I jolted awake--I could sense something was terribly wrong. I couldn't move; my entire body was completely paralyzed. Only eleven years old, with no known health problems, lying in bed in the middle of night I must have just died--that was my first thought. I was in my body but no longer connected to it. Then things got even more frightening. Someone was standing next to my bed. I guess my eyelids still worked because I looked up and saw something not human bending down over me. It was the most terrifying moment of my life.
This entity reach down and touched my left hip. It was as if its finger burned straight through into my body, the sensation was so excruciating. This was back in the mid 1960s, during the heyday of the UFO hysteria, and it actually occurred to me that this creature might be an alien from outer space. It sure looked like one. But I was always a rational person, even under pressure, and I clearly understood I must be hallucinating. Abruptly the vision vanished. Gradually motor control returned to my fingers and toes, and then I was back in charge of my body.
Over the next two years this experience repeated itself numerous times, scaring the holy heck out of me. There was not a soul I could talk to about it. In those days if you claimed something like this had happened to you, people said you were crazy or a liar or both. Even today a whole cottage industry has grown up around this phenomenon. People honestly believe they are being abducted by aliens, and a boatload of books and TV specials have appeared touting this alleged extraterrestrial invasion. These beings are here to harvest our organs, breed with us, or whatever.
The phenomenon finally caught the attention of scientists, and thanks to their research we now understand at least part of what's happening. Normally when we fall asleep the part of our brain that connects our thinking mind with our body temporarily shuts off. It's an indispensable safety mechanism that keeps us from actually getting out of bed and running when we dream we're running, or otherwise physically acting out our dreams. Usually when we wake up our connection with our body switches back on immediately so we can reach over and turn off the alarm clock. But sometimes we wake up without the nervous system noticing, and for several terrifying minutes we can't move a muscle. More alarmingly even though we're mentally awake we continue to dream, so we may see weird creatures in our bedroom, feel as if we're floating up toward the ceiling, or find ourselves thrust into bizarre hallucinatory worlds that seem completely real. The scientific name for this phenomenon is "sleep paralysis." Researchers estimate at least 15% of the population probably have this experience at least once in their life.
When it started happening again in my early 20s, I was lucky enough to be studying with one of the great yoga masters of the 20th century, Swami Rama of the Himalayas. At that time scientists were still denying this kind of experience was real, but yogic adepts of course were very familiar with it. Swamiji told me that the breath is the flywheel of life, that breathing is the one unconscious bodily function we can easily control consciously. I got the hint. The next time I woke up paralyzed I simply focused on my breath and sure enough, although I couldn't move a muscle, I could make myself breathe faster or slower. Changing my breathing pattern immediately snapped me out the paralyzed state and the frightening waking dream that came with it.
This is one thing I love about the yogis, how they give you the knowledge and practical means to overcome fear. In their explorations of the many states of consciousness, they've seen it all.
Meeting the Inner Aliens
My many childhood experiences of sleep paralysis would have been a lot easier to deal with if I'd understood what was going on. I wish I'd known Swami Rama when I was 11! But I do have to admit I learned an awful lot about the inner landscapes of the mind through my hypnogogic ("between waking and sleep") experiences. In Sanskrit this is called a sandhya state, sandhya meaning "dawn or dusk," so these experiences truly are the Twilight Zone!
During sleep paralysis you find yourself traveling through hallucinatory dream worlds, meeting threatening alien intelligences or wise angelic beings, sometimes feeling living presences you can't actually see but with whom you communicate telepathically. The thing is, none of this is real. However it feels completely real while it's happening; in fact, if one of these alien beings touches you, you feel it as vividly, in fact more vividly, than when someone touches you in normal waking life. You know those medieval paintings of the damned being tortured in hell, or medieval reports of demons called incubi or succubi attacking good Christians while they were in bed? Without a doubt, these horrifying images arose from panicked sleepers experiencing living nightmares in this twilight world.
