The cat turns circles around my ankles, waking me from a night of deep sleep. Only I do not yet know “cat,” or that I am “I” or what it is to sleep or to wake. For a few moments, I am nothing but a pinpoint of pooling, slowly expanding consciousness, a pure subjectivity with no object or aim beyond awareness itself. After being dead to the world and to myself for six or seven or eight hours, I have been reborn into this…..is it a “body,” a bed”? But, within mere moments, I find that I have automatically begun to replant and repopulate the concepts and parameters that give form and sense to my usual space and circumstances, the “where” and “when” of my life situation.
And, perhaps even more significantly, I almost immediately begin to rebuild my inner structures, the narrative and discursive scaffolding that creates “I.” Instead of basking luxuriously in the uprooted peace of being no one and nowhere, I begin to obsessively poke and prod for the memories and feelings that I carried with me into sleep last night. My mind like a tongue worrying a mouth sore. Ah, right, that troubling issue at work: How should I respond? I noodle around a bit more and quickly discover a whiff of regret about my brother, and then, with no transition, find myself mentally rummaging through the kitchen cabinets: Are there any more #4 coffee filters or will I have to use the press pot?
The liminal zone between being asleep and awake is such a magical and fecund interlude that it’s worth wondering why we so often race through or past it on our way to something else. At night, our “goal” is often to drop into a dreamless basement of sleep, not to linger in the antechamber. And often, we crash into bed, falling into unconsciousness, reduced to exhaustion by a day full of seeking and striving. In the morning, we quickly push the “on” button and are immediately pressing forward into another “productive” day. We pour ourselves into hours of gapless mental and physical busyness — punctuated, perhaps, by alcohol and television — until, once again, we may return to the abyss of sleep.
That there are so many analogies between sleep and death tells us much about human fears and longings, and of our ambivalence about both of these “mindless” experiences. On the one hand, many of us both crave and avoid sleep. We may find pleasure in its biological and emotional pull even as we worry that we are wasting time, laying there “doing nothing” when so much and so many are calling for our attention. We stay up just one more hour to finish the laundry or write one more email, and not only, I suspect, because we are afraid of leaving tasks undone, but because as much as we love and long for sleep, most of us are addicted to the chattering mind that tugs at, and transfixes us throughout our daily living.
Even when the mind taunts and harangues us for not being good enough — and the mind has an infinite capacity to identify our supposed shortcomings and failures — it is the devil we know and, very likely, believe that we need. Who would I be without that voice in my head reminding me of what I like and dislike, of what offends me, of who has wronged me and who is my friend? Who would I be without the voice to replay my errors and triumphs, to remind me of what I must do next to be good enough, to earn my right even to exist at all?
In the liminal moments between sleep and wakefulness, I can feel who I am with the mental overlay stripped away. I can experience the “me” that exists behind the rickety concepts and discursive yak-yak-yak that defines and limits who I am most of the time, not only to others but also to myself. To be suspended in this in-between time is to hover in the limbo between death and rebirth. And what a revelation to know on this morning, for at least a few liminal moments, that I need not follow that nagging voice. In fact, I need not ever again acknowledge its power to determine how I will feel, what I will think, or who I will be.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” we say, but maybe the point is that when we sleep we ARE dead in some meaningful sense. Or, if not dead, then hibernating so fully that past and future slip away like the discarded skin of a snake. If such small deaths are the price to pay for the possibility of being reborn and reinvented each morning, perhaps, even, with every breath, then I will take it. I will choose the mindless peace of such mundane annihilations of “me” each and every time.