Treat with Care
Recently, I’ve not been able to fall asleep until hours after I’ve lain down in bed. I’m not having particularly profound or disturbing thoughts, I am just awake. Moreover, my practice does not really make this time mindful, I grasp for the consciousness off-switch and in doing so, suffer doubly: the unease of centering as a self and the sleeplessness that started the whole vicious cycle. It is at times like these, lying awake, that the states of sleep and consciousness and the transition in between present themselves as most precious, to be handled with care.
You’ll know what I mean if you miss more than a few hours of sleep over a couple of nights. You’ll think you have forgotten how to do an essential process—like breathing or eating—and it’ll never come back! Do I fall asleep on my left or right side? Count breaths? Am I more or less mindful?
Where I’m currently at with my practice, I’m less mindful in the minutes (and on some unfortunate nights, hours) before sleep. A present moment of just consciousness would be fine, but a mind full of experience seems like what I get and the opposite of what I need. Obviously this runs counter to the whole project of an examined life, which makes it all the more interesting and precious.
Both a full experience and its restful cessation are necessary, but the transition seems to offer a major difference to think about both in the here-and-now and as an inquiry into the final sleep of death.
For regular sleep, a heart rate decrease signifies sleep, but like with all things, we do not consciously will sleep into existence. The switch is mysterious and often our attempts to flip it put it further out of reach. If there was a greater experiential anecdote to the lack of free will than a mindful practitioner—trained in the subtleties of being aware of thoughts and other qualia—who nevertheless tried to force sleep on a tired self, I cannot come up with one. Instead, the jujitsu of just maintaining practice, noticing thoughts and sensations as they arise, will just as readily find the unconscious switch to the unconscious as would lying mindless and trying not to think about it, or counting sheep.
It is at least as likely that—upon death—we will rejoin some formless, idealist consciousness fabric as that consciousness ends when life ends. We just don’t know and that means 50:50 consciousness:unconsciousness. Now it wouldn’t be the same consciousness, but if there is some machine elves world over the horizon of death than this transition is extraordinarily precious as well.
The training required for death’s transition might be very different than mindfulness. If we assume, as we must, that further transitions are unknowable, than the transition at death is forever, our only landmark in our beginning of infinity as the fabric of consciousness. Something not to be missed! Furthermore, if we hope to grasp this transition at all, we may be just as responsible to make a study of lucid dreaming as mindfulness.
In my friend Machiel Klerk’s new book, Dream Guidance, he lays out the important steps to enable lucidity in dreams and seek guidance on the other side of sleep. His recommendations focus on preparation, intention, and having ready a question you are seeking guidance for. One might well take this advice as a guide for a lucid transition in death: to take as an intention (as much as health and mindfulness allow) to be open awareness during this transition from felt-to-fabric consciousness. But you can leave out any cognitive ask in this final transition—you are no more your last thought than you are your next one!