginary world. Now when you begin the Transition Trek, imagine taking that little money pouch with you tied to a belt at your waist, and as you descend into hypnagogia take notice of the imaginary money bag, its image and jingling sound as you move about, to assuage the fear of dying. In a sense, you are taking real-world proof of your own indomitable life with you into sleep.

The next morning and every morning, you should stand before a mirror, look yourself in the eyes and say, “I am alive.” Then when you go to sleep that night, you must bring that image of yourself in the mirror into your mind’s eye. Realize that you are alive and well in the real world, having survived the previous night’s sleep and all the nights since the day you were born.

Sleep’s Mythic World

To get deeper into this psychological subject, let’s return to the ancient Greek’s perception of the Underworld. In Chapters 6 and 7, we sought the assistance of Greek mythology to help us through the deeper recess of hypnagogia and hypnopompia. I was selective in what I brought forward from that ancient tradition because it is not all fun and games, and the problems we were discussing then warranted that limited approach. To help with this problem, we will need a more detailed definition of the ancient Greek Underworld. The thing to remember is that these personifications of the ancient Greeks are now viewed as related to human psychology. What were once viewed as divine entities are now viewed as psychic entities, i.e., they are psychological forces operating within the deep recesses of the human mind. Therefore, we will also appropriate some concepts from Jungian psychology.

We have already met Hypnos (Sleep), and his mother Nyx (Night), who stood at the beginning of creation. We also encountered Hermes (Guide of Souls in the Underworld and Bringer of Dreams). Dreams are identified as the Tribe of Oneiroi and are all brothers of Hypnos. But now we need to bring forward a couple more. Erebus is Darkness, the deepest part of darkness, and he is a brother of Nyx and uncle to Hypnos. And in particular, we must introduce Thanatos, Death, Hypnos’ brother. Here is the way Hesiod (circa 700 BC) explains this sibling relationship:

And there [Tartarus] the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them [Hypnos] roams peacefully over the earth and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men; but the other [Thanatos] has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him is pitiless as bronze: whomsoever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods. [Theogony, ll. 758-766]

Although Hypnos and Thanatos are brothers and share the same home, they are radically different in nature. The mythic world is deeply buried in what Carl Jung calls the collective unconscious, which includes these ancient Greek mythological figures. But also realize, and I can’t emphasize this enough, that this ancient Greek personification of the sleep world should be viewed as a metaphor for the psychic phenomena we encounter there, and you will need a little coaching to understand its importance and how to interpret it.

When I constructed the first Transition Trek, I ended it at a cave simply as an afterthought. The cave just sort of popped into my head. I had no idea that this was symbolic of the abode of Nyx. Frequently, this is the way inspiration comes to an author, and the ideas that surround such an impulse are frequently fortuitously interconnected with other aspects of the subject. And now we see that the Coastal Transition Trek and the ancient tradition of the Underworld also provide a connection to our current subject. The connection is already in the minds of those who fear dying in their sleep. And we can now see why they might fear sleep because Death resides in this dark world that includes Sleep, Night, Darkness and Dreams. But Death is only one part of that world. The sufferers of this fear of death during sleep may be suffering from getting a glimpse of that dark world and miss interpreted what they saw.

Of course, we all know, and even the people who have the problem know, that sleep isn’t death. Yet they believe it will lead to their own death. Perhaps it isn’t even a belief but an irresistible feeling, a premonition. The emotion overrides the intellect, and my supposition is that it is because of this psychic brotherly connection between Hypnos and Thanatos, which is of course a relationship between two elements of our psyche. Plus, the two live together in the same house in the Underworld, within Tartarus. Frequently those with this malady have lost either a close relative or friend. Someone who has suffered such a dramatic loss has that event on his or her mind or in the back of it continuously, and it may profoundly present itself when they lie down to sleep in the dark, which also has close associations with death.

Figure 8-1 The Three Fates

Here is the good news. All of these ancient entities are subject to three other mythological (psychic) beings, the Incarnations of Destiny. These are the Moirai, or as we have come to call them, the Fates, shown in Figure 8-1. They control the Thread of Life for all mortals from birth to death, and not Thanatos, death himself. Perhaps we should investigate the Fates to see how they might help us understand this issue since they are in the driver’s seat.