What I learned was that our subconscious mind contains much more than the confused stream of images we generally experience in our run-of-the-mill dreams. There is an entire inner universe of aliens--some friendly, some menacing--playing out their dramas within us, of whom our conscious mind is ordinarily completely unaware. The brilliant Swiss psychologist Carl Jung famously stumbled across this internal world himself. He called these inner beings "archetypes," and this startling interior landscape "the collective unconscious" because so many people who find themselves in this imaginary realm have very similar visions. Jung felt it was important for us to get to know this hidden part of our nature because as long as we're unaware of it, it secretly controls our behavior in the "real" world.
A good example is the archetype of the inner lover. Most men have an anima (a fantasy female lover) while most women have an animus (their image of the perfect romantic partner) that they're continually searching for in the external world. They meet someone new and exciting, project their fantasy figure onto that person, and then are disappointed when the real life person fails to match their inner ideal. They end the relationship and go looking for someone else to mistake for their fantasy lover. Unless they learn to accept their real life partners for who they are, warts and all, they will never be happy. The anima/animus must be recognized for what it is and left behind before an individual can enjoy a truly mature, lasting marriage.
Over the years I've watched people sabotage their own lives due to hidden inner complexes that in their own nonmaterial way are just as real as any object in the external world. Yet these people are totally unaware of how inner aliens--the parts of their personality they're split off from their waking awareness--are abducting them. I remember one classmate in college whose subconscious inner prompter convinced him he was much more knowledgeable than any of his professors. He would express his contempt for them by chronically showing up late and disrupting the class. One exasperated teacher finally told him that if he didn't show up on time, she would lock him out. This was a serious matter since he needed to pass her course to earn his degree.
One day he and I drove to a university in another city to do some research in their medical library. After several hours I mentioned that we needed for leave right away if he was going to make it back for his class. He insisted we had plenty of time and refused to hurry. As we finally drove back I pointed out that we were nearing our exit, but he was sure it wasn't the right one, even though he had driven this way many times before. We wound up getting back very late and of course he missed his class. He was extremely angry with his professor for locking him out, although it was clearly his own fault for not getting back in time. His friends could see, but he could not, that some inner demon had steered him wrong.
Yoga and the Unconscious
Back in the 1970s Carl Jung was hugely popular--everyone was taking about "archetypes" and the "collective unconscious." One evening we asked Swami Rama if it would be useful for us yoga students to also study Jung. His answer made our jaws drop. "Don't waste your time," he said.
Later Swamiji explained that the inner archetypal world is so fascinating we could literally explore it for lifetimes and we'd still barely scratch the surface. The wise old crones and bizarre looking aliens we encounter there--and all the repressed feelings and mistaken ideas those unreal images represent in our unconscious--are ultimately only maya, an illusion. Swamiji explained that stopping to explore that twilight world was a detour on the spiritual path. He insisted that serious students can achieve enlightenment in this very incarnation if we stay focused on our goal.
What about all the insight we can gain, all the psychological complexes we can untangle by entering the undiscovered country of our own unconscious, we asked. Swami Rama recommended that instead we continue to sit for meditation in a relaxed but disciplined fashion. In meditation many of the figures and feelings from the subconscious flash in the field of our awareness. Rather than empowering them by chasing them excitedly down the rabbit hole of the unconscious, we should observe them calmly and let them go. In this manner we become aware of our psychological tics, become conscious of the contents of our unconscious, but also become free of them. Moksha, the Sanskrit word for enlightenment, means "freedom."
There are aliens living just under the screen of our conscious awareness. Though they're not really that alien--they are, after all, personifications of our own thoughts and feelings rummaging around the basement of our minds. It's not useful to climb into their flying saucers and fly off with them. Better to return our awareness to our breath and calmly observe as those unidentified inner objects simply vanish. Our goal in meditation is not to visit the strangers inside who are bits and pieces of our own personality, but to discover and rest in the pure conscious source from which they emerged.
Linda Johnsen is author of Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India, Lost Masters: The Sages of Ancient Greece, and six other books.