I've often wondered why the state of deep dreamless sleep is so appealing to some mystically-inclined people.
Since we're dead to the world -- both inner and outer -- seemingly the only difference between deep dreamless sleep and death is that we wake up from sleeping. I can understand wanting to experience a mystical super-consciousness, but why aspire to unconsciousness?
The third quarter is prājña, where one asleep neither desires anything nor beholds any dream: that is deep sleep. In this field of dreamless sleep, one becomes undivided, an undifferentiated mass of consciousness, consisting of bliss and feeding on bliss. His mouth is consciousness.
And a commentator on the Upanishads says about a high mystical state:
It is like the state of a deep dreamless sleep, like the feeling of intense bliss where neither the knower nor the known can be distinctly felt but where there is only the infinitude of blissful experience.
Well, this sure isn't my experience of deep dreamless sleep. Nor that of anyone I know. I'm conscious when awake, and I'm conscious when I dream (I often remember my dreams), but I'm completely unconscious and unaware during deep dreamless sleep.
So if this is what I'm supposed to aspire to, enlightenment-wise, no thanks. I'm just not attracted to existing in a condition where I don't know that I exist, or that anything exists.
Yet the quotations above claim that deep dreamless sleep is super blissful. How can this be? Skepticism is warranted, because religions are fond of making dogmatic statements at odds with common sense, direct experience, and scientific knowledge.
That said, I'll be the first to admit that the nature of consciousness still is a mystery. How the brain works is becoming increasingly well understood, but the relation of all those neurons firing to our felt conscious experience basically is a big question mark.
When I have more time, I'd like to peruse a lengthy article on "Deep Sleep Awareness" that I found on the Rational Vedanta site. It discusses a debate in Vedanta about the meaning of deep dreamless sleep. Some quotes:
Sankara declares that the experience of the state of deep-sleep is a glimpse of the self's real nature, where there exists no 'I', no ego.
If there were not 'I', the same subject in pre-sleep, during sleep and post-sleep, the individual would not recognize the things after sleep that those are experienced earlier i.e., before sleep. Therefore the awareness of 'I' as particularized awareness exists even during the deep sleep, for self-luminous atman persists in deep sleep in the form of 'I'.
Again, I don't get this, or agree with it.
Sankara (or Shankara) is the leading Vedanta philosopher. But back in 800 C.E. modern neuroscience didn't exist. Plus, people slept then just like they do now: deep dreamless sleep isn't an experience, but the absence of experience.
To my mind, this shows how Eastern metaphysics can be as faith-based as Western monotheism.
Just because we wake up from a good night's sleep, which included periods of dreamlessness, and still have a sense of who we are -- how does this prove that a "self-luminous atman" (soul) persists in deep sleep?
The only thing it shows, which already is obvious to all of us, is that when we sleep our brain continues to function. Memories are retained. Our sense of self remains intact.
In the same fashion, last year I had a colonoscopy. The only thing I remember about the procedure is that I don't remember anything about it. I heard the doctor say, "I'll start the sedation." Then I woke up in the recovery area.
Just as with deep dreamless sleep, I was gone. And then I came back. I don't see what is mystical or spiritual about this. Neuroscientists have found that a brain signal persists even in deep dreamless sleep.
Neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have taken one of the first direct looks at one of the human brain's most fundamental "foundations": a brain signal that never switches off and may support many cognitive functions... This signal doesn't switch off even in dreamless sleep, possibly to help maintain basic structure and facilitate offline housekeeping activities.
It isn't at all surprising that brains preserve their structure and functionality after a period of sleep. If this didn't happen, every creature that sleeps would survive for one wakeful state.
Yet the Vedantic extolling of deep dreamless sleep continues into modern times. In his "The Transparency of Things," Rupert Spira writes:
Deep sleep is in fact simply the presence of Consciousness shining by itself. That is why it is so peaceful and enjoyable!
...Therefore, if Peace is identical to deep sleep and, as we have seen, deep sleep is the presence of Consciousness without objectivity, it follows that Peace is inherent in Consciousness, that Peace and Consciousness are one.
Who knew that so many unfounded conclusions could be drawn from waking up from deep dreamless sleep? I guess my colonoscopy sedation also should qualify as an enlightenment experience.
Except, as noted above, I didn't experience anything while I was out. Nor does anyone experience anything in deep dreamless sleep, so far as we know (if they did, it wouldn't be "deep," or "dreamless").
Thus I don't see deep dreamless sleep as being a state I should aspire to, since I'm already highly competent at it. And if unconsciousness is divine, each of us is poised to become godlike when we die.
While I'm alive, I prefer consciousness to unconsciousness whenever possible.
(Ken Wilber, however, claims that somehow it is possible to remain conscious in deep dreamless sleep. This strikes me as an example of Wilber's propensity to make dogmatic statements that aren't backed up by evidence. There must be a way for neuroscientists to test whether someone in that brain state is aware of his or her surroundings. If Wilber, or anyone else, can prove that conscious awareness continues in deep dreamless sleep, that would be most interesting.)