So who are the Fates? As just suggested, they are the Incarnations of Destiny. They control the length of our lives and manner of death. They give our lives a sense of inevitability. And in all probability that sense of inevitability has been overridden within people who have developed the sleep problem by coming so close to death, not to their own death but just being in the proximity of another person’s death.

But this is not nearly enough definition of the Fates to fully flesh out their influence. The Fates are three in number. They are Clotho who spins the Thread of Life, Lachesis who measures the length of thread allotted to each person, and Atropos who chooses the manner of each person’s death and cuts the thread. Plato in The Republic provides a concrete image of the Fates at work:

…these are the Fates, daughters of Necessity, who are clothed in white robes and have chaplets upon their heads, Lachesis and Clotho and Atropos, —Lachesis singing of the past, Clotho of the present, Atropos of the future… 

The Fates are then the psychic entities presiding over life and the timing of death and not Thanatos. They are the daughters of Necessity, and they provide our lives with inevitability. Most of us seem to sense the Fates and relinquish control of this basic part of our lives into the hands of Necessity and not to the arbitrariness or contrariness of some sinister being. Just because Thanatos might have gotten a glimpse of us while servicing the soul of someone close to us that doesn’t mean he will now come after us also. That option is left up to the Fates who work solely off of Necessity and inevitability.

After defining the problem within this ancient context, can we find an active solution to the sleep problem? Since the condition is not a reflection of the actual situation, we do have a reasonable chance of correcting it. The solution would seem to be to reconnect the sufferer with that sense of inevitability provided by the Fates. How might we go about that?

The one thing we learned at the beginning of this book is that the mind works most fundamentally from images. It would seem then that the person should investigate the deepest mental images they have of the event that caused their problem, or if it wasn’t caused by a single event, the images associated with the problem. These images are the strongest part of the mechanism powering the mistaken perception, and they constitute the background for hypnagogic activity when trying to go to sleep. When someone lies down to go to sleep, the mental and emotional context with which they enter hypnagogia will in large part determine what they experience there. With death as the context, the results are not going to be comforting. Plus, we know that the background always provokes a response from hypnagogic processes. What seems to be happening, and this could be either confirmed or refuted by the person with the problem, is that hypnagogia is providing images of death. Once those images have been located, they can be identified for exactly for what they are, i.e., as belonging to events solely about someone else and specifically not about them. Once this has been achieved, they can then work at overriding or replacing those images with images concerning the continuation of their own lives.

Personal Experiences

The reason I wanted to address this problem is that I have more that just an intellectual relationship with it. To help shed some light on where I’m coming from, I’ll provide a little information on my own personal experiences that involved death in various ways and have had a profound influence on my emotional life. Let me also say that I do not believe that my problem is as severe as some of those I have read about online. Everyone’s problem is different. But perhaps my experience and how I dealt with it will be of benefit to others.

One night in 1949 when I was eight, my father stepped out the front door of our home and had a fistfight with a man who had come to kill him. It was one of his brothers-in-law. My father beat the man unconscious, but not before he had stabbed my father in the stomach with a pocketknife. My mother put me to bed with me asking if my father was hurt. She said he was fine and to go on to sleep. But I didn’t sleep. I knew my father was dead, and she just didn’t want to tell me. Turns out, my father was alive but had to be rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. He survived, and I visited him a few days later in the hospital. After that, my father kept a pistol under his pillow until one night he almost shot my mother in his sleep, a horror story I overheard frequently. Shortly thereafter, as I mentioned in the Author’s Note, I found my imaginary girlfriend, who helped me get to sleep.

Twelve years later during the summer of 1961, I had just graduated from a two-year college and that fall was to enter the University of California at Berkeley. A friend of mine originally from England came to visit over the summer, and although I’m not at liberty to describe the events in detail here (see my Oedipus on a Pale Horse), my father would not allow my friend to stay there. We quarreled, and I decided to leave home. I walked down the hall to my bedroom to pack my clothes. My father followed after me, and went into his bedroom where he pulled a deer rifle from the closet and started shoving cartridges into it. I was across the hall in full view of him. Then my mother came in and questioned my father about what he was doing with the deer rifle. He said he was going to end it all. He then started crying and unloaded the rifle. My mother closed their bedroom door. I have never known if he was going to kill himself or me, or perhaps both. Him or me? The words have echoed down through the decades.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Later that same summer, the event concerning my English friend escalated. He had been allowed to visit us and, in an act of betrayal, had committed a crime against my family. It involved a death threat my friend made to a member of my family, one so severe that it could have led to his own death. My father and I briefly discussed killing my friend as a fleeting option. But my family weathered the storm and everyone lived through the experience although the authorities deported my friend.

