Remembering One’s Dreams Upon Waking

Western psychology has been fixated on dreams and dream interpretation since the dream interpretation work of Sigmund Freud. C. G. Jung took the review of dreams deeper by exploring what he called the ‘collective unconscious’ and the archetypes and symbols that arise widely in dreams. Dreams have always had an outsized importance for people, and ancient cultures had shaman priests who were adept at interpreting dreams. Shakespeare attributed significance to dreams and used them as a way to move the story he was telling forward. The ancient Greeks went to an oracle to have dreams interpreted, and one can go back to the Old Testament of the Bible to find dream interpretation playing a prominent role in the rise of Joseph, son of Abraham, becoming a trusted advisor to the Pharaoh of Egypt.

Western science took up the study of sleep cycles and determined that a stage they identified as REM sleep (rapid eye movement) was the apparent time when dreaming occurs, and they determined that REM sleep reoccurs in cycles through the night, so that the individual will have multiple dream episodes. However, for most people they only seem to have a faint recollection of specific dreams if they are the last dream during which they woke up. In today’s world, with the prevalence of wakeup alarms, people are brought quickly to a waking state with no real transitional time to collect oneself and thereby recall the dreams.

There are of course many dreams which seem to be the firing of synaptic energy bringing through the chaotic events of the day, undigested activities, or issues one is carrying around with one. Other dreams however may take on a deeper significance and provide insight, teachings, or premonitions that must be taken seriously by the dreamer in order to understand and potentially avoid a disastrous event. Remembering dreams, and then understanding what type of dream it was, and the significance, if any, of the dream, is therefore something that may take on a real value, particularly given the amount of time in one’s life spent sleeping and dreaming. The question then arises, how does one accomplish the task of remembering dreams, and not just the final dream of the sleep cycle, but others usually hidden deeper in the time of sleep.

The Mother writes: “This [remembering one’s dreams] is not so necessary. It is useful if one wants to have a great control over his sleep. But this also one must know how to do. To remember one’s dreams — that’s in the morning … In the morning when you get up, you must not be in a hurry. That is, you must not wake up just at the moment when you must get out of bed; you must have some time in hand and must take good care, must make a formation before going to sleep, and take good care when waking up not to make any abrupt movement, because if you make an abrupt movement, automatically the memory of your dreams vanishes. You must remain with the head absolutely motionless on the pillow, without stirring, until you can quietly recall to yourself the consciousness which went out, and recall it as one pulls at something, very gently, without any knocking and without haste, in a state of attention and concentration. And then, as the consciousness comes back to you, the consciousness that went out, if you remain quite motionless, very quiet, and do not begin once again to think of all kinds of things, it will bring back first an impression and then the memory, sometimes a fragmentary memory. But if you remain in that same state of receptive immobility, then it can become more and more a conscious memory. But for this you must have time. If there is the least feeling that you have to hurry, it is finished, you can do nothing at all. You must not even ask yourself, when waking up, ‘What is the time?’ It is absolutely finished. If you do that, everything vanishes.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Sleep, pp. 11-17

An Integral Repose — the Ideal State of Sleep

Usually when most people go to sleep, they simply ‘let it happen’. This carries with it all of the mental, emotional, vital-nervous, and physical energy pent up in the being at the time, into the sleep state. Add to this mix the state of fatigue that prevails, and it can lead to restless, or dull sleep, chaotic dreams and confused awareness at the times of light sleep or waking. Watching television or surfing the internet, or studying until late simply exacerbates the mental and nervous disruptions, and thus, it is generally understood and recommended to ease into the time for sleep by avoiding intense study, or any kind of electronic devices, as well as intense emotional or physical pressure for some time, giving the being time to relax and gently guide the sleep to be a restful state.

The Mother goes even further by reminding us that there are two aspects of sleep, the external being’s need for rest and regeneration, and the inner being’s activities that allow the psychic entity to learn, grow and gain in strength. To the extent that the outer being is at rest, the inner work can go on more powerfully and with fewer disruptions.

The Mother notes: “… certainly if you want to sleep quietly at night, you must not study till just before sleeping. If you read something which requires concentration, your head will continue to work and so you won’t sleep well. When the mind continues working one doesn’t rest.”

