To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

“To sleep, perchance to dream” is a well-known line from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in act 3, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. explains,  “The soliloquy is a logical expression of Hamlet’s thinking on the subject of death. He thinks about all the inconvenient, tedious and unpleasant things about life and fantasies about ending them with a long sharp needle in the heart or brain. (He does not specify which.) It would be so wonderful just to go to sleep—by which he means to die—and drift into unconsciousness, as we do when we place our heads on our pillow at the end of a day.  He is jolted by the thought that when we sleep we have dreams. Perhaps in that sleep of death, we would have dreams, and what would they be? He can’t answer that, and it frightens him.  This is part of the strong Christian theme that runs through the play….”

      Our variety of mental experiences tell us that waking consciousness is only a small part of our awareness, much like the tip of the iceberg, the only part that can be seen above water.  This  amazing and mysterious process of our minds, much of which we cannot explain, is among the mysteries of creation.  Furthermore, it is worth pursuing to achieve our God-given human potential.  Not only those who engage in meditation, but all who sleep and dream (and we all dream) have begun to tap the deeper levels.  There is more—much more—than we might imagine, as evidenced by those who have taken that journey beyond and have recounted their experiences.

    Studies of sleep deprivation have shown that people go crazy without the chance to rest.  It is akin to the computer needing to refragment its hard drive, to re-arrange the bits of stored information so that memory is made available and operating speed is improved.  The computer of our mind without this opportunity becomes similarly frustrated and bogged down.

     Something supposedly forgotten may be retrieved, much as our mechanical computer is able to search and find deeply stored information.  It is possible, at least under certain conditions, to mine the subconscious.  We know the adage “sleep on it”, which is an apt one, for if we give our internal search mechanism a command (either in a sleeping or waking state), it will perform a faithful search and frequently provide us with the information we required.  In one of Thoreau’s journal entries, he touched on this subject: “After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where?  But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no questions on her lips.  The unconsciousness of a man is the consciousness of God, the end of the world.”  And in another journal entry: “As if we only thought by sympathy with the universal mind, which thought while we were asleep.  There is such a necessity to make a definite statement that our minds at length do it without our consciousness, just as we carry our food to our mouths.  We hear and apprehend only what we already half know….Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and travelling….By and by we may be ready to receive what we cannot receive now.  Some incidents in my life…have been like myths or passages in a myth, rather than mere incidents of history which have to wait to become significant.  Quite in harmony with my subjective philosophy.”  

     Mining the subconscious may serve as an approach to problem solving.  Walter Knott, founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, was an inventive person, applying his native talent to numerous problems which led to lifetime success.  Here is how he describes the process: “When you have a difficult problem,” Knott later explained, “analyze it carefully, study out all the possible solutions, think it through as thoroughly as you can. Then, dismiss it from your mind. If you have done your homework properly, your subconscious mind will go to work for you and give you the answer without any further conscious effort of thinking about it.”  The solution, when it occurs, may appear to be fully formed and ready-made, with little or no improvement necessary.  That is the mystery of the subconscious process. 

     Arthur Koestler, who has written extensively on the mind and the creative process, notes in The Act of Creation that in the dream state “the codes of logical reasoning are suspended”, that “there is a temporary liberation from the tyranny of over-precise verbal concepts,” the discarding of habit along with the ability to un-learn and forget.  In its place is a new fluidity and versatility as a characteristic. The dream state is full of “the symbols—the metaphors of the collective unconscious.  However bewildering they may appear to the waking mind, they are familiar to the dreamer, and recur constantly in the sleep of people who have nothing else in common.  The Night Journey….is a regression of the participatory tendencies, a crisis in which consciousness becomes unborn—to become unborn is a higher form of synthesis….the creative impulse, having lost its bearing in trivial entanglements, must effect a retreat to recover its vigor.  Without our regular, minor night journeys in sleep we would soon become victims of mental dessication.  Dreaming is for the underprivileged the equivalent of the artistic experience of breaking away from the trivial plane and creating his own mythology.”

