The states of dream and deep sleep as a way towards the unification of the knower and the known
The Vijñanabhairava (The Knowledge of Tremendous One) is a text of Kashmiri Shaivism, developing as a dialogue between Bhairava, a hypostasis of Śiva, and his power, or divine Śakti. These currents follow a direct realisation method, not mediated by a gradual meditation process, such as Chinese Ch’an, Japanese Zen and Tibetan Ati Yoga. The teaching, proposed through various forms in the text’s one hundred and twelve stanzas, aims to achieve knowledge without duality, which is Śiva itself. Two of the rooms contain references to the dream state and methods of propitiating knowledge through it:
- XXXII, 55: “Who meditates the power of life-force (prāṇa-śakti), first large and then subtle, in the dvadaśanta, and then, by entering mentally into it, meditates it in the heart, will acquire the freedom to control their dream”.
Comment: The dvadaśanta is the last chakra, placed outside on the top of the head; the verse means that whoever can hold the conscience, in the exhalation phase of the breath, in the last chakra, and inhaling to keep it in the heart chakra, obtains the freedom of the dream state, that is the conscience also remains in the dreamlike phase. The three ordinary states of an individual are wakefulness, dream and deep sleep, and the fourth and the trans-fourth, respectively, the state that unifies the standard states and the state that is Śiva itself. This verse presupposes the practice’s knowledge based on holding the breath (kumbhaka) and visualising the subtle channels that carry the breath’s energy.
- LII, 75: “When one is about to fall asleep, and all the external objects (though present) have faded out of sight, then the Supreme Goddess will reveal Herself”.
Comment: In the intermediate state between wakefulness and sleep, the consciousness, no longer bound by the senses’ objects, enjoys the freedom to manifest itself without obstacles. The Supreme Goddess (Parā Devī) is the power of Śiva, the expression of the creator principle, inseparable from Him. The intermediate state between wakefulness and sleep and between two thoughts is a non-dual, non-discursive state, where the knowledge and the knower realise their unity.
The cycle of day and night – The path of Ati Yoga
The Cycle of Day and Night is a text by Namkhai Norbu, a master of the rdzogs-chen Tibetan tradition (lit. Great Perfection). Also known as Ati Yoga (Primordial Yoga) stands for the supreme and last of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition’s nine vehicles. The practice can be outlined as unveiling a pre-existing state of integration between subject and object. On the object’s level, phenomenal existence is understood in its original condition: emptiness , in which phenomena are present to consciousness in a non-conceptual way. On the level of the subject, thoughts and emotions or passions, together with their traces, appear integrated into the mind’s state, which is pure presence. Since there is no duality in the original state’s reality, existence manifests the energy proper to the actual condition. Both objective and subjective experiences are completely purified of all their conditioning powers regarding consciousness: the path of self-liberation. Falling asleep in this state’s presence means that the deep sleep and the dream phase become an opportunity for realisation and anticipation of the moment at the end of life.
The Cycle of Day and Night is divided into two sections. The first part outlines methods for integrating subject and object; the second part, the methods of the night, consists of the practice of the evening and that of the morning:
- In the evening, one must relax the sensory functions in a neutral state.
Comment: Before falling asleep, it is necessary to relax all the sensory functions; that is, one must not continue to engage the mind with reasoning and remembering but instead rest in the state of attention of meditation.
- Meditative attention must be integrated with sleep. When you are about to fall asleep, you visualise the white letter “A” in the centre of the forehead or a dot, a pea size, of five bright colours. Direct your attention to that visualisation, then relax to fall asleep .
- Suppose one falls asleep in an unconditioned state of thought, attentively relaxing the senses and mind’s functions. In that case, pure awareness comes to be in the conceptless form of the absolute condition: the “natural light”.
- Another way of practising consists of observing the immediate presence: there is nothing to notice, neither the state of rest nor that of movement, only a clarity appears; remain in this clear awareness and so fall asleep.
- Sleep that follows becomes the secondary cause of clarity in the absolute condition. Therefore, pure awareness is wholly immersed in the state of reality: for as long as the deep sleep lasts, pure awareness dwells exclusively in the absolute condition.
Comment: To integrate the attention of meditation with sleep, we can adopt two methods according to individual abilities. The first method is visualising the bright white letter A in the centre of the forehead. If you do not have insomnia, this visualisation facilitates the control of subtle energy (San. prāṇa); otherwise, one can imagine a small dot of five bright colours. This second visualisation is more suitable for those who do not fall asleep quickly because it effectively controls the functions of the body’s elements (earth, water, fire, air). Visualisation is support for attention; with the focus on this visualisation, you relax to fall asleep. When you rest, don’t let yourself be influenced by thoughts; of course, one should not try to block them. If one does the practice correctly at some point, sleep comes without thought getting in the way. The state of consciousness that emerges in a deep sleep is called “natural light” (Tib. rang bzhin ‘od gsal): pure awareness integrated with the absolute condition.
