Issues in Understanding the Mechanism of Sleep and Dreams

We spend a large percentage of our lives in the realm of sleep, and the dreams that accompany the sleep state. We have very little actual knowledge of what takes place during our period of sleep, although scientists do extensive studies on the electrical activity in the brain during sleep and the different phases or stages of sleep. Psychologists have also made an extensive study of the patterns of imagery and symbolism that occur in dreams and which seem to either represent a jumbled raising up of impressions of the waking life, or some kind of symbolic messaging that comes about through some kind of universal archetypal repository that we all share.

Given the significance of sleep and dream in our overall lifespan, it is important and highly useful to gain an understanding of the state of consciousness active during sleep. There are stages we call ‘light sleep’, ‘deep sleep’ ‘REM sleep’ as well as transitional stages as the consciousness hovers between sleep and waking. In some cases we can become aware of events in consciousness in the transitional stages as well as partial transcriptions of dreams if we awaken directly from the REM sleep stage that represents a primary dreaming stage of high activity. We can categorize and define these things using our waking ideas, but a true understanding of the deeper significance of sleep and dreams requires us to gain an awareness of the deeper stages of sleep, the purpose of dreams, and the different type of dreams that can occur.

We tend to treat sleep as a kind of ‘death’ inasmuch as we lose our awareness and our ego-consciousness during deep sleep. The questions arise, where does the consciousness go, and what does it do, and in what manner does it return to a waking state? Is it possible to create a link that will allow us to bring the experience of the sleep state into awareness in our waking consciousness?

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Your second experience is a first movement of the awakening of the inner being in sleep. Ordinarily when one sleeps a complex phenomenon happens. The waking consciousness is no longer there, for all has been withdrawn within into the inner realms of which we are not aware when we are awake, though they exist; for then all that is put behind a veil by the waking mind and nothing remains except the surface self and the outward world — much as the veil of the sunlight hides from us the vast worlds of the stars that are behind it. Sleep is a going inward in which the surface self and the outside world are put away from our sense and vision. But in ordinary sleep we do not become aware of the worlds within; the being seems submerged in a deep subconscience. On the surface of this subconscience floats an obscure layer in which dreams take place, as it seems to us, but, more correctly it may be said, are recorded. When we go very deeply asleep, we have what appears to us as a dreamless slumber; but, in fact, dreams are going on, but they are either too deep down to reach the recording surface or are forgotten, all recollection of their having existed even is wiped out in the transition to the waking consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, Experiences in Dream, pp. 196-199

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