It is curious what language reveals of our unspoken beliefs. If someone isn’t paying attention we say, “Wake up!” If a person bores us we say, “He puts me to sleep.” If our pet suffers an incurable disease, we don’t kill him; we have him “put to sleep.” Sleep is metaphorically equivalent to darkness and death, just as death is metaphorically equivalent to termination and nothingness. Conversely we equate wakefulness with life, light, and lucidity (“wide awake”). We think of sleep as down (“fall asleep”) and awake as up (“wake up”). We prize the brightness of the waking state and dread the dimness of the sleeping one, not literally perhaps (though some people do fear sleep), but metaphorically. Just as enlightenment represents a spiritual achievement, “waking up” represents an intellectual one. Who among us hopes for endarkenment? Who wishes to become more asleep?
True to the tradition of imposing opposites onto an oppositeless universe, we have added to our habitual antipodes — up/down, good/bad, light/dark, alive/dead — the antipode of awake/asleep. Of course there are reasons to a assign positive/negative values to awake/asleep, reasons other than the fact that we are historically predisposed to dualistic thinking. For example, it is dark when we shut our eyelids. And darkness is fertile ground for fear and fright. But the making of antipodes is itself not the problem. the problem comes when we insist on interpreting mythical or metaphorical truth as literal fact — mistaking the map for the territory. Unfortunately this mistake is encouraged by both science and religion: first, by science’s rabid denial of afterlife (which makes death seem indeed the opposite of life), and second, by religion’s childish belief in heaven and hell. The happy fact to keep in mind is that realities take place in infinite degree and gradation; absolute opposites exist only in word.
Now, if sleep is metaphorically equivalent to death, then going to sleep might be analogous to the stage of life which precedes death, namely senility. Experiences reported by the senile closely resemble those of the observant mind as it goes to sleep: visions, lapsed and juxtaposed memories, disembodied voices. Rather than consciously attend to this disquieting and seemingly purposeless witch-dance of the mind, we learn to tune out. And we learn because we are taught: science implicitly discourages us from acknowledging “abnormal” variations in perception, whether they occur at the end of day or the end of life. But what if “senility” is a natural expansion of perceptive powers, a necessary preparation for the vastly more complex and stimulating afterlife worlds? Perhaps consciousness is simply stretching its wings, preparing for advanced flight. Centuries ago, in pre-science cultures, before the notion of “facts” was even conceived, old people were revered, in part because they saw visions and heard voices. Nowadays those visions and voices are cited as evidence of mental decline and aberration. Our science, bound by outdated Cartesian premises, is forbidden to acknowledge the existence of events which lie beyond the reach of the five senses. Thus it tends to limit our perceptions, rendering us psychically blind, deaf, and dumb. It asks that we ignore what happens as we go to sleep; it insists that nothing at all happens when we die.
I believe, though, if we could meticulously follow the moment-to-moment daily and nightly movement of our minds, we would discover that perceptions never cease. We would find that consciousnes is by nature a perpetual observer. We would learn that we are incessant dreamers, though not always attentive ones. Ultimately we would discover that mindstuff is immortal, that consciousness exists both within and beyond space/time. But constant and total self-awareness is hard work, possibly the most difficult task a soul can undertake. It is far easier to phase in and out — as we all do — letting our reality-creating imaginations trip playfully, mindlessly, through other worlds without the heavy baggage of conscious awareness. The danger in this, though, is we forget that consciousness is indeed off somewhere engaged in worthwhile adventure. We forget how (or never learn how) to follow our inner flights. Gradually, over the course of decades and half-centuries, we allow our little misinformed egos to be convinced that such a state as nothingness exists. We come to believe that consciousnes is a one-way street with a stop sign at the end. We take an artifact from our invented world — a light switch for example — and hold it up as a model for consciousness: on, off, on, off (and so on and so off).
So it is with our cultural beliefs about sleep. Comparatively few of us perceive sleep as the reality it is; for the masses sleep is an abyss. It may refresh mind and body, but that is its only function — to prepare mind and body for the more desirable condition of being awake. Why is being awake more desirable? Because we are conscious! Not only that, but we are conscious of being conscious! Because once again, after eight hours of seeming extinguishment, we exist! We exist! It’s a funny thing: for the conscious mind, being awake is proof enough that it exists. Just think what will happen when the dreaming mind becomes aware that it too is awake.
