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The “Being” of Sleep


  • “The waking have one common world. But the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.” Heraclitus quoted by poet Philip Whalen in Sourdough Mountain Lookout
  • “Last night in my sleep I dreamed that I was sleeping, and dreaming in that sleep that I had awakened, I fell asleep.” Rabbi Nachman of Bratislava quoted in A Safe Place, directed by Henry Jaglom
  • “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.” ― Gandhi
  • “Sleep is the image of death, and awakening that of resurrection.”—St. Francis de Sales
  • “Sleep, those little slices of death—how I loathe them.”
    ― Edgar Allan Poe
  • “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.” William Shakespeare, The Tempest
  • “A dreamer is not cognizant of the hallucinatory fabric of a dream until he awakens. Similarly, man does not understand the delusory nature of the cosmic dream of creation until he awakens in God.” Dr. Minott W. Lewis, The Cure of Sorrow (Self Realization Fellowship)
  • “Death, so called, is a thing which makes men weep, And yet a third of life is passed in sleep.” ― Lord Byron
  • “MISUNDERSTANDING OF DREAMS.  In the ages of crude primeval culture man believed that in dreams he got to know another real world; here is the origin of all metaphysics.  Without the dream one would have been found no occasion for a division of the world.  The separation of body and soul, too, is related to the most ancient conception of the dream; also the assumption of a quasi-body of the soul, which is the origin of all belief in spirits, and probably also the belief in gods. ‘The dead live on; for they appear to the living in dreams’: this influence went unchallenged for many thousands of years.” —Friedrich Nietzsche 
  • “…the vividness of the nightmare experience has given rise to the belief in the objective reality of personified demons and Gods: the nightmare is the experiential base of religion.”— James Hillman 


According to the National Institutes of Health, an average human spends about one third of his life sleeping. Assuming an average human life span of 78 years, that equates to about 26 years each person spends sleeping in his lifetime. 

The Greek God ‘Sleep’ and his Mom ‘Night’

Before we sojourn into the neck of the woods of sleep, let us go spelunking into the id and mind of the classical Greeks—their myths.

In Greek mythology, Hypnos is the personification of sleep; the Roman equivalent was known as Somnus.

According to Greek mythology, “Hypnos lived in a cave, whose mansion does not see the rising, nor the setting sun nor does it see the ‘lightsome noon.’ At the entrance were a number of poppies and other hypnotic plants. His dwelling had no door or gate so that he might not be awakened by the creaking of hinges. The river Lethe, in the underworld, flowed through his cave. This river is known as the river of forgetfulness.” 

Hypnos lived next to his twin brother, Thanatos—death personified—in the underworld.

The mother of Hypnos and Thanatos was Nyx, the deity of Night, and their father was Erebus, the deity of Darkness. Nyx was a dreadful and powerful goddess, a shadowy figure,  who stood at or near the beginning of creation. Her appearances are sparse in surviving mythology, but reveal her as a figure of such exceptional power and beauty, that she is feared by Zeus himself. She is found in the shadows of the world and only ever seen in glimpses.

The wife of Hypnos, Pasithea, was one of the youngest of the Graces and was promised to him by Hera. Pasithea is the deity of hallucination or relaxation, and meditation.

Hypnos had three sons, the Oneiroi (Greek for ‘dreams’): Morpheus is the Winged God of Dreams and can take human form in dreams. Phobetor is the personification of nightmares and created frightening dreams. He could take the shape of any animal including bears and tigers. Phantasos was known for creating fake dreams full of illusions.

“The Oneiroi lived in a cave at the shores of the Ocean in the West. The cave had two gates with which to send people dreams; one made from ivory and the other from buckhorn. However, before they could do their work and send out the dreams, first Hypnos had to put the recipient to sleep.”

I am Fascinated by Sleep

The most nonpublic and private thing you do is sleep. You are, by God, alone. But in dreams, all by yourself, your imagination starts the movie projection of images and dramas right where your stereopsis left off as you sank into your bed.

You enter a surreal mental-scape, or a blank, featureless lacuna, or worse, a dreadful nightmare. You actually give yourself up, lose yourself and black out. You are totally defenseless. No wonder you’ve locked all the doors.

Unlike ourselves within our secured homes, think of all the animals throughout the ages that have slept and conked out, but with a half anxiety and light sleep so as to save themselves from their predators. No doubt it is the same for nocturnal animals which live by night and sleep by day, hidden from sunlight.