The text also explains another method, more suitable for those who have difficulty with the previous one. Usually, one has thoughts before going to sleep; when a thought arises, there is always the moment in which it begins: if one is present to oneself in this instance, one is not conditioned by thoughts. Obviously, it is not necessary to have thoughts. Since one is not yet asleep, one can perceive everything through the senses: even during the sensation of a moment, one can be present with oneself. There is nothing to identify in this condition of simple self-presence. It is not necessary to find a state of stillness or recognise the mental movement: there is simply a clear awareness maintained despite thoughts and sensory functions. In this state, one falls asleep. It is better not to force attention; otherwise, it is difficult to fall asleep. What disturbs is only the thought or worry, but if one is present to oneself when the thought arises, one is no longer conditioned by it.
This way of falling asleep causes the absolute condition’s clarity to appear during the deep sleep phase (the dreamless one). Even if all the sensory and mental functions, integrated with pure awareness, have dissolved into the emptiness which constitutes the essential condition of existence (San. dharmadhātu, Tib. chos dbyings), the sense objects have not disappeared. Nevertheless, one abides solely in contemplating their absolute condition (San. dharmatā).
- Pure awareness completely detaches from the underlying conditions of the body, the phenomenal world and the mind. Therefore, thoughts do not arise and abide in the absolute state: this is the measure of reintegration with natural light.
Comment: in a deep sleep, the senses do not function as in a waking state; they have vanished internally so that pure awareness is not conditioned by the habits and limitations of the body, daytime experience and mind. Thoughts do not arise until one begins to dream; therefore, pure awareness abides in the absolute condition; this means that it is possible to practice “natural light”, also called “clear light”. If this happens, you can also dream in the next stage consciously.
Integrating pure awareness with sleep is a sign that one can also experience death in the same state: sleep corresponds to death. The “natural light” condition will recur at the moment of death during the “intermediate period of the absolute condition” (Tib. chos nyid bar do). The following phase of the dream is equivalent, when one dies, to the “intermediate period of existence” (Tib. srid pa’i bar do). Here, too, if you are aware, you have many possibilities to free yourself from the illusion of transmigration because the body no longer conditions the mind. Therefore, you can understand more quickly than during life.
- During deep sleep, no thought appears and pure awareness, immersed in the Mother, abides in the absolute condition.
Comment: When one sleeps, the contemplative state corresponds to dreamless sleep: here, thoughts do not arise, and pure awareness joins with the Mother of reality, that is, the absolute condition of sensory objects.
- Subsequently, when the dream arises, it is recognised as such and becomes a means to manifest the pure dimension and wisdom of an Enlightened, so one is free from illusion..
Comment: The dream is the active phase that follows the purely contemplative phase of natural light. By being able to fall asleep in pure awareness, one’s dreams are lucid. By becoming aware during sleep, one is free to guide their vision and, consequently, understand its illusory nature. The recognition of the dream makes dream experience the occasion in which the wisdom and the pure dimension of an Enlightened manifest. Understanding the true nature of dreaming also affects waking awareness and vice versa. The same happens during sleep if one is conditioned by emotions while awake.
- That is the measure of familiarity with the practice: when one dreams in sleep, one recognises the dream and dwells in equanimity free from the conditioning of desire that swings between pleasure and pain; wisdom arises. Therefore, all phenomena appear favourable; the continuity of the illusion has been interrupted, and everything abides in the absolute condition.
Comment: The dream gives the criterion by which one can measure one’s familiarity with the practice. During sleep, the dream is lucid and dwells in a condition where pure awareness is no longer moved by either pleasure or pain. Through the dream, wisdom arises so that all phenomena appear positively to realise their original state. When the continuity of the dream illusion is interrupted, everything abides in an absolute condition.
Such a practitioner remains in a pure condition day and night, realising themselves in the interval between two breaths, in a moment during life, or when the breath stops at the end of life.
