At an in-patient hospice where I’ve volunteered for many years, I got to know a man named Jasper who was dying of lung cancer in his seventies. Over several weeks, he told me stories about growing up on a midwestern farm. He shared his memories of the endless acres of green-gold alfalfa fields shimmering in the wind—memories that were associated with a sense of spaciousness, but also with hard labor and long hours as he tried to follow his father’s example and expectations.
When Jasper could no longer get out of bed, and was sleeping more and more of the time, he began to share dreams. In a hoarse whisper, he told me:
I’m walking across an open field. Just walking and walking. Trying to get to my father. He’s at the far side of the field, standing by a fence. He’s expecting me. I walk and walk but can’t get any closer. Don’t want to disappoint him, but I’m too slow, can’t keep up. The tall grass is dragging on my legs, slowing me down. But I have to keep walking. The sun is setting.
Jasper was anxious and exhausted, but committed to completing the task of his life. He’d always worked hard, and he wasn’t going to give up now. So he struggled and labored through the process of dying. Towards the end, he was in a coma, unresponsive to those around him, but with his eyes partly open, and his lips moving as if he was talking to himself, urging himself on. As I sat beside his bed, hour after hour, I noticed that his feet were moving under the thin sheet: first one foot flexed and then the other. Actually, his legs were working, too—alternately tensing and relaxing. He was walking. I imagined him walking across that field, to meet his father. It was a long way, and it took a long time. He worked hard at walking, and worked hard for each breath, the whole way.
I wasn’t there when he died, but his son, who was with him, told me that he walked right up until he stopped breathing—then let go with a big sigh, as if he’d finally gotten where he was going.
According to Hindu Vedanta, there are three states of experience: waking, dreaming, and deep dreamless sleep. Sometimes, these states are described as entirely separate from each other. But in my experience they exist on a continuum. They tend to overlap when we are falling asleep or waking up, or in lucid dreams—to name just a few examples. As death approaches, the distinctions between waking, dreaming, and deep sleep can break down completely. It becomes impossible (from the outside, and probably from the inside, too) to tell what’s a vision, what’s a dream, what’s “real.”
Jasper seemed to experience the same “dream”—a dream of walking across fields—as a waking memory, a vision, a dream, and a state of being in deep sleep. (Of course, I can’t really know about the deep sleep or death experience—I am only imagining.) While recounting memories, he was often half asleep. While recounting dreams, he wasn’t always sure whether they were dreams or not. And when he was in a coma, he may have been dreaming, or he may have been beyond dreams, but his body was moving in a way that communicated to others in the waking world.
The idea that these three states are on a continuum suggests a linear sequence of events—but I think that they are actually happening simultaneously, in every moment. Waking, dreaming, and deep sleep are not separate states at all, but different stances of the identity in relation to the unknown, infinite Mystery of existence itself, which is perpetually present.
When we identify ourselves as fully awake, we have a clear sense of what we are: our bodies, our roles, our relationships, our patterns of thought and behavior. When we are in the midst of a dream, we may retain a shadow-image of the waking identity (the dream-ego or “I” character), but we also have access to other perspectives and possibilities (see: “What Am I?”). And when we are in deep sleep, according to some spiritual traditions, we may have a kind of consciousness that is not attached to any defining characteristics at all—a state of pure, unbounded awareness that may be comparable to the experience of death. What changes between these states is not “reality” itself, but our sense of who or what we are.
When we are dying, or when we are going through times of intense change (illness, crisis, grief, etc.) our sense of identity begins to fall apart as we lose many of the things that had defined us. Although it is often a struggle, the identity can become more flexible, even fluid, as in a dream. And when the identity is fluid, the reality experienced by that identity is also fluid. Possibilities open up. Who knows what might happen next?
“In this body, in this town of Spirit, there is a little house shaped like a lotus and in that house there is a little space…. There is as much in that little space within the heart as there is in the whole world outside. Heaven, earth, fire, wind, sun, moon, lightning, stars; whatever is and whatever is not, everything is there… What lies in that space does not decay when the body decays, nor does it fall when the body falls. That space is the home of the Spirit.”
-From the Chhandogya Upanishad
–Note: On The Use of Others’ Dreams in these posts