Johnson City, Tennessee
Usually I fall asleep easily, but occasionally, on the eve of a long trip or a new job, I might find myself so wired that I cannot sleep when I want it most. Thinking about this one sleepless night, it occurred to me that there comes a moment in the insomniac’s night when he or she says despairingly, “I’ll never get to sleep,” and promptly goes out like a light. This led me to invent the following magic formula:
“I’m falling asleep and I’m not falling asleep.” Repeat this to yourself over and over. It always works, even for me.
San Francisco, California
I remember what an event going to sleep was in my childhood. I seldom had burned enough energy during the day to fall asleep quickly and easily at night. The exess energy, when it did not simply drain off in idle mischief, often stirred in me thoughts and fantasies related to the phenomenon of dreaming.
The concept of controlling dreams fascinated me. I thought of dreaming as a television program which I could not only write, but star in as well. As I relaxed my body I would set the scene in my imagination and attempt to propel myself into that other, less painful world. For a long time I even had a way station between the two worlds. I remember it quite clearly: it was a chapel, in which I was the priest. The congregation was made up of young children whom I would invite into the chapel and seat in the pews. The altar consisted of a large movie screen covered by a red curtain. “Tonight’s dream . . . ,” I would say to the children, and then go on to describe what I wanted to dream about. Then the lights in the chapel would dim, the red curtains draw back, and the dream would be flashing through my mind as I drifted asleep.
Another phase I went through during those early years seems somewhat universal. Edgar Allan Poe named a poem for this phase: A Dream Within A Dream. As I lay in bed, I imagined another boy, my twin, lying in an identical but separate bed. He was asleep and dreaming. He was dreaming that he was I, who was about to go to sleep and have a dream.
The titillation of that paradox! Was I the dreamer, or the dreamed?
Such are the intuitions of childhood. . . .
Boone, North Carolina
Late at night I go into the post office lobby to buy some stamps from a machine. I immediately notice a surprising odor, like a fart but not as sharp. At first I think I’m alone but then I see a body lying behind the stamp machine, next to the heater. It’s an old man in dirty clothes. His tattered jacket is light, though it’s thirty degrees outside and maybe fifty in this lobby. The stamp machine clatters as it accepts my coins and spits out the stamps. I hope it doesn’t wake him. He makes a gutteral sound, shifts his weight on the hard tile floor, and is quiet again.
I pause a moment and look down at him. I have money in my pocket, a warm apartment to go back to, a soft bed to sleep in. Orange juice, coffee, and all kinds of food to enjoy in the morning. I feel sympathetic, lucky, superior. I know a woman who sometimes takes people like this home, lets them sleep on her couch and feeds them. I’m not that trusting.
As I walk out the door, I wonder what he’s dreaming about.
When I was younger, I was able to sleep anywhere, in any position; alone or among strangers, I was not particular. Now that I am older, I find that I have become more guarded in my nap habits. I no longer have a consummate sense of safety; it worries me to leave my body unattended among strangers. It takes more control to relax my face than to keep it taut, and my worries are more restful than my dreams. Sleep no longer descends at will. Perhaps that is why it has taken on such a mystical nature.
I prepare myself by throwing wide the windows and laying naked on the bed as the wind rips across me. When my skin has become finely stippled with goosebumps, I sit in the moonlight, splashing lunar energy over my arms and body, attuning myself to the cadence of the stars. Finally, I slip between the cool, cool sheets and wait to hear the voice that sighs my name as my soul flies out.
Listening to a speaker after a big meal in a warm room works exceptionally well. Watching uninspired television does the trick. Reading in bed works. Reading sitting up works. Late night meditation never fails. Sipping on a seven ounce beer puts me out in short order under most circumstances.
The busier and more productive my day, the more naturally I succumb to the altered consciousness of sleep. Physical activity, after an interval of relaxation, helps me sleep. A late·night snack rarely interferes.
Brushing my teeth, urinating, and walking the fifty yards to my hut in the woods does little to interfere. Undressing and getting into and zipping up my sleeping bag, rolling my pillow into a wad, putting my reading glasses on, and opening a book are all part of my ritual. Rarely do I read more than three or four pages before I awaken momentarily, put away my glasses, close the book and reposition my pillow. Then, I’m usually gone in sixty seconds.