“The ideal, you see, is to enter an integral repose, that is, immobility in the body, perfect peace in the vital, absolute silence in the mind — and the consciousness goes out of all activity to enter into Sachchidananda. If you can do this, then when you wake up you get up with the feeling of an extraordinary power, a perfect joy. But it is not very, very easy to do this. It can be done; this is the ideal condition. … Usually it is not at all like this, and most of the time almost all the hours of sleep are wasted in some kind of disordered activities; your body begins to toss about in your bed, you give kicks, you turn, you start, you turn this way and that, and then you do this (gesture) and then this … So you don’t rest at all.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Sleep, pp. 11-17

The External Being’s Need For Sleep

There are several different orders of activity that take place during sleep. Confusion about these separate things leads to mistaken attempts to simply limit sleep in order to ‘become conscious during sleep’. First, there is the activity that takes place with the external, surface being consisting of body, life and mind. While the surface awareness recedes, the body has a chance to reconstitute its energy and undertake various healing activities. Sleep is considered to be a great healer of the body. It is also an opportunity for the nervous system to calm, and the mind to become quiet and withdrawn. Many people have the experience that when they withdraw the conscious mind from a problem they are trying to solve, they awaken the next day with the solution.

The exact mechanism of the mental solution presented in this way is not specifically known. Some attribute it to subliminal mental activity during the sleep period while the active focus or fixation is withdrawn; some attribute it to the knitting together of items in the subconscient to present a new view or solution; and still others attribute it to the operation of the inner being, the psychic entity, which has the chance to come forward while the active mind and senses are at rest. It is likely that one or more of these mechanisms is operative at different times and under varying circumstances.

The body in particular requires a certain amount of rest and uses that period to build up energy and redirect needed energy to any healing required. Lack of sufficient sleep can cause grave disturbances to the external being and does not lead to becoming conscious in sleep as is sometimes believed. One may find that the tiredness, fogginess and physical exhaustion as well as nervous tension or mental stress can be relieved through the sleep process.

When the external being withdraws during sleep, there is an opportunity for the inner being to come forward. Becoming conscious in sleep is really focused on building awareness and linking to this inner being such that while the body-life-mind complex is withdrawn, the development of the inner being and its own action on other planes can be undertaken and at some point, actively recognised and supported.

There are of course yogic practices that can reduce or minimise the need for any of the functions of the external being, but that is not the object of discussion here.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “it is not possible to do at once what you like with the body. If the body is told to sleep only 2 or 3 hours, it may follow if the will is strong enough — but afterwards it may get exceedingly strained and even break down for want of needed rest. The yogis who minimise their sleep succeed only after a long tapasya in which they learn how to control the forces of Nature governing the body.”

“It must be the want of sleep that keeps your nervous system exposed to weakness — it is a great mistake not to take sufficient sleep. Seven hours is the minimum needed. When one has a very strong nervous system one can reduce it to six, sometimes even five — but it is rare and ought not to be attempted without necessity.”

“Both for fevers and for mental trouble sleep is a great help and its absence very undesirable — it is the loss of a curative agency.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Sleep, pp. 11-17

Becoming Conscious In Sleep

When the idea of becoming conscious in sleep is raised, many people try simply to find ways to remain awake somehow in sleep. This process generally leads to exhaustion, and imbalances in the physical, vital and mental complex of the outer nature. Sleep is restorative to their processes, and any attempt to artificially disrupt sleep, with the idea that our mental consciousness must have a way to pay attention to what is going on in sleep, is bound to create problems. The question of becoming conscious in sleep is not related to the external personality taking charge of the sleep state; rather, it requires a shift of consciousness away from the external being to the inner, the psychic being. It is similar to the shift in consciousness that needs to take place in the surface consciousness to achieve a separation of the true witness, the Purusha, from the action of the external being, Prakriti. Thus, it is not the external mind that must find a way to “stay awake”; rather, it is through the quiescence of the mind, the vital and the body that the inner being can come forward and observe. The question then is how one can establish the conscious awareness of that inner being at all times, separate from the external awareness.

The Mother writes: “Sleep can be a very active means of concentration and inner knowledge. Sleep is the school one has to go through, if one knows how to learn his lesson there, so that the inner being may be independent of the physical form, conscious in itself and master of its own life. There are entire parts of the being which need this immobility and semi-consciousness of the outer being, of the body, in order to be able to live their own life, independently.”

