Thursday, April 9, 2009

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Every year on Maundy Thursday, my husband asks me how the disciples could have all fallen asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane. "How could they pass out on the one occasion when it was so important to stay awake?" I cannot speak for them, but do, on this holy day, share some thoughts about sleeping and remaining awake.

The Night Sea Journey describes the nocturnal passage taken by the Egyptian sun god Ra. During the day, he traverses the world above. At night he navigates the world below. Each dawn, he must do battle with Apophis the crocodile who guards the threshold between night and day. As I write these words, it is Maundy Thursday, as Jesus prepares for his perilous journey to the underworld where he will do battle with Satan before rising once again, transformed. For us mere mortals, the Night Sea Journey or the descent to the underworld is a very accurate picture of what happens to us when we sleep and are carried far away in our dreams.

To be fully human is to be fully awake. I am not certain any other animal can go as many hours without sleeping as can we. Look at your dog. Watch the Canada geese across the street tuck their heads beneath their wings, the cat dozing atop the stove, the fish resting quietly in their tank. Animals move effortlessly between wakefulness and quiet. Only we humans keep their eyes open all day, go to work for hours, stay up until midnight. Medical alarmists like to call us sleep deprived, but maybe it’s simply a misdirected quest for consciousness. “Be awake” is the first commandment in all the world’s religions. “Don’t let the evil one snatch you away because you were not looking. Let the ones who have eyes see, the ones who have ears hear. Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming.” If I translate all these inner commandments into corporate politics, I’m not going to get very much sleep. Fortunately, it is never a good idea to take spiritual teachings literally and both sleep and wakefulness are very different than at first they seem. Without sleep, we can never be fully awake. Most corporate politics are a particularly virulent form of sleepwalking which may be one reason why both our economy and our earth are in such bad shape.

The Egyptians got it right. The sun has two aspects. As the daytime, sun is the symbol of our conscious life, the life we live by day, at work and at school, the life that leads to outer recognition and achievement. By night, the sun goes dark, and invisible seas mark the images and direction that our unconscious life takes. To become fully awake involves learning the language of both the day and the night, to slowly grow aware, even when I am sleeping. That is why both meditation and contemplative prayer are a practice akin to sleep, measured breathing, letting go the thoughts that race through and grip the mind.

I am not the first person to find this whole idea of cultivating the unconscious as a way of being more awake troubling. If what sets humanity apart is consciousness, why do I need all this sleep? What does Jung mean when he invokes the collective unconscious? I don’t share thoughts with my neighbor across the street, much less with a Tungus shaman in Siberia. Cultural difference is real. I could never be a groupie for the Taliban. My friend and mentor, the Unitarian Universalist teacher and dream worker Jeremy Taylor, suggests that we think of the unconscious as that which is simply “not yet speech ripe.” Who, he asks, but a crabbed Latinist would ever cobble together a word like the unconscious, anyway, a noun that combines consciousness, the very essence of being human, with a negative prefix? Is to be unconscious also to be inhuman? Does sleep rob us of that? (I do believe that some folks think so.) Having lived with this question for some time now, I think that “not yet speech ripe,” while a wonderful description of my fleeting dreams, may be too mild a phrase for the unconscious. I think we need both terms, that each proves the truth of the other. Something that is “not yet speech ripe,” in my experience at least, hovers right below the surface like someone’s name I have forgotten, or an insight right at the tip of my tongue which a little meditation and dream incubation can, with luck, draw out. Unconscious, on the other hand, is stone cold absolute utter darkness. It is what I cannot see at all. Unconscious is what happens to me under anesthesia, which knocks me out so deep I might as well have been dead.

Make no mistake. The dark is a scary thing. I hear things at night that I don’t hear by day. I have no idea whether that rustle in the grass beside me belongs to a flopsy bunny or a hungry tiger. Evolution counsels me to trust my fear. If it turns out to be bunnies, I can laugh about it in the morning, but if it be tigers, morning might not come for me at all. So I fear the unknown and I flee. In my fear I can fail to recognize how helpful much unconscious action can be – as Robert Johnson pointed out in his book Inner Work, so skilled are my reflexes that I can solve the world’s problems in my mind and still drive to work in the morning. I had no conscious sense of a mother’s love until someone put a baby into my arms and I clutched her to my heart as naturally as breathing. I love watching children grow and thrive, absorbing light and health without the slightest idea they are doing anything. As long as I am aware that things unseen are beside me, I can grant them at least some pride of place and maintain a garden-variety equilibrium. But as soon as I repress the hidden world, or even worse, dismiss it as some kind of “trick,” I will slip right back into fear. Fear may be the primal Satan, the Adversary, the Apophis I battle at the threshold of dawn. Too much fear is a very reliable sign that the unconscious is having a field day. We talk about being “possessed” by Satan. Fear can possess us, too. Fear is a very powerful instrument of social control, and that, too, says something about the power of the unconscious and the ruthlessness with which some manipulate it.

Carl Jung uses many images to describe the relationship between day seeing and night vision, between the conscious things that we can articulate and the unconscious things whose hold on us lies far below our awareness. One that I especially like is the water lily.

Like the sun rising past the jaws of Apophis, a water lily rises above the murky waters of its pond and blooms. Its center is golden, its petals beautifully articulated points. It has a perfection of form, folding up by night, unfolding with the sun. Water lilies have so captured the human imagination that in many cultures they are known as the flowers of heaven. Deities choose them as their thrones. They are a perfect image of the threshold between earth and sky, water and land.

They are also the product of an invisible and interconnected root system, nourished by pond silt they cannot see, floating in a medium that is shared with so much other life. My waking intelligence is like a single water lily floating in the Pacific Ocean; I may know much about myself, but there is a lot out there that is not me upon which my life depends. Further, I nourish much hidden life even as that hidden life nourishes me.

The more that I can learn about that hidden world, the better I can respond to its hidden messages. “I will open my mouth and speak in parables. I will reveal what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

There is no more accurate map of humankind’s universal, inner life than the sacred parables and tales we have told each other over millennia. As with dreams, the language of parable is symbolic and refractory, lacking in a fixed meaning, a narrative that is also a conversation.

Like any conversation, however, the mythic one has many sides. If it becomes one sided, it flattens and it dies. If it keeps its many sides, but turns into warring factions, it also dies. If it has many sides, but I choose only one, I have succumbed to temptation. Choice, suggests priest and therapist John Sanford, is the foundation of all sin. Choice is what both creates and divides.

Waking life cannot deal very well with choice, but dreams can.

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