Our entire lives form an ongoing journey into consciousness that occurs one day at a time. We should treat each day as sacred with its own importance as a doorway into eternity. In this way we can take our practice, whether of Yoga, meditation, Ayurveda or Jyotish to the highest level. We must learn to cultivate a moment-by-moment awareness throughout the day and night. When we reach unbroken inner awakefulness as our natural state, we have understood our true reality.
Every single day we go through radical changes in consciousness and prana according to nature’s rhythms. Yet we have become used to this process and seldom notice how significant its consequences are. I am speaking here of our changes in awareness from waking to dream and deep sleep, which suggest yet other states of consciousness beyond. It is a radical change in which our consciousness and prana turns within and our body moves from action to inaction, along with quieting of the mind and senses.
We are carried away by the irresistible forces of prana along this daily journey into consciousness and must honor their power. We can adjust this process, modifying our hours of waking, but must eventually surrender to the biological needs of sleep that are essential and inevitable. Yet there exist spiritual and yogic potentials behind sleep that we should bear in mind. In fact the key to our entire evolution of consciousness can be found in this daily movement of awareness.
Normally we are so fixated in our waking state and our physical lives that we regard dream and deep sleep as simply necessary biological interludes in our material lives and give afford little importance. Yoga teaches us, on the contrary, that dream and deep sleep involve our connection with higher states of awareness beyond the physical and possibly with subtler lokas or worlds beyond material reality. We can cultivate all three states in different ways to unfold our highest cosmic potential.
The Self behind Waking, Dream and Deep Sleep
The self of the waking state is our physical or bodily self, including our outer mind and social personality are designed to allow us to function in the material world. Yet there is also a self of the dream state, which we all experience, but is more changeable in nature. Then there is a self of deep sleep or subtle awareness that persists in deep sleep that few of us are aware of as having any validity of its own. Finally there is our true Self behind and beyond all the three states, which is related to the fourth, ever wakeful state or Turiya. Only Yogis and Vedantins know this.
Vedanta teaches us that our true Self is this deeper Self behind waking, dream and deep sleep, not just the self of the waking state. This is the Atman or Purusha.
- Self-inquiry therefore implies inquiring into the Self of all three states and beyond, not just examining our waking self and its psychological issues.
- Self-knowledge in Vedanta means knowledge of that witness Self beyond the three states, not just knowing something about our personalities or subconscious minds.
- Self-realization means realization of the Self behind the three states, as well as behind birth and death and rebirth, not just our ordinary self or its hidden components.
Our Cosmic Existence
These three states of waking dream and deep sleep mirror the three realms of our existence in the physical, astral (subtle), and causal realms (deep sleep). After the death of the physical body we move into the astral body for after death dreamlike experiences, in which we experience the subtle residues of our earthly karmas. After the death or withdrawal of the subtle body, we move into the rest and peace of the causal body, until our karmas ripen in order to take another birth.
Yet that waking self is not the whole of our awareness or the essence of our being. It remains trapped in the time/space/person, name/form/number coordinates of the material world, that appear quite solid, fixed and hard to change. The necessities of our biological and social existence in the material world naturally serve to give priority to the waking state. In addition the waking state is the main realm during which we create and experience karmas. We should also note that our waking state is not always awake and has shorter interludes of dream and sleep as imagination and dullness.
However, most of us sense a value and importance to imagination, vision and dream, and with that the dream state. While form is dense in the waking state, it is subtle in the dream state. Dream connects to realms of art and to subtle worlds, including the proposed heavenly realms of various religions, and more turbulent realms as well. This realm is called the astral plane in occult and yogic thought. We can learn to access it directly through Yoga practices, particularly through pranayama, mantra and meditation and the path of devotion or Bhakti Yoga. Many occultists learn to access this realm for more mundane purposes.
Deep sleep relates to formless causal realms of meditation, in which we can experience the seed energies behind the universe, prior to any manifestation in form. These are realms of contemplation of the creative forces of Prakriti, nature and cosmic intelligence. Only those who have cultivated a strong awareness and wakefulness throughout the day can remain aware in deep sleep.
Yoga Nidra, which literally means yogic sleep, in the true sense consists of holding our awareness through dream and deep sleep as well, turning sleep into a deep meditation. Once we can do this, our entire life becomes a meditation practice. We will receive new knowledge and insight in sleep and make greater connections with the universe even than during our waking ours.
Today many people use the term Yoga Nidra for relaxation and pratyahara exercises of various types. They look into the physical or waking state benefits of these practices, but forget that the goal of Yoga is to take us beyond physical reality to the reality of consciousness itself. Most of these Yoga Nidra practices today are just preliminary the deeper Yoga Nidra that occurs at a meditative level, though they do have their own value, healing power and relevance. The ultimate Yoga Nidra is to merge our awareness into the Supreme Brahman, the unmanifest Absolute.
Key points to turning sleep into a meditation practice:
It is important to turn off all media stimulation and do some meditation or contemplative practices at least one hour before sleep. The use of incense, ghee lamps, sandalwood oil or herbs like Brahmi can be helpful.
Some deep prolonged and restful pranayama is helpful here, learning how to witness the breath, detaching one’s awareness from the breath, senses and mind. Then one should enter into sleep as a further level of meditation, letting go of all the thoughts of the waking state and worries of the day.
Using mantra can help you do this and become a tool of charting your course through dream and sleep in a conscious manner. Learn to use your mantra to guide you through sleep to higher consciousness. Certain mantras like Raam or Aim Shreem Kleem are helpful here as well as Shanti mantras. You should look at sleep not just as bodily rest but also as a further journey from waking into cosmic consciousness, or from physical waking to waking to our true Self beyond birth and death.
You can initiate a deeper Self-inquiry with questions like Who am I? or What is my true Self behind and beyond waking, dream and deep sleep? Recognize the deeper dimensions of your being beyond body and mind. Try to go to the root of your prana, thoughts and senses in the pure I am.
One should try to wake up at Brahma Muhurta around two hours before sunrise as that is the best time to connect to our true Self and cosmic being. Mantra, meditation and pranayama are excellent at this time.
Finally, when you wake up in the morning try to recollect your night’s journey in consciousness and hold its essential light, energy and insight. Affirm that you are continuing that Divine adventure for another day and affirm your intention to hold the light of awareness continually for the benefit of all!
This article is one of many by Dr. David Frawley on the Science of Consciousness.