     A particularly interesting account in Koestler’s book is that of chemist August von Kekulé who, one afternoon in 1865, fell asleep and envisioned molecules in long, snakelike formations dancing before his eyes.  Then one of the snakes took hold of its own tail and the prediction of  one of organic chemistry’s principles lay before him: “that the molecules of certain important organic compounds are not open structures but closed chains or ‘rings’—like the snake swallowing its tail.”  Koestler explains that a “blocked” situation encountered when solving a problem will cause the old patterns of thought to break down.  At a certain point of “ripeness” the subconscious layers of consciousness will “bear down vertically” through intuition to a new matrix, which will fuse with the old one.  This tells us that the solution to many problems we face may well lie beyond our ordinary thinking processes.

     The website identifies the seven most common types of dreams, which help us define the subject with which we are dealing.  They are: (1) release dreams, which, as previously mentioned, help us sort and purge the information we have gathered in our waking moments or to work out a problem or experience with which we have been dealing; (2) message dreams, often using the symbolism of several Old Testament accounts, but sometimes more obvious; (3) dreams of precognition, foretelling something that will happen, often hard to distinguish from release and message and dreams; (4) lucid dreams, in which the dreamer is still consciously aware and able to direct the process (which, it is claimed, can be learned and is improved through practice); (5) visitation dreams in which we talk with those who are deceased; (6) wish dreams, in which we receive something we hope for, often leaving us happy or excited; (7) nightmares, resulting from past traumatic or stressful events, message dreams with a strong way of delivering the message.  These, it is claimed, may be understood and managed by the use of lucid dreaming techniques.

     The Bible is an amazing collection of references to sleep and dreaming, containing many facets.  The first of these is a frequently recurring Old Testament phrase, “sleep/slept with the/your/his fathers” (in the Jerusalem Bible “gather you unto your ancestors”), in addition to the related “sleep/slept, lie down in the dust, to dust, and similar constructions.  These, of course, are  metaphors for death.  Historically, these come from a time when the notion of the resurrection of the dead had not yet appeared or was still in its infancy.  Daniel 12:2-3 bridges the gap between the earlier and the later understanding: Many who “sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament…”  The importance of sleep in both contexts is echoed in other spiritual cultures.  Sanskrit scriptures mention the “world of the fathers” (pitryana), from which the Latin word root patri is derived.  This is contrasted with the world of the gods” (deva-loka or Devayana), a preferred destiny.  These two paths are expounded in the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad: “Know you the access of the path leading to the gods (Devayana), or of the one leading to the fathers? by doing what, people go to the path of the gods or of the fathers? for we have heard the word of the seer:—Two paths, I’ve heard—the one that leads to fathers, and one that leads to gods—belong to mortals.  By these two, every moving thing that travels, that is between the Father and the Mother.’ [Father Heaven and Mother Earth.”].  A further passage explains, “As a goldsmith, taking a piece of gold, reduces it to another newer and more beautiful form, just so this soul, striking down this body and dispelling its ignorance, makes for itself another newer and more beautiful form like that either of the fathers, or…of the gods, or of other beings….”

     While we are on the subject of sleep as death, it is notable that Jesus referred to sleep in this manner on two occasions.  In the first (Matthew 9, parallel in Luke 8), the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue has died, but Jesus states that the girl is “not dead, but sleepeth”, though, obvious to all, this is not the case.  Yet it is reasonable to think that to one who could claim (John 10:17) that “I lay down my life, that I might take it again” would regard the sleep of death as an impermanent condition.  As we know, he commands her to rise, and she awakes,  In the case of Lazarus (John 11), Jesus at first describes him as sleeping, but when asked by his disciples to explain, states plainly that he is dead.  In one of the most dramatic occurrences in the Bible, Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from the tomb, and he emerges, still bound in his grave clothes. 

     Two further accounts deal with sleep as death, but in the hope and joy of the resurrection: 1Corinthians 15:20-28 “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept….”.  And, in 1 Corinthians 15:51-57 “…We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed….the dead shall be raised incorruptible….and this mortal must put on immortality….”

     New Testament references affirm the victory of resurrection over the sleep of death.  Following the crucifixion, in Matthew 27:51-54 The veil of the temple is split in two and the bodies of the saints which slept arose “and came out the graves after the resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” In Ephesians 5:8-14 “….Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” [Jerusalem Bible notes provide this variation, “and you will touch Christ”]  In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 “For I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those which are asleep….the dead in Christ shall rise first; Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” A fuller understanding is provided by the Jerusalem Bible notes: “….‘concerning the sleeping’.  The euphemism was common in the O.T., the N.T., and in Greek literature: the natural concomitant was to call the resurrection (to new life or from death) an ‘awakening’….”

