One mistake we make, probably because we never really think about it, is not knowing who we are or where we go when we are asleep. One third of every day, one third of our lives, is passed in an environment of which we are blissfully unaware, literally - blissful and unaware. So to begin with, a few thoughts on sleep. What happens at the moment of transition from being awake to being asleep? Can you be conscious of that moment? When you dream do you ever know then that you're dreaming? Can you have some say in what happens in dream? What happens when you are asleep and not dreaming? Who are we in sleep in relation to who we are when awake? We appreciate sleep, need it, look forward to it - why is that? What happens as a result of sleep? What does it do? Pick any question.
Start with establishing a principle: the result of meditation practice is not expansion of consciousness – consciousness is already complete - meditation is the expansion of awareness into consciousness. At first awareness appears to be who we take ourselves to be. But later awareness becomes the medium to realise who we really are.
Within consciousness, recognise that there are three dimensions: waking, dream and deep sleep. Full consciousness goes beyond even these three, but for us the discovery, and all experience along the way, is the expansion of awareness into consciousness, which will eventually include these three. That means that discovery in meditation will include not just the mind that is active in the waking state, but the mind that is active in dream, and the mind experiencing deep sleep.
Put it another way: a more advanced state of meditation is awareness in dream, and still further, the awareness of what happens in deep sleep. Why sleep is essential is in order to be able to integrate these three dimensions. If our overall experience is somehow not balanced - with a corresponding increase in activity in conscious mind, usually to the detriment of sleep - inevitably stress, anxiety, even psychosis can take place. We need to redress the imbalance from over-use of the conscious mind.
Relationship between sleep and meditation
So sleep is the everyday, literally, way of getting into and experiencing the hidden parts of our nature and personality. And in meditation the intention is exactly the same as in sleep, with one essential difference: in meditation, there is awareness, and therefore we know what is happening; without awareness on the other hand we… fall asleep. In sleep we do feel the benefits of having been into dream and deep sleep, but we only know a very small part of the experience, and that mainly after the fact - It was only a dream, or, I slept so well.
In meditation the aim is to expand conscious experience to include dream and deep sleep, which means awareness also has to be present. Which also means, stating the obvious, meditation is only done while awake. But if by keeping the awareness present but only in the conscious waking state then the purpose of meditation is lost. It's a bit of a catch 22, because for us usually in order to experience dream and deep sleep we have to… go to sleep, and so… lose awareness. But if we have awareness - i.e. we are awake - then it's also very difficult to get to the states of dream and deep sleep without… falling asleep. That’s where meditation comes in.
Seeing meditation in a different light
Little by little we get to know better the language of dream. First of all it’s not a universal language, dream. You have to get to know your own. We speak to ourselves here, but it's meaningless if we are not able to translate into understanding - not, I might add, into words, but to translate dream experience into a 'knowing' of what we are saying to ourselves there. And as our practice evolves, that same inner language also begins to communicate in meditation.
Here also the comparison with meditation becomes clearer. Because if we are able to leave behind for some time the behaviour and activity of the conscious mind, and enter a little way into the dream dimension, but with that vital quality of awareness, we find we can dream while awake - that is, accessing the mind beyond the conscious, we come to the dream state even in meditation, therefore dream awake.
Getting of wisdom
The deeper we go into the mind the more we discover we are wiser there - wiser than we know now. We do not deceive ourselves there; we do not riff, we don’t chat, we are not ironic or sarcastic, we don’t play games. It’s very personal of course: we communicate our experience as we see it in this different language, but, honestly.
We can learn it too, because in meditation awareness is also present. With awareness we know what is happening, but we don't try to affect the action; we witness but do not intend to influence the outcome. Much of what we learn here develops spontaneously, by observation. It kind of looks after itself. Our effort is in the accuracy of intention, in preparing the inner environment and developing the quality of awareness, which is a life-long undertaking. So nothing can be anticipated in advance because it is so individual - what my stored experience is - particularly on first contact.
Without some kind of conscious introversion, active dreaming in sleep is the best way we have of making sense of all the impressions stored in memory, even if we don’t know or understand them consciously. But if this can be practised consciously in meditation then the business of making sense will almost automatically take place.
By allowing full inner expression with awareness, meditation will eventually make known what has until then been unconscious and therefore unknown. It’s part of a stage in meditation before one-pointed awareness develops called pratyahara. And it is a mistake to try too hard for concentration too early, when there is so much unreleased material in the memory! Sooner or later this is going to be essential because you can’t be free of what remains held and hidden. If not, sooner or later, it will come back to haunt us… in dreams, or sleeplessness. And so we begin again
Just to be clear, the making sense, the reconciliation, does not take place in the conscious mind. Awareness is just there to witness the event. It all takes place inside, but I need to be there consciously to witness it for it to work… And self knowledge, wisdom, is the outcome. And what might wisdom be in action? Seeing accurately, thinking clearly, speaking kindly?
Who are we there?
Also consider this, when in dream we are not aware at all of who we are in waking life. If asked at that moment who are you, you would refer to the dream self as being real. And if you were to be persuaded that this was not your real self, but your waking state was your real self, you would not accept that. So while it is difficult to accept that the dream world as real in relation to the waking state; so in dream, the same question could also be asked about the waking state in relation to the reality of dream? Perhaps dream is the reality and awake is not! It’s not new, kids play this kind of thought game, but where does the reality lie? Agree or disagree with either of both, we have to accept that reality is not so easy to pin down.
Our waking life and what happens in dream can often seem to be completely different - like it’s two different people. But of course we know that’s not so. We know we are the same person, awake or in dream. In deep dreamless sleep we know nothing, but we know the same person has been there after waking. Even if I am very different in a dream I still know that it is me in the dream. There may be dream time, dream years can pass, or time slows down; there are dream people who look different. But I know who they are, what they represent. I am knowably me there. So who is this me that is not just awake, not just in dream, and also still there even when not knowing anything in deep sleep?
Food for thought
There is a system in yoga where you can take an idea and expand on it systematically. Einstein expanded his theories of relativity from thinking of what would happen when travelling on a beam at the speed of light - just by thinking about it. So the purpose of this is not to provide answers but to shake the complacency of the mind a little from seeing itself in the same old customary way, and think of meditation from a different perspective - like sleeping consciously. To treat sleep with a little more respect, and not take it so much for granted; how to benefit more from the experience of going into dream and deep sleep; how we might know the way we enter into sleep in the night and leave sleep in the morning.
And in meditation, what adjustments can be made to pacify the conscious mind enough, to get near to or into this dream state while still awake and aware? With first attempts, the external environment has to be conducive in order to get the inner environment right for that to happen. And then cultivate the essence of awareness for successful development of meditation practice. Because in the end all the answers, to all the relevant questions that bubble up and rattle around inside the mind, are found here.