Sunday, April 25, 2010

Theorizing: The Transition to Sleep

It seems to me that we may live our lives close to another kind of world, a more subtle one; but that world feels and looks much like our own. It may well be that we visit that realm in sleep—in deep rather than in REM sleep. Here is the speculation. We don’t remember our time in deep sleep because, while we are in bodies, what we remember must be stored using the brain’s intermediation. When the brain falls asleep, it stops storing experiences. At the same time, when the brain is awake, its noisy functioning prevents our linking to the more subtle memories in the state we inhabit during deep sleep. This view requires the idea that memories are not stored in tissue but in something like Sheldrake’s morphic fields.

The simple rule here is that we must be at least half-awake to form reliably retrievable memories while we’re in bodies. We are therefore half-awake when we dream; rapid eye movements (REM) attest to this fact. In transition to sleep, when hypnagogic vision sometimes briefly occur, the brain is still active enough to make a record the experience; but it is then in the process of shutting down its memory-storing activity. Therefore we only remember the beginnings of these visions. Those who remember them in toto have found the trick of keeping the brain minimally awake—minimally because, otherwise, the visions would be inaccessible. I’ll try to say more about this point.

I imagine the mechanics of this process as follows. Even to glimpse the subtle realm, the physical state must be in neutral; it cannot be very active. Under normal circumstances, thus ignoring special practices like meditation, we reach this quiet state only at the time when we’re going to sleep. I’ve noticed the following sequence.
  1. I close my eyes and see a sort of darkness. It is not a uniform black totality; rather, it is darkness with patterns. In nine cases out of ten, after a brief period in this state sleep takes me away. Most instances of falling asleep never proceed past this stage.
  2. If I maintain a kind of observant alertness during the first phase of darkness, I begin to perceive more and different patters. The new patterns are only minimally visual but they will have mental shapes. I signal that by putting the word “see” in quotes. Something suggests faces or figures, motions or moving patterns. The faces “seen” are not really made of light; they are more felt—but they’re also quite distinct. The same holds for whatever else I “see.” The darkness appears to be “populated.” Sometimes these patterns produce quite unpleasant visions, minimally vulgar, sometimes funny, sometimes violent. Ignoring these—sometimes willfully ignoring them—brings about the next phase.
  3. In this, the third phase, I perceive dim light. It appears as a graying out of the darkness on the periphery of what we would call vision; sometimes it is ahead. A dim sense of light grey will then develop more luminosity. These patches may also have shapes, but not of any object—just bits of cloud or a circular shape.
  4. Finally, and invariably startling me, the blackness abruptly vanishes. It is replaced by a panorama of vivid reality—usually outdoor scenes, landscapes, skyscapes, trees. This vision may also feature built-up structures, animals, people. The startling nature of this vision invariably, in my case, brings me awake. But as I’m shocked, as I’m surprised into awareness, the vision instantly disappears. And it is precisely this “awakening” that makes me realize that, a moment before, I was almost entirely detached from my physical surroundings, thus my awareness lying in bed with my eyes closed. That feeling had retreated far into the background, the attention entirely on the vision—be it of darkness, patterns, or dim light.
  5. Now, curiously, this brief last stage of awakening also rapidly disappears. Vivid images return but, this time, more dimly defined, almost as if behind a thin veil; and, my attention being drawn by them, they are the last thing I hazily remember.
One more note on the first two phases. If thoughts are flowing during the first stage and are not stopped, they will transform into dream snippets and carry me away. Similarly, in the second state, if I permit the images to rouse me to mental commentary, I will become more awake, interrupting the process. To cause this sequence to take place, I therefore stop my associative mentation by focusing attention on simply seeing the bits of darkness in phase 1 or “seeing” the images in phase 2 without mental commentary.

All of this leads me to conclude that physical existence, including ordinary mentation, causes a great deal of noise. It comes from the body itself and from the brain’s activity as it perceives physical reality. As this noise diminishes, awareness of a subtler world emerges. But so long as the brain is still active enough to store memories, it will record what I perceive. And, I would emphasize, it also reacts to the appearance of these phenomena. If these are incongruous—like the startling appearance of a stunningly real landscape—they surprise the brain. In response it activates the body to a higher state of alertness. And that very alertness then breaks (interrupts, interferes with) the subtle perception.

All of the above illustrates that to make sense of this sequence of events requires various theoretical underpinnings which cannot be independently checked by third parties. I’m well aware of the fact that most people don’t experience this sort of thing frequently enough (if at all) to build what might be called a data base. I’ve had this experience many times before; therefore it makes me curious, indeed it all this fascinates me.

Now as for dreams, I’ve discussed those at various points in this blog at length. To provide a summary, I think dreams are the equivalent of waking-thought but experienced in half-awake states; and because those states are more primitive, as it were, the thoughts are rendered into animal forms: they’re translated into images. As the body comes awake, the first thoughts might, indeed, be about the visions the soul sees in the other world; or they may simply be memories last stored before going to sleep.

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