     Dreams and their interpretations (the message dreams) play an important role, especially in Old Testament literature.  Among them (Genesis 15:12-15) “Horror of great darkness” [Jerusalem Bible “terror”] falls on Abram (before God changed his name to Abraham) in his sleep regarding his impending journey to a strange land, but concluding that in the end he will go to his fathers in peace. Genesis 28:10-19 contains Jacob’s dream of a ladder extending to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, following by the assurance that his seed “shall be as the dust of the earth”, concluding with the assurance that God will not leave him until he has done all he has spoken of.  Jacob responds, “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I knew it not.”  In Genesis 37:5-11 Joseph dreams of the sheaves, where those of his brothers stood around his in obeisance, and, further, “the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance unto me”, arousing the hatred and envy of his brothers, which got him sold into slavery.  His facility at dream interpretation, as it turns out, makes him a valuable counselor to Pharaoh, (as in Genesis 41:1-36 Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows and seven thin cows, and of the seven good ears and seven thin ears of corn.)  This portent allows time to store up resources which will be called upon in the time of famine.  Other prophetic dreams include Nathan’s dream (2 Samuel 7:4-29) where he is to tell David to build a house to him. The vision is told to David, who agrees to build the house, praising the Lord and asking for his blessing.  Job (4:12-21) has a fearful vision as he sleeps concerning the death and destruction of mortal man.  The prophet Daniel, advisor to Nebuchadnezzar (1:17) “had understanding in all visions and dreams.”

     The prophet Daniel had dreams of precognition which foretold the coming of the Messiah.  Daniel 7:1-14 contains his dream of the ‘Ancient of Days’ and the Son of man (the Hebrew ben adam or Aramaic bar nasha, with the primary meaning “man”)  But here, the Jerusalem Bible notes state, “the expression signifies a man who is mysteriously more than human.  This is attested to by early Jewish apocryphal writings, and most particularly by Jesus who applies it to himself.  In a later vision (8:15-19), “the appearance of a man” speaks to him in his deep sleep and explains “what shall be in the last end of the indignation”

     Moving to the New Testament era, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream Matthew 1:18-25), telling him that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit and will give birth to a son who will be called Jesus, who will save the people from their sins. Later (Matthew 2:12-15) the wise men are warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod.  In the same passage Joseph is told by the angel of the Lord in a dream to escape to Egypt.  Prior to delivering Jesus over for crucifixion, Herod is warned by his wife (Matthew 27:19) to have nothing to do with Jesus, “for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.”  

     Sleep as “sleep, not death” makes its appearance in several Bible passages, and in several positive and negative contexts.  Proverbs 5:12 tells us that the laborer’s sleep is sweet and that he will rest well (for he has worked hard and has lain his burden down for the day), but that “the rich man’s wealth will not let him sleep at all” (for his concerns about his affairs go on).  In 10:5, sleeping at harvest time “causes shame”, for there is work to do and we are obligated to do it and not shirk our responsibility.  Similarly in 19:15, “Slothfulness causes deep sleep.”  20:13 warns us, “Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty…”  Moving to Ecclesiastes (5:2,7) dreams come from the “multitude of business”; in dreams there are many words and a multitude of vanities [Jerusalem Bible “for every dream a vanity to match”]  The Book of Sirach (34:1-8) tells us that the dream is like a mirror and that dreams have led many astray (more vanity). [Jerusalem Bible notes read ”The dream, like the mirror, only presents an image…the dream reflects only what a man already has in his mind, neither adding anything nor providing  any assurance.”

     The few New Testament passages on this subject are nonetheless instructive.  In Mark 13:32-37, Jesus commands his followers to watch and pray, for they “know not when the master of the house cometh”.  Paul instructs his followers in Romans 13:11-14 to “awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.”  Finally, more on the theme of “watch and pray in 1Thessalonians 5:4-10 “…Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.  For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night….”

