I’m currently re-reading A Guide to the Ethereal Plane by Bruce Cordell. It’s one of many books from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Planescape series, but don’t worry, this post is not about Dungeons & Dragons. (I have a whole other blog where that stuff goes, if you’re interested.) Nope, today I want to talk about dreams. They’re real, you know.
Cordell’s guide is relevant, because his description of the Ethereal Plane fits right in with my own understanding of where we go when we dream–and the realms beyond our personal dreamscapes. I call it the Quondamarie, but the name doesn’t matter. “Ethereal” works fine for our purposes here. It’s a dimension adjacent to the Prime Material (waking) world(s). It also borders on the elemental planes of pure fire, air, water, earth, and a whole bunch of other quasi-elements that you probably haven’t heard of if you don’t play D&D. In this infinite creative space full of potentialities, all these raw material components can become anything at all. Chance and consciousness work together to manifest the etheric plasma into recognizable manifestations.
There are three parts to the Ethereal plane: the Border, the Deep, and the “Wall of Color” (again, using Cordell’s terms). Think of it like an ocean: near the Prime Material plane, the Ethereal is shallow. One can easily jump in and out of the waves, go out a ways, and still see everything happening back on shore. Once you cross into the Deep Ethereal, you’re immersed in its swirling, unstable environment.
The “Wall of Color” lies between the Border and the Deep. This is an infinitesimally thin, infinitely tall sheet of aurora-like color bands where sleepers’ consciousnesses create their own personal dreamscapes. Most people don’t get beyond that during a normal night of sleep. Temporary demiplanes form around a sleeper’s consciousness inside this wall (yes, it looks paper-thin, but it’s bigger on the inside), with particularly strong dreams creating warps in the wall like bulging spheres. No matter how strong or strange or normal the dreams may be, though, their reality only lasts until the sleeper awakens. Usually. Sometimes they stabilize and last longer.
The Sights and Sounds Before the Dreams
Let’s talk about the Border. I call it the Hypnagog, after the “hypnagogic” sensory impressions that many people experience as they wade in the waves between the ocean and the shore, hovering in that space between awake and asleep.
“(Someone) can peer into another plane from its Border area and see what’s going on, but not clearly or to any great depth… Some sound passes from a plane to its Border area, but a body perceives these sounds like a land-adapted organism hearing noise underwater–it’s muffled and difficult to make out clearly.” (Cordell 13)
When you’re falling asleep, but not quite there yet, can you see the strange landscapes and shapes behind your eyelids? Have you ever been able to see your bedroom clearly even though you know your eyes are shut? Do you hear the voices and the music? Have you seen the faces? You’ve been to the Hypnagog. It’s disconcerting at first, but I’ve never had any problems with any of the beings I’ve seen or heard there. It’s just glimpses of other places, and the people there peering into your world just like you’re peering into theirs (or peering back into your own world from a slightly different frequency). They may seem like they’re trying to scare you sometimes, but it’s not dangerous unless you’re a D&D character. I’ve come to look forward to it every night.
Dream Meditation: Ethereal Answers
This is where I go when I enter a trance state. If you’re the type who just can’t clear your mind when you’re trying to meditate, this technique may be for you. Don’t worry about clearing your mind–give it a topic and then let it go. Follow it. Concentrate on a question, then unflex your brain and let your consciousness drift. It takes a little practice to hold yourself in the Hypnagog without falling asleep or slipping back into wakefulness, but when the visions and the voices start in, just hold yourself in there as long as you can until you get some input that you can take back and examine.
More often than not, the visions I receive tell me something useful. Of course, like anything tinged with dream-energy, nothing is straightforward. Once the trance is over I have a lot of metaphors and symbolism to untangle. There are thousands upon thousands of dream interpretation books out there; you may find some of these useful…archetypes and the collective unconscious and all that Jungian stuff is a good starting point. Remember, though, that each trip into the Hypnagog is personal, based on the dreamer’s own perspective and experiences. A chicken wearing one red shoe is going to mean something different to you than it does to the next person.
If you work out how to actually transfer your physical body into the Ethereal Plane for a real D&D adventure, please let me know. I’m ready to start sculpting with the protomatter and have a picnic on a demiplane.