P1. If we pay attention, then going to sleep at night has our consciousness gradually withdrawing from the senses and our mind being absorbed by distractions until everything dissolves into the darkness of deep sleep. We are then apparently unconscious and in a state of dreamless sleep until dream images appear.
There is then a cycling of various stages of sleep throughout the night. In fact, for most of the time, while we are sleeping, we are not dreaming.
In scientific circles, the “fading of consciousness during dreamless sleep seems to occur in the different regions of the cerebral cortex that mediate perception, thought and action become functionally disconnected”.
If you ask anyone who has woken up from a long and deep sleep, they may immediately feel groggy and disoriented just after they wake up, but before long they will often tell you that they feel refreshed and that they experienced a wonderful sleep.
But there seem to be some contradictions here. Are we, in fact, unconscious in deep dreamless sleep?
Awareness of Dreamless Sleep
Despite people saying that they can’t remember being asleep, except when they were dreaming, there are some clues about their consciousness at this time:
- If the sleeper hears their alarm clock they wake up. So during sleep, the sleeper is externally conscious enough to respond at any stage of their sleep cycle, including during dreamless sleep
- Many people can decide just before they go to sleep, exactly what time they want to wake up in the morning. And they can do that often within a few minutes of their chosen waking time. So even during the periods of dreamless sleep, the sleeper is internally conscious enough to judge the passing of time fairly accurately.
These sleep characteristics are not true (in my experience at least) for anyone sleeping (ie unconscious) as a result of being given an anesthetic for a surgical operation, or unfortunately, lapsing into a coma for some medical reason.
In these cases, brain wave patterns are not like normal sleep, and the passing of time is not experienced and alarm clocks do not wake them up.
According to yoga practices, they describe the dream state as being when images arise, and they describe dreamless sleep as being the state when there are no images. But from the evidence above and personal experiences, consciousness does not fully dissolve in dreamless sleep but is self-absorbed in an image-less state of apparent contentment.
But yoga practices go on to say that it is possible to train oneself to be aware of what they call the clear light of dreamless sleep. Where there is a luminosity without images of any kind. Where one is aware of awareness illuminating itself. Where one can reside in deep sleep, awake. Where one can witness the state of dreamless sleep.
Stephen LaBerge quotes Swami Ramana here,
“It is when the inner world can be suffused with the full light of the highest universal consciousness. The ego state of waking consciousness drops away. Moreover, the personal aspects of the unknown mind are temporarily abandoned. The memories, the problems, troubled dream images are left behind. All limitations of the personal unconscious are drowned out in the full light of the highest consciousness”
In Western Thinking
There come now to my mind selected lines from a well-known Christmas carol, not from an oriental tradition but from a very different western tradition. The carol refers to the constant light within dreamless sleep.
It then also provides the notion of the witness of consciousness keeping watch, and then it mentions the resulting gift bestowed, then finally it alludes to how on can achieve a break-through into the void beyond words when it says:
“Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light…
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love…
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven…
Where Charity stands watching and Faith holds wide the door, the dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.”
We know that dreaming is important, but it seems that the gaps between dreaming are equally important too. People deprived of non-dreaming sleep report hallucinations, twisted perceptions, and confusion.
It seems that the brain needs to recover from the day, but it doesn’t mean consciousness is lost although it may be downgraded, as reported by the loss of some cognitive abilities of lucid dreamers, and also by the grogginess of some people waking up from a dreamless sleep.
In normal deep sleep, it seems we naturally identify with the all-enveloping blanket of darkness and are carried along by changes and fluctuations of our feelings. Whereas, the intention of yoga is to take the perspective of our conscious witness and experience the passing of those same feelings as we might watch the silent stars go by, above us, on a clear night.
The more esoteric yoga aim of going into dreamless sleep awake remains a possibility that may be worth exploring for those people seeking inner peace, bliss or enlightenment. At least, if one wishes to end delusion and ignorance, the exploration of sleep seems a great place to start.