What happens when you sleep

Dr. Weeks’ Comment:  The topic of sleep is fascinating and obscure because, although we spend almost half our life in this altered state, nobody really knows what happens to us when our eyes are shut and we fall asleep.  Rudolf Steiner (1861 -1925)  gives us some hints through his teaching of Anthroposophical Medicine. In this paradigm, we understand that there are four aspects to the human body: the physical body, the etheric body, the soul and the spirit. We think of the physical body being substance while the etheric body is life forces,  the soul has to do with feelings and the spirit has to do with self-direction and orientation- the executive functions. The physical body is analogous to the mineral kingdom where we find substance and form, but no life. When you add the etheric life forces, it’s analogous to the plant kingdom which has substance and life. Once the soul is added, we have the equivalent to the animal kingdom which has feelings as motivation for how to use the assets of substance imbued with life. And lastly, when spirit is present, we humans have the capacity for  free choice and only then can love can be created on earth. The reason for this brief digression into Anthroposophical medicine is that during sleep what Steiner claims happen is that the physical body and the etheric body,  if you will the plantlike aspect of a person, remains in the bed while the soul and the spirit depart -they excarnate – and leave the sleeper to recover from the wear and tear of the prior day (hence the surge of anabolic hormones during sleep). What the soul and spirit do, nobody knows; but Steiner suggests it’s a nightly reorientation of priorities so that when the soul and spirit return and imbue the sleeping vegetative matter once again creating an intact 4-fold human being, now a new day opens up with the potential to lead a new life more consistent with ones spiritual values. Whether Steiner’s description of sleep where these bodies separate during sleep we don’t know for certain,  but I enjoy the following poem which is a wonderful description of what poet laureate Billy Collins thinks happen when we sleep.


The Night House 

Every day the body works in the fields of the world
Mending a stone wall
Or swinging a sickle through the tall grass-
The grass of civics, the grass of money-
And every night the body curls around itself
And listens for the soft bells of sleep.
But the heart is restless and rises
From the body in the middle of the night,
Leaves the trapezoidal bedroom
With its thick, pictureless walls
To sit by herself at the kitchen table
And heat some milk in a pan.

And the mind gets up too, puts on a robe
And goes downstairs, lights a cigarette,
And opens a book on engineering.
Even the conscience awakens
And roams from room to room in the dark,
Darting away from every mirror like a strange fish.
And the soul is up on the roof
In her nightdress, straddling the ridge,
Singing a song about the wildness of the sea
Until the first rip of pink appears in the sky.
Then, they all will return to the sleeping body
The way a flock of birds settles back into a tree,
Resuming their daily colloquy,
Talking to each other or themselves
Even through the heat of the long afternoons.
Which is why the body-the house of voices-
Sometimes puts down its metal tongs, its needle, or its pen
To stare into the distance,

To listen to all its names being called
Before bending again to its labor.

Billy Collins
American Poet Laureate 2002

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