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When your sleep goes METAHUMAN

The last thing most people would associate with spiritual growth is sleep, which seems to be an unconscious state interrupted by dreams. But there are reasons to change our thinking about sleep. In the traditions of Yoga and Vedanta sleep is a higher state of awareness, and if we update this concept for modern life, it is possible to see a path to personal evolution that is like a new awakening. Let me introduce the concept of metahuman, which refers to any state of awareness that transcends or goes beyond everyday awareness. (Meta is the Greek prefix for beyond.) Without using that term the experience of transcending is already present in everyone’s life. You transcend ordinary awareness whenever

  • You have an insight
  • You feel inspired
  • You see the truth
  • You have a creative impulse
  • You experience profound love and compassion
  • You feel connected to a higher power
  • You go into a deep meditative state

If you consider everything on this list, it describes the highest values and most cherished aspects of the human mind. Anthropology takes for granted that modern Homo sapiens evolved beyond our hominid ancestors chiefly by virtue of our higher brain, to which we owe the capacity for complex thought. What is overlooked, however, is the evolution of consciousness, which uses the higher brain but is not the same as the higher brain’s biology. Self-awareness, for example, is crucial to being human, and some key areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, can be organized into a map of where self-awareness is registered. But a physical map doesn’t explain how brain cells, whose biology is very similar to other cells in the body, manage to know that they exist, the source of self-awareness.

This is where deep sleep enters the picture. The advantages of a higher brain aren’t present in dreamless sleep. You experience no images, thoughts, sensations, or emotions. In fact, it comes as a relief to escape the endless activity of the waking mind, along with its troubled thoughts, memories, and emotions. Deep sleep is a safe place for consciousness beyond anything normally experienced when we are awake.

But is it a meta state? Yoga and Vedanta both affirm that it is—deep dreamless sleep is considered the closest we come to our source in pure awareness. Therefore, if you could experience deep sleep instead of blanking out, you would grasp your true self. According to various Vedic philosophies, you would at the same time merge with your source and be free of the illusion, or Maya, of the physical world.

Obviously, there is a long distance between this view of deep sleep as a meta state and everyone’s experience of blanking out. Here we can make an important distinction between consciousness and awareness. Advanced yogis, or even meditators of long experience, attest that they are self-aware in deep sleep. A kind of background state, the “I am” state, continues around the clock. Sometimes this is accompanied by a faint inner light, sometimes by bliss-consciousness.

Acquiring this meta state is a skill that isn’t part of the average person’s skill set, but neither is the ability to sense all the things your body is doing behind the scenes, the enormous regulation of cell functions, heart rate, breathing, digestion the immune response, biorhythms, the elimination of waste, metabolism, and the flow of hormones. These are considered physical processes in medicine, but just as there is no explanation for how brain cells can think or feel, there is no physical explanation for how the body’s internal clocks work, distinguishes invading pathogens, or organizes thousands of different proteins inside each cell.

Here is where an update of Yoga and Vedanta only makes sense, because both would declare that everything the body does is conscious yet outside our field of awareness. This, too, can be changed, as attested by advanced yogis who can consciously lower their breathing, heart rate, and body temperature at will. There are many practices that target other individual processes. To simplify matters, it makes much more sense to say that the body knows what it is doing than to deny it.

In other words, your body is already in a meta state that you depend upon for your physical existence. One intriguing piece of evidence for this comes from sleep research. As most people know, the purpose of sleep has long been a mystery. It is known that sleep deprivation is damaging to the normal operations of the body-mind system, and prolonged sleep deprivation leads to grossly diminished physical and mental capacity.

What deprivation implies, logically speaking, is that every process that is degraded when we don’t get enough sound sleep might be what is replenished, rebalanced, and repaired during sleep. Research points in this direction, for example, in the brain detoxifying itself during deep sleep. There is no doubt, judging from everyday experience, that sound sleep makes a person feel refreshed and replenished.

Yet there is no escaping the basic objection that physical objects, including the cells in our bodies, are not conscious. Ascribing a thousand coordinated processes, either when awake or asleep, as not conscious doesn’t hold water. It is an unproven assumption based on a physicalist worldview, which holds that everything must have a physical origin. Counting this is the worldview that everything must have an origin in consciousness..

THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY THE AUTHOR ARE PERSONAL

DEEPAK CHOPRA The writer is MD, FACP, FRCP founder of the Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global

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