I usually wake at first light and stagger into the woods to pee. I climb back into bed, shivering, and return to sleep for an hour or two. Finally, the light, increasing heat, the birds, and far in the distance, the traffic, combine to bring me back to waking consciousness.
Sleep is a blessing. Waking to an alarm lock or a radio alarm is a nightmare, unless I’m excited about whatever I’m getting up for.
Dreaming is another topic. It is usually fascinating, always mysterious, and sometimes productive. I would go to sleep to dream if I could; but that would make going to sleep a purposeful action, which it is not.
Going to sleep simply happens, like waking up. Neither event seems to depend on my active participation. Both are outright gifts, magical moments in a sometimes ordinary universe, and each dependent on the other.
The rest of life should be so simple.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Right before I fall asleep, I fall into a twilight state of thoughts and dream images. The focus of my attention drifts lazily just above the surface of my unconscious mind. Usually this is very pleasant; I am vaguely aware of being deliciously comfortable, almost in bliss. But sometimes this twilight state is unpleasant, disturbing, or agitated. If I catch this in time, before going under, I wake myself all the way up before I relax and let go again. This way I get a fresh start on my night’s sleep. The groove in which you start your night’s dreaming is crucial.
I once discovered something in this twilight state that is amazing to me. Right before I actually go under, lose consciousness, fall truly asleep, there is a dream threshold. For example, I am boarding a plane, the plane begins to take off, and once the plane leaves the ground, I am asleep. Or I am walking across a lawn, and as soon as my foot touches the sidewalk, I am asleep. Or its a door I am about to walk through, or a touch I am about to receive. But always always there is this discrete threshold that separates sleeping from from waking, the unconscious mind from the conscious. Of course, I am already almost gone by the time I reach this threshold but still just barely awake enough to remember — if I want to — who and where I am. On the half-dozen or so occasions in my life when I have reached this threshold and suddenly realized what was about to happen, I was immediately jolted awake. I elieve there must be safety mechanisms built into the psyche which, among other things, prevent the conscious ego mind from crossing certain boundary lines.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh suggests a meditation exercise that involves remaining conscious or mindful as your mind dips into sleep, into the unconscious. This seemed a perplexing sleight of mind. I played with the technique several times when I went to bed at night, but usually found that I simply fell asleep and lost consciousness, with no awareness of the transition.
Then one night I dreamed I was lying in my bed, drifting gently toward sleep, trying at the same time to remain conscious of this process, as suggested by Rajneesh. As sleep came nearer, a deep rushing sound began to fill my ears, then my entire head. I became frightened at the intensity of this pulsing sound which had a dimension of tactile sensation, like a forceful vibration, almost as though I was hearing and feeling the pulsing flow of blood through the capillaries in my ears, amplified a thousand times. Deeper I went, fighting to remain conscious of my journey into unconsciousness, and also fighting a sense of panic.
Suddenly the rushing pulse ceased, and I was aware that I had crossed a boundary, that I was asleep and yet conscious of having fallen asleep. I had completed the assignment. But an overwhelming awareness began to grow: I had entered into a territory that is forbidden, except at great risk. I realized that I had made a grave error, that in my quest for transcendence, I had died, not just fallen asleep. I was aware of my own death. All that remained was silence, darkness, and — paradoxically — consciousness.
I awoke once again into the “real” world of my darkened room, alone an scared, unable to orient myself for several minutes, and afraid to let sleep come again before morning. Was I still me? Still alive? For a few nights after my dream, I had some trouble falling asleep, imagining another journey across that threshold.
Could insomniacs be nothing more than fraidy-cats? I remember, a a child, saying prayers before going to bed.
“If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
I think back on those words, repeated in darkness, but illuminating my imagination. They thrust out a hand, grabbed me by my pajama tops, and shook me into anxiety. Was it possible I could die tonight? Could this be the night I go to sleep and never wake up?
I still have a casual relationship with the forebodings I allow these words to create. I let them prolong, even if for a few moments, the purgatory where I remain until sleep takes me away. As I lie in bed, sorting out the events of the day, my thoughts are periodically suspended by the words,
“If I should die before I wake. . . .”
I do find sleep, and choose to accept this as proof I am not an insomniac. I have yet to decide whether or not I am a fraidy-cat.
Several years ago a close friend of mine experienced what would have been called a nervous breakdown if he had surrendered to it and quit his job. But since his job was college teaching, there was a lot of slack in it for a broken person to reel and fall down and sleep. He was able to struggle through, and people who didn’t know him well explained his apparent hard times away as the good old mid-life crisis.
