Some Thoughts on Sleep Paralysis

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Sleep paralysis is one of those uncanny phenomena that people like to explain away by saying that it has a scientific explanation. In fact, it doesn’t. It is recognized by science, and – science being science – it is assumed to be a brain event that is not yet fully understood. Which I’m sure is true. That doesn’t mean it is only a brain phenomenon, or that this is the only way to regard it.

This kind of categorical thinking is a fallacy committed by practically everyone. To illustrate: the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about “language games.” A religious person is playing a language game with a certain set of rules and goals; a scientist is playing another. When they try to communicate, they will each seem to speaking nonsense to the other, because the rules of the games they are playing are not shared between them. Thus, a Christian who says, “Jesus is the Son of God” may seem to have uttered an absurdity by a secular listener, because the key words in that sentence – “Jesus,” “Son,” and “God” – don’t have the same meaning within each person’s language game. When you start realizing and internalizing the lesson of language games, the immense tragedy of our inability to communicate with one another begins to become less mysterious – if no less tragic.

Another good reference for this discussion is the great book “Varieties of Religious Experience,” by the American philosopher William James. James writes about mystical experiences, including sudden and profound religious conversions, as an indisputably authentic psychological fact, regardless of what you do or not believe spiritually. Some of these experiences cause immense positive changes in the fundamental structure of a person’s character. In the end, the pragmatist philosopher decides, the value of religious experiences resides not in whether or not they legitimately come from God, or some objective spiritual realm, but in what effect they have on a person’s mode of life and function in society. In this sense, the phenomenon of sleep paralysis can, and perhaps should, be considered as an experience that people have, which effects them in a certain way, and questions of its origin may be of secondary importance.

In other words, regarding sleep paralysis as a mystical experience (which it resembles, historically) and seeing it as a brain phenomenon are not mutually exclusive objective explanations, but two vantage points from which to view the same thing.

2.

I have experienced sleep paralysis numerous times throughout my life. It is no different from seeing a ghost, a demon, or any other kind of legendary supernatural being with your own naked eye. Whatever unknown mental state sleep paralysis occurs in, your eyes are open and you are aware of your surroundings and there is something standing there.

Incidentally, this to me essentially negates the question of whether ghosts are “real.” If people see the things they see during sleep paralysis, there is no reason that they couldn’t see what we call ghosts under a whole variety of mental states. Ghosts are most certainly “real” in that people “really” see them. So are UFOs. The question of whether ghosts are the disembodied spirits of the dead, or UFOs are alien spacecraft from another galaxy – that is something else entirely, though undiscerning people continue to link these not at all self-evident answers with their corresponding phenomenon, without typically providing much reason for doing so.

The first time I experienced sleep paralysis was in high school, in my bedroom. I woke up in the night and was unable to move, and had the terrifying feeling that my soul or consciousness was being pulled forcibly from my body. When it arose, I could see my own form on my mattress. The general feeling was of being sucked into a vast, unfathomable void, without handholds, without refuge. With great effort of will, I would “pull” my consciousness back into my body, where it would stay until the struggle began again. There was, this night, no entity perceived or inferred.

The thing to keep in mind here is that I am not relating a dream to you. It may have been an experience that was only occurring in my brain, but it was an experience, and I was awake for it. If something had objectively occurred in that room – say, a bug had flown in the window – I would have seen it. I could not move. I don’t recall how the situation resolved itself except that I persevered in my struggle, and woke up the next day scared and confused, with little to no context for what had taken place, outside of the paranormal books that I was obsessed with at the time.

The next sleep paralysis event I can recall took place maybe a year or two later, in my uncle’s trailer, where I was staying the night with some other family. I was sleeping on the couch and woke up, unable to move. And though I could not turn my head, I could feel an evil presence nearby. Like the last story, this took place 20-odd years ago, so certain details are fuzzy. I remember the nearly overpowering sensation of being in the vicinity of this being, and I remember seeing it. It floated into view, and it resembled a humanoid praying mantis, hovering above the ground and radiating malignant intent. I don’t recall how I managed to break away, except that I assume it was the same way I did so in later events, more recent in my memory, which I will describe presently.

This happened in college. It is the night that stands out to me, among all of these nights, because it lasted so long. I woke up, unable to move, and was instantly aware of the intensely evil presence in the room with me. Just like in my first experience, I felt the sensation of my soul being ripped from my body, but this time it was not just something that was happening, but something that was being done to me. It seemed that if I didn’t fight back, this entity would somehow claim me, destroy me, hurt me. I can’t specify what I thought it would actually do, just that it was unimaginably bad.