Think about it. The Pharaoh slept in his magnificent chamber guarded by his attendants and the priests. The Son of Ra, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Sedge and the Bee—even he had to relinquish his sacred, divine awareness. 

Napoleon slept, as did his soldiers. No matter that by day they all hacked and slaughtered. Come the night, the Emperor of France and his hordes fell under the spell of lethargy and involuntary apathy. Were their dreams of the horrors wrought that day as they lay in blood drenched pantalons

Even astronauts in their whirling and tumbling come to one last sunset on their watch with intrusive sleep in their eyes.

Maybe the second most private and remarkable thing after sleep is to wake up. In Buddhism we find that waking up is the stacking up of the five ‘forces’ in Buddhism, called Skandhas, that form our personality/mask. 

First I become aware of my form (body); then my senses perceive; next some muddled conceptions arise; next volition as I move my limbs; and finally my consciousness (mind) dawns and I remember, by God, “So that’s who I AM and have been all these years. My name is so-and-so. Now I can get on with my day.” 

For some of us these five Skandhas stack right up and we jump right out of bed and are rarin’ to go. Others lie there in a fog, but slowly the fog clears, we stretch our limbs, and we will once again rise, stand, walk and get on with our lives because the world is waiting for us out there. 

Unlike wakefulness, with all its worldly demands, tasks and intrusiveness, sleep releases us from our social status and social roles. Sleep time is the freest time in our life. Suspended are all rational, mindful, half-mindful, or half-assed obligations, conversations, responsibilities, agreements, services and tasks.

You can even practice gross immodesty and get rid of your clothes and sleep in the buff. It is recommended that you sleep naked, though I cannot quote chapter and verse on this. But think of it, sleep as naked as a new born babe, or like a free spirited kid going skinny dipping.

To go to sleep is an urgency of the body that overtakes volition. All parts of our body are inflicted with an urgency beyond our volition suited to the part. Take for instance the eyes. We are overcome at times with an urgency to tear up for various reasons—everything from allergies to sadness. Going down the body from the eyes—there are urgencies associated with the nose, the mouth, and so on down the body—I leave it to you to fill the the blanks. 

However, the urgency of sleep is not about purging alluvium from our orifices. Sleep is about the whole body losing dynamism, vibrancy and mobility—and if undisturbed, even sensibility, responsiveness and awareness.

To sleep you have to get off your feet and lie down. You surrender alertness, self-defense, and power of movement. Nobody sleeps standing up. Some do not lie down, but recline in a substantial chair due to obesity or respiratory problems.

While sleeping we become an unconscious blank, a dead weight, and for a while our limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed. As daylight fades to darkness, we find ourselves irresistibly prone on a bed. Yes, we also sprawl and loll or toss and turn, recumbent or supine. We turn on our sides, or take the fetal position, more than likely supporting our heads with a pillow, or clutching, grappling, tussling with a body-pillow or even a real body.

My God—it seems to me that to awaken in the morning, then having to get up from bed is for me, well, a kind of awakening into a nightmare. Why? Read the headlines. Watch or listen to the news. It is a hell hole somewhere out there, and maybe just down the street. Thankfully, where I live there are no echoes of gun shots in the night, like I hear of in some unfortunate city climes. But I could buy an airplane ticket and fly into a horror of war and fleeing masses of people somewhere out there. So the quotidian “nightmare” is not far off. 


Or is it maybe that all the goings-on in the night happen with another person. Do I have to go into all the details? Really? But for sure, after a while, the partners then go into a knocked-out condition, a sinking into their respective, private back and forth between dreaming or deep-dreamless states of experience. 

Communal Sleeping

There are sleeping arrangements for more than two. This is standard among third world peoples. In my Peace Corps time in Kabul, Afghanistan I visited the home of an Hazara man, Hadim, who was my house manager. I was served tea with lots of white sugar. 

At least two generations lived in this home. Hadim’s part of the home was a large room for general time in the day, with wood burning stove for warmth and cooking. In plain view were the sleeping mats piled up along a wall. The room was converted into one big bedroom at night.