That fall, I enrolled in Berkeley and the events all seemed behind me. Two weeks into the semester, I had dinner with friends and consumed several cups of coffee. Late that evening, I went back to my room, lay down and tried to go to sleep. But every time I closed my eyes, the most grotesque faces I had ever seen came into view, faces of death. For several hours, I tried to calm myself and go to sleep, but it just wasn’t possible. The faces would not go away. I got out of bed and tried to study, but the images of death were still there. I had little doubt that I was going insane. I now realize that these were hypnagogic images with death as a background.

I had an uncle who was paranoid schizophrenic, had spent some time in a mental institution, and I thought that I was headed down the same path. I packed a bag and went home. I dropped out of Berkeley and did not return, although several years later, I did return to university. For the next few decades, I had insomnia and an unusual fear of dying in my sleep, or at least the fear that I would be killed in my sleep.

But that still wasn’t the end of it.

Twenty-five years later, I was working as a liaison on one of NASA’s international projects that would fly on the Space Shuttle, and every fall we took a business trip to Europe. On one of these, I got together a small group, and we hiked hut-to-hut through the Austrian Alps. The second night out, we stayed in a hut (really a big barn-like building with a rustic restaurant) high up in the mountains. We all slept on individual foam-rubber mattresses stacked side-by-side in a loft. The problem, at least it was a problem for me, was that no light at all filtered into the loft. I got to sleep easily enough, but I woke only an hour-and-a-half later (one sleep cycle) realizing that something was terribly wrong with me. I was 7,000 miles from home in a foreign country whose language I did not speak with no family to run to. I didn’t think I would survive the night. I would shine my little flashlight on the boards of the roof when things got unbearable, which was every few minutes. It was that aspect of not being able to see things around me so that I could escape from what was going on inside. Every time I got close to sleep, I would suddenly jerk awake. The blackness was the same whether I had my eyes open or closed. I didn’t go to sleep until 5 am, when sunlight started filtering through the cracks in the building.

Obviously, I was afraid of what was going on during hypnopompia and hypnagogia. But if we take a closer look at what was happening based on the perceptions of the ancient Greeks, we see very specific and powerful references to sleep (Hypnos), night (Nyx), darkness (Erebos), and death (Thanatos). I was in the clutches of this close-knit family from ancient Greek mythology, and my perception was that my life hung in the balance.

Again, I had no idea what had happened. The context was that I had started psychotherapy six months before. This was in 1988. I still hadn’t heard of hypnagogia or hypnopompia, and apparently my psychiatrist hadn’t either because he didn’t mention it when I relayed the experience. He did mention panic attacks, but that didn’t seem to describe the experience either.

Of course, the main therapy topic had been that family crisis, so much so that my psychiatrist once mentioned that the story from the summer of 1961 had become a mythology. He was more of a Freudian therapist and nudged me in the direction of exploring homosexual impulses with my hiking buddies sleeping so close by me. But these were his associations, not mine, and they left me cold and discouraged. If he had been a Jungian therapist, we might have been able to make some progress by pursuing the nature of the sleep world and its influence in light of what had happened to me and avoided the assault on who I am.

The five years of therapy helped in many ways, but I still had problems sleeping. Yet, the fear of death subsided in the years following therapy but the insomnia did not. I began developing additional procedures to help me get to sleep. Among these were counting sheep, trying to hold my eyes open, reciting poetry and ruminating on pleasant topics. All this helped a little but made no significant dent in the problem.

In 1989, I started writing a novel and developed techniques close to sleep that allowed me to be more creative. After five years of therapy, being both helped and hurt by the experience (my doctor warned me that each treatment had its side effects just as does a pill), I ran onto the writings of Carl Jung, and in 2009, twenty-one years after the Alps episode, I started investigating what Jung called, “active imagination,” of which I have spoken before in this book. For the first three years, I practiced active imagination almost every night and many times in the afternoon. I frequently had amazing experiences seeing vivid images and hearing clear voices that I could not explain. They seemed to be something entirely different from what I had come to know as active imagination. And then I ran onto an article on hypnagogia, and it explained everything I had experienced during my creative sessions as well as the images and voices. Once I had familiarized myself with the hypnagogic distractions when going to sleep, I started trying to find a way of minimizing the distractions of hypnagogia and find my way through it to sleep. That is when I came up with the Transition Trek. It has solved every sleep problem I have had since. I am also convinced that it has helped me attain an emotional clarity and stability I have not known since the summer of 1961.

