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Let’s use the ideas from the two preceding essays in this series as an informative metaphor. That metaphor may help us find some tangible connections between our world and the one that awaits us in the life after this one.
In the matter of mental capacity, human beings have excellent reasons for humility. Firstly, the human brain has limited information processing speed. We know that it makes up for this limitation with massive parallelism and preliminary processing, particularly in the area of vision, where bundles of nerve fibres transfer information from the retina to the brain in a staged process. Specialized neurons recognize edges for instance, so that what reaches the brain is an ‘interpreted’ version of the raw data. Other steps attribute different colors to the slightly different wavelengths of light reaching our pupils—but all colors are mental constructs. No colors actually exist—instead, they’re different frequencies of light, which our eyes and brains then interpret and identify.
One illuminating example of this necessary sharing of our limited processing powers–a near-sighted person who is also hard of hearing can hear better when he puts on his glasses, because they reduce the load on his brain’s vision processing. I can attest to this because I am both somewhat deaf and vision-impaired! As a result of this internal shepherding of our limited mental resources, we can function using internal “programs” with just a limited number of steps–but we often function at the limit of our capacity.
Most of us who have had to drive through difficult traffic while carrying on a conversation with an interesting passenger or on a cell phone will recall taking a wrong turn, often caused by trying to multi-task. What happened? The concentration (or processing power) needed to stay on track has been transferred to one’s interesting passenger and one’s brain implements another routing as a default. For all these reasons, and, following the above metaphor, it is clear that we are unlikely to be doing real-time transfers of data to the next world while we are awake and busy. Clearly we need to look more closely at sleep.
The Mysterious Realms of Sleep
The Baha’i teachings include a number of fascinating statements on the subject of sleep:
As to thy question concerning the worlds of God. Know thou of a truth that the worlds of God are countless in their number, and infinite in their range. None can reckon or comprehend them except God, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. Consider thy state when asleep. Verily, I say, this phenomenon is the most mysterious of the signs of God amongst men, were they to ponder it in their hearts. Behold how the thing which thou hast seen in thy dream is, after a considerable lapse of time, fully realized. Had the world in which thou didst find thyself in thy dream been identical with the world in which thou livest, it would have been necessary for the event occurring in that dream to have transpired in this world at the very moment of its occurrence. Were it so, you yourself would have borne witness unto it. This being not the case, however, it must necessarily follow that the world in which thou livest is different and apart from that which thou hast experienced in thy dream. This latter world hath neither beginning nor end. It would be true if thou wert to contend that this same world is, as decreed by the All-Glorious and Almighty God, within thy proper self and is wrapped up within thee. It would equally be true to maintain that thy spirit, having transcended the limitations of sleep and having stripped itself of all earthly attachment, hath, by the act of God, been made to traverse a realm which lieth hidden in the innermost reality of this world. Verily I say, the creation of God embraceth worlds besides this world, and creatures apart from these creatures. In each of these worlds He hath ordained things which none can search except Himself, the All-Searching, the All-Wise. Do thou meditate on that which We have revealed unto thee, that thou mayest discover the purpose of God, thy Lord, and the Lord of all worlds. In these words the mysteries of Divine Wisdom have been treasured. We have refrained from dwelling upon this theme owing to the sorrow that hath encompassed Us from the actions of them that have been created through Our words, if ye be of them that will hearken unto Our Voice. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 187.
In this passage, Baha’u’llah makes it clear that he knows more on this subject than he discloses, and that this reluctance is because of our own spiritual condition or level of collective behavior.
Baha’u’llah writes that the state of sleep can put us in touch with a distinct reality, separate from the one we normally encounter. We can think of this reality as “wrapped up within” us or as “a realm which lieth hidden in the innermost reality of this world.” Baha’u’llah uses the imperative: “Do thou meditate on that which We have revealed unto thee,” which seems quite a bit stronger than: “You might like to think about this.”
One conclusion we can take from all this, I hope you will agree, is that sleep connects us to the next world. Certainly our dreams testify to that fact. But do the communications that pass between these two worlds only go one-way, or in both directions? We’ll explore that fascinating question in the final essay in this series.