Rapid Eye Movement

REM sleep is also known as ‘paradoxical sleep.’ And indeed, the brain waves emitted during this stage seem contradictory: although you are sleeping, your brain waves look at lot like what can be recorded when you are fully awake. Another aspect of this paradoxicality is the fact that even though your brain shows a heightened activity, most of your muscles are paralyzed. 

When we switch into REM sleep, our breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow, our eyes jerk rapidly in various directions, and our limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed. Our heart rate increases, our blood pressure rises, and males develop penile erections. When people awaken during REM sleep, they often describe bizarre and illogical tales—dreams.

I recall a vivid dream of mine: pictured in my dreaming mind I see a closeup of a patch of matted hair on the torso of an indistinct animal. Suddenly a kind of blood spot, like a small wound, rises through the hair. And then a silver ball begins to surface out of the bloody spot. Then the palindrome, THOHT, appeared…switch the “h” and “t” and you get THOTH, the Ibis headed Egyptian god of wisdom and knowledge. And the dream went dark. Someone observed that this was some kind of oracle. 

States of Experience

I recently had an email exchange with Richard Goeller. I studied the Upanishads with Richard some years ago. From Richard I learned of the astonishing Hindu notion of three ‘states of experience’—a rather intriguing turn of phrase. 

Our 16 hour ordinary day is a state of experience in which I am conscious of the circuitry of my body and mind. 

The 8 hour time of sleep is divided into two parts: dreaming and deep dreamlessness. In the dream state of experience, my body drops away but my mind remains, generating imaginings and moving pictures. 

But then in the state of experience of deep dreamless sleep—guess what? No body and no mind; just not being there. I sometimes fall asleep with the radio blaring and wake up surprised that I was not aware at all of how loud it was. Where was I? 

From this it seems to be that deep dreamless sleep is as close to a death experience in life as possible. St. Francis de Sales said it: “Sleep is the image of death…”

Maybe a coma is even closer. But I gather that a person in some types of coma can hear. 

I am fascinated by deep dreamless sleep, which is darkness and nothingness. But very soon after my awakening, it flashes into my awareness that I have slept, and time has passed, and by the way, I just came out of a ‘nothing.’ There is some form of awareness and understanding of a ‘nothing’ in that I immediately flash on the memory of ‘nothing.’ I slept well enough, I say to myself. I didn’t have to deal with anything. I was in a dark paradoxical state of a selfless-self-awareness. This is deep, dreamless sleep.

In dreams, I am in an imprecise time frame, in a multidimensional, dissolving and reforming phantasmagoria of known and blank characters, of scenes, sets, stages, lighting and costumes that are like vapors. There’s a ‘me’ and a ‘not me’ wandering about, playing both a lead character and maybe only a walk-on.

Richard Goeller’s Email Instruction: “Utter Absence of Want”

Hi Art, I understand your fascination – Vedānta put sleep in a whole new light for me – light which illuminated the point of the teaching better than anything else I have come across. Here are my suggestions…for the last paragraph, perhaps something like this:

I am fascinated by deep dreamless sleep, in which there is only darkness, a nothingness that is known but is without any subject-object duality, without any sense of an ‘I’ which knows it, without any form at all—and which upon awaking, I remember. Without checking the clock or anything else I know that I slept well, that for some time I knew nothing – no dreams, no fitful waking, only delicious peace without any sense of lack or limitation—which I leave reluctantly, and which, at the end of the day I will eagerly anticipate revisiting, finally dropping everything to do so. Nothing is so attractive as this fullness, this utter absence of want.



See this article on nightmares for matters that are astonishingly candid, uncompromising and unafraid to delve into a chthonic dimension of sleep. Summary provided is from  

Roscher, W. H., & Hillman, J. (1979). Pan and the Nightmare: Two Essays. Irving, TX: Spring.

This brilliant book brings Pan back to life by following C. G. Jung’s famous saying: “The Gods have become our diseases.” Chapters on nightmare panic, on masturbation, rape and nympholepsy, on instinct and synchronicity, and on Pan’s female loves-echo, Syrinx, Selene, and the Muses-show the goat-God at work and play in the dark drives and creative passions of our lives. Hillman’s insights present the archetypal figure in the depths of nature and archetypal psychology as a method of revelation. Pan and the Nightmare (which includes a full translation of Wilhelm Roscher’s masterful 19th-century mythological-pathological treatise on Pan and the demons of the night) is the most radical study of this God ever undertaken.



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