However, inside my friend was truly broken — not only his nerve and nerves (nice comfortable description that — nervous breakdown) but his body and will and heart and everything except his mind. Inside he was a burning, seering ball of fire and confusion all the time, day and night, for nigh onto a year.
He told me during that time that he used to fall asleep often but very lightly, and of course his mind — the only part of himself that he remained in possession of — was preoccupied with getting to the root of all this pain, thinking that to get to the root of it would be in some mysterious way synonymous with relieving it. At that time he believed in understanding (more than he says he does now), and he believed that if he could find the false things about himself, if he could find the missing piece or pieces to the map of his existence, he wouldn’t have to suffer like this anymore.
So he was all the time searching very hard for the answer that would be this magical release from pain in one great flash of light. It never came, but in his intense searching, he learned to watch himself as he fell asleep. And he began to notice his mind saying strange things. These voices didn’t seem like dreams at all, he noticed, and they seemed to come from somewhere other than what he would normally call him. And they would speak to him as you: “You sleep now and rest for as long as you like — no more shame for resting,” or “Your heart is burning out your darkness now; let it consume its darkness so the light can come in,” or “Your grandfather’s love is with you; you are not alone; I will not leave you alone.”
As my friend began to recover about a year later, he was sad to think that these voices would probably leave him too, but they didn’t. They stayed inside of him, speaking to him always as he fell asleep, growing in simplicity and sophistication as he so grew, informing him of the total falseness of society, of our fall from nature, community, love, and mystery, of the wasting of our lives in ignorance and sloth. If ever he felt alone, he only had to fall asleep and they were with him again, as if a promise from God to those who go to the bottom of their alienation from the tree of life.
He tells me that he feels these voices are the Holy Ghost.
Petersburg, West Virginia
The whole world is going to sleep. People are nodding off with sleep at night, and with delusion in the day. Perpetual sleep. Spectator sports, movies, junk food, stocks, empty spiritualism, implicit trust in “the way things are.”
It used to be that people set their alarm before going to sleep. Not anymore. The wake-up music is the music that puts you to sleep. Dream on. Your daze are numbered.
The punk rockers are off on animal rights but having trouble getting off meat themselves. Did you ever notice that the level of zeal one has for his hobby horse is usually in direct proportion to some personal hypocrisy? Sleep on.
The new age people really think that something in human volition or certain attention to wholistic technique of some sort is going to bring in some kind of new age. Will the stockpiled weapons melt like the Wicked Witch of the North? Will the Khomenis and Hitlers and baseball fans be hypnotically coaxed into the new age by the virtues of the Truly Faithful, the ones whose practice is least flawed and whose Faith in the dawning of the Age of Aquarius is fixated? Dream on. As Bob Dylan says, “In order to dream you’ve got to still be asleep.”
Adulterers in churches, gangsters in power, lawmakers breaking rules, gurus lost, liberators bound, doctors sick with the wealth from the drugs they push, “economists” in debt. One big gigantic snore. A large shade drawn over the window of all the earth. “Lights out!” And the god of this world boasts:
By the power of my hand and by my wisdom
I did this,
For I have understanding
And I removed the boundaries of the peoples,
And I plundered their treasures,
And like a mighty man (like Darth Vader) I
brought down their inhabitants,
And my hand reached to the riches of the
peoples like a nest
And as one gathers abandoned eggs, I gathered
all the earth;
And there was not one that flapped its wing
or opened its beak or chirped.
—Isaiah 10:13, 14
Talk about Mein Kampf. He writes it out ahead of time (Isaiah wrote it 2700 years ago) and still nobody takes notice. Except for this one guy. This lonely man down on the corner. They just call him “John.” This little sparrow. He says, “We know that we are of God and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19)
But shhh! Quiet. Don’t talk so loud. People are sleeping. Sleeping the sleep of death. Walking about in their sleep. Don’t disturb their slumber. It doesn’t pay. You won’t get published. You won’t win friends and influence people. You won’t get a part on the worldwide stage of the daily production of the ongoing soap, Sleep Your Life Away.
You may just have to stay, all alone, in the light. The Last One on the earth awake. But then you won’t be alone. Because that guy John says, “And this is the message . . . that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Pretty heavy stuff. It’ll keep you awake nights.
Glen Ellyn, Illinois