Let’s begin with the sacred symbol of the circle. I invite you to visualize the circle of a full Moon. See the Moon waning toward darkness and then once again waxing toward fullness. The complete circle of life and death is present in every lunar cycle. We can also visualize the circle of the sun giving us the gift of seasons. The death of winter coming alive in spring, building to the fullness of summer. Then slowly giving way to autumn, and dying once again in winter—the sacred circle of the year. And, of course, the sun also gifts us with the sacred circle of the day. The death of night coming alive at dawn, building to the fullness of midday. Then slowly giving way to dusk, and dying once again in night.
This circular pattern is present within the states of our consciousness as well. The death of deep sleep coming alive in the transition to wakefulness, the fullness of the waking state, giving way to the dream state as we return to bed, and dying once again in the void of dreamless sleep. Vedic teacher David Frawley writes:
“The mysteries of day and night are profound. The universe itself has its longer day and night of universal activity and universal rest extending over many billions of years. Yet each day in time reflects the full cycle of cosmic existence and can allow us to comprehend it as a whole.”
Every day and night we experience the mysterious circle of birth, death, and rebirth in miniature. Right now you’re awake. You’re listening to these words. You’ve been visualizing the sun and the moon. You’re fully in the waking state, which is the state we dedicate most our energy to. But it’s not the only state of our consciousness. It’s not the only part of the circle. Think back to last night. Do you remember being in the dream state? Can you remember the content of any of your recent dreams? Have you ever taken the time and effort to pay close attention to the subtle realm of the dream state? What about the state of deep, dreamless sleep? It’s not something you probably remember, but you know it happened when you wake up with the feeling of having slept well.
The teachings of yoga tell us that in the state of deep sleep we merge into the void of Divine Mystery—all attachments and misidentifications fall away as the ego construct dissolves into the True Self.
The Chandogya Upanishad tells us:
When one is absorbed in dreamless sleep, he is one with the Self, though he knows it not. We say he sleeps, but he sleeps in the Self. (6.8.1)
Have you ever gone to bed feeling confused about something, but then woke up with a deep sense of clarity? Or gone to bed feeling lonely and discouraged, but woke up feeling the comfort of refuge and love? The state of deep sleep is a portal into the causal realm. It’s a state of consciousness beyond our normal awareness, but that doesn’t mean awareness isn’t present. We wake with flashes of insight because awareness is present.
Every day we move through a complete circle of time. We move through waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. The transitions between these states are sacred portals full of wisdom. But many of us ignore them. Some of us even abuse them. How do you transition from waking to dreaming? What’s your evening routine? How do you transition from deep sleep to waking? What’s your morning routine? When we fall asleep to the television and wake up to our phones, we’re giving up opportunities to glimpse sacred knowledge.
The goal of yoga is transformation. Through dedicated, consistent practice the mind is transformed from an ordinary state of ignorance and attachment to an extraordinary state of freedom. Every night, in deep sleep, we experience this freedom. In the state of deep sleep, the ego construct dissolves. We fall asleep to our misidentifications and wake up to the truth of our being. This is profound. But we don’t remember it and every morning, we wake up to the constructs and habits of our personality with all its attachments and fears. And once again, we fall asleep to our True Nature.
What if we could cultivate an awareness of the freedom we experience in deep sleep and weave it into the everyday activities of the waking state? We can, of course we can. This is practice.
Yoga Sutra 1.38 invites us to meditate on the knowledge that arises from dreams and deep sleep. This sutra is asking us to attune to the subtler states of our consciousness. We’ve been studying a list of inner obstacles that keep us stuck—that get in the way as we try to move toward inner freedom. In response to this list of obstacles, we’ve been given a set of practices that can help calm and clear the mind—that can help us wake up to the truth of our being. The teaching of this sutra invites us to direct our attention toward the wisdom found in the states of dreaming and deep sleep.
In the dream state our senses turn away from the external world—they turn inward to experience the objects of the mind. Often our dreams are simply digesting the experiences of the waking state, but when we study our dreams, we can learn to recognize the ones that offer wisdom from deeper realms. My teacher’s teacher, TKV Desikachar, instructed us not to focus so much on the content of our dreams, but on the flashes of insight that arise from them. When you wake up with a deep sense of knowing, pay attention to that knowledge.
And there’s much to learn from the experience of deep sleep—the experience of shedding our identifications and attachments—the experience of resting in Pure Awareness. It’s hard to connect with the actual experience of deep sleep itself, but we can catch glimpses of this Pure Awareness in the transition from sleeping to waking. This transition is a sacred portal, but it’s fleeting. It’s so easy to miss. But with intentional practice, we can increase our capacity to recognize and rest in this space—to recognize and rest in the presence of awareness itself.
The practice of Yoga Sutra 1.38, the practice of meditating on the knowledge that arises from dreams or from deep dreamless sleep, is subtle. And for many of us, it might require some sacrifice. It’s hard to connect with the subtle realms when we overload our senses until the very last moment before closing our eyes for bed. It’s hard to connect with the subtle realms when the transition from sleeping to waking is filled with the alarming sounds and bright content of a phone. If we want to connect with the knowledge of our dreams and deep sleep, most of us will have to change some habits first. We’ll have to examine our evening and morning routines. But this doesn’t have to be a punishment. It can be the creation of a ritual.
Remember your own experiences of waking up with deep clarity and think about the teachings we’re exploring here. In deep sleep we rest in Divine Mystery. Our ego self dissolves. Our attachments dissolve. We rest in the Oneness of Pure Awareness. What I’m describing here is the goal of yoga practice. And we get to experience it every night—it’s part of the sacred circle of our day! What a gift. Which begs the question: How can we honor this gift?
I’ll close with the last few lines from yoga teacher Tracee Stanley’s “Householder’s Prayer:”
I remember the light of my soul as I enter the dream state.
I recall the beauty of truth as I transition from sleep to waking.
I know the vibration of truth.
I remember that nothing is mundane.
I honor the power of the transition as a portal to transformation.
Everything is an offering. My life is a sacred ritual.