Human Beings Are Always Half-Asleep

Young Charles Darwin

Evolution recognizes that humans are a work in progress. We are not yet, and perhaps never will be, completely conscious. (Image: public domain.)

In spite of our fond beliefs to the contrary, we Homo sapiens are not yet a fully conscious species. Perhaps our need for sleep reflects this reality, for the old argument that we must slumber while our bodies repair themselves does not withstand the verifiable truth that there are those who get by on just thirty minutes each “night.” These alert folk also demolish the idea that sleep is necessary to facilitate integration of the day’s experiences.

What purpose then, do our somnolent ways serve?

Man or beast? Are we as highly evolved as we like to think? Or are we utterly deceived by our inability to see into our unconscious minds? (Image: public domain.)

Scientists of a stern and practical bent suggest they are merely an evolved mechanism to keep us from harm’s way during the dark hours when our poor night vision leaves us at risk from predatory tooth and claw. Again, what of our energetic, “I’ve got two full-time jobs,” types? No, we must face the awful truth. Human beings are a half-baked species. We are still primitive beasts. Only recently emerged from the deep waters of complete unconsciousness, we lie half-submerged on the gritty beach of awareness, blinking in the unaccustomed light, deceptively unaware that our prodigious tails remain obscured beneath the murky water’s surface.

Many are so unaware that some among us – including the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre – claim the visible half is all there is to man, thus making us not half-aware but half-creatures!

Nevertheless, most of us eventually find some inkling of the true situation in a variety of ways: our sudden flashes of intuition, our haunting hunches, a vague intermittent sense of the numinous, and our occasional, seemingly inexplicable, and often embarrassing unconscious acts. These phenomena led inevitably to theories of an unconscious mind co-existing with consciousness in the human brain. Extending this idea, might we not suppose that we sleep to enable the still-unconscious part of us to live, to “have a life” so to speak?

Persephone and the pomegranate. Bursting with seeds, the fruit is a symbol of fertility and potential. The beginning of spring is the morning of the world. Winter is a metaphor for sleep. (Image: public domain,)

The ancient Greeks lived close to that time when consciousness inexplicably emerged from the depths. Greek mythology presents us with the image of Persephone, who spends four months of each year in the underworld, and eight here on the earth. Ignoring for a moment her traditional association with the seasons, we can regard the myth as a metaphor for our pattern of sleeping and waking. Her four months in the underworld constitutes one-third of the year, our eight hours spent in unconscious slumber one-third of the day. Plants blossomed anew on Persephone’s return to earth, just as thought and awareness blossoms anew when we awaken each morning. When the goddess left the earth for her time in the underworld, plants withered and died, just as the flame of awareness flickers out when we tire and “fall” sleep.

How often the poets have likened winter to nature’s long sleep! The world slumbers beneath its blanket of snow. However, as many a writer has pointed out, a good deal goes on beneath that great white comforter.

Persephone was the forbidding queen of the underworld with its population of disembodied souls (both good and evil). Rather than the place where we go after death, the underworld would serve just as well as a depiction of what takes over when our minds swap this world for the land of sleep and dream. The Greeks called the souls of the dead “shades,” a word fraught with powerful dream-like imagery, the kind of imagery our unconscious minds seem to prefer.

A cornucopia might symbolize the rich harvest of a day’s ideas, emotions, and experiences. (Image: public domain.)

On earth, as the daughter of Demeter, the goddess was a beautiful young maiden, claiming the horn of plenty as her symbol. What a lovely way of symbolically depicting the passage of a day, with its bountiful harvest of physical experiences, emotions, conscious thoughts, and calculated ideas!

We must go further with these thoughts. It is not enough to simply admit we are the possessors of a fine and weighty tail and then do nothing with it. We must consider the implications of being only partly conscious. If we human beings spend one-third of our lives sleeping, we should take note of what goes on in the “underworld.” Can we really claim to live life to the full if we acknowledge but two-thirds of it? What effect do our nightly sojourns in the land of the shades have on our waking lives?

Then there is the truly scary question: What is down there, hidden below the threshold of conscious awareness?

