More Sleep

A children’s prayer: Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; If I should die before I wake; I pray the Lord my soul to take. We might wonder why anyone would send children off to sleep with a prayer this dire. Yet something about sleep is revealed by contemplating this simple prayer: the fact that in sleep (and in death) our soul is released to the spiritual world. Did praying at bedtime once carry a reverence for the soul’s nightly sojourn that we have since forgotten?

Steiner says that spiritual research is living consciously into the world which normal people live into unconsciously every time they go to sleep. As we further explore what is happening when we go to sleep, we need to become acquainted with the way spiritual science views the human being: body, soul and spirit. In our contemporary culture we keep looking for answers to the complexities of life in the physical realm observable through our senses, but believing that our physical body is the sum total of who we are will never explain what happens while we sleep, let alone how we can say “I” to ourselves and know what that means.

Let’s see what Dr. Steiner has to say:

… [The] complete human being consists of the physical body, the etheric body or body of formative [healing] forces, the astral body, and the ego.

In the part of man perceptible to the outer senses … we have first, according to spiritual science, only a single member of the human being, the physical body, which man has in common with the mineral world. That part which is subject to physical laws, … the sum of chemical and physical laws, we designate in spiritual science as the physical body.

Beyond this, however, we recognize higher super-sensible members of human nature which are as actual and essential as the outer physical body.

As first super-sensible member, man has the etheric body, which becomes part of his organism and remains united with the physical body throughout the entire life; only at death does a separation of the two take place… During the entire time between birth and death this etheric or life body continuously combats the disintegration of the physical body… *

The third member of the human being we recognize as the bearer of all pleasure and suffering, joy and pain, instincts, impulses, passions, desires, and all that surges to and fro as sensations and ideas, even all concepts of what we designate as moral ideas, and so on. That we call the astral body.

Thus we already have three members of the human being, and as man’s highest member we recognize that by means of which he towers above all other beings…: the bearer of the human ego, which gives him in such a mysterious, but also in such a manifest way, the power of self-consciousness.

Man has the physical body in common with his entire visible environment, the etheric body in common with the plants and animals, the astral body with the animals. The fourth member, however, the ego, he has for himself alone… We recognize this fourth member as the ego-bearer, as that in human nature by means of which man is able to say “I” to himself, to come to independence.

Excerpt from: The Mystery of the Human Temperaments, Public lecture, Karlsruhe, January 19, 1909.

In Steiner’s sketch of the human being, we are asked to grasp in clear terms the larger part of ourselves that cannot be proved by natural science. If we can allow this idea to enter at all, we can also imagine that dreaming, dreamless sleep, transitions between the various stages of sleep, all occur because our four bodies are in a different relationship with each other than when we’re awake. Spiritual science tells us that when we sleep our physical and etheric bodies stay behind in bed while the astral body and ego enter into spiritual realms. When the etheric body leaves the physical body along with the astral and ego bodies, we die.

If we remember the Steiner quote from Occult Science, Chapter III: Sleep and Death in last month’s post, we may now understand a bit more about his references to the astral body returning to the spiritual environment when it is freed from the body. We fall asleep as the astral body and ego leave our physical and etheric bodies and awaken when they return. Our dream pictures, taken from ordinary life, arise in these transitions. We will discuss dreaming in next month’s post.

*A modern definition of the etheric body (and the difference between sleep and death) by Dr. Adam Blanning:

While You Were Sleeping

We should get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, but that is often impossible; we just don’t have the time. In fact, we use coffee and energy drinks to wake us up in the morning and keep us awake long enough to get everything done. And then, when we finally do lay down, we’re still buzzing from the caffeine, or we’re interrupted by cell phone and computer notifications, or plagued by circular thoughts about personal problems or endless to-do lists; we just can’t get any peace.

sleeping woman in clouds-bw.jpg

These stressors are just a few of the factors that can exacerbate our struggle to achieve a decent night’s sleep. According to the Stanford University Research Center, there are 84 different sleep disorders that can affect people of all ages—from infancy to old age. 84!

