Alright, we are going to go deep on this one. Buckle your seatbelts.
When I was a child, I was frequently bothered by a question I just could’t seem to answer. The question was this: How can I tell if I am dreaming?
Our experience in the dreamworld seems so real, so life-like, and I frequently wondered, in my waking life, if I was really awake or just dreaming this world. I asked this question so many times that finally, one day, when I was playing with my next-door neighbors, their sweet and loving mother became so exasperated with my unwillingness to accept any answer that she shouted “I’m so tired of that question! You know you are not dreaming, because you know! This room is real! I am real! You are real! You are not dreaming! You just have to know that you are not dreaming!”
At that moment, I gave up my question. I accepted that it was futile and annoying to pursue this question any further. I accepted that I was awake and that from then on I would just know that I was awake. I didn’t just stop asking the question of other people. I stopped asking it of myself. I just accepted that I was awake.
Well, now I’m 41 years old and I get to pick up where I left off with that question.
See, it’s really not that trivial. It’s actually pretty fundamental. Sleep is considered a great mystery. We know it lets our bodies and minds rest, recharge, process and sort, but considering how much of our lives are spent sleeping (what like 1/3?), not a lot is understood about the sleep state.
Allow me to jump to meditation, and then tie it in with sleep. From people who have not yet felt the need or desire to try much meditation, I often hear something along the lines of “My mind never stops going. I could never meditate.” There is a common mis-perception that to meditate is to stop thinking. The truth is only slightly different, but it s a very important difference. Meditation is not about stopping our minds from thinking. Meditation is about noticing that we are thinking when we are thinking.
In meditation we cultivate awareness. Awareness is always awareness of something. There is no such thing as awareness without an object of our awareness. (At least not when the mind is involved. More on that in a minute.) Just do a quick 5 second experiment. Stop reading and put your awareness on feeling the sensations in your hands for 5 seconds. OK,go. Now, if you did that, you just meditated. You practiced awareness. In this case, awareness of your hands. (And perhaps also awareness of counting to 5 seconds. That’s normal, so you shifted between awareness of counting and awareness of your hands.) It’s still meditation. You were aware of what you were doing with your mind (counting) and what you were sensing with your body (your hands).
We frequently practice awareness of breath. There are a lot of reasons for that which I won’t go into now. If you are willing (I promise this will be the last thing I ask you to do in this post), take about 1 minute at the end of this paragraph and put your attention on your breath. Just noticing that you are breathing and feeling the sensation of breathing. But not yet. I want you to do it at the end of the paragraph, because I want to mention that in the course of that one minute of being aware of your breathing, I am quite certain that you will have some thoughts. Those thoughts will take your attention away from your breath. That’s how attention is. It can only do one thing at a time. Even if you think you can multi-task, if you watch closely, you will see that your attention is quickly shifting between things, but it is only ever in one place at at time. So, while you are putting your awareness on your breathing, thoughts will come and you will get lost in them for a few seconds. Then you will come back to awareness, only this time, your awareness will say “Oh, I”m thinking!” That is awareness of thinking. That is meditation. Then you can go back to awareness of breathing. That is all meditation. As long as we come back to being aware of where our attention is (whether it be on our breath, our thoughts, our hands, the sounds around us or anywhere) we are meditating. OK, for one minute, try it. Even if you have a lot of practice meditating. Just watch your breath and then watch whatever else your attention does for one minute. Go.
So, what is the point of doing that? Well, first of all it calms us down. Especially as we do it for longer and longer sessions. Secondly, it gives us a space to observe our natural tendencies, that is to say, where we tend to put our attention. What kinds of thoughts and feelings we are habitually having. That is good information. It’s important not to judge ourselves as good or bad for what we observe. That will only make it harder for us to observe. So be kind with whatever you see. Seeing is its own success. Beyond these benefits, practicing this kind of awareness ultimately brings up a set of questions about just who is doing that observing. We call it the witness. The witness is not our thoughts, because it can observe our thoughts. It’s not our sensations, because it can observe our sensations. It’s not our emotions, because it observes those, too. So what is it?
Turns out, this question gets pretty deep. A common metaphor is that all thoughts, feelings, actions, etc. are like a movie that is taking place, and the observer is like the screen. It is the ground, the field in which the movie takes place. We can become so caught up in the movie, we think that is really all there is. Modern thought is based on this. For the time being, science is based on the existence of matter, though when scientists try to discover this stuff called matter, they can’t. It breaks down the closer you look. But still, we all perceive and act as though what we see on the screen is real.
Everything that has ever been observed has been so done within a field of awareness. Nothing has ever been known outside of awareness. All of our experiences take place within the field of awareness. Awareness is the screen that the movie takes place upon. When we practice meditation, that is we practice being aware that we are aware, we begin to see the screen itself, instead of just being caught up in the movie. This is important, because if we believe that the events that are happening within and around us are the most real thing, we are subject to all sort of helpless emotions. But if we see the screen itself, we are not at all threatened by what is taking place on the screen. No amount of violence in the movie can ever harm the screen.