Surprisingly, we can make some of it known. With a determined effort we can drag ourselves farther up the beach, pull more of our great tail from beneath the dark surface of the sea of unconsciousness.

The Three Fates, the Greek concept of destiny. Jung claimed unconscious dreams are experienced as fate. (Image: public domain.)

Freud claimed that dreams were “the royal road to the unconscious,” and we can learn, albeit with some difficulty, to interpret skillfully our remembered dreams. The effort pays handsome rewards, for that unconscious tail of ours plays a much bigger and more direct role in our waking lives than most of us would care to admit. Our conscious minds may sleep, but there is nothing to suggest our unconscious portion is ever caught napping. Thus, when awake, we are in a sense two. We think, we are aware, but the great, unseen tail is always powerfully wagging. Speaking of the things we may unknowingly long for in life, Jung said, “dreams that are not made conscious are experienced as fate.” We unconsciously sabotage ourselves, or unwittingly promote a particular outcome when we harbour dreams secret even to ourselves.

Reverie, daydreams, drowsiness, and absent-mindedness provide us with evidence that we do not spend all our waking hours in a state of sharply focussed conscious awareness. How easily, even eagerly, some of us relinquish consciousness in favour of that other, more interesting, and (dare I say it?) more powerful state of mind!

What then, must we do with our enigmatic, incessantly wagging tail, a tail that, from our usual perspective, may have the power to wag the dog?

Rape of Persephone by Luca Giordano

Hades had to steal his bride and spirit her off to the Underworld to symbolize the way we resist exploring our unconscious minds. (Image: public domain.)

We must own it. We must accept the uncomfortable truth that without our prodigious tail we are only half-creatures. Note that in the myth of Persephone, Hades (“dispenser of earthly riches”) abducted the goddess and took her to his underworld kingdom against her will. There he tricked her into eating four pomegranate seeds, a “mistake” that forced on Persephone the compromise of spending four months each year as his wife and queen of the underworld. As Jung has shown, the number four is a symbol of wholeness. By spending eight months of each year on earth and four in the underworld Persephone became complete, whole, aware of, and connected with, both worlds.

In Jungian terms, Persephone became an anima figure; a mediator between the two worlds, the conscious and the unconscious, the two halves of man’s being; someone who brings to the surface the riches of the underworld to stimulate and fertilize the growth of conscious awareness. “So this too is who I am.”

The myth incorporates the limitations of human character and understanding. Hades had to steal his bride because we refuse to acknowledge the unconscious portion of our being, preferring to believe that our conscious existence is all there is to life. “What tail? I don’t see any tail,” we say, laughing at such fancies – and then wonder why we are plagued with ill-defined longings for we know not what, and feel besieged by the nagging sense that there must be something more to life than what we have. Persephone must be tricked into eating the pomegranate seeds because we resist knowing the darker side of ourselves. We do not want to be whole if it means admitting we are less good, less splendid than we had hoped – and it does mean that. The underworld is the eternal home of both good and evil souls, the place does not discriminate, just as our unconscious minds, our tails, know no sense of time and do not concern themselves with moralizing concepts of right and wrong.

In the Underworld. The land of dreams is irrational, surreal, and highly symbolic. (Image: public domain.)

The inhabitants of the underworld are the shades of the departed, the souls or spirits of the dead. They are thus our ancestors, all those who have lived on this earth before us. Here the myth points squarely towards Jung’s idea of unconscious archetypes, life-patterns played out so often in the course of human evolution they are imprinted on the unconscious by means of genetic inheritance. One of these archetypal life-patterns is our own, the one our own life is following! How well do we know the pattern? Are we truly aware of who we really are and what we really want from life? Is the longing for something “more” in reality a longing for self-knowledge? It is possible that truly getting to know ourselves and steering a steadfast course towards self-realization (becoming all that we can become) is precisely the “something more to life than what we’ve got.”

Self-realization starts with getting to know the other half of our being. That difficult and brave endeavour yields a cornucopia of precious fruit. It becomes an ongoing process that is fulfilling in and of itself, regardless of where the journey takes us. The struggle is everything.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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