So, I'm watching this documentary on the Space Channel called "The Nightmare" that covers the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, talking to scientists and those who have experienced this exploring the different opinions on what exactly is taking place - whether it be a simple sleep disorder, or whether it may have more spiritual implications .
This topic, along with other ones related to states of being experienced during sleep-states such as hypnogogic hallucinations and lucid dreaming, are ones that have fascinated me for quite some time. I've experienced lucid dreaming and hypnogogic hallucinations frequently my entire life, so I enjoy learning about all the various perspectives on these events, and attempting to find explanations for certain odd happenings that have occurred while in these states. However, I've only ever experienced sleep paralysis twice in my 30 years. Neither have completely fit the textbook definitions of these phenomenon, but share many key elements that others have described.
Generally speaking, sleep paralysis experiences is described as being an experience that may be had upon awakening from sleep. One "wakes" feeling that something (usually evil or otherwise terrifying) is in the room with them. They then quickly find that they are unable to move or scream - being paralyzed. They soon see the entity in the room with them, though the exact description varies from a black shadow, a dark featureless robed figure, a demon, a hag, and even aliens. In some cases this entity will approach the person, in some cases mounting them sexually, feeding from them in some fashion, or otherwise assaulting them. Feeling a heavy pressure on the chest or neck is commonly reported along with the attack. The whole experience is one of extreme panic, fright, dread, and horror, often being counted as the single most terrifying experience in the experiencer's life, and in some cases actually causing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms afterwards.
Sleep paralysis-type phenomenon is universal - nearly every culture throughout time has folklore associated with this experience. Some feel that it is spirits of the dead which do the attacking, some believe it is demons, and most seem to believe the attacks (whatever the nature of the spirit doing the assaulting) are conjured up by witchcraft. In modern times some believe the phenomenon of alien abduction is just a new cultural expression of this timeless experience.
Scientists explain this by saying that part of the REM state of dreaming is the paralysis of the body, a safety function to keep up from acting out our dreams. During sleep paralysis it is theorized that the sleeper awakens, but not completely, still remaining in a partial dream state with the natural paralysis still in place. Being awake and experiencing the paralysis can be frightening when not understood, and the fear triggers the partial dream state to create dream-hallucinations that create a source of the fear...an evil entity of some sort.
Some people seem to experience sleep paralysis much more often than others, and so it has been classified as a sleep disorder. However, it is said that up to 60% of the adult population have experienced sleep paralysis at least once, with only about 5% having multiple occurrences with the more disturbing symptoms.
So...is it simply a brain fart, or are there more sinister spiritual implications?
I think that it can be just a mental misfire, and that is can also be spiritual in nature...and perhaps sometimes both.
One of my two experiences with sleep paralysis was a mental misfire, and were I not educated on different dream states and comfortable with many different states of consciousness (including being fairly skilled at realized when I am dreaming and being able to make the choice to take control, or simply remain aware yet passive within the dream) it may have turned out differently. Basically, I awoke from sleep, and once my eyes were open I went to move and found that I could not. For about a second or two I struggled to move. This could quickly have become frightening, but right about the time panic was about to set in, it dawned on me that this was sleep paralysis. I remembered that the experience quickly turns frightening for many, and quickly looked around for any unpleasant beings...and there were none. I decided that before my brain had a chance to manufacture one for me, that I should really relax and allow my brain to make the appropriate connections and release me from the paralysis. I closed my eyes and relaxed within about 3 seconds was able to move and awaken normally.
So, for me, this was one instance where the state itself was merely a biological mistake. I can see how it could be frightening if someone was unfamiliar with the phenomenon (or especially if the only exposure that one had to it was stories of demonic attack), and if the dream function was more active at the moment, that it could have become a nightmare of epic proportions.
Does that explain all instances of sleep paralysis and nocturnal psychic attack? I think not. Here are two stories that make me think otherwise - one is my own, and one is my mother's. First, my mom's.
She was a teenager and had a small dog that would sleep with her each night, nestled up by her head. One night she awoke to the dog growling deeply which quickly morphed into whimpering, shuddering, and trying desperately to crawl underneath the pillow. Shocked and a bit freaked out by this very out of character behavior of her pet, she went to calm Tiny only to find that she could not move. Her uneasy feelings suddenly sky-rocketed into terror as she caught sight of the figure at her bedroom door. She said it looked like a sheet ghost - someone wearing a white sheet like the typical Scooby Doo ghost villain - but the heavy feeling of overpowering evil made it anything but campy. The figure began to drift towards her. She began to scream at the top of her lungs for her mother as it advanced. Her parents bedroom was literally 3 feet away and her mother was a notoriously light sleeper...yet no help came. The dog continued to cry and shiver and squirm in retreat, and the sheet drifted up over her bed and onto her. She said that when it got on top of her she could even see the threads in the sheet. Then it was over. My mother could move, there was no entity in the room, and the dog stopped panicking. She sat stunned, terrified, trying to understand what had just occurred - especially the fact that no one heard her scream. A few minutes later her mother came into the room saying that she just felt that something might be wrong. (The women in my family all are spiritually gifted to varying degrees.) My mother would likely have passed it all off as an extreme nightmare if it hadn't been for the dog's reaction to the whole experience.
