One of the most baffling things about consciousness is how we lose it — and get it back again. It happens every night as we fall asleep, and day after day when we wake up. Every night we lose the sense of being conscious, and every day we regain it. But what are we losing? Where does it go? How does it come back to us? Is it just a neurological function that stops working for awhile? Or is there a nonphysical awareness that actually withdraws from the body?
Questions like these generated a great deal of speculation among early scientists, since there was no way of observing what happens to consciousness during sleep. But in the last several decades researchers have been able to measure the brain waves of sleeping subjects, and these studies have led to remarkable discoveries. Brain wave activity changes in a characteristic way, depending on our mental state. When we are awake and mentally active, the waves are fast and very short. They slow down to a moderate frequency when we close our eyes and relax. As we drift into sleep, the waves get slower and slower. And they slow down the most when we are in deep sleep.
These stages form the downward arc of a cycle. On the upward arc, the process is reversed. Coming out of deep sleep, the brain waves return to a moderate frequency. But then the speed suddenly jumps more than tenfold, and the eyes make rapid and erratic movements beneath the closed lids. This is the dream state that comes at the end of each sleep cycle, and we normally go through several cycles during the night.
This entire process has been studied in thousands of experiments, and the results provide a great deal of information about the "neurology of sleep." But the most fundamental question remains unanswered: What is the reason for sleep? On the one hand, everyone knows the restorative value of a good night’s sleep. We feel renewed. We are physically, emotionally, and mentally revitalized. But this renewal is not neurological. It is not biochemical. It is not anything observed in scientific experiments.
The reason for this has to do with consciousness itself. It is not a function of the physical body. It informs the body, just as it informs all of existence. Consciousness is in fact a universal organizing principle. At its most primal level, its energy has no frequency at all. It is totally quiescent, unmanifest, with infinite potential. In the manifested world, we are its emanations. It is the ultimate source of all our faculties and energies — and it is why we need to sleep.
When we are awake and alert, it is the vital force of consciousness that energizes our faculties. We channel this force every day until it wears us down, and then our self-consciousness needs to withdraw. We need to return to a state of stillness, the most primal level of our consciousness, for this is our link to the Source. In effect, we are restored by our own highest self.
With this understanding we can reconsider what is really going on when we go to sleep: we are withdrawing into stillness. The process actually begins just before we fall asleep. At this time there is a natural tendency to review the events of the day, especially if there are issues that have not been resolved. As long as these issues continue to bother us, the mind can still be racing, and we cannot fall asleep. We are in fact advised, even by physicians, to review the day without emotional attachment. No matter how events disturb us, if we can see the causes behind them, if we can sense how our actions affected others, it will give us the perspective we need to calm down.
So the first step is relaxing our attachment to emotions and opinions. This allows the mind to slow down before we fall asleep. The process continues in every stage of the sleep cycle. The mental habit of holding on to erratic thoughts and feelings grows weaker and weaker, and the mind continues to quiet down. Eventually, its erratic activity is stilled completely. The slowest waves of deep sleep are synchronized on both sides of the brain. In this state all the many "voices" of our lower nature are still: there are no sensations, no desires, and no thoughts. And here we are restored on every level our being.
What is most remarkable about the process of sleep is how closely it resembles the ancient wisdom teachings about death. When we are born into this world, it is the vital force of consciousness that awakens our faculties. We channel this force throughout our lives until it wears us down, and then we need to withdraw. Our consciousness leaves the restless world of sensing, wanting, and thinking . . . to return to the silence of the Source.
At the end of each physical life, we withdraw into stillness. Yet this is actually going on well before death. The tendency in old age is to become less involved with earthly attractions. Those who cannot relax their attachments are often greatly distressed when faced with their own mortality. This is why our "readiness to let go" is so important. The more prepared we are, the less we will suffer as the death process makes us ready.
The first step in this procedure is called the "panoramic vision." Just before death our consciousness reviews the events of the life that is ending. When we come to issues that we failed to resolve, disturbing relationships and their painful consequences — now we see the causes behind them. Time after time our perceptions were clouded by self- interest, our judgment was egocentric, and we were focused on ourselves. But now the ego loses its dominating role. This gives us a much larger perspective, and we can see how others experienced our actions.
When the physical body dies the higher levels of our consciousness withdraw, but the human ego is not ready. Even though the panoramic vision lets us see how our selfish actions affected others, the egoic self is still active. A lifetime of wanting things has generated a body of energy, and it needs a way to dissipate. So we enter a dreamlike state in which our baser desires expend their energies. How sensitive we are to these dreams depends on how strongly we were attached to our lower desires. Since the passions in old age generally decline, most departing souls are hardly aware of dreaming anything disturbing. However it is sensed, it allows us finally to let go of the lower part of our nature.
This separation is known as the second death. The energy of the personality and its lower desires is left behind and will completely dissipate, leaving only the faintest elemental traces of its former attributes. As for the part of us that lives on, it continues to withdraw into silence. It is no longer distracted by the many voices of its lower nature, so all that remains are its higher aspirations. All the ways we aspired to the lofty ideals that we were unable to achieve — these have their own subtle energies that prevent us from reaching total stillness. These subtle forces also need to be dissipated. So now we enter a final dreamlike state in which this spiritual energy can be expressed and expended. How long we remain in this condition of "bliss" depends on the quality of our aspirations. But in any event, it is an extremely quiet state of being. Eventually it brings us very close to the ultimate stillness of pure consciousness, and it is this stillness that restores us.
When all the energies of the previous life are finally spent, we live in the silence of the unmanifested Source. Yet this is also the condition that brings us back into manifested being. For in the silence we can "hear the call" of the faintest elemental forces — seeds of causes and effects that we still need to resolve. So begins the downward arc of a new life cycle. Starting from our higher principles and working downward, we attract the elemental forces needed to form our human constitution. As these attractions become stronger and stronger, our consciousness becomes more and more active, and we fall back into the habit of holding on to our perceptions. The ego regains its dominating role, and we reenter the restless world of sensing, feeling, and wanting.
Ultimately, the reason for death is the same as the reason for sleep. Part of us remembers the stillness at the core of our being. We sense its infinite potential. We know it, deep within our awareness, as the source of all being and becoming. We return to it day after day, and life after life, and it renews us again and again. Yet its spirit can touch us at any time, even in the midst of conflict and strife. All we need is the aspiration to think and act from the more universal aspects of our nature, to be great of heart and noble in thought. The higher we aspire, the more clearly we can hear the message of our highest self. It is the voice of stillness, and it informs us with compassion and understanding. And in the silence of heart and mind, we are restored.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)