If any drowsy one should jump up from his slumber,
He, the nurse Imagination beguiles saying:
“Go to sleep my darling,
I will not allow anyone
to disturb thy slumber.”
But you, if you are wise
will tear up your sleep by the roots,
like the thirsty man who has heard
the sound of running water
Rumi, Persian Poet, 13th Century
Our topic today is sleep and wakefulness; consciousness and unconsciousness.
Let’s start with a question: Are we awake or asleep?
It is a simple question that most people would answer fairly readily: When I am in bed and my eyes are closed with no awareness of the ordinary world then I am ‘asleep’. And when my eyes are open and I regain awareness of my surroundings and the circumstances of my life, then I am ‘awake’. It is a binary situation – I’m asleep or I’m awake.
But let’s take a closer look. Most of us would acknowledge that we often experience a state of distraction or absence of mind where our awareness is partial or clouded. Let’s call that in-between condition ‘waking-sleep’.
Now we have three levels of consciousness on a continuum: sleep, waking-sleep, and wakefulness.
Sleep itself has several levels, from deep dreamless sleep to dreaming to light drowsiness. These needn’t concern us in our present discussion of consciousness.
Let’s look instead at the various levels of being awake.
We’ll start with what we have called ‘waking-sleep’. What is this in-between state of consciousness? At its lowest level it is a state very close to drowsiness where we have just arisen, or we are about to go to bed. We are yawning, bumping into things, and wondering what we came into the room to get. This is a low state of being conscious.
What I would like to delve into is the common state of waking-sleep where most of us spend most of our time. In this state we get through our day efficiently and perform many tasks, some of them highly sophisticated. The fundamental characteristic of this mid-level of consciousness is for the body to be moving and doing certain tasks, while the mind is elsewhere. This is why it is a form of ‘waking-sleep’.
A colleague is telling you about the day’s agenda, and your mind is elsewhere. It might be work related, or perhaps you are thinking about something you saw on the way to work, or your plans for dinner with your spouse.
Maybe you are driving to an appointment while listening to a podcast or the news. Your mind is on the topic of the podcast while your hands, eyes, feet, ears co-ordinate themselves to proceed smoothly to your destination.
Or you are going about your household chores, and you are dreaming of your next holiday break in some favourite seaside resort.
All of these are examples of waking-sleep. The body is performing tasks while the mind is elsewhere.
Shakespeare, as always, describes this state perfectly. In The Tempest, Antonio and Sebastian, are on a magical island inhabited by invisible spirits. They are beguiled by its enchantments. When Antonio addresses him, Sebastian doesn’t seem to hear clearly.
Antonio: Do you not hear me speak?
Sebastian: I do, and surely it is a sleepy language, and thou speak’st out of thy sleep.
What is it thou didst say? This is a strange repose, to be asleep with eyes wide open, standing, speaking, moving. And yet so fast asleep.
Shakespeare is describing waking-sleep – to be asleep with eyes wide open, standing, speaking, moving. And yet so fast asleep.
This may not seem to us to be a form of sleep. After all, we get through our day, we fulfill the tasks set before us, we look after our children, we navigate the streets of our city. We leave for work in the morning and come home at night.
All this is true, to be sure, but is it true wakefulness? Are we completely awake and aware when we move through the day with our body and mind divided? Is there a realm of consciousness, a state of wakefulness, that is above waking-sleep? Where the mind and body are in alignment, where we are awake and aware of what we are doing, giving it our full undivided attention?
What would it be like to live in this undivided condition? Is it a state that would be worth the effort of attainment? And if so, how can we attain it?
It is a basic tenet of all systems of spiritual science and methods of raising awareness that higher consciousness is available, desirable and attainable.
The difference between moving from being asleep in bed to waking-sleep, is the same as moving from waking-sleep to higher consciousness.
Think about that for a moment. The difference in awareness and functionality between a person snoring in bed and that same person at the office in a semi-dream, is the same as the difference between a commuter dreaming of Hawaii, and a person who has attained a level of higher consciousness.
That is a big difference.
To look at it another way, the state of waking-sleep is totally beyond the understanding of someone who is in bed asleep. In the same way, a person who is truly ‘awake’ lives in a world of awareness that is beyond the grasp or understanding of the person whose upper limit is ordinary waking-sleep.
The Sanskrit word for ‘conscious’ is chetana (चेतन), which means:
to be visible, sentient, intelligent, percipient, understanding, perceptive.
Having sense, consciousness and insight. An intelligent being.
According to this definition, being ‘conscious’ is basically being intelligent, perceptive, insightful and having understanding.
There are thousands of descriptions of the experience of being consciousness (chetana) in scripture, philosophy and art.
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, he says:
The divine intelligence, being nurtured upon mind and pure knowledge ... rejoices at beholding reality, and once more gazing upon truth, is replenished and made glad.
The Bhagavad Geeta describes a person of higher consciousness as free from fear and anger and fleeting desires.
So the person of higher consciousness sees the world very differently from those who exist at a level of ordinary waking-sleep. Their minds are clear, they perceive the world accurately, they are free from the distracting feelings of jealousy, anger and spite.
One of my teachers described such a person as “moving freely; waveless and wantless; he is neither agitated, nor does he agitate others, but leaves a sweet and gentle impression wherever he goes.”
This all sounds very nice and it is clearly desirable, but the practical question is how can we attain this state of higher consciousness, of chetana?
As with many things in life the answer is simple but not necessarily easy.
To move from normal sleep to waking-sleep, we just need someone to give us a shake, some external intervention, or just the passage of time to wake us up. And often, if we have had enough sleep, we don’t feel the need to get back into bed.
The transition from waking-sleep to higher consciousness — true wakefulness — requires something more.
In a previous blog piece I spoke about the seven gateways on the pathway to wisdom. And my husband has written a whole book on the subject — 7 Steps to Freedom
This process of moving from ordinary to higher consciousness needs some initial external input to get us started. It requires something from a source of wisdom to catch our interest, to show us that a better, freer way of living is available. We need some inspiration.
But after that initial impulse, it is mostly up to us. We need to follow the inspiration, ask questions, put in some effort, learn from our experience, keep reading and listening to the words of the wise until a platform is reached. This platform is a staging post of strength, where our previous habits and inclinations have been weakened and the temptation to fall asleep again is reduced.
It is simple, but not necessarily easy, because sleep is beguiling. It is easier to go down than keep climbing up.
In lots of stories, analogies and parables, the hero is required to climb a steep rocky tunnel – Plato’s cave in The Republic; or walk a dark path through a forest – Hansel and Gretel; or resist a multitude of temptations and distractions – Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
The Odyssey is another story of a hero on a perilous journey home, constantly beset by dangers and temptations. When he and his crew arrive at the Land of the Lotus Eaters, they find people lying around in a dreamy sleepy state, unable and unwilling to stir themselves to action. Some of Odysseus’s crew eat the lotuses and become afflicted by the same lethargy. Their friends try to rouse them with talk of their responsibilities and their families waiting for them at journey’s end. They sleepily respond, in the words of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lotos Eaters:
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
Oh, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.
All these stories of the journey home are our story. And the warnings they convey, to be wary of the temptation to sleep, are warnings to us.
So sticking to the path is the key. Application of consistent effort over a period of time, under the guidance of wisdom, accompanied by others who walk the path, is the way to rise out of a world of waking-sleep into a realm of higher consciousness. Then it becomes possible to turn and extend a hand of friendship and help to others who are beginning to stir and who, in their turn, want to step free of sleep.