Last week I talked about some of the physical reasons that have been found for why we sleep, and the lack of consensus on the reasons for the need for sleep. If you haven't read it yet, go ahead and take a look at it now
Before we start, a slight digression. I dislike academic philosophy as a discipline because it often degenerates into wordplay, but word definitions are necessary. One such that I am using here is the word consciousness. Generally to be conscious of something is to be aware of it. Consciousness then means the state of being aware. I am conscious of the sky above me. I use the word consciousness in the sense of a field, also, the ground upon which phenomenon play. In this sense, there can be consciousness without content. Thus, I use consciousness in two senses.
As I was saying then, we are consciousness manifesting in a material world. Consciousness comes first, then the mind and body. Not the body, then mind, then consciousness. Our minds and our bodies are the tools we use to manipulate in this world. From this point of view there are at least three worlds in which we exist.
- The physical world
- The psychological world
- The world of consciousness
In life we encounter these three worlds as waking consciousness, dreaming consciousness, and the state of dreamless sleep.
This point of view throws a new light on our need to sleep. It doesn't do away with the reasonable physical explanations that research has shown to be valid, but it puts them in a different context. We are in the world, but not of it. Our mind is fragmented. At a minimum, we have a physically focused personality and we have an unconscious. Maintaining physically focused consciousness, our personality, is hard. It takes a lot of energy, psychological and physical.
The first non-physical reason to sleep is to renew our energy - literally. This appears to happen during deep sleep. Much of the East, and many other cultures, believe there is a kind of life force that is midway between the psychological and the physical. It has been called prana, chi or Qi, and mana among other things. Just the sheer act of being awake and focused in the physical world seems to use this up. Sleeps helps to renew this energy. As an example of this, when I am overly-fatigued I often feel a numbness or pressure on the top of head, normally centered on the point in the middle of the top of my scalp. After a good night's sleep the pressure is gone, but not if I remember dreaming a lot.
The second non-physical reason to sleep is to work in the psychological world. A lot of the work to maintain the personality is done at an unconscious level. In a sense, as Shakespeare pointed out, we are players on the stage of the world. Much of the work of producing a play is not done on-stage when the audience is watching, but in workshops and rehearsals. Dreaming sleep allows these rehearsals to occur.
Our real I exists in what the personality calls the unconscious. It's natural world is the psychological world, the world where dreams occur and where thoughts literally are things. What is normally our unconscious mind doesn't think in words. It thinks in pictures. When we dream, we interact with the psychological world, the wider world from which we create our physical world.
Normally we're alone working on our own part and relating it to our greater self. We have no remembrance of our usual personality or physical environment. If we awaken and remember a dream, we say "I did this, that, and the other", but if we think about it, the sense of I in the dream was different than our normal sense of I, or we remember the dream as we would a movie - something we watched, rather than experienced. We shuffle around our experiences of the day. We make new connections, and discard old ones. We integrate what has happened to us during the day.
This doesn't happen just inside our own heads, though. It is a world as real as the physical world. It is psychological, but a world nonetheless. We may have shared dreams in which friends remember the same dream, but from their own unique point of view. Sometimes we attain lucidity in a dream. We wake up in a dream and realize our body is asleep. We may be in our normal earth environment. Some people have said they saw themselves sleeping, most frequently when they thought they were really awake, got up, then turned around and saw their body still in bed. We may also be in a totally unfamiliar environment. Normally it is earthlike, but things are odd, such as animals being able to talk, or we are able to fly or go through walls. Instead of passively acting in the dream, or watching its progression, we can change its content or leave it completely to do something else. Such occurences are more vividly remembered than normal dreams. We have more of our normal earth-focused consciousness with us.
The third non-physical reason for sleep is to go home, to exist as consciousness without content. Research has somewhat correlated each stage of consciousness with a predominance of a certain frequency of electrical discharge in the brain. Waking consciousness is associated with beta waves. A relaxed, reverie is related to alpha waves, Dreaming is related to beta, theta, and some delta waves. Deep meditative states are related to theta waves. Deep sleep is related to delta waves. Brain waves descend in frequency from beta, to alpha, to theta, to delta. As the amount of activity in the brain, which correlates with activity in the mind, decreases, so does the frequency of waves it produces.
There is a state in yoga, called yoganidra, in which you can learn to remain conscious during the state of deep sleep. This is by no means normal and comes only as a result of long training in meditation, but it shows the possibility that we can learn to remain aware throughout the entire day and night.
The last article in this series will deal with some of the ways we can sleep more effectively.