Meditation is neither a small death nor a small sleep.
Sleep is a physiological necessity that repairs organs and cells. The unconscious state of sleep brings rest but also disengages conscious thought. Without conscious thought, dreams bubble up and run freely as explorations. Sleep is made by physiology to be cycled, completed, and then have consciousness retrieved. All animals engage in equivalents of sleep.
Some hermits and mystics have boasted of their few hours of sleep. Such sleep deprivation is an expression of pride, and a celebration of physical feats that inevitably ruin health and mental stability. Even in the name of higher spirituality, denial of sleep is folly. Sloth is one extreme, but deprivation is another.
Death is also a physiological necessity. Contemporary longevity movements explore genetic research and the pursuit of superfoods to prolong life expectancy. Calming cells and lowering extreme activity is another technique, but faith in technology’s ability to find a magic gene or nutrient, an external drug, is a hapless pursuit. How does this differ from the alchemists and those who pursued the imagined “fountain of youth” on the other side of the developed world?
Taoist religion (as opposed to philosophy) has also sought longevity exercises and elixirs, with the idea that by prolonging life one has the chance to achieve enlightenment — if not immortality. The environment in which Taoism emerged, the proliferation of herbs and foods, the cleanliness of mountains and forests, the vast solitary stretches of ancient China — all gave rise to this sentiment. When it detached itself from Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, philosophy and religion parted, but only on a continuum. Behind it remain good resources for wise physical practices, including meditation.
Why the preoccupation to prolong life if the average person of today hardly pursues a conscious existence anyway. Modern people will find amusement and spectacles to be the same solution whether they live life to the “fullest” or they find life to be a drudgery.
Of course, regardless of our point of view, we die. But what matters is not whether we die but how we live, in accordance with our own expectations. Being around people trying to amuse themselves is always a toll upon one’s own time. We have all the time in the world for the present, but we hardly have time for the future. What is the point of longevity if it means more of the same escape from time? Science, technology, and knowledge, became pastimes and a striving for power.
Meditation is not a physiological necessity, at least not a requirement of health. But meditation is a necessity of well-being and of that insight that clues us to our personality and disposition to life’s vicissitudes. Meditation clarifies and puts into perspective all those aspects of the world swirling around us. Meditation takes leave of them, like sleep, and frees us, like dreams. Meditation lets them dissipate or shrink in importance, like everything when facing death, a small death for those worldly things. A short respite in meditation reveals the nature of things, for when the mind is in meditation, there is no room for anything that does not matter.
The meditator knows that after a little practice, with the mind not focused on anything, the body takes on the disposition of sleep. The breath lengthens and regularizes, and may even sound like a sleeping person sounds. The muscles relax, the heart slows, as in sleep. Yet the meditator sees this, watches this, is aware of it, and is careful not to dwell on it lest it collapse. Why pursue meditation if it can so easily collapse? Each moment brings an unspoken peace that transfers into the body, refreshes and vitalizes like sleep, but purges the dross of the mind’s thought like death, so that mental strength is restored. With time that strength would not be dissipated by anything in the world, only by the self slipping away from its discipline.
In meditation, the mind slowly dispenses with those dear elements of self-identity — thought, images, dialogue, scenarios. And living without it comes as a revelation. In meditation, there is a kind of pleasure: the meditator is left mute, unable to articulate, reluctant to depart from this sheer envelope of warmth and comfort and reassurance. But there is also a kind of knowledge: that one need not go back to the world with its point of view ever again, that the self is stronger than it seemed.
Meditation is a little sleep from the physiological view, a little death from the mind view. In that solitude and the body’s simplicity awaken all the living insights that the world and the worldly miss altogether, that they are too busy pursuing to realize that there is nothing to pursue.
Meditation exists as a tool in every spiritual tradition. It is the core of unspoken and universal knowledge that every tradition enjoys, and which transcends each traditions’ experiences, creeds, or rites. It is all that is left when everything else falls away. That is why the wisest traditions recommend meditation (however its form) from the start — no doctrines or scriptures or philosophizing. Just meditate — and the rest will come. It will come because the core wisdom is already in you. The more one engages with the world and with others, the more cloudy and inaccessible becomes this core.
Death, sleep, and meditating are all bound up, as are health and right living. We don’t need teachers other than the wisdom core within, and the right environment for solitude to nurture this inner understanding.
Meanwhile, there are the classics …
Remember to retire into this little territory of your own, and above all do not distract or strain yourself, but be free, and look at things as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal. But among the things readiest to hand to which you should turn, let there be these two: 1) Things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable. Our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within. 2) All these things around us, which you see, change immediately and will no longer be. Constantly bear in mind how many of these changes you have already witnessed. The universe is transformation. Life is opinion. …
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.