Have you noticed we hold those in awe who claim to sleep much less than the average person? We have come to believe that somehow sleeping is a waste of time or the awakened ones do not sleep or they do so very little. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, good sleep is the beginning of a great awakening. I say that both figuratively and literally. Walk with me through this beautiful thing called sleep (but stay awake till the end of this post).

Many of the explanations for why we sleep circle around a common, and perhaps erroneous, idea: sleep is the state we must enter in order to fix that which has been upset by wake. But what if we turned this argument on its head? what if sleep is so useful—so physiologically beneficial to every aspect of our being—that the real question is: Why did life ever bother to wake up?

Adopt this perspective, and we can pose a very different theory: sleep was the first state of life on this planet, and it was from sleep that wakefulness emerged.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

I read this passage in Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker back in 2019. One line that stood out for me (and subsequently prompted me to highlight it in my Kindle) was: why did life ever bother to wake up?

Have you thought about it? Why are you awake right now? As in, what are you doing on this planet, what are you going through this life for? Same old, same old, or something different? I will tell you why I think we are awake. It is so we may rejoice in the splendor and glory of this infinite universe. It is so we may appreciate the good in ourselves and others. We are awake so we may let go of ourselves on the exhilarating journey of merging in the Divine. We are up so we walk through the garden of life where lotuses are blooming in one pond here and hedges of roses and lilies are dotting the park there. There are mosquitoes too around some shrubs as there are butterflies on the marigolds. It is quite possible to sleepwalk through the entire experience or be awake to fill yourself with indescribable beauty. The choice is yours but to exercise that choice you need to ride your mind like an expert horse rider who makes the stallion gallop even through the dense forests, let alone the vast prairies. You cannot afford to be crushed under the weight of a blabbering mind like the beetle that’s gone belly up and is flailing its limbs helplessly. How to do that, you ask. How to mount your mind and ride it?

Taisen Deshimaru (1914-1982) often used to narrate the story of a samurai and his three cats. As follows:

A samurai was struggling with a mouse who had decided to share his room. He was advised to get a cat. He searched in the neighborhood and finally found one. It was an impressive cat, beautiful and strong. Yet the mouse was smarter than the cat and just mocked her. The samurai adopted another very clever cat. The mouse became suspicious and appeared only when the cat was asleep.

Then the samurai got a cat from a Zen temple. She seemed inattentive, lazy, and sleepy.

“This cat will not free me from the mouse,” the samurai thought.

The cat was lying around sleepy and indifferent in the room, ignoring the mouse. The mouse got used to the situation and became inattentive. Carelessly it passed the cat without weighing itself into danger. Then one day, suddenly, a claw landed on the mouse out of nowhere. 1

The three cats in this koan could easily be the three kinds of people. The first kind are the ones who seem impressive and promising but don’t come through. The second who are very clever but get caught in their own web of schemes and plots. The third kind are the ones who know when to be awake versus when to sleep. They are less concerned with how they are perceived and as a result, naturally more focused on what they need to do.

Vedic texts would classify the first type as sushpta (asleep), second svapna (dreaming), and third jagrita (awake). And those who are able to maintain a sense of equilibrium and equanimity in these states of consciousnesses are turiya (the fourth state). 2

In fact, the word turiya is a derivative if not simply a shortened form of chaturiya, literal for fourth. Tantra, however, also refers to a fifth state called turiya-atita. 3 That is, an adept who is no longer bound by the four states and the one whose actions cannot be measured against textual or worldly definitions. Tantric texts put Lord Shiva in the fifth category. 4

In other words, it is perfectly fine to sleep as long as you know when you ought to be awake. Krishna said the yogi sleeps when the world is awake and vice-versa. He didn’t say that the yogi is awake under all circumstances. (BG. 2.69) Besides, in my humble opinion, physiologically or spiritually, whichever way you look at it, sleep is an extraordinary gift. If you haven’t read Three Men in a Boat, the amazing comedy, by Jerome K. Jerome then I highly recommend that you do. Like many passages that catch you by surprise with their depth and beauty in this book, I quote one:

The day has been so full of fret and care, and our hearts have been so full of evil and of bitter thoughts, and the world has seemed so hard and wrong to us. Then Night, like some great loving mother, gently lays her hand upon our fevered head, and turns our little tear-stained faces up to hers, and smiles; and though she does not speak, we know what she would say, and lay our hot flushed cheek against her bosom, and the pain is gone.

Sometimes, our pain is very deep and real, and we stand before her very silent, because there is no language for our pain, only a moan. Night’s heart is full of pity for us: she cannot ease our aching; she takes our hand in hers, and the little world grows very small and very far away beneath us, and, borne on her dark wings, we pass for a moment into a mightier Presence than her own, and in the wondrous light of that great Presence, all human life lies like a book before us, and we know that Pain and Sorrow are but angels of God.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Don’t be too hard on yourself, at least not unecessarily; sleep when you should. But don’t be so lazy either; wake up when you must. In that balance lives the fullness of life.

Mulla Nasruddin embraced the Imam, kissed his hand, and said, “I’ve got to say your sermons are quite something. You are unlike anyone else we’ve ever had in our village before.”
“Shukriya, shukriya, it’s Allah’s grace,” the Imam said. “What do you like about my sermons?”
“There is a great awakening in the hall whenever you end them.”

I hope there’s a great awakening at the end of this post too. About time, I reckon. Jaago mohan pyare…

Peace.
Swami

P.S. I read every single one of your comments on my last post. Thank you for your truthfulness. I will follow up on your thoughts (and mine) on truth and more in the Zoom Satsang tomorrow. Join me on 6-Jun at 7:30 am IST. Details on the live page here. All are welcome to attend.

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