The six yogas of Naropa
The six yogas of Naropa are part of the so-called “completion (or refinement) phase” of the practices followed by the bKa’-brgyud-pa Tibetan school. They consist of yogas:
- Of psycho-physical heat (gTum-mo)
- Of the illusory body (sGyu-lus)
- Of the dream state (mi-lam bar-do)
- Of the Clear Light (‘od-gsal)
- Of the intermediate state (bar-do)
- Of the transfer of the conscious principle (‘pho-ba)
In the “dream state yoga” practice mentioned here, the disciple first develops an awareness that he dreams. Realising that the situation in which he finds himself is purely dreamlike, that is, that what appears is the result of his mental state, he begins to have control over the dream, producing all kinds of apparitions, transforming the elements of the dream, etc. Because of the unreality and emptiness of these phenomena derived from one’s mind, the practitioner begins to understand that the dream world and the world of the waking state are the same. The practitioner sees these two consciousness levels as empty mental constructions without existence or substance. This yoga prolongs the mastery of the dream state upon waking; thus, the relationship with the world is purified through weakening induced by the transitory personality. This practice is considered complementary to Illusory Body yoga, which aims to recognise one’s body and all external objects’ illusory nature. Some of the methods described below are intended for advanced practitioners who have received specific initiations and instructions. However, some passages are also significant for a Western practitioner.
There are two methods to recognise the dream:
- According to the sutras , the first consists of:
- Firm determination (during the day) that you want to be aware of the next night’s dream.
- The belief that even awake experiences are insubstantial, like dream experiences.
- Breathing purification of nadi and air retaining below the navel .
- Visualisation over the head of your yi-dam .
- Meditation on the red-letter AH  within the central channel in the throat chakra.
- According to the tantras , the second consists of observing the dream and recognising it as such. To do this:
- The practitioner concentrates on the ” enjoyment chakra ” in the throat by operating a series of visualisations and breaths.
- At bedtime, the practitioner goes to sleep by squeezing the arteries in the throat and plugging the nostrils, causing saliva to accumulate in the throat.
- Before falling asleep, the practitioner focuses on a series of breaths and visualisations. For those who find it difficult, the next step is to visualise a white dot (Tib. thig-le, San. bindu) between the eyebrows and to do the vase breathing  7 times before falling asleep. Or one visualises a black thig-le in the “secret place” (the sexual organ) and practice vase breathing 21 times before falling asleep. It is necessary to lead a regular life without worldly worries and to follow a balanced diet.
- With the visualisation mentioned above, prana, the vital force, is brought into the central channel until four progressive manifestations of emptiness arise. Then, the yogi waits for the dream to emerge, concentrating on keeping it as long as possible and trying to think – at the very moment of dreaming – that the apparition obtained belongs to the dream.
- The practitioner should overcome any fear that feels during the dream; if the dream is terrifying, they should think that it is real only from a dream point of view, and therefore it is harmless.
- The yogi then transforms the dream’s content, altering one’s body or the dreamed object into another thing (e.g., an animal in a house), multiplying one thing into many other equal ones or reducing many things to one. Thus, we understand that the forms and multiple contents of the dream are mere games of the mind devoid of concreteness like mirages and that the nature of all things perceived in the waking state is equally not real. When practised with such techniques, the yogi visualises themself as their yi-dam moving to some samsaric paradise . Then the yogi practices the journey in the “Pure Land” of some Buddha , where he pays homage and listens to his teaching. To this end, when the yogi is about to fall asleep, he visualises a red thig-le in the throat chakra with the belief that he will see that Pure Land.
- Understanding that the dream’s apparitional character is of our mind’s nature, both are devoid of their entity. The yogi visualises the forms and bodies as they are seen in the dream state as if they were deities’ appearances. They are assimilated into the mind by keeping the mind free of thoughts. Eventually, the yogi understands that the waking state’s content and the dream state are illusory phenomena, not existing in themselves.
Therefore, we can say that the “yoga of the dream state” uses the dream experience to understand how the mind deceives itself during the waking state, believing in the reality of an ego and its projections. Thus, starting from the dream’s awareness in the dream itself, one can transcend the ordinary limitations physically or psychically imposed by the waking state, becoming capable of flying in space, walking on water, transforming one’s body, etc.
In the “Yoga of the Clear Light”, deep sleep, of which there is no memory when awake, is no longer a moment of absence of personal consciousness. The yogi, aware of the mind’s nature, experiences a sense of openness and clarity during this state, the union of the fundamental nature of the mind with emptiness, called “Clear Fundamental Light” (gzi’i ‘od-gsal). Thus, deep sleep becomes an opportunity to reconnect to the real nature that characterises the human experience, whose practice during life can be decisive during the transition to the bar-do phase, similar to deep sleep . The dying person, stable in the natural state of Clear Light, does not sink into unconsciousness – because he places themselves beyond the personal conscience connected to the body – and can be free.
