The joy experienced by us in deep sleep is symbolic of extreme happiness referred to in Hindi as Paramananda, i.e. there is no happiness equal to it and certainly none greater than it. Sleep is an essential requirement for all living beings and yet there is so much about it that is unknown. Here we take a look at the spiritual significance of deep sleep and revisit the importance of rest in our lives.
Sleep is one of the great mysteries of life. Like gravity or the quantum field, we still don’t understand exactly why we sleep although we are learning more about it every day. What we do know for a fact is that human beings sleep for approximately one-third of their lives, so on average, we spend 25 years of our life in bed. The things that happen within our body while we are asleep are absolutely necessary for us to stay healthy and feel well during the 50 years of our life that we are awake. In fact, the more comfortable and relaxing those hours are, the better it is for your immune system, your memory, your heart, your sense of humor and your overall physical well-being. Research has shown that a number of life-giving bodily processes benefit from a good nights sleep.
Sleep is prompted by natural cycles of activity in the brain and consists of two basic states: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, which consists of Stages 1 through 4. During sleep, the body cycles between non-REM and REM sleep. Typically, people begin the sleep cycle with a period of non-REM sleep followed by a very short period of REM sleep. Dreams generally occur in the REM stage of sleep.
As showcased by the visual infographic above, Stage 3 and Stage 4 of NREM sleep are the most intense stages of sleep. These are technically known as the delta stage of sleep or in lay-man terms known as the stage of deep sleep. If aroused from sleep during these stages, a person may feel disoriented and irritable.
It is easily recognized that when we are awake both the body and mind are active. Their activities include not only performing karma but also experiencing its fruits and fulfilling desires. In deep sleep, however, there is no desire for anything, nor are there are any dreams. In the waking and dream states, we do not know anything about what another person is experiencing. The only way to know his experience is to ask him. For e.g. a doctor can know the details of his patient’s pain: where it is located, whether it is increasing or decreasing etc, only after the patient informs the doctor himself. Similarly, a patient’s dream experiences also can be known by the doctor only by asking him.
On the other hand, however, to understand the experience of deep sleep of another person, we do not have to ask him. As soon as somebody says that he had a deep sleep we are able to understand his experience, without asking him at all. Each one of us will agree with this phenomenon.
In the waking state, we experience the world through our sense organs and mind, which are different for each individual. In dreams, however, the sense organs are inactive and only the mind functions. Therefore, whether it be the waking or dream state, it is through the sense organs and mind that we experience the world. But since these instruments vary from individual to individual, the experiences received through them are also different, varying with each personality. Thus in these two states, we can know the other experience only when he tells us himself.
However, no differences exist at all from one to another when the body, sense organs and mind etc are dropped in deep sleep. According to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad: In deep sleep, there is no distinction between child or adult, king or beggar, educated or uneducated, man or woman….everyone has the same state of happiness.
Unfortunately, this period of happiness terminates with the termination of deep sleep. The oneness which resulted from the disconnection of the instruments (body, senses, mind) is gone the moment a connection is established with them as soon as we wake up. This is because our attachment to the body, nurtured over several births, is still intact. The Upanishads describe what happens using the following imagery: One who had lost kingship becomes king again, one who had lost poverty gets it back again’.
Similarly, a tiger or a lion or a wolf or a worm or a butterfly or a mosquito becomes what it was, immediately after returning from deep sleep.
It is thus stated in the Hindu scriptures that the feeling experienced by us in deep sleep is Paramananda, i.e. there is no happiness equal to it and certainly none greater than it. It is difficult for people to understand this description of deep sleep given by the scriptures. We fail to have faith in these words because we have always been accustomed to obtaining happiness only through an effort, and here is a state which gives us the maximum happiness precisely because there is the absence of any effort.
Generally, the experience of deep sleep is taken very lightly and the following objections are raised: How can it be called the state of maximum happiness? In fact, it cannot be called happiness at all since we obtain happiness only by interacting with various objects, but there is no object at all in deep sleep.
This, however, is not correct. Suppose that one is deprived of sleep, food and pleasurable objects for a long time and then all of them are simultaneously offered to him. It is known that the first thing he would seek would be to sleep, then food and then the pleasures from outside objects. Even in the case where pleasurable objects are in good supply and one is deprived only of the pleasure of sleep, he would give up everything and take pills to get sleep. If there is an obstruction to sleep, one would reject one’s wife or children or wealth. Therefore, it is clear that the pleasure from outside objects, the pleasure from food and the pleasure of sleep are in an increasing order. Hence, sleep is not merely the absence of grief, but also the greatest happiness.
Indeed, while money can buy a lot of things on this planet but it can’t buy deep sleep.