Why do we sleep? Nobody knows. We spend a third of our lives sleeping and we don’t know why. After decades of intensive study, science has yet to figure it out. There are a few theories but they don’t feel satisfying, even to the experts. Does the answer lie in the realm of Oneness? I think it does. In this essay I aim to raise more questions than I answer. In the process, I hope to show that the basic need to sleep is proof that a flow of Life exists, that sleep is a spiritual process that connects us to Oneness. Connecting to Oneness isn’t just a good thing to do, it’s a biological necessity.
Many people on a spiritual path know that life is not physical. It’s a state of consciousness. It emanates out of the field of Oneness, also known as the realm of Consciousness, the Stillness, the Silence, the Source, Life or God. It’s a Force that emanates from within each of us and flows outward into the physical world around us. This is how life happens. It doesn’t start “out there” and flow toward us, it starts “in here” and flows outward. The energy animates the otherwise lifeless atoms and molecules that form the cells and organs of our bodies. As it pours forth, it results in Life itself and the phenomenal experiences that come with it. What’s more, those enlightened people often recognize the practice of meditation as an intentional way of enhancing their connection to Oneness and in so doing, enhance their ability to be creative expressions of success on this planet.
Meditation and sleep have a lot in common. The differences are subtle and are measured in brainwaves. I consider meditation to be an accelerated form of affirmative prayer – a technique that allows the practitioner to go within into Oneness and (metaphorically speaking) commune with their Source. The benefits are nothing short of astonishing and have been reported widely. (If you need convincing, you might refer to this article in the magazine, Psychology Today, The Science of Meditation.) In general, people who meditate report lower levels of worry, fear and anxiety; significantly better health; and longer lifespans. They are happier and more joyous people, filled with an abundance of good things. This is true for me as it is for everyone I know who maintains a regular meditative practice.
Regular meditation is communion with Oneness. Is that what sleep is too? Is sleep nature’s way of forcing all animals into a daily practice of unconsciously communing in the Oneness? If it is, does that mean that frequent communion with Spirit is a requirement for intelligent life to exist? Does it mean that it’s not possible for a person to be born into this world and live independently of their Source? Rather, does a person have to return to their Source with absolute regularity in order for their life experience to continue? Please read on for the answers.
Science might not know why we need to sleep but it knows a lot about sleep. One notable fact is this: if we don’t sleep, we will die. Fortunately, that’s not something most of us are at risk of. If we stay awake too long (whether forced by medical problems, willpower or chemicals) the body’s need for sleep eventually wins and we fall asleep. A few hours later, we’re ready to go again. However, there’s a small group of less fortunate people who contract a rare disorder called FFI (fatal familial insomnia). A person with FFI cannot sleep. There’s no cure. As the name implies, death ensues. However, other than the lack of sleep (the clinical term is exhaustion), there’s no apparent cause of death. What is it about sleep that keeps life forms alive? Science doesn’t know.
All animals need sleep, and a lot of it. Humans sleep a third of their lives, on average. A 60 year old person has been asleep for 20 years. In a sense, we’re all a version of Rip Van Winkle. A few animals have developed a way to appear to get through life without sleep. Dolphins are one of these. However, they do need sleep just as we do. They sleep while keeping half their brain alert. All fish, all reptiles and all insects display some kind of sleep pattern. Yet, science can’t tell us why we need it.
During sleep, animals are relatively easy prey. Therefore, the need for sleep must be exceptionally important to life. Allan Rechtschaffen, a famous sleep researcher, said, “If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made.” Yet, science can’t tell us why.
What is the vital function sleep serves? Dr. William C. Dement, co-founder of Stanford University’s Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, has been studying sleep for over 50 years. He’s often referred to as the father of sleep medicine. When Dr. Dement was asked about the reason we sleep, he said, “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.” If science can’t provide the answer, perhaps we should look elsewhere. How about within the realm of Oneness?
Clinically speaking, life and sleep are defined by brainwaves. The presence of brain activity, as measured by brainwaves, is a definitive measure of life. Brainwaves are electromagnetic activity within the brain and are labeled (in order of faster to slower) beta, alpha, theta and delta. Beta waves are characteristic of wakeful individuals engaged in intentional mental activities such as conversing, planning or problem solving.
Alpha waves are characteristic of wakeful rest, that period when a person lets go of intentional goal-driven thinking activities. This is when a person experiences a flow of thoughts, images and memories not caused by sensory input or reasoning. It’s called, “mental chatter,” the voice of the ego. It arises internally and spontaneously. It’s origin is often based in worry, fear and anxiety. While it’s happening, it tends to fill up the thought channels and can prevent a person from going to deeper levels of brain activity, whether one is trying to sleep or meditate.