The “Clear Light” represents the experience of consciousness emptied of the subject-object polarity. In other words, it symbolises the unconditioned mind, unmodified by the thought process, which transcends illusory phenomena. This light appears when the breath (prana) dissolves in the central channel at the heart chakra‘s height: it is similar to the vision of an autumn sky at dawn, that is, clear and empty. At that moment, the subtler mind and the subtler breath residing in the heart chakra (which usually are not active) awaken. This actual mental state, when functioning, perceives everything as clear, empty and unlimited as space.
The Clear Light distinguishes in:
- Of the Base, primordial or fundamental, called Clear Light “Mother”, the condition of thought in its state free from any dualistic and conceptual conditioning; it is the individual’s original condition, pure and perfected from the beginning.
- Of the Path, known as Clear Light “Daughter”. The natural condition’s experience is obtained not spontaneously but thanks to meditation’s power, bringing the breath to dissolve in the central channel. The Clear Light “Daughter” means recognising the Clear Light “Mother”.
- Of the Result, known as the Clear Light union “Mother and Daughter”, which consists in seeing the identity of the Clear Light “Daughter” – experienced through meditation – and of the Clear Light “Mother” – the non-dual nature of mind.
This yoga is a method of recognising the clarity and brightness of the mind while sleeping, maintaining a conscious state but devoid of discursive thought, from the moment one loses sensory consciousness until the beginning of the dream activity. The practitioner, therefore, trains themselves to maintain a clear presence during sleep, particularly in its initial phase. The procedure uses a series of visualisations of the mantric syllables, the vase breathing, and a position known as the lying lion (on the right side, the right hand under the head and the legs slightly bent). Slipping into sleep, one remains conscious. Thus, bringing the breath into the central channel, the signs of the mirage, of the smoke, of the fireflies, of the light of the butter lamp emerge , then the white, red and black apparitions and finally – similar to a cloudless sky – the clear light “Mother” arise, devoid of all distinctive thoughts. The yogi gains the vision of the Clear Light union “Mother and Daughter” by recognising this light.
With this yoga, the practitioner will achieve the perfect state of buddha when the time of death comes: if the Clear Light has been recognised during life, at death, the practitioner will realise it once again and reintegrate into the Light of the Clear Mother, maintaining a bright state of meditation at the moment of death and leaving the reincarnation cycle instead of being dragged into the bar-do.
In the Western Hermetic tradition, dreams and sleep practices carry consciousness from the cerebral seat – lunar, female, passive – to the heart’s core, not as a physical organ but as the human being’s centre.
The practice splits into two phases, one before falling asleep and the second occupying the awakening moment. It is generally helpful to acquire the perception that the waking life, far from representing the top of conscious vision, passes as a state of numbness, daze, and unreality , and that sleep, as a bearer of inner silence, promotes the awakening of the Sun of Reality. Still, without the exercise of practice, sleep becomes fainting.
Having all this in mind in the evening, before falling asleep, with your mind free of worries and thoughts, imagine that you are at the foot of a mountain as the dawn advances and that as you ascend, the sky begins to clear up for the first light of dawn. You continue to climb accompanied by the sun’s rising and integrate the sense of ascent with the sun’s triumphal rising until you reach the top of the mountain, coinciding with the sun at midday. Contemplation stops at this point, bringing this identification with the sun as a sense of what will happen in the heart of deep sleep, conceiving “I am the Light”. In the morning, clearing the mind of the residues of sleepiness, you resume the visualisation from where it left off, imagining descending from the top of the mountain accompanied by the sun’s decline until reaching the plain, coinciding with sunset. Now, you find yourself in the darkness of the day, with the inner light at your heart centre. Try to attract and evoke without forcing the memory of the dream and deep sleep state; it is favourable to waking up spontaneously, not by noise. A faint scent of musk or rose can be helpful. What matters to the practitioner is the metaphysical content of the practice: the access to the threshold of light of consciousness, usually occurring in the sleep state at the interruption of the normal processes of consciousness.
- Raniero Gnoli (edited by) – Vijñanabhairava – Milan 1989.
- Jaideva Singh (edited by) – Vijñanabhairava or Divine Consciousness – Delhi 1979.
- Glenn H. Mullin (edited by) – The Six Yogas of Naropa commented by Tsongkhapa – Ithaca NY 2005.
- Namkhay Norbu – Il Ciclo del Giorno e della Notte (The Cycle of Day and Night) – Arcidosso 1984.
- AA. VV. – Introduzione alla Magia (Introduction to Magic) – Rome 1978.