My means of fighting back was to somehow free myself from my physical paralysis. I did this, inwardly, by reciting prayers. Outwardly, I did this by trying to move a toe, a single toe.  This inward and outward struggle were connected, as the prayers gave me strength and encouragement to attempt the Herculean task of trying to move my body. It was truly difficult, as though I was encased in some kind of heavy liquid that pressed down on me. But when I succeeded, when I managed to move a toe, I would be temporarily freed from the waking nightmare. Suddenly, I would be in my ordinary dorm room, alone. But it was like trying to stay awake on powerful sleeping medications: in a moment, I would go under again, and the struggle would recommence. (This is always what it’s like for me: you have to escape many times before it’s over.)

I saw the entity clearly. It leaned over my bed, its face close to mine. It looked vaguely human but twisted, elongated and distorted: not dissimilar from demons seen in film and art, from which perhaps my subconscious created the image. And it said my name. That is what I remember the most, because it made the experience seem very personal. It no longer seemed like an abstract malevolent visitation that might occur to anyone. When it said my name – which, remember, I seemed to hear with my actual, physical ears – it appeared as though this was a distinct evil presence that knew my name, that differentiated me from other people in the world, and wanted me, personally.

I managed to finally break free towards daylight. As before, I managed this with a slight movement of my toe, but this time I also managed to jump out of bed rather than stay supine. I immediately turned on all the lights, and did not go back to sleep until the next night.

3.

There have been other occurrences since then, but they are all too similar to the ones described above to be worth relating. I am not one of those unlucky souls that has to go through this very often. A couple of years can go by without an occurrence, though my dream life is very rich and strange and offers plenty of interest on its own.

If I were to try and find a commonality between the circumstances in my life when these incidents occurred, I would note that they seem to happen mostly when I am extremely exhausted. At this point, I am more or less aware when I am in danger of an “attack,” as I inwardly refer to it. If I am trying to go to sleep after several nights of little sleep and alcohol abuse – basically, partying – with a sickly body and a hazy, slow mind, I will start getting images as I approach unconsciousness, and I will feel in danger. Fortunately for my overall health, these nights are not as common as they have been in earlier days.

Such an observation may or may not be of interest to science. Certainly it could point at some sort of casual explanation. Of course, a person of a more supernaturally-inclined bent could say that damaging one’s body and mind can leave one more open to attack from malevolent spirits.

I’ve decided to write this essay without recourse to my own beliefs regarding the supernatural, because they are personal and because, frankly, they are irrelevant here since I don’t use them to seek for a solution to this mystery. These are things that happened to me. They probably took place only in my brain. The same could be said, on a neurological level, of everything. So, they are incidents that have occurred in my life. I have fought demons; I am typing on this computer; both are things that have registered to my consciousness as objective events.

It is common now to explain away some the myths and folklore of the past as incidents of sleep paralysis. There is no doubt much truth to this. What many people fail to grasp is that this explains very little. For the most part, it says, “Instead of calling this THIS, I am going to call it THIS.” Which is fine. It certainly makes us feel superior to our superstitious, ignorant ancestors, although I am not so sure we deserve that feeling in every respect.

This is what should be understood about people who suffer from sleep paralysis: we have had these experiences, and they are often as real to us as talking to you. (The same could be said of various types of mental illness.)

William James, in “Varieties of Religious Experience,” writes about “healthy-minded” spirituality vs. the spirituality of the “sick-souled.” Using historical examples, he illustrates people who have had spiritual conversions that made them more open, generous, loving, and socially-conscious, vs. people whose epiphanies made them morbid, self-destructive, and obsessed with suffering. In this way, he attempts to delineate the value of religious conversion by the effects it produces on people and society – or, as Jesus said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Since sleep paralysis resembles so closely the more harrowing mystical visions associated with everything from the lives of saints to near-death experiences, I think it could be a fruitful field of study to determine what, if any, personality or lifestyle changes may be tied to it, since these are not always observable to the person undergoing them.

As for me, I give limited or no positive value to my nights of sleep paralysis. I do not feel improved or enlightened by these terrifying adventures, other than coming away with a lesson not to party too hard, which I don’t need demons to tell me. I imagine that if I lived in a pre-modern world, I would take away other lessons too, possibly about the objective existence of evil. But since I have the choice to regard these as hallucinations, I tend to do so. And about the existence of evil, I don’t need any additional proof beyond the proof that the world offers daily.

I wish you luck in your own struggles with demons, whatever they are and wherever you find them.

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