The states of dreaming and deep sleep are means to achieve unification between the knower and the known.

Italian version

The Vijñanabhairava

Shiva statue – Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA

The Vijñanabhairava (The Knowledge of the Tremendous) is a text rooted in India’s Kashmir Shaivism. The text takes the form of a dialogue between Bhairava and his power, or divine Śakti. These dialogues demonstrate a direct realisation method that relies on a meditation process like those found in other traditions such as Chinese Ch’an, Japanese Zen, and Tibetan Ati Yoga. The one hundred and twelve stanzas of the text propose a teaching that seeks to achieve knowledge without duality, which is Śiva himself. Additionally, two stanzas within the text explore the dream state and methods for attaining 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 last chakra, known as the dvadaśanta, is located externally on the top of the head. The verse implies that achieving the ability to retain consciousness in the exhalation phase of breath in the final chakra and then inhaling it into the heart chakra results in obtaining the freedom of the dream state. In other words, consciousness remains present even during the dream phase. The ordinary conditions of an individual are waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. The fourth and trans-fourth states are those that unify the standard states and the state that is Śiva himself, respectively. This verse assumes prior knowledge of the practice of holding the breath (kumbhaka) and visualising the subtle channels that carry the energy of the breath.

  • 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 transitional phase between wakefulness and slumber, consciousness transcends its sensory confines and can express itself unhindered. The Supreme Goddess (Parā Devī), the embodiment of the creative principle, is the power of Śiva and inseparable from Him. During the intermediate phase between wakefulness and slumber and between two thoughts, a non-dual and non-discursive state emerges, where the knower and knowledge attain a state of unity.

The cycle of day and night – The path of Ati Yoga

Tibetan letter A

The Cycle of Day and Night is a work authored by Namkhai Norbu, a distinguished master of the rdzogs-chen Tibetan tradition, or the Great Perfection. The rdzogs-chen tradition represents the last and highest of the nine vehicles of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, also known as Ati Yoga or Primordial Yoga. At its core, the practice aims to reveal a pre-existing state of integration between the subject and object. On the object level, the phenomenal existence is understood in its fundamental state of emptiness [1], where all phenomena manifest to consciousness in a non-conceptual manner. On the subject level, thoughts, emotions, and passions, along with their imprints, are integrated into the state of the mind, which is pure presence. As there is no duality in the primordial reality, the energy of the original condition manifests itself through existence. Both objective and subjective experiences are entirely purified of all conditioning power towards consciousness, paving the way to self-liberation. While falling asleep in the presence of this state, deep sleep and the dream phase become an opportunity for realisation and anticipation of the end-of-life moment.

The Cycle of Day and Night can be divided into two distinct sections. The initial part outlines the methods to integrate both the subject and the object, while the latter part, known as the night method, encompasses the practices to be followed in the evening and morning:

  • In the evening, it is necessary to relax the sensory functions to a neutral state.

Comment: Before falling asleep, it is necessary to relax all sensory functions. This entails disengaging the mind from reasoning and remembering and maintaining a state of attentive meditation.

  • Meditative attention must be integrated with sleep. As one approaches the state of sleep, you visualise a white letter “A” located at the centre of the forehead or a small, pea-sized dot composed of five bright colours. Focusing on this visualisation helps direct the mind towards relaxation and facilitate sleep onset [2].
  • One may fall asleep In a state of unconditioned thought, attentively relaxing the senses and the functions of the mind. In such a state, pure awareness takes the form of the absolute condition, conceptless and referred to as the “natural light”.
  • Observing the immediate presence is another effective way of practising mindfulness. During this exercise, there is no need to focus on the state of rest or movement; instead, one should simply observe the clarity of the present moment and, so, fall asleep.
  • When sleep follows, it becomes a secondary cause of clarity. Pure awareness is entirely immersed in reality during this state. As long as it lasts in deep sleep, uncontaminated consciousness dwells exclusively in the absolute condition.

Comment: Two methods can be adopted to harmonise meditation and sleep based on individual abilities. The first method involves concentrating on the bright white letter A at the forehead’s centre. This visualisation facilitates subtle energy control  (prāṇa) and is ideal for individuals who do not suffer from insomnia. The second method involves visualising a small point of five bright colours. This method is more suitable for those who have difficulty falling asleep and effectively controls the functions of the body’s elements, namely earth, water, fire, air, and ether. Both methods serve as support for attention and relaxation, allowing us to fall asleep without being influenced by thoughts. It is important to note that we should not try to block our thoughts; instead, we should let them flow. With proper practice, we can achieve a state of consciousness known as “natural light” (tib. Rang bzhin ‘od gsal), characterised by pure awareness integrated with the absolute condition.

