According to legend, when Siddhartha Gautama was glowing right after his enlightenment, people asked him if he was a god, a prophet, a rishi, or a saint, and to each he replied, “No.” What he simply said is “I am awake,” and his answer became his title.
The word “Buddha” comes from the Sanskrit root budh, which means “to awaken” and denotes one who has awakened from the deep sleep of ignorance. Thus from the outset, Buddhism has been intimately connected to literal and figurative sleep.
One way to understand the Buddha’s teachings is that we’re actually the most spiritually awake in deep dreamless sleep and the most asleep in so-called waking reality. Unfortunately, most of us have got it completely backward. Spiritual practice, and the nocturnal meditations, can lead us to this realization.
The nocturnal meditations begin with lucid dreaming, which is the launching pad for exploring the deep inner space of the nighttime mind. In lucid dreaming, you’re fully conscious within the dream and therefore can do almost anything you want within it.
Lucid dreaming is the ultimate in home entertainment. Your mind becomes the theater, and you are the producer, director, writer, and main actor. You can script the perfect love story or the wildest adventure. Lucid dreaming can also be used to solve problems, rehearse situations, improve athletic performance, and work through psychological issues. From the trivial to the transcendent, lucid dreaming provides a spectrum of experience mostly concerned with worldly matters and self-fulfillment.
Students of lucid dreaming work with the technique of recognizing dream signs as a way to trigger lucidity. Dream signs are events that alert you to the fact that you’re dreaming. If you see your dead uncle, for example, that’s a pretty strong sign that you must be dreaming, so you can use the appearance of your dead uncle to wake you up to the fact that you’re dreaming.
However, lucid dreaming alone will not wake you up in the spiritual sense. If you merely indulge your fantasies, lucid dreaming becomes super-samsara.
When intention is involved, even at the level of a dream, karma is created. Lucid dreams are not karmically neutral. If you want to go deeper, lucid dreaming can develop into dream yoga, which is when it becomes a spiritual practice.
While lucid dreams can create negative karma, the ancient Tibet Buddhist practice of dream yoga is designed to purify it. “Yoga” is that which yokes, or unites. Dream yoga is designed to unite you with deeper aspects of your being and is more concerned with self-transcendence.
With dream yoga, instead of using your mind as an entertainment center, you turn it into a laboratory. You experiment with dream meditations and study your mind using the medium of dreams. For example, one dream yoga practice is to change the objects in your dream. You can turn a dream table into a flower or transform your boat into a car. You can also add or subtract things in your dreams, or shift their size: expand a home into a mansion and then shrink it down into a dollhouse. Why would you want to do this? Tenzin Wangyal says:
“Just as dream objects can be transformed in dreams, so emotional states and conceptual limitations can be transformed in waking life. With experience of the dreamy and malleable nature of experience, we can transform depression into happiness, fear into courage, anger into love, hopelessness into faith, distraction into presence. … Challenge the boundaries that constrict you. The purpose of these practices is to integrate lucidity and flexibility with every moment of life and to let go of the heavily conditioned way we have of ordering reality, of making meaning, of being trapped in delusion.”
Another practice is to create a frightening dream and then work with your fear. If you’re already in a nightmare and you become lucid, relate to your fear instead of running from it. This practice can show you that it’s not the contents of the nightmare that scare you, but rather your habit of taking the events to be solid and real. Discovering that dreams are safe—which is brought about by waking up to their illusory nature—is essentially discovering that you do not need to fear your own mind. Dream yoga shows you that your mind is safe and basically good.
You can then take this insight and bring it to daily life. Nightmarish life situations become softer and more workable when you realize that reification—mistaking things and thoughts to be so solid and real (the very definition of non-lucidity)—is fundamentally illusory. Dream yoga offers a marvelous opportunity to work with your mind in the fluid context of a dream and then transpose the insights from your dreams directly into waking life.
In dream yoga, dream signs can also be engaged in waking life to clue you into the fact that you’re asleep and dreaming right now. For example, if you see the world as solid, lasting, and independent—and who among us doesn’t?—then you’re dreaming. This unholy trinity is a classic set of dream signs that clue you into the fact that you’re asleep in the world of duality.
These dream signs help us understand what it is that buddhas wake up from and what they awaken to. They wake up from seeing the world as solid, lasting, and independent to seeing it as open, impermanent, and dependently originated. They wake up from the delusion of materialism and into a dreamlike reality. It’s the irony of spiritual awakening—we awaken to the opposite of what we consider normal awakening each morning.
Through the practice of dream yoga, you become a spiritual Oneironaut. Oneirology is the study of dreams, and oneironauts are those who navigate the dream world. Just like astronauts explore the outer space of the cosmos, oneironauts explore the inner space of the mind.
The science behind modern lucid dreaming has been a huge boon for dream yoga. With their sophisticated analysis of dream cycles, sleep pharmacology, and high-tech gadgetry, Western lucid dream researchers have vastly increased access to lucid dream states, and therefore the ability to practice dream yoga (no lucid dreams means no dream yoga). In my own experience, I had hit-and-miss results with traditional induction methods. But when I added the modern techniques, my lucid dreams increased dramatically. Ancient dream yoga and modern lucid dreaming make fantastic sleeping partners.
If you want to go even deeper, dream yoga can develop into sleep yoga, which is when awareness spreads not only into dreams but also into deep dreamless sleep.
With sleep yoga, your body goes into sleep mode but your mind stays awake. You drop consciously into the very core of your being, the most subtle formless awareness. It’s an advanced meditation and an age-old practice in Tibetan Buddhism.
For most of us, dreamless sleep is the antithesis of awareness. It’s a total blackout. Nothingness. But for a sleep yogi, it’s a mini-enlightenment, a descent into the awakened mind, because it’s a non-dualistic state. The formless awareness of dreamless sleep is not nothingness, but no-thingness (emptiness). We don’t recognize it when we fall into dreamless sleep because we’re so habituated to identifying with the forms that arise in awareness rather than with awareness itself. We identify with thoughts, emotions, and other mental forms, not with formlessness. So when formless awareness is pointed out in dreamless (formless) sleep, we unconsciously say to ourselves, “That’s not me, I’m not nobody, I’m somebody!”—and pass out.