So, now let’s go back to the subject of sleep, because it can be quite a stretch to say that the world we are living in is an illusion, just a movie on a screen. We are so conditioned to think it is completely real. However, we commonly accept that our dreams are worlds projected by our minds, which when we are inside of them, also appear as completely real. So, the mind does have the ability to project and create a world which seems completely real. That world is created in an instant and dissolves in an instant. And we don’t grieve the loss of it, because we are not attached to it. I imagine that if we knew in our dreams that it would all end soon, it might cause us some distress. But we are unaware of that fact, just as we are in waking. The world that we are in while dreaming is perfectly real in the sense that it is all that exists to us. Within that world we must act and react to situations to the best of our ability, just as we must in this world. And then, when that dream ends, that dream-world and everyone in it ceases to exist.
The ability of the mind to create worlds in dreams has helped me a lot to be able to conceive that this world we live in may also not be real in the sense we normally mean. Of course it is real for those of us in it, just as the dream world is real when we are in it. But it might not be real in the ultimate sense. It is real, but there is a deeper reality, the screen, the field of awareness within which everything takes place. When we meditate, and we spend time being the witness, we start to notice things about the witness. We notice that it is ever-present and that it never changes. We notice that it doesn’t age. It was fully there when we were young, it is fully there when we are old. It has a quality of neutrality. It cannot be harmed by any experience, just as the screen cannot be harmed by what appears on it. It accepts all experience equally. It has not been diminished by any harm that we have experienced or enhanced by any good luck that has come our way. It has not changed or evolved in any way as our minds and bodies have. It has never been separated from us, even for a moment. It is ever-present, ever abiding with us.
So, then I began to wonder about deep sleep. Is the witness there? How would I know it is there? As I said, awareness is always awareness of something. But I also said that is the case only when mind is present. When awareness and mind are present together, a world appears and we appear. The world, whether in dream or in waking, is always seen from the vantage of an “I” figure which is interacting with others and with an outside world. It is never experienced in the third person. Within the world created by the mind, i.e. the movie that appears on the screen, all kinds of things can be true. Science and religion can take place, birth, death, and reproduction can take place. Entire civilizations can rise and fall. We can believe that world to be completely real, and it is real in a sense. But when we step back and become the witness, we begin to notice that there is a field of awareness that all of this activity is taking place in. That there is a screen that the movie is playing on. And most amazingly, that what we refer to as “I”, that most intimate awareness, is actually the field in which all this experience occurs. It is the screen and the movie. It is both. But when the movie ends, the screen remains. When mind shuts down, as in deep sleep, the world and the self disappear. In that moment, awareness has stopped playing the game of separating itself into parts that can experience each other, and has gone back to being whole, which is why it feels so good to be in deep sleep. And of course, we have no memory of that, because memory and experience are dependent upon a separate self.
All that appears is just a fancy and beautiful game that consciousness is playing with itself. There are times, besides in deep sleep when we merge back into pure consciousness. Those times are in nature when we seem to be one with the woods, etc. and in love, when the separateness breaks down, and for a while we can experience a kind of oneness with another person. The more I practice meditating, the more awareness I have of the screen, the more experiences of true love I have, when awareness is reunited with itself even while mind is present. That is the feeling of love, and it’s the best feeling there is.
I want to end by mentioning that all religions that I know of refer to this. Sometimes the screen is called God, and it is pointed out that God is in me and I am in God. Sometimes it is called realizing our true nature, or enlightenment. In that case we are told that it’s not something we can seek, but something we have never been separated from, something that has never left us. At some point, people who search deeply for truth begin to experience and realize that the separate self is an illusion. That this thing we call “I” is much more than the limitations of this mind/body. I’m sure many people will think that what I’m suggesting is impossible. Or is interesting to think about, but unlikely. I am not saying that any of this is the absolute truth. There are many ways of looking at the world, and this is just one. It’s just where my self-inquiry has taken me so far.
Many people have experienced this realization. For me, examining the nature of sleep and dreaming, and going back to my childhood question, has been a critical part of glimpsing this. Studying the teachings of others who have realized this much deeper than I have has pointed the way for me to experience it myself in meditation and to test it against my own experience. I’m very grateful for those people who have pointed these things out to me and encouraged me in looking into them myself, as I will probably continue to do for the rest of my life. Of course, I don’t know what happens when we die, but at this point, my best guess is that the light of awareness leaves this mind/body, as it does every night in deep sleep, and this world disappears to me. The Asenath mind/body will no longer appear as an image on the screen, but the screen will still be there, creating an infinite appearance of new images, and that this is who and what we really are.