Turn on the bedside lamp. Arrange the pillows. Settle in with a book in progress and open to last night’s marked page. Recognize nothing. Memory for those parts read as sleep stole over you never formed.
Go back a page or two…ahh! Here is something familiar. Start there. All is smooth for a page or two. Then the pace slows. The distance between words and meaning lengthens and a struggle to understand begins. Time slows and suddenly the still visible words no longer symbolize anything. This second, or fraction of a second, marks the border of an elusive state in which the self stands apart, still awake and aware, but disconnected from the machinery it normally uses. Catching the sensation, without slipping into the oblivion of sleep, is like being suspended in time and separated from all the meanings automatically assigned to what is seen, heard and felt in the real world – yet the world is still here.
Sleep steamrolls the elusive state almost instantly, but, while it lasts, it is a fascinating sense of “being,” poised between two worlds. One is the world of the bedroom, the light, the book, the sheets, and the surrounding walls. The other is a world detached from the meanings of all those familiar, objective things. I suspect, but do not know for sure, that this thin little membrane between wakefulness and sleep is the target area of people who are skilled in meditation and of contemplatives who seek a spiritual connection between themselves and something outside nature.
Imagine being able to hang in the in-between place, without succumbing to the all-powerful tide of sleep, yet to be detached from the cold, hard world of the surrounding room and also aware that you are still you. Reports from skilled seekers of enlightenment, from faithful meditation practitioners and from some of the great religious traditions of wisdom suggest that exploration of consciousness unplugged from its routine state might be rewarding. And for some reason, physical health benefits like lower blood pressure and more even moods come back from that place.
There is real appeal, too, in personal experience that lends credence to the idea that there is more to each of us than $5.00 worth of raw materials – that some part of us rises above the chemistry. My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor’s first person description of her expansive trip through her own brain while in the middle of a stroke, rocketed around the internet not because of its neuroanatomy and physiology, but because it added to the hope that the human creature is more than an animal. The hope that the nagging sense of otherness, the need to be good and to do good things, the ability to imagine, the drive to create art and music, and the love of symmetry and beauty reflect more than random biologic events culled out of DNA by the drive to survive.
When I was a child I tried to hold myself poised in another early phase of sleep – the one in which vivid imagery parades across the inner screen – in my case it was always from left to right. The images were always complex, detailed and colorful –unrelated by any story line, and not necessarily imagery form any of my real-life experiences. Elephants decked out in magnificent jeweled saddles and the like. The trick was to not pay them too much attention, or I would be back up in wakefulness, but also to pay them just enough that I would not fall into the sleep pit.
Adulthood put an end to the drifting mode of getting into sleep. Busy days and chronic sleep deprivation made cliffs out of the previously gentle slopes surrounding the sleep pit. No more lollygagging into unconsciousness. But I suspect those childhood experiences were the beginning of my unshakeable sense that the watcher of these fascinating states of consciousness, as well of dreams, is the deepest part of the self – a part that can be unplugged from the $5.00 body. The partial unplugging that precedes sleep is fun. The complete unplugging that comes at the end of life? I suppose it depends on what you believe. Is there something else? Is there nothing else? No way to know for sure. But I would not like to experience a persistent, conscious sense of self in a void. That might be hell.
*this was not written for an Elks Magazine Healthline column.