She's never found an explanation for her experience and believes that it was a spiritual attack of some kind. I tend to agree as the dog reacting to the event seems to strongly suggest that there was an external force present, and it was not simply a dream-hallucination. Shared paranormal experiences between multiple people simultaneously are always extremely compelling. I count Tiny as a person!
My other experience with sleep paralysis contains some "classic" elements, but veers away somewhat. I was dreaming one night when the dream became extremely lucid, which wasn't uncommon. This time I was quickly joined by a guide that would sometimes pop into these states with me. We were walking in a beautiful manicured park type area, and my guide brought me to a large shade tree and told me that he had something very important to show me. He gestured to a gravestone that was suddenly present, and instructed me to remember the name. Unfortunately for me reading in dreamstates is something I've never mastered - the letters always squiggle and change. As I was concentrating on trying to get the writing to stay still long enough for me to read it, the atmosphere suddenly changed dramatically. It become cold, dark, and menancing. The guide was gone. I know a nightmare coming on when I feel one, and I didn't feel like dealing with this one so I willed myself awake (a very useful skill to have).
Right as I awoke, I opened to eyes to feel that I could not move to sit up, and even before the realization of the paralysis had a chance to sink in, a sensation like a cinder block being thrown into my chest impacted me. As the pressure hit me, I was forced back into the dream. It was the same tree with the darkened and spookified atmosphere that I had just left. There was somethingthere and it was set on attacking. I realized that the guide had been trying to give me the name of the attacker, so that I could fight it effectively. Sadly, I wasn't able to read the name, so I didn't have that power.
I was pissed off at the affront, and simply willed myself awake again. As before, when I awoke I was unable to move and a huge weight was thrust upon my chest and I was back once again in the dream. (Looking back the feeling was an interesting one - as the weight would hit it would feel as if I was pushed down into the bed, and through the bed, into the dream.) Now I was really mad. I drew my power around me, shouted out a Divine Name, and commanded the force in no uncertain terms to leave me alone. As I screamed and released the power, I willed myself awake once again and this time stayed awake. My heart was beating, I was sweating, and I was enraged, indignant, and empowered.
As the adrenaline wore off, and my logical mind started to analyze the experience, I started to feel fairly freaked out by what had happened. However, I did quickly decide that there was no point being scared - the threat was passed, and I had gotten away without any injury.
Many aspects of this point me to the belief that this was an actual spiritual attack, and not just a waking dream. While it does not fit the textbook sleep paralysis event, it does carry several of the hallmarks - the paralysis, the weight upon the chest, and the perception of an attack by a malevolent entity. I don't know whether this was actually a spirit of a dead human, as the name on the gravestone could have been more symbolic than literal. Then again, I've always just gone with the theory that it was a human spirit of someone who had passed. I don't know why a spirit would randomly attack me - this was during the first year of my occult practice, so I was doing alot of zealous ritual work. There was also a fair bit of drug use in my apartment at the time (hey, I was like 18), and also a fair bit of emotional angst (I was angsty-est between my 17th and 19th years). Perhaps it was a beacon for astral mischief. Very likely so.
So what is my final conclusion? I don't really have one - I tend to hold alot of multiple truths. I think many seemingly contradictory things can all be true within different contexts. I think some instances of sleep paralysis are exactly what the scientists think they are - a faulty awakening from sleep. I also think that some experiences are actual spiritual attacks, though I think the source of them can vary from directed psychic attacks, to wandering spirits with an agenda, to other things I haven't yet imagined.
I also think that perhaps the experience of altered state of sleep paralysis can result in people having access to spiritual dimensions of being that they would never normally encounter. I think the astral realms are sufficiently "peopled" with all manner of being that there's a good chance that something may be drawn to the unique energies of a sleep paralysis event, and be perceived by the paralysis-ee. Sometimes they just watch as is commonly reported, and sometimes they attack as is also reported. I don't know if the watchers are malevolent in and of themselves, or if the happenstance of being faced with a other-dimensional being is simply so foreign as to be frightening. Certainly those that advance, rape, or otherwise assault would be hard to label as NOT baneful. Though, everything's gotta eat, I suppose.
I would love to hear other people's experiences and interpretations of different aspects of the sleep paralysis phenomenon. I do intend to write later on my own hypnogogic visions that I frequently have upon awakening - the most interesting thing about them for me is that I will often have a run of nightly "visions" that are indentical and sometimes seem to carry a message.