I find that the moments immediately after I wake up from a dream can be as vital and meaningful as the dream itself. This is especially true for me when my dreams seem to be stuck in an unpleasant pattern. Sometimes, something opens up in that first moment of waking that didn’t seem possible in the context of the complicated dream story. That waking-up moment represents stepping back from the dream, seeing it from the outside, so the dream story may be experienced in a larger context.

The things that happen in my recurring dreams can seem frustrating, mundane, discouraging, and all-too-familiar, but I notice that the way I feel and think immediately upon awakening from such dreams can be my “growing edge”—the awkward place where I am verging on new territory. The old stuff (which is perhaps what the dream has been showing me) is fading away—I am recognizing that it is a dream—and the liminal space between sleeping and waking is pure potential for as-yet-unknown possibilities that will ultimately be realized in my waking and dreaming life.

Often, the liminal “hypnopompic” moments (in-between sleeping and waking up) are disorienting and disturbing because it is difficult to sort out what is dream and what is “real.” Just as in transitional times in waking life, I’m leaving behind one reality (the dream world), while a full sense of the new reality (the waking world) has not yet taken shape. Occasionally, the physical paralysis of deep sleep (a natural function that prevents us from acting out our dreams) still lingers at the edge of waking up, and there are terrifying moments of feeling trapped in a body that cannot move. I don’t often have hypnopompic sleep paralysis, but it’s pretty common for me to experience a kind of mental paralysis when I first wake up and try to sort myself out of sleep. If I’ve had unpleasant dreams, their “unfinished business” can linger like a sour taste or a foul smell, and taint the rest of my day.

However, the unpleasant after-effects of a dream can also vanish as completely and naturally as the effects of sleep paralysis on the waking body. I think this all depends on how I experience the liminal state. If I can become aware of the transitory nature of the dream mood, and open to the possibilities of waking up, I have a precious opportunity for an entirely fresh start. I can feel liberated by the realization that the dream was a dream, while I have still not yet formed my usual assumptions about what waking reality will be. Here I am: just here. What is this world? By experiencing the transition with openness, I wake up in a place where anything is possible.

The disorienting liminal process of “waking up” can be a source of sudden insights, creative ideas, or spiritual openings. My thinking mind is not yet functioning “normally”—with its usual habit patterns, conclusions, and expectations about the day ahead—but the imagery, metaphor, emotion, sense-and-nonsense experience of the dreaming mind is still engaged. So as I wake up there can be a chaotic jumble of disorganized information, or a kind of “gap” where the healing process of dreaming can complete itself and clear the way for a new day.

In a recent dream:

I am caught up in a chaotic and familiar scenario, with a large group of people in a small house, all trying to pack our stuff at the end of a long, camping trip. Everyone is leaving, stuff is everywhere, and I can’t get myself together. I’m afraid I’ll be left alone here; there will be no one to drive me to the airport, and I’ll miss my flight. Good-byes are hurried and incomplete, and I can’t find what I’m looking for…

sky 01I wake up feeling anxious and lost for a moment, and then something shifts. A quote from the Upanishads is repeating in my mind—saying that the heart is a little house shaped like a lotus, and there’s a little space within that house, and that little space contains everything in the universe. It is as if I came to the end of the dream and stepped out of the crowded busy house, out of my lostness and loneliness, into a clearing. I feel that I’m looking up at an open sky. The minutes before the alarm goes off are like years, expansive and endless as the sky. I don’t know where I am, but I am at home and awake.

Do you ever wake up laughing, or with a poetic phrase or a piece of music playing in your head? Or just lie there, not knowing or caring who or what you are for a few moments, appreciating the quality of light and shadow in the room? Do you ever feel that complete comprehension of something profound is almost possible, if you could only remember? Or find yourself filled with joy, sexual energy, sadness, silliness, love, fury, wonder? Do you ever wake up feeling surprised by life?