Do We Go Unconscious When We Sleep?

Scientists like to explore the idea of consciousness as if it’s something that a physical being has. You know, people have a consciousness and when hit in the head, can lose consciousness. Rocks don’t have a consciousness. They have a physical existence, but presumably no conscious awareness of their own existence. Physicality is taken to be primary and consciousness is taken to be some sort of optional secondary manifestation that may or may not arise from physicality. What causes consciousness? Perhaps it’s a chemical reaction in the brain, a product of our biology… it’s somehow a functioning of physicality.

This is further evidenced by the fact that we can seemingly lose consciousness, and we even go unconscious when we sleep at night. Clearly our bodies still exist, and other people can confirm this for us, but we have no sense of self-awareness, and so it seems like physicality comes first, while consciousness comes second. If anything, the body, as temporary as it is, seems more continuous and experimentally permanent than consciousness. From this perspective, it’s only natural that we perceive ourselves to be this physicalized being. At the same time, there’s “my” consciousness and “your” consciousness.

I’m sitting here reading through a copy of I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj and he just brought up something (Chapter 18) which shot right through the heart of a deep confusion and misunderstanding within me and triggered a big ‘aha’. In the book a questioner sits down with Nisargadatta and brings up the points and enters into a dialogue about this subject.

Memory and Consciousness

The conversation is lead to an exploration into the idea of memory.

Do we have any memory of what it’s like to be unconscious, such as the time we are in deep dreamless sleep at night? No. That’s not to say that consciousness wasn’t conscious at that time. We simply have no memory of being conscious or unconscious at that time. People can look at our bodies when we sleep and say that it is lying down, still, the eyes are closed, and the body is breathing, but that is only their experience of our body. That is not a pointer to what our conscious awareness itself is experiencing. Is it not totally possible that your experience of yourself can be vastly different from another person’s experience of you?

Yesterday during the day, for example, were you conscious? Were you aware of your own existence throughout the day? Most likely, yes.

However, today, do you remember every moment of being conscious? Probably not.

Now just because you can’t remember every instance of being conscious, does that prove that you weren’t conscious then?

Of course not. You know that you were conscious. You just don’t remember it now. Same thing here in those times when we were seemingly unconscious.


Timeless Consciousness and Time-bound Imagination

Upon this recognition, it suddenly dawned on me that I have no idea whether or not consciousness actually stops being conscious in those times when I am asleep or unconscious. Sure I don’t remember experiencing those periods of time, but I can’t say for sure whether or not consciousness was unconscious.

Seeing this, I paused for a time of quiet meditation, open to exploring the relationship between consciousness and memory. Here is what suddenly came forth from the silence:

Consciousness only has the capacity to be conscious right now. Consciousness is only capable of being conscious of the present moment and the content within it. Consciousness can not extend itself into the past or future, for those do not actually exist and thus consciousness can not go there.

However, within consciousness exists both memory and imagination, and the visual stories that they create. Past and future are like mental visions that always arise only in the present moment. Have you noticed how every time you witness your mind’s memories or visualizations of past and future, consciousness is conscious of those mental movies in the present moment? Consciousness is conscious of that which arises now, including stories of past and future, both of which can only arise in the present moment.

The domain of consciousness is the present moment. The domain of imagination is time and space. “Once upon a time, in a land far far away…”

Consciousness is clearly Here, not in any particular location. Location-wise, it actually exists nowhere and is therefore present everywhere. Within the nowhere’ness of consciousness, an infinitely vast universe springs forth, which actually expands infinitely far out through nowhere, paradoxically enough. It’s like looking at a movie screen. You can travel vast distances when watching the movie, but the screen itself doesn’t go anywhere. You can even wear 3D goggles and watch the movie Avatar, but despite appearances, there’s no animals coming towards you from Pandora and you don’t actually go “in” to the colorful world you see on screen, although it may certainly look and feel that way. Ultimately, you’re not going anywhere and there is no real depth to the visual images. There is only the appearance of depth and 3 dimensions upon a flat 2 dimensional screen.


So coming back to the idea of memory, memory is something that is written to or not. Many things have happened to us that we don’t remember, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen. When we look to past or future, all we can see is what can be accessed in our memory (past) or created by the imagination (future). Neither of the two are indicative of the fullness of what happened or what can or will happen. They are inherently limited tools and attempting to identify reality or truth from either of those two is.. well.. it’s not gonna work, y’know?


So, coming back to the awareness of awareness, to being conscious of consciousness, have you ever experienced a moment, consciously, where consciousness wasn’t conscious? I know there may be gaps in your experience, like when you get knocked out or go to sleep at night, and that’s okay, but you yourself as consciousness, has there ever been experience without consciousness?

Can we say for sure that just because we don’t remember an experience, it didn’t happen?

At the same time, can we be absolutely certain that just because we can’t remember what happened before we were born, we didn’t exist?

Is it possible that consciousness itself is eternal, and it is the body/mind/memory thingy that changes, that comes and goes, and is just a fleeting movie that is shown upon the unchanging screen of consciousness?

Spending time with the unchanging screen of consciousness itself, rather than focusing upon the images that temporarily flicker on screen… desires, thoughts, understandings, misunderstandings, questions, answers, people, ideas, food, clouds… all this stuff that comes and goes, what happens when we fall back and rest as conscious awareness itself?

Consciousness, this eternal presence, what is it like to rest in eternity, not bound in time? What is it like to live as awareness itself instead of the thought “I am this,” “I am that,” or even the thought, “I am awareness?” What is it like to simply rest as awareness itself, awareness that is effortlessly aware without any effort on our part?

Just consciousness conscious now…