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Power Of Sleep – A Wasteful Bliss or Existential Necessity

All four paws gently touched the moldy wall, just barely—a fleeting contact of fur and plaster, the mold ever-present and melding into the wall. The soft morning light nuzzled against a furry friend’s soft belly, rise and fall in slow rhythm – a comforting sight such that time might as well be non-existent. All sorts of cacophonic entities- drilling noises, traffic, the calls of the vegetable vendors, live their lifetimes without receiving the slightest attention from this one in her blissful world. The shrill sibilance of the pressure cooker drowned out her stertorous breathing, perhaps. Ah! What a delicious thing it is – Sleep.

cat sleeping on plants

Especially the power-packed tiny ones, the supposed 15-minute naps that morph into some of the longest slumbers, ones full of vivid dreams that seem to go on and on, particularly when there’s a ton of work, nudging and prodding gently and then shaking vigorously at the periphery of the dream space. The power of sleep outmatches the pull of urgency of stacking pile of work. Sleep holds you in its warm embrace, giving you the impression all is right with the world. No matter the extent of the existential dread or of deadlines or of all the things eating into one’s finances, the momentary soft, inviting lap of sleep will always be there as comfort, perhaps even gently rocking one, whispering reassurances of better days.

An imaginary scenario comes to mind, a thought experiment of sorts (not at all as profound as ‘Schrodinger’s cat’ or ‘Brain in a Vat’). In as far as a fictional scenario goes, let us consider this – we have bestowed upon us the ability to forgo sleep purely through creative imagination and indeed not by some divine power, and frankly, how this comes to be, remains irrelevant. With this ability, let’s say that there is no physiological requirement for sleep, and so we go about our days and our nights, being productive or perhaps not, but sleep doesn’t gnaw and tug at us. How much would we crave sleep knowing that it was this wonderful thing that existed in the past? Would the awareness of sleep as a concept and not achieving it frustrate us? The sheer fact of having known the experience of sleep and to have it lost. Not having a physiological need for sleep might mean that we might not crave it at all. And what would all that extra time do to our everyday lives? Who’s to say.

How must the mythological Lakshman (Ram’s brother) from the Ram Kathas have felt to have foregone sleep for 14 years when in exile? According to legend, even the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who is often referred to in conjunction with Zen Buddhism and the Shaolin Temple (historical evidence for the same is mostly absent), is said to have torn off his upper eyelids not to be ensnared by the lure of sleep. Tearing off one’s eyelids and the lack of lubrication will probably cause the eye to dry out and make one go blind, but these are stories; imaginative ones at that too, some of them. The Greeks were no less to have thought up tales involving Nyx (Personification of the night) to bear a son, Hypnos (God of sleep), who in turn has children who are personifications of dreams.

Several hours of a human’s day is devoted to an activity that involves lying sprawled on some relatively soft surface, drool on yet another soft surface of a pillow, mouth agape, with seeming non-awareness of one’s limbs or oneself even; stertorous sounds might escape the cavernous openings much to the chagrin of those that might, by no fault of theirs’s, have found themselves occupying the same space. We are admittedly blissful yet apologetic about this state of nonawareness. Humans are, by no measure, an outlier in terms of the number of hours spent sleeping; sloths, koalas, and several other non-human animals sleep for most of the day. Yet you wouldn’t spot a Koala complaining about how such a large portion of their life is spent in such a wasteful activity such as sleep (not my words; I have never thought of sleep as wasteful). There seems to be some sort of general consensus that almost half our lives are spent in non-awareness, owing to sleep. To that, I would say that sleep is by no means a cessation of subjectivity, and at no point in our waking lives do we ever find a blurring of the self and others, such as those found in our fantastical dreams. Where else can we ever hope to embody the fluctuating emotions of a conjured-up character, another life, another subjective experience? Where else can we abruptly switch between scenes and personhoods and have it be and feel perfectly normal; be both the observer and the observed, flowing, strung across myriad modes of being and diving or rather being thrown into situations that are created in an instant and that are too bizarre to be entertained by real life.

Imagine interacting with someone whose consciousness disappeared a century ago-much like the protagonist in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf having a conversation with Goethe, a very jovial Goethe (maybe he was in real life too, but I don’t know enough about him to be sure). We invent as we go in dreams, and it’s all real, surely, just as life is. It can’t seem unreal because of the inability to step out of ourselves. Things couldn’t possibly be any different, and if they were, we wouldn’t be around to know it. It’s a myth that pinching yourself helps ascertain that it is, in fact, “real life” I pinched myself once, and the pain was real; I was convinced that it wasn’t a dream, and yet it was (time to go watch ‘The Matrix’ again, I suppose).

There are instances of painlessness, too, perhaps. Crash out of a thick glass window, land on a fine beam with numerous scratches; no pain. Chase down some man with a scraggly beard, thin as a rake, who is apparently, in the next instant pot-bellied, has a double-chin; he guffaws and then turns into a scheming young girl with round glasses. She seems innocent enough, but you’re chasing her (them?), so she can’t be? Try to throw a punch, and the arm might as well be fluff; there’s no weight or concreteness to it. The ‘I’ isn’t static either; it is strange that we can ‘be’ several beings/things/concepts. We don’t perceive it as odd; it’s all incredibly amazing.

It can be rather tricky, though, when sleep has arrested one to such a degree that waking life pales in comparison or that the horrors of our life awake is so much to bear that only sleep can alleviate it (to some degree). It is also equally painful when sleep has shunned us, however briefly, where her scents linger as a ghost, leaving behind little shadows of fragments that we hope to collect, ravenous for every crumb but crumbs that can never hope to satiate.

Author: Anushikha Bhas
[Science Writing; University of Exeter; Karate]

Illustration: Anagha Deshpande
[Visual Art; Sybiosis International University; Photography]


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