“Only, people don’t know, they sleep because they sleep, as they eat, as they live — by a kind of instinct, a semi-conscious impulse. They don’t even ask themselves the question. You are asking the question now: Why does one sleep? But there are millions and millions of beings who sleep without ever having asked themselves the question why one sleeps. They sleep because they feel sleepy, they eat because they are hungry, and they do foolish things because their instincts push them, without thinking, without reasoning; but for those who know, sleep is a school, an excellent school for something other than the school of waking hours.”

“It is another school for another purpose, but it is a school. One wants to make the maximum progress possible, one must know how to use one’s nights as one uses one’s days; only, usually, people don’t at all know what to do, and they try to remain awake and all that they create is a physical and vital imbalance — and sometimes a mental one also — as a result.”

“The physical and all material physical parts should be absolutely at rest, but a repose which is not a fall into the inconscient — this is one of the conditions. And the vital must be in a repose of silence. Then if you have these three things at rest the inner being which is rarely in relation with the outer life, because the outer life is too noisy and too unconscious for it to be able to manifest itself, can become aware of itself and awaken, become active and act upon the lower parts, establish a conscious contact. This is the real reason for sleep, apart from the necessity that, in the present conditions of life, activity and rest, rest and activity must alternate.”

“The body needs rest but there are very few people, as I said, who know how to sleep. They sleep in such conditions that they don’t wake up refreshed or are hardly rested at all. But this is an entire science to learn.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Sleep, pp. 11-17

Preparing the Body, Vital and Mind for Restful, Conscious Sleep

We spend as much as one third of our lifetime asleep. Many questions arise when one reflects on this fact. What happens during sleep? Where does the consciousness go? What does it do? Can we become conscious, or at least more conscious, of that part of our lives? Are there ways to prepare for sleep that help us to optimize the sleep state for the yogic practice?

The Mother notes: “In any case one thing you can do in all security is, before going to sleep, to concentrate, relax all tension in the physical being, try … that is, in the body try so that the body lies like a soft rag on the bed, that it is no longer something with twitchings and cramps; to relax it completely as though it were a kind of thing like a rag. And the, the vital: to calm it, calm it as much as you can, make it as quiet, as peaceful as possible. And then the mind also — the mind, try to keep it like that, without any activity. You must put upon the brain the force of great peace, great quietude, of silence if possible, and not follow ideas actively, not make any effort, nothing, nothing; you must relax all movement there too, but relax it in a kind of silence and quietude as great as possible.”

“Once you have done all this, you may add either a prayer or an aspiration in accordance with your nature, to ask for the consciousness and peace and to be protected against all adverse forces throughout the sleep, to be in a concentration of quiet aspiration and in the protection; ask the Grace to watch over your sleep; and then go to sleep. This is to sleep in the best possible conditions. What happens afterwards depends on your inner impulses, but if you do this persistently, night after night, night after night, after some time it will have its effect.”

“Usually, you see, one lies down on the bed and tries to sleep as quickly as possible, and then, that’s all, with a state of total ignorance of how it ought to be done. But what I have just told you, if you do that regularly it will have an effect. In any case, it can very well avoid the attacks which occur at night: one has gone to bed very nicely, one wakes up ill; this is something absolutely disastrous, it means that during the night one has been getting infected somewhere in a state of total inconscience.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Sleep, pp. 11-17

How to Sleep Well

One of the most frequent concerns raised by people generally is their inability to get a good night’s sleep. Insomnia, as well as restless sleep, seems to be a widespread concern. Among practitioners of yoga, the concern goes even farther, in that they desire to convert sleep into a luminous, rather than a dull or dark period of life, particularly given the fact that we tend to spend 30% or more of our lives asleep or attempting to sleep.

There are numerous causes, generally, of sleeplessness, including diet, stressful lifestyle, various pharmaceutical drugs, sedentary lifestyle effects, illness or chronic disease conditions, and in the modern world, the electronic interfaces through mobile phones, tablet computers, and other computing devices, as well as from the impact of television. Add to these primarily physical causes emotional disturbances and mental preoccupations and one can easily see why there is a seeming epidemic of inability to rest in sleep.

In recent years, the practice known as yoga nidra, or “yogic sleep” has gained tremendous attention around the world for its ability to bring about a state of deep relaxation to the body, nervous system, emotions and the mental process. It is interesting to note that the Mother provides her own comprehensive prescription for attaining sleep which foreshadows the practice of yoga nidra, and goes beyond with attention on the centrality of the psychic being as the leader of mind, life and body. Spending time disconnecting from the external preoccupations and the electronic interfaces is an obvious precursor to the actual practices she recommends. Additionally, taking steps to provide proper movement and exercise to the body, working to maintain balance and harmony in the life, and looking after appropriate diet and timing of meals can all be proactive steps to help make sleep both restful and filled with light and soothing support.