We get it. We know it’s important to get enough sleep. If we don’t, we know we’ll have less energy and motivation all day; we also know that we’ll likely be more sensitive, more easily frustrated, quicker to anger. Sleep experts say that if we continue to get insufficient sleep, our outlook on life itself begins to suffer.

That’s why sleep trackers, sleeping pills, white noise, recordings of natural sounds, etc., are so popular now. We know we’re our best selves if we’ve slept well, and we’re willing to take significant measures to get the sleep we need. It’s hard to fathom, though, that “enough sleep” is about 1/3 of our lives; that if we live to be 75, we will have spent roughly 25 years sleeping or as a 30-year-old we’ve already slept for 10 years. On the surface, that seems like a huge waste of time. Why can’t we just rest instead? What, exactly, is going on while we’re unconscious?

Let’s see what Dr. Steiner has to say:

Just as the physical body receives its food, for example, from its environment, so during the sleep state the astral body receives the images from the world about it. It lives there actually in… the same universe out of which the entire human being is born. The source of the images through which the human being receives his form lies in this universe. During sleep he is harmoniously inserted into it, and during the waking state he lifts himself out of this all-encompassing harmony in order to gain external perception. In sleep, his astral body returns to this cosmic harmony and on awaking again brings back to his bodies sufficient strength from it to enable him to dispense with his dwelling within the cosmic harmony for a certain length of time. The astral body, during sleep, returns to its home and on awaking brings back with it renewed forces into life. These forces that the astral body brings with it on awaking find outer expression in the refreshment that healthy sleep affords. (Occult Science: Chapter III: Sleep and Death)

The peculiarity of our waking life is that it does not participate in our constructive processes, in the creation of our own being, but that it shows symptoms of fatigue, and that, after all, it constantly consumes us. The waking life of day is in fact a process of destruction, and any unprejudiced observer will note that sleep is the very opposite: it is a creative process which restores, reorders and creates anew that which the waking life destroys.

… This creative process within us that takes place during sleep concerns us directly, yet we cannot know anything about it because immediately before this creative process arises, we lose our consciousness so that we cannot penetrate knowingly into spheres within our being where creative processes take place. But this leads to the immediate conclusion that if only we were able to maintain our consciousness beyond the point where torpor sets in, we could take hold of the creative phenomena in nature and the universe.

… There is no other path leading to a knowledge of things lying behind the sensory world that that of transcending our ordinary consciousness and penetrating into a creative process which takes place within us.

Excerpt from: Occultism and Initiation, Public lecture, Helsinki, April 12, 1912

We do have some evidence that our souls are having experiences while our bodies are sleeping. Sometimes we remember our dreams, but they usually don’t make much sense until we begin working consciously on them. Sometimes we wake up with answers to questions that seemed unsolvable the day before. And sometimes we have premonitions that disturb us throughout the coming day, especially if they come true.

Obviously, the body and the soul are replenished and fortified by sleep whether we are conscious of the experiences we are having during that time or not. But we don’t have to stay in the dark about this significant portion of our lives on earth. The hidden meaning of our sleep life will unfold when we begin our journey on the path toward spiritual knowledge.* It will make sense because the spiritual world that the soul experiences during sleep is a world as real as the physical one that our soul experiences during waking life.

*Imbedded in the letter below is a link to the six basic exercises given by Rudolf Steiner as a path toward spiritual awakening.

Letter from the General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society >

The Anthroposophical Society in America (ASA) supports and furthers the work of Rudolf Steiner in the United States. We are an open membership organization that fosters self-development and inspired social engagement.

Anthroposophy is a discipline of research as well as a path of knowledge, service, personal growth, and social engagement. Introduced and developed by Rudolf Steiner, it is concerned with all aspects of human life, spirit and humanity’s future evolution and well-being.