Wednesday, September 2, 2009

To Sleep Perchance To . . .

Who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?
Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.

~ Rumi

Last night I was watching an episode of Nova ScienceNow about sleep. One of the studies that they reported on showed a strong link between learning and sleep. The study showed that the learning we do during the day is consolidated and strengthened during sleep. So, when people learn a simple action, like typing a particular sequence on a keyboard over and over again, and are asked to perform that sequence as quickly as possible, they eventually hit a natural plateau at which point they can’t type any faster. After a night’s sleep, when they are asked to perform the sequence again, they begin the task typing at a faster pace than the one at which they had stopped the night before. Somehow, during sleep, the ability to perform an action just learned is improved. Some kind of practice, some kind of learning, is taking place while we sleep.

That, in itself, is pretty amazing, but I found myself wondering, “Who is doing the learning? Who is doing the practicing?” It’s not the person. At least, not the part that we would recognize as the person—the conscious, willing, striving, reflective, rational part of the person. In fact, the person doesn’t even know it’s happening. You could say it’s the brain, but that doesn’t really explain anything. How does the brain know to do that? Is the brain conscious of what it’s doing or is it just an automatic process? But if it’s just an automatic process, how could it have such a clear and meaningful effect on our conscious existence? Is there another consciousness beyond our daytime consciousness?

As a Jungian, I shouldn’t find this idea very surprising. Jung was very clear that our consciousness was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The rest of the iceberg is the vast realm of the unconscious. Even though I am a Jungian by training and by temperament, sometimes these ideas reassert themselves with their original force and impact. The sleep study explored on Nova does not, necessarily, prove that there is an unconscious, but it gives pretty compelling evidence in its favor.

So much of what happens in the mind and the body happens without the participation of consciousness, of the ego. “I” don’t heal my own cuts and scrapes. “I” don’t digest my food. “I” don’t make my dreams or consolidate my own memories during sleep. At times, it seems like the ego is, at best, capable of assisting natural processes that are occurring on their own, or, too often, interfering somehow with those processes. Much of the time the ego is simply an observer of what is happening in body, mind and soul. (The role of observer is probably an extremely important one, related to assisting the natural processes, but it is too humble and passive for us in this day and age of grandiosity).

I don’t have any earth-shattering conclusions to make about all of this, except to say that if the brain, or the unconscious, or the soul, or whatever you want to call it, is so powerful, then maybe learning to get out of the way is the most important thing that we can do for our own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. This is hard to do, since the ego tends to prefer to harbor grandiose fantasies about itself. We like to believe that we are the masters of our own fates. But as the Tao Te Ching teaches:

The reason you have trouble is that
you are self-conscious.
No trouble can befall a self-free person.

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