Theta brainwaves mark the beginning of sleep. However, if you’ve experienced a time driving when you can’t recall the past few minutes, you were most likely in this state. The brain is alert but the “mental chatter” has reduced to low levels or has stopped completely. This is the dominant level of brain activity during meditation. However, experienced meditators can go deeper without losing consciousness.
As a person slips further into sleep, delta waves begin to take over. When a person’s brain activity is more than 50% delta waves, they’re considered deeply asleep. (Sleep itself varies from deep sleep to REM – rapid eye movement – sleep, periods when the brain is as active as during wakeful periods.)
Consider the similarities of sleep and meditation. Scientifically speaking, meditation is the process of lowering the brainwaves below the alpha level (wakeful rest) but instead of entering the theta level by falling asleep, the meditator enters theta by intentionally stilling the mental chatter of the mind. Choosing this path allows one to stay conscious. To accomplish the task of quieting the chatter, some use mantras, words or phrases while others focus their attention on their breathing patterns. It’s not difficult to do once a person has mastered the techniques involved but it takes some discipline and a lot of practice. The more one meditates, the better one gets at lowering themselves to the theta-level and even the beginning of the delta-level without losing consciousness. Relaxing into merely low alpha-level states (without reaching far into the theta-level) is therapeutic. However, it’s the theta-level (and lower) that produces the outstanding results.
Are you noticing the not-to-subtle differences between sleep and meditation? The first is experiencing Oneness unconsciously (sleep) while the other is experiencing Oneness intentionally and consciously (meditation). Doing it intentionally is the key. This allows one to direct their visits into Oneness toward specific purposes, such as visualization and affirmative prayer. However, once fully in the theta-level and below, the meditator is in a state of awareness where there is no active thinking going on. This is pure consciousness. There’s no direction to go, no purpose to attain. There is only “to be.” It is the state of communing in Oneness.
I’ve written extensively on this site about the fact that quantum physics represents the scientific link between spirituality (Oneness) and the physical realm, here for example. My theory is that electromagnetic energy (light or photons) do not reside within the physical plane, only it’s effects do. Therefore, light is a phenomena of the field of Oneness and exists in the spacetimeless realm. (This explains why photons don’t experience time, a curious characteristic of light.) In the case under discussion, light’s effects in the physical realm - brainwaves - originate from Oneness. Yes, they measure brain activity but brain activity is a measure of the flow of Life from Oneness into an otherwise inert mass of subatomic particles – the body. Billions of neurons in the brain, the heart and elsewhere act as the body’s antennae. The neurons then relay those signals throughout the body and into the physical universe beyond the body. This is how thought turns into action. This is how ideas turn into things.
If brainwaves cease, death follows. However, death does not result from the failure of organs. Failure of organs result from the inability of Oneness to continue using the body as a transmitter of its energy.
The health benefits of sleep and meditation (especially when enhanced with affirmative prayer) arise from the flow of life-generating energy from the field of Oneness. During active periods when human-generated thinking occurs, the activity in neurons (measured as beta and alpha waves) overwhelm the body’s ability to be an effective receiver of the energy coming from Oneness. The energy is still flowing. The body, however, isn’t receiving much of it because it’s being blocked. Quieting the chatter opens the channels and allows the healing flow of Life to flood in.
Sleep is a prerequisite for life. Meditation is not. However, by intentionally entering the meditative state, the mind and body gain enormously from the experience in a fraction of the time sleep takes. That’s why people who meditate tend to do so religiously, usually daily, often twice a day and sometimes even more frequently. In fact, some (this writer included) combine one or two 20 minute sessions a day with numerous brief meditations lasting only a few seconds sprinkled throughout the day. They know they gain so much from it that they’d not give it up for anything. After all, they know their life depends on it just as it depends on breathing.
We know that simple, regular sleep periods are required to maintain healthy mental and bodily functions and for life itself. These are facts that scientific research has proven beyond doubt. However, science can’t say why it is what it is. Meditation has been documented as an amazingly therapeutic practice. Both are mental states, separated only by whether the subject is consciously aware or not. There’s a clear linkage here. Spiritually enlightened people know meditation performs its magic because of the deep connection to Oneness that it facilitates. For me, it’s an easy extrapolation to conclude that all living creatures require sleep because life can’t exist without regular, prolonged and deep connection to Oneness, whether spiritually directed or not. Therefore, evolution had to find a way to deal with it. The need to sleep forces all living creatures to be actively immersed in the flow of the Life Force without the interruptions of conscious brain activity for many hours every day. This is further proof that the Life Force is not some kind of fairytale. It is fundamental and it originates out of the field of Oneness and pours into the physical world giving life-sustaining energy to all creatures on our planet.
Next time you feel sleepy, remember what’s happening. Your body will be telling you it needs time to commune with the its Source. Not next Sunday morning. Right now.