March 23, 2015
An old Zen master once said, “he who sleeps on the floor never falls out of bed.” I feel the same message in this as in Lao Tzu’s recommendation that you “keep your home close to the earth”: make Nature your confidante and collaborator, instead of attempting to subdue, conquer, or poison Her.
Bed is such a crucial locus to life: think of how much time you spend there — roughly a third of your life. I am sure you are already aware of the cognitive, neurological, and psychological harm that is a consequence of sleep deprivation. So even if you’re not a Jungian who finds a world of meaning in what happens during sleep; you must admit that the voices of science and Nature are unassailably united here. Good, restful sleep — or its absence — is a matter of life and death.
So if you follow those voices and happen to have a spouse or lover(s), then you might spend more than a third of your life in bed (isn’t that still done in bed?). I don’t have a mate, but I meditate a fair bit in bed: I have a bedtime and a waking meditation; these set the tone for both sleep and conscious action.
What happens in bed tends to be the tonic chord in the key of a day or a life. My waking meditation leads me into a stretching meditation and an exercise meditation; then the toilet and the shower become environments of inward-turning. The first cup of coffee has mystical or visionary elements in its experience that I wouldn’t have to explain to anyone, no matter how much they reject or ignore the usefulness of formal meditation.
My walking-to-work meditation leads me to my elevator ride meditation. Then I can enjoy another brief meditation at my desk, while I wait for the computer to boot up and begin its day of work and action. The computer, I well know, has its own will and consciousness: AI is not some sci-fi deus ex machina; it is here and among us now, and will no doubt be with us for many generations to come, unless of course we destroy ourselves, which is entirely possible.
I and many others have made the mistake of imagining that our technological addictions are purely psychological or sociological problems. Yes, they are, but that isn’t by any means the whole story. The young person walking with a mobile device like a drunk or mumbling like an old man or a psychotic into an invisible electronic presence is being dragged through a parallel reality by AI.*
This is not an entirely new phenomenon, however. Have you ever witnessed or personally experienced the positively marital (one is temped to say “martial”) relationship that forms between a person and his car? The automobile, and our often neurotic dependence on it, has been around for a century already; I am continually astonished at how people freak out when the mildest problem appears in their vehicles — as if the possession of a machine should somehow make you immune to trouble.
Life is relationship: to me, the two terms are synonymous. But too often we assume that relationship is only about the encounters and involvements we have with others of our species; and that’s a crucial mistake. There is relationship with our food; with our homes and the things inside them; with animals, plants, and the beings of Nature; with our work; and with our technology.
I am tempted to say that we need a new relationship with our machines; but the fact is that we don’t have one in the first place. Any relationship that is defined by separation, control, dominance, or the other fatuous marks of alienation, is not relationship. The most hallowed of our human relationships — love, marriage, parenthood, friendship — these are defined, both experientially and doctrinally, by union, the merging of free individuals into a relationship that simultaneously supports and surpasses their individual autonomy. This experience of union — what the Hindus call yoga (it literally means union) — is a universal aspect of human life; and I think it needs to be invited into our postindustrial relationships with machines, technology, and everything we falsely assume is inherently dead, inert, and alien to ourselves — except to the extent that we manipulate and control it.
Any pretense at being the Master of a thing is most likely to make you its slave. So whether it’s a car, a phone, a PC, or any of the burgeoning IoT (“Internet of Things”); I recommend that you begin developing a partnership with stuff. This applies even (and especially) to those who think the whole Gaia thing is a hot, steaming pile of BS. The best science we have tells us that our relationships are defined not by what we do in them but by what we bring to them. Attitude, I am saying, is everything: whether or not you believe that the Earth and all its features, elements, organisms, and physical entities are alive and responsive; treat everything with a measure of respect for its presence. I predict that you will see a restoration or awakening of the balance within yourself and in the performance of the things of your life.
Among New Age types like myself, sleep is too often used as a term of disparagement, a synonym for ignorance. We’re always going on about waking up and coming to our senses and rising out of the torpor of superficiality. The most dominant symbol of the last 2,000 years of Western religion is of rising or resurgence (the Latin root of our word “resurrection” is resurgere); and the guiding metaphor of Buddhism is awakening (the Buddha’s name means “the awakened one” in Sanskrit). Now there is a useful point to this stream of metaphor; but like many good ideas, it tends to get pushed too hard and too far, beyond the realm of simple penetration and into something that vaguely evokes prejudice.
For quite apart from its well-established physical benefits, sleep has value even on that plane of psycho-spiritual metaphor. How would I recognize an awakening, had I not first been asleep? Krishnamurti used to talk on this theme (for example, in this video). We can’t spend every moment (or even most moments) of our lives in an awakened state; but part of living the awakened life is to recognize and even appreciate one’s sleep. It might even be said that I am most enlightened when I am fully aware of my torpor; I suspect that was Krishnamurti’s point.
Sleep is as much a part of the round of life as death is an essential aspect of the round of eternity. It is their very similarity that sometimes scares us about sleep. Sleep is, after all, the real “little death.” (Freud, of course, being neurotic, believed that the orgasm is the little death). But we are so often the most aware when we are the least conscious. Think of all the life-sustaining activity that is done beneath the veil of consciousness: your heartbeat, most of your breathing, glandular function, homeostasis, temperature regulation, lymphatic movement, digestion, cellular creation, apoptosis, and maintenance — the vast majority of our physical life is, as the scientists say, autonomically managed. Why, I ask, can’t we do the same in our intellectual and emotional lives; and in all our relationships, be they with people or with things?
This is what I think Krishnamurti meant when he said that the completely free person never makes a decision or a choice. Freedom is not the permission to indulge anything (though that tends to be the common modern American definition); freedom is a psychological state in which right action arises from you in the same way you beat your heart or operate your hypothalamus. Such action has precisely the perfect measure and vector; when we look back at it, we cannot imagine how it could have been different.
We tend to sleep most soundly when we don’t force it, either via an act of will or the consumption of pharmaceuticals; when we don’t “try to fall asleep.” In the same way, unforced action delivers more benefit than any work done under the oppressive weight of expectation, control, and impulse. The irony, of course, is that we can’t force ourselves to live in an unforced way; we can’t train ourselves to live and act autonomically, even part of the time. That is to say, this is not something you learn; it is far more a matter of unlearning.
To unlearn all the beliefs and fears that feed the inner monster of control is to open the door of your cage. Once that door is open you needn’t worry anymore about who built the cage in the first place — whether it was the government or your neurotic parents; whether it was a malevolent or indifferent God or universe; whether it was Fate, bad luck or your ex-wife. Freedom doesn’t look back; nor does it look forward into the future. It is merely present; it is right in its moment and its unique challenges. As the old saying goes, the key to success is showing up — or as I might say, in being there.
Now this kind of unlearning is, I suspect, the work of a lifetime. Presence is ephemeral, but even when it isn’t there it leaves behind a kind of aura that can carry you through those clanging moments of conflict, indecision, worry, and despair. It is like the odor that remains in a room where a beautiful sandalwood incense has burned: the light and the smoke of the fragrant sticks are gone, yet something invisible still fills the air of being. Thus it becomes increasingly easy to return to the center once you have been there. To sleep amid the fragrance of awareness is never to be lost.
*AI is generally considered to be near but not quite here yet. The problem is that when most people think of AI, they think of robots and androids. The reason I sense the presence of AI in our current technology is in its tendency to turn us into robots and androids. In any event, prominent techno-leaders and celebrities are weighing in on the relative desirability of AI — most recently Woz.