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Sleep and Ritual




Sleeping, Dreaming & Ritual                                     



Dreams sort out the past and the future for the present (helping to avoid ¡®temporal¡¯ illness like melancholia and anxiety ¨C respectively, too much past and too much future ¡®drowning out¡¯ the present). Or perhaps I should say: sort in the ¡®dream time present¡¯, but for the future, for future use. Our brains sort out the day¡¯s overload and ¡®unfinished business¡¯, stuff we worry about, past or actual (in our imagination) and future or virtual, (¡®imaginary¡¯ in the non-referential sense). All in our dream time imagination, so that we can better function the following day. Born ¡®prematurely¡¯ (we cannot function or survive when we are born), we must stand on two legs not really designed for the load they must carry; now to the list of things the human body is lacking in, we must add brain activity¡­ A day¡¯s activity and we need to sleep, not only to rest the body, but also to allow the nervous system to put in order the day¡¯s events ¨C it seems that we (unlike machine intelligence) must ¡®switch of¡¯ in order to ¡®house clean¡¯. However, in dream sleep, we are conscious of a part of our brain¡¯s activity as it does the chores; we see things, but they are not real, nor can we consciously control them (as in fantasy), though they may affect us strongly - as in nightmare. All to let us wake, the following day, both physically and mentally, refreshed, ready for the new day¡­


Can we read sleep and dreams as the renewal of the self on a par with ritual? As our first ritualized, repetitive requirement: bodily rest and dream sleep? Even as the model for ritual¡­? We remember that ritual, from simple repeated actions, through regular re-enactments, to large scale festivals carry what are often intense emotions, ¡®charged¡¯, with ¡®effervescence¡¯ (Durkheim), which act as a form of collective identity assertion and renewal ¨C requiring (at least in their more rich forms) eternity as a reference point outside of historical space/time acting as guarantor¡­ Concerning renewal the role of sleep and dreams is clear. We also prepare for and recover from sleep, employing a variety of ritual activity: washing, putting on the appropriate clothing, exercising, etc. Some of these activities are also charged with significance for our identity (washing, dressing) others mundane (eating to is a repetitive necessity, one which may become ritualized ¨C as in eating with others, on special dates). However, the truly intriguing parallel is that in dreams too, our time/space is unusual. In big rituals too, not only are all manner of ¡®outsides¡¯ relied upon, paralleling our beliefs in religion and ideology (eternity, heavens, immortals, Nature, universals, axioms, a-priori foundations) but, perhaps most clearly in tribal rituals, a piece of time/space is put aside, in entered, and left (most particularly by the actors, the guides to this other time, the shaman, the possessed) which is felt to be outside of ordinary time, other to everyday time. Eternity accessed: as in a dream. As if in a dream¡­

Dreams too seem to us to be this kind of ¡®outside¡¯? But unlike the Absolute Outside (or Absolute Other) of ¡®eternity¡¯, we have a time/place we can safely enter and leave but which is not the everyday time of the Eternal Present with its ¡¯windows¡¯ onto past and future. Perhaps a kind of ¡®inside outside¡¯, as we can be conscious of (or in) our dreams, and (sometimes) even remember them¡­ Unlike the completely fictional ¡®eternity¡¯ which seems to be an all-important function of the nervous system, but which, however, we cannot imagine¡­ or not without fantasizing... mistaking place and entities for function. So dreams provide our psychological repair work at the same time as the physiological repair work of sleep, whilst rituals provide us with our social and recognition repair work ¨C the repair work of identity. Dream and ritual resemble each other in their suggestion of an other-worldly realm or time ¡®outside¡¯ of everyday time. Ritual refers to eternity, but often feels like a dream; dream is distinct from everyday time and is often believed to refer to or give access to eternity - however configured in a given culture. On a functional level, three levels of maintenance seem apparent: the pre-conscious; the ¡¯un-conscious¡¯; and the conscious (as in Freud). Otherwise put, our survival depends upon three kinds of maintenance, requiring the input of food, rest, and ritual activity: or again, body functions (movement, repair); mental functions (perception, re-sorting); and identity functions (recognition, renewal).


Can we posit sleep is our first ritualised activity (from which there is no escape without loss of sanity, of identity...)? Dreams may offer the first ¡®no-place¡¯, ¡®no-time¡¯, imitated by ritual activity at its more intense; where mythic events, the past, are quoted, in a fantasy, or imaginary reenactment of a narrative or journey (usually clarifying the relation between mortals and immortals, the origins of the group), which in turn may be based upon the strange experiences we undergo as we dream¡­ Day time visions follow logically, as does the deliberate creative distortion of these in art. And then of course there is Surrealism; dreams by any other name¡­ and often relying on actual dreams for inspiration as well as on chance ¨C as the ¡®unconscious¡¯ plays the role of ¡®Absolute Outside¡¯, and the artist (or critic), the shaman, the ¡®the one¡¯ who can contact it¡­ (and who may understand it¡­ interpret it¡­).


Ritual, the cultural form of maintenance, the maintenance of cultural forms and practices, of cohesion and recognition, as of identity (and non-identity, those we are not¡­). The daily medicine of waking life to parallel the medicinal dreams of sleep.






Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2020