I now realize what had helped me — and the solution came to me through research and intuition — was that I had gradually replace the images of that summer in 1961 with images of the health and vitality of the life I was then and am now living. Plus, and this is really important, I no longer dredge up images and voices that express the trauma of that turbulent summer, or those resonant images from the collective unconscious. Jung tells us that at times trauma resonates with and appropriates from the collective unconscious that which contains all the agony experienced by humanity from time immemorial. We don’t need that weight on our shoulders, and the Transition Trek helps avoid appropriating that ancestral baggage during hypnagogia. Of course, we can never get completely away from what we have experienced, and we still have dreams that can waylay us with echoes of our most traumatic times. But dreams are where they belong and not in hypnagogia where the intellect is still very much active and where hypnagogia can contaminate it.

However, at night before I go to sleep, I do still have times when I tie up some of my life’s loose ends just in case I die in my sleep. I have at times, when I’m in the middle of a major writing project, caught myself whispering, “I hope I can finish this before I die.” I have been doing that for forty-five years.

More Recommendations

Sometimes it is advantageous to reconstruct the troublesome event or actually type out a narrative of what happened. You should lie back and type with your eyes closed, perhaps with a sleep mask, to see what images you can recover of the experience that provoked the death fear. Put the images into words. Chances are they are not dormant images, but very active and maintaining all the energy of the original scene.

When you get into bed and start to work the Transition Trek, first notice how you fear sleep. Remember that you don’t actually experience the act of going to sleep but seem to disappear from the face of the earth to reappear in dreams. I notice this apprehension many times when I use the Transition Trek, and it is still a little concerning but not nearly enough to prevent sleep. As we learned earlier, the ancient Greeks realized how much sleep is like death. Honor that kinship. But at the same time recognize the difference. If you have siblings, you know how remarkable those differences can be. Sleep isn’t death any more than you are your brother or sister. Envision the three Fates working with the thread of your life. Envision how they measure it out beyond the next day and had for every evening that you thought you were going to die but didn’t. Realize that tonight is just the same as all those other nights when you feared death, but it didn’t happen. Then start your sleep breathing and carry it, so to speak, into sleep with you. This is the breath of life, not death.

What is most important as you do all of this is that you specifically create images of these events I’m asking you to envision. Concentrate on those images. See the Fates providing more and more length to your thread of life. This is their process. It keeps getting longer and longer and seems to go on forever. Then start the Transition Trek.

When I created the Coastal Transition Trek, I didn’t envision any part of it being about death. But after we swim the lake, climb the cliff and traverse the meadow, we enter a cave, which in ancient times was where they buried the dead. But we also realize that the cave is where Nyx, the mother of Hypnos and Thanatos, lives and gives oracles. In our cave, we find nourishment and much needed sleep. Plus, our cave has an exit in the far back that leads to Slumberland.

I wrote the scenario for the Coastal Transition Trek at night just before sleep over the period of a couple of months. I tried several different scenarios that didn’t work. Some actually seemed to hurt the prospects of going to sleep and made me uncomfortable. But when this one finally worked, it was like magic. Several months later I wrote the other Transition Treks.

How can hypnopompia help? 

If you wake during the night, take this as an opportunity to realize that you have just survived at least one sleep cycle. But carry it even further and since you have just come from REM, try to remember your most recent dream. If you can, try to reenter the dream and play with it. Celebrate having survived ninety minutes of sleep.

When you first start to wake the next morning, but while still in hypnopompia, take stock of what happened during the night. Ruminate over your dreams, if you can remember them. Be aware of how eventful the night actually was. Bring it to life. You didn’t just fade off into oblivion for eight hours. You dreamed, you tossed and turned. Perhaps you got up and went to the bathroom and afterward had to get back to sleep. Did you have the same feelings of impending death when you tried to go back to sleep? Did you use the Transition Trek?

Remember that hypnopompia is an excellent state in which to solve problems. It has all the creative and problem-solving skills of hypnagogia, but it is also your direct verification that you survived sleep while still very close to it.

Chapter 9: Agony of Choice