The text presents an alternative method for individuals who encounter difficulties with traditional techniques. Usually, we have thoughts before going to sleep. By being present and aware of our thoughts, we can detach ourselves from the conditioning they often impose. It is not necessary to actively engage in thought. Instead, we can focus on our senses, remaining present in the moment and maintaining a clear awareness, even as we experience different stimuli. This state of being does not require identification with any particular thought or sensation. By remaining present, we can then fall asleep. It is important to avoid forcing our attention, as this often makes it difficult to fall asleep. Our concerns and worries are merely thoughts; we can detach ourselves from them by being mindful of their origin. By being present to ourselves when a thought arises, we can effectively neutralise its ability to condition us.

This process of attaining deep sleep facilitates a state of absolute clarity. During this phase, the sensory and cognitive functions integrated with pure awareness are dissolved in the emptiness that forms the essential foundation of existence (San. Dharmadhātu, Tib. Chos dbyings). Despite this dissolution, the objects of sensory perception remain present, albeit only as a subject of contemplation in their absolute state (San. dharmatā).

  • In the state of pure awareness, there is a complete detachment from the underlying conditions of the body, the phenomenal world, and the mind. As a result, thoughts do not arise and remain in an absolute state. This state of being signifies a reintegration with natural light, which is the ultimate measure of such reintegration.

Comment: During deep sleep, our senses do not function as they do during waking. Internally, they have disappeared, allowing pure awareness to exist without being conditioned by the body, daytime experience or the mind’s limitations and habits. As thoughts do not arise until one begins to dream, pure awareness remains in an absolute condition. This creates an opportunity to practice “natural light,” also called “clear light.” This state also enables conscious dreaming in the next stage.

The integration of pure awareness with sleep indicates an individual’s ability to experience death in a similar state. Sleep and death are analogous, with the condition of “natural light” recurring during the “intermediate period of the absolute condition” (Tib. chos nyid bar do) at the moment of death. The subsequent phase of the dream is equivalent to the “intermediate period of existence” (Tib. srid pa’i bar do) that occurs when one passes on. Heightened awareness allows for the release from the illusion of transmigration as the body no longer conditions the mind. Consequently, one can comprehend more quickly than during life.

  • During deep sleep, the mind is devoid of thoughts, and pure awareness remains in a state of absolute immersion with the Mother.

Comment: During dreamless sleep, the contemplative mind remains free from thoughts, while pure awareness merges with the Mother of reality – the absolute condition of sensory objects.

  • Upon recognition, a dream can become a potent tool to manifest the pure dimension and wisdom of an Enlightened One, thereby freeing one from illusions.

Comment: The dreaming phase is the active stage that follows the purely contemplative phase of natural light. By being able to fall asleep in pure awareness, one can experience lucid dreams. During sleep, when one becomes aware, they are free to guide their vision and, consequently, understand its illusory nature. The recognition of dreams makes the dream experience a moment in which the wisdom and pure dimension of an enlightened being manifests. Understanding the true nature of dreaming can also positively impact waking awareness.

  • The extent of one’s familiarity with this practice can be gauged by the ability to recognise a dream state during sleep and to remain in a state of equanimity free from the influence of conditioned desire that oscillates between pleasure and pain. At this juncture, wisdom arises, and all phenomena appear favourable. The continuity of the illusion is interrupted, and everything remains in the absolute condition.

Comment: The dream state can be a benchmark for measuring one’s familiarity with the practice. During sleep, the dream is lucid, and an individual exists in a state of pure awareness that is unaffected by pleasure or pain. Through dreaming, one can attain wisdom that enables them to perceive all phenomena positively and realize their innate nature. When the continuity of the dream illusion is broken, everything exists in an absolute condition.

A practitioner who is able to maintain such a pure state of awareness day and night can realise their true self in the space between two breaths, at any moment in life, or even at the end of life when the breath ceases.

The six Yogas of Naropa

Mahasiddha 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:

  1. Of psycho-physical heat (gTum-mo)
  2. Of the illusory body (sGyu-lus)
  3. Of the dream state (mi-lam bar-do)
  4. Of the Clear Light (‘od-gsal)
  5. Of the intermediate state (bar-do)
  6. 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:

  1. According to the sutras [3], the first consists of:
    1. Firm determination (during the day) that you want to be aware of the next night’s dream.
    2. The belief that even awake experiences are insubstantial, like dream experiences.
    3. Breathing purification of nadi and air retaining below the navel [4].
    4. Visualisation over the head of your yi-dam [5].
    5. Meditation on the red-letter AH [6] within the central channel in the throat chakra.
  2. According to the tantras [7], the second consists of observing the dream and recognising it as such. To do this:
    1. The practitioner concentrates on the ” enjoyment chakra ” in the throat by operating a series of visualisations and breaths.
    2. 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.
    3. 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 [8] 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.
    4. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 [9]. Then the yogi practices the journey in the “Pure Land” of some Buddha [10], 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.
  5. 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 [11]. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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”.
  3. 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 [12], 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.

Sol Invictus

Coin dedicated to Sol Invictus, 3rd cent. AD, British Museum – © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

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 [13], 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.