A guest article by a modern Buddhist practitioner who works full time as a manager of software engineer teams.
5.5 mins read
Training in meditation while we sleep is one of the most important spiritual practices we can do.
Our mind is a moment by moment continuum of consciousness, a bit like an internal Instagram newsfeed. If we fall asleep with a unpeaceful mind, then our newsfeed during sleep will reflect that. For example, we may have fitful sleep, bad dream appearances, or wake up at 3am unable to fall back asleep due to anxious thoughts.
The benefits of meditating while we sleep
If we take even a short amount of time each night before falling asleep to control our mind, then our mental newsfeed will reflect that. Our sleep will be deeper and more restorative, and we can have insightful dreams and make progress in our spiritual path.
Training in the yoga of sleep is a special method for increasing our mindfulness. Every night there are many appearances to our mind, such as our dreams and other subtle appearances. At the beginning of our training we lack subtle mindfulness, so we don’t remember any of these things. However, through increasing our subtle mindfulness, we will eventually be able to remember our dreams every night.
By learning to identify when we are dreaming we will be able to lucid dream and transform the dream experience into wisdom-based meditations. Have you ever wished to meet Buddha or your Spiritual Guide in person? Well, in your dream world, you have several opportunities to do this every night!
Once we develop subtle mindfulness, sleep is one of the quickest ways to gain spiritual realizations. Through training every night, eventually we will be able to use all our time asleep for training in deep meditation.
Sleeping our way to enlightenment
According to Kadampa Buddhism, training in the six stages of Mahamudra is one of the most direct paths to enlightenment; and the later stages of this practice occur during sleep. For an accomplished Mahamudra meditator, therefore, their main daily meditation session can take place while they are asleep.
Finding even twenty minutes a day to meditate can be challenging, so how incredible would it be if we could unlock hours of deep, uninterrupted meditation every night!
This practice makes the time we are asleep incredibly meaningful. If we can meditate through the sleep process, we will also be able meditate through the death process. This means that every night we will be creating the causes to take our spiritual practice with us into our next life. Through this we will be able to continue to practice day and night in life after life until we attain enlightenment.
The master of using sleep as a spiritual path
While Shantideva was at Nalanda monastery he emphasized this practice. Inwardly he was making rapid spiritual development, but externally it looked as though he was sleeping continuously, except when he was eating or using the bathroom!, such that the other monks began sarcastically to refer to him as the “Three Realizations”.
Since the monks believed he had no meditative experience, they decided to expose him by setting up a huge public talk with him as the teacher.
Much to their astonishment he proceeded to deliver a discourse which, when written down, became known as Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life — an incredible set of instructions on the six perfections that has been part of the Kadampa tradition ever since. When he got to the final chapter, Shantideva floated up into space until he could no longer be seen — yet his voice could still be heard delivering crystal clear instructions on the ultimate nature of all things.
This story, told in Meaningful to Behold, illustrates the miraculous results of meditating while asleep, and is an example of how we can achieve incredible results if we practice in the same way. To develop this ability, we should try to train every night, starting tonight. By building familiarity, we will be creating causes that will one day allow us to meditate throughout the entire night.
There are two key sleep practices to train in:
1. Concentrating on the clarity of our mind
Before dullness pulls us into sleep, we need to prepare our mind by focusing on an object of meditation. According to the Mahamudra instructions, our main object of focus while falling asleep is the clarity of our own mind.
In particular we focus on the clarity of our very subtle mind because our gross waking minds and subtle minds absorb and dissolve inward as we fall asleep. If we don’t yet have a clear experience of our very subtle mind, we can imagine or impute it within the clarity of our waking mind.
If we are new to this practice, we can spend the time before falling asleep trying to get a clear image of this object. As we gain familiarity we can hold this object for a minute, and gradually improve until we can hold it for five minutes. Once we are able to hold this object without forgetting it, we will be able to carry it into our sleep through the power of subtle mindfulness.
We may feel like we are in no position to do this anytime soon; but everything depends on familiarity. If we can gradually build up from zero minutes to one minute to five minutes, we will one day discover when we wake up that we haven’t forgotten the clarity of our mind all night!
2. The determination to remember our meditation object
Setting the determination to remain mindful throughout the night is critical to the success of this practice.
We need to have a heartfelt wish to be able to carry our meditation object through the night without forgetting. Before focusing single pointed on the clarity of our mind, we can meditate briefly on the decision to keep this object in mind until we wake up. Then when we wake up we should immediately recall the object of meditation.
We will need patience in this practice because we are counteracting a deep habit of becoming mindless when we fall asleep. It is easy to become frustrated in the morning when we wake up and feel as if we haven’t improved at all. However, this discouragement will hold us back from gradually improving. Instead we can feel happy and rejoice to have created the causes to meditate while asleep.
If we identify with our spiritual potential, and keep the determination to improve our ability every night, we will gradually improve. As Geshe Kelsang says in Clear Light of Bliss:
If we practice continuously in this way, eventually, through the force of our concentration and determination, we will meet with success.
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