Exploring the Deep Mystery of Sleep and Dreams

Recently a neighbor asked if I wanted to do early morning walks with her. Wondering if I would fit into her schedule, she asked how long it takes and what I do to “get going” in the morning. Oh, boy.

She is one of those spring-out-of-bed and dash-out-the-door people, while I take at least an hour to even consider full wakefulness.

But how to reply? Two answers popped into my mind: “Spiritually, it takes me a while to shift from my inner being to my outer being and I want to pray and remember my dreams,” or “From a neuroscience perspective, I like to reap the benefits of my Default Mode Network before I fully enter my brain’s waking state.” 

RELATED: A Spiritual Guide to the Dream World

Hmmm, it didn’t seem those were going to work – so I said, “I’m very slow. I have a pot of tea and stare out the window a long time.” 

All these statements are true. I do spend time slowly shifting from what the Baha’i writings call my “inner being.” Mine is quite active during sleep, so I do try to become conscious of anything I might have learned while dreaming.  

In neuroscience, this is called shifting from my brain’s Default Mode Network, which increases activity during sleep and passive states of self-reflection, to my brain’s normal waking state, which operates  during daily activity and problem-solving.  

While the cognitive neurosciences have not yet directly linked their research with the spiritual concepts of the inner and outer being, I do find it interesting to look at the parallels and overlapping concepts within the two bodies of knowledge. From both perspectives, sleeping is very important. 

Each morning I read this Baha’i prayer, which contains these mysterious phrases:

I give praise to Thee, O my God, that Thou hast awakened me out of my sleep, and brought me forth after my disappearance …

I beseech Thee, by the potency of Thy will and the compelling power of Thy purpose, to make of what Thou Didst reveal unto me in my sleep the surest foundation for the mansions of Thy love that are within the hearts of Thy loved ones, and the best instrument for the revelation of the tokens of Thy grace and Thy loving-kindness.

The phrase “What Thou Didst reveal unto me in my sleep” certainly suggests that sleep is an active state – an alternative kind of consciousness, as opposed to wakefulness. It also suggests that in sleep, “revelations” can occur that can be very important. The knowledge acquired in sleep can become an “instrument” and a “foundation” for our daily lives. 

In a passage in The Seven Valley’s Baha’u’llah wrote directly about this: “One of the created phenomena is the dream. Behold how many secrets are deposited there in, how many wisdoms treasured up, how many worlds concealed … 

He also described what we often refer to as “deja vu” experiences – dreams that later come to pass in our waking state:

Observe, how thou art asleep in a dwelling, and its doors are barred; on a sudden thou findest thyself in a far-off city, which thou enterest without moving thy feet or wearying thy body; without using thine eyes, thou seest; without taxing thine ears, thou hearest; without a tongue, thou speakest. And perchance when ten years are gone, thou wilt witness in the outer world the very things thou hast dreamed tonight.

RELATED: Why Do We Have Good and Bad Dreams?

In this same passage, Baha’u’llah mentions “two worlds” – the waking world or “outer world,” and the “inner world” or the world of sleep and dreams:

First, what is this world, without eye and ear and hand and tongue a man puts all of these to use? Second, how is it that in the outer world thou seest the effect of the dream, when thou dids’t envision it in the world of the dream some ten years past?

As the passage continues, he does not solve the mystery, but rather encourages each of us to “ponder” and: 

Consider the difference between the two worlds and the mysteries which they conceal, that thou mayest attain to divine confirmations and heavenly discoveries and enter the regions of holiness.

In neuroscience, differences between the brain’s waking state versus sleep have long been documented. But for decades, assumptions were made that overall, the brain “rests” during sleep, compared to its high rate of activity in a waking state. 

So, in 1997 when researchers accidentally discovered a whole previously unknown network in the brain that is more active in quiet repose and sleep than in the awake state, they were shocked. 

Since that time, literally thousands of research studies have documented the crucial importance of what is now called the “Default Mode Network.” It is always active, but less so when exhibiting focused alert attention and more so during passive states of quiet reflection – like when drinking tea and staring out the window!

The Default Mode Network studies show how the brain’s intrinsic activity is linked to health and wellness. Its activity supports emotional processing, self-referential mental activity, memory processing and more. It allows us to reflect on ourselves, think through knotty emotional and relationship problems, and tap inner resources we may not know we possess. 

RELATED: What Does It Mean When You Dream of Dead People?

Despite the importance of sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an alarming number of people in the United States are not getting enough of it. About 1 in 3 adults report not getting enough rest or sleep every day. Contrary to the myth that one can “get by” without it, research shows that sleep deprivation negatively impacts mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety. Lack of sleep has been linked to problems with mood, trouble focusing and learning in school, chronic health problems like high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, and other problems. Sleep deprivation leads to higher rates of injury due to accidents. In fact, a number of large-scale operator error disasters like nuclear reactor meltdowns, the grounding of large ships, and plane crashes have been linked to lack of sleep.

So, yesterday, while staring out the window and noticing my neighbor walking swiftly by, I contentedly took a sip of tea and read another favorite morning prayer from the Baha’i writings:

I have wakened in Thy shelter, O my God, and it becometh him that seeketh that shelter to abide within the Sanctuary of Thy protection and the Stronghold of Thy defense. Illumine my inner being O my Lord, with the splendors of the Dayspring of Thy Revelation, even as Thou didst illumine my outer being with the morning light of Thy Favor. 

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