      Sleep, at least for those not tormented by worldly concerns and guilt, can be a source of God’s presence and care.  Psalms 3:5 tells us that the Lord sustains those in sleep and awake. [JB notes read: “The Fathers apply this passage to the death and resurrection of Christ”  In 4:4-8 “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep [JB “and fall asleep at once”]: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety.”  In 127:2 God gives sleep to his beloved [Jerusalem Bible “provides for his beloved as they sleep”, in an alternate reading “gives sleep to those he loves”].  Proverbs 3:24-26 provides God’s assurance, “thou shalt not be afraid…thy sleep shall be sweet.”

     Joel 2:28-32 places sleep and dreaming in its prophetic context.  Here, the Lord “will pour out my spirit on all flesh; and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions….And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered…”

     A curious series of verses invoke a God who is said to be sleeping to awake.  In Psalms 44:23-26 “Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord?….”, and later in 73:20 “As in a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when thou awakes, thou shalt despise their image.” There are several further references on God’s “awakening”, but Psalms 121:4 assures us that God “shall neither slumber nor sleep”

     Our Bible has provided a rich tapestry of sleep and dreaming in many views, but are there scriptures which may provide us with additional understanding?  Fortunately, the answer is yes.  The Upanishads devote extensive coverage in several books to a deep structure, having four successive levels.  Praśna 4:5 in Hume’s translation is titled “The universal mind, the beholder of dreams”  Here, what the dreamer has seen in his waking consciousness, “he sees again; whatever has been heard, he hears again.  That which has been severally experienced in different places and regions, he severally experiences again and again.  Both what has been seen and what has not been seen, both what has been heard and what has not been heard, both what has been experiences and what has not been experienced, both the real (sat) and the unreal (a-sat)—he sees all.  He sees it, himself being all.”  This is the first level of sleep and dreaming.

     Each of four states of consciousness has its own descriptive Sanskrit name: waking (jagrat), dreaming (svapna), deep sleep (suśupti), which are empirically experienced by human beings.  This is the Three Bodies Doctrine: The waking state, in which we are aware of our daily world, is the gross body.  The second state is the dreaming mind, the subtle body. Following it is the third state, deep sleep, known as the causal body.  To these are added a fourth state, known as Turiya, which some describe as pure consciousness.  It is the background that underlies and transcends these three common states of consciousness. Turiya is the state of liberation, that is, “free from the dualistic experience, where the foundational Self is realized, measureless, all-pervading, without suffering, blissful, changeless, self-luminous, real, immanent in all things and transcendent. Those who have experienced this stage of self-consciousness have reached the pure awareness of their own non-dual Self as one with everyone and everything, for them the knowledge, the knower, the known becomes one.”  Few there may be who reach this level of consciousness, but it is there nonetheless, and it is the resolution of the preceding three states.

     The Chandogya Upanishad (8:10) provides further details of the dream state: “He who moves about happy in a dream….That is the immortal, the fearless….Now, even if this body is blind, that one [the Self] is not blind.  If this is lame, he is not lame.  Indeed, he does not suffer defect through defect of this.  He is not slain with one’s murder.  He is not lame with one’s lameness.  Nevertheless, as it were they kill him; as it were, they unclothe him [in another Upanishad “tear to pieces”], as it were, he comes to experience what is unpleasant, as it were, he even weeps.  I see nothing enjoyable in this….”  This passage resonates strongly with me.  As I process the events of my waking consciousness in the dream state I have been happy, but more frequently have felt “torn to pieces”, frustrated, confused, even sad.  In this condition is it not reasonable that my hope is to eventually pass to a state beyond dreaming, where these experiences do not exist?

     Koestler provides a beautiful explanation of what I have been trying to express: “A few steps higher on the intensity scale, and the ‘I’ no longer seems to exist, to dissolve in the experience like a grain of salt in water; awareness becomes de-personalized and expands into the ‘oceanic feeling of limitless extension and oneness with the universe’ [Romain Rolland]….The craving for the womb, for the dissolution of the self in a lost, vegetative oneness—Freud’s Nirvana principle—is further symbolized in the image of mother ocean in whose calm depths all life originates.  However bewildering they may appear to the waking mind, they are familiar to the dreamer, and recur constantly in the sleep of people who have nothing else in common.” 

     A different note is struck by a passage from another scripture, the Srimad Bhagavatum.  It is important because it addresses release from entanglement in sin: “As a man, after a bad dream, remembers the dream but is not affected by it, so a free soul, freed from ego and attachment, works out his past karma.  He is free from entanglement with any future karma.  A man without self-control may run away from the world and the attractions of the world, but he can never run away from his own mind and passions.  These follow him.  But a man who is self-controlled and devoted to God may live in the world and yet not be of it.  Thou who hast already taken shelter at the Lotus Feet of the Lord, and hast thus controlled thine enemies, the passions, shouldst remain in the world and do the will of the Lord.’ ”. This reflects a value which many Christians hold, being “in the world but not of the world”.

     Is the deeper structure of sleep and dreaming state only an escape from action?  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi maintains the two are not opposed, addressing the relationship of non-action to action, quoting Bhagavad Gita 3:4: “Not be abstaining from action does a man achieve non-action; nor by mere renunciation does he attain to perfection.”  He writes, “ ‘Non-action’ is the nearest translation of the Sanskrit word ‘naishkarmyam’, which expresses a specific quality of the doer, a quality of non-attachment whereby he enjoys from the bondage of action even during activity.  It expresses a natural and permanent state of the doer.  Whether he is engaged in the activity of the waking or dreaming state or in the inactivity of deep sleep, he retains inner awareness.  It is a state of life where Self-consciousness is not overshadowed by any of the three relative states of consciousness—waking, dreaming or sleeping.  In this state of ‘naishkarmyam’, the doer has risen to the fourth state of consciousness, ‘turiya’; this, in its essential nature, is Self-consciousness, the pure absolute state of bliss-consciousness—Sat-Chit-Ananda—but yet is inclusive of the three relative states of consciousness.”   Again, “in the world but not of the world”.

     Can the dream state access accounts of previous lives, and is this evidence of reincarnation?  This is for each person to decide, but it should be remembered that for some, Jesus and John the Baptist were considered to be reincarnations of Elijah and Elisha, respectively.  In one of the most notable, hypnotist Morrie Bernstein’s age regression experiments which revealed his subject Virginia Tighe’s past life as that of Bridie Murphy, he writes “Some of the things they turned up were quite intriguing. It would turn out that, rather than never having had any exposure to Irish culture, she had actually had an Irish aunt, and had also had an Irish immigrant neighbor named Bridie Murphy Corkell, who had lived across the street from Virginia’s childhood home, with her name also suspiciously similar to ‘Bridey Murphy’.  There were also found to be several coincidental parallels between Bridey Murphy’s life and Virginia’s, and skeptics began to suspect that she may have been displaying what is called cryptomnesia, in which the subject’s   subconscious picks up memories and outside cues to form a delusional fantasy, often unbeknownst even to them and only accessible in dreams or through hypnosis. In these cases, while it may seem that the subject is accurately describing a past life, most of the details can inevitably tracked back to something in their current, real life that they have encountered and retained, if even on a subconscious level, to mix together into a concoction that seems like something new.”  Psychologist Martin Gardner has said of all of this: “Almost any hypnotic subject capable of going into a deep trance will babble about a previous incarnation if the hypnotist asks him to. He will babble just as freely about his future incarnations. In every case of this sort where there has been adequate checking on the subject’s past, it has been found that the subject was weaving together long forgotten bits of information acquired during his early years.”  For her part, Virginia Tighe would deny having ever had any interest in Ireland, much less 19th century Ireland, and claimed to have had never been exposed to it in any way, certainly not enough to provide all of the obscure details she had provided. She also actually did not pursue any fame or money from her predicament either, and apart from a few interviews she largely lived under the radar and away from the spotlight until her death in 1999. There are a lot of things she no doubt took to her grave with her. Was she really the reincarnated form of a 19th century Irishwoman? How could she know all of the things she did? Was this just a clever ruse, and if so did she trick Bernstein or was he in on it too? Even all of these decades later the case of Virginia Tighe and her alter ego Bridey Murphy remains unexplained, and is one of the great reincarnation cases, still discussed to this day.”

     Whether awake or asleep, we live and move in this ocean of multi-leveled awareness, both blessing and tormenting us.  This struggle cannot be ignored on the path of life.  The scriptures, accompanied our powers of intuition and reflection, are tools which provide a means to navigate our condition.  But, beneath and beyond whatever level of consciousness in which we find ourselves, we can rest assured that we are held by One who knows us, and loves us.

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