The Mother observes: “To sleep well one must learn how to sleep. … If one is physically very tired, it is better not to go to sleep immediately, otherwise one falls into the inconscient. If one is very tired, one must stretch out on the bed, relax, loosen all the nerves one after another until one becomes like a rumpled cloth in one’s bed, as though one had neither bones nor muscles. When one has done that, the same thing must be done in the mind. Relax, do not concentrate on any idea or try to solve a problem or ruminate on impressions, sensations or emotions you had during the day. All that must be allowed to drop off quietly: one gives oneself up, one is indeed like a rag. When you have succeeded in doing this, there is always a little flame, there — that flame never goes out and you become conscious of it when you have managed this relaxation. And all of a sudden this little flame rises slowly into an aspiration for the divine life, the truth, the consciousness of the Divine, the union with the inner being, it goes higher and higher, it rises, rises, like that, very gently. Then everything gathers there, and if at that moment you fall asleep, you have the best sleep you could possibly have. I guarantee that if you do this carefully, you are sure to sleep, and also sure that instead of falling into a dark hole you will sleep in light, and when you get up in the morning you will be fresh, fit, content, happy and full of energy for the day.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Sleep, pp. 11-17

How to Make Sleep Conscious

Much research has been done to monitor the various stages of sleep and to try to determine what is taking place during each stage. People have been experimenting with learning during sleep, and some people actively ‘program’ their minds before they go to sleep to solve certain problems they are facing, letting the subconscious work out the solutions. Aspirants frequently report dreams or experiences that occur during sleep that help to guide them or solve issues they are facing. Many find that teachers or gurus come to them and provide instruction or guidance. While for the most part sleep is an unconscious period for the waking mind, these breakthrough experiences make it clear that a lot is going on during sleep-time.

Sleep, however, is frequently a time when the waking consciousness not only departs temporarily, but it can be a time when the overall state of consciousness falls under the influence of tamas, and progress made during the day is lost during the night. This gives the seeker the feeling of having to always repeat and rebuild the experience each day upon waking. Several strategies have been developed including rising for meditation at 3 am, the ‘Brahma muhurta’ or attempting to overcome the power of sleep itself through various disciplines and austerities. Neither of these methods fully resolve the issue however.

Nowadays, a practice known as Yoga Nidra has gained substantial recognition as a mechanism for bringing deep rest to the body while holding a state of consciousness that is effortless and at the same time luminous. This is based on ancient teachings of the sages relating to the various stages of the development of consciousness and the various states of sleep. It has become clear that the physical mind can be programmed through an act of focus, will and aspiration prior to sleep, so that it does not lose the thread of awareness entirely and sleep can be an active continuation of the daily yogic practice.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “You have to start by concentrating before you sleep always with a specific will or aspiration. The will or aspiration may take time to reach the subconscient, but if it is sincere, strong and steady, it does reach after a time — so that an automatic consciousness and will are established in the sleep itself which will do what is necessary.”

“At night, you have to pass into sleep in the concentration — you must be able to concentrate with the eyes closed, lying down and the concentration must deepen into sleep — that is to say, sleep must become a concentrated going inside away from the outer waking state. If you find it necessary to sit for a time you may do so, but afterwards lie down keeping the concentration till this happens.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Sleep, pp 311-314

The Need to Overcome the Subconscious State of Sleep

Normally when we sleep, the body goes into a state of tamas and with it, the consciousness loses the thread of the progress of the preceding day. While the progress is not ‘lost’ in the long run, it does mean that we tend to have to re-establish what was done previously time and again. Something similar is said to happen in rebirth, that the being, no matter how advanced, has at least some remedial work to do to get back to the final stage prior to passing from one body to the next. The deepest consciousness uses the time of sleep to move off into other planes and experience things there while the body recuperates its energy and renews its sense of well-being. When we awake there is generally a feeling of starting over that encapsulates the sense that the mood, energy, aspiration, dynamism of the prior day has disappeared. This is one reason why those who undertake spiritual practices sometimes try to go to the extremes of pushing away sleep and trying to remain awake and focused, although, as noted previously, such a process tends to fail and actually can increase the tamasic feeling in the body over time.

It is possible to establish a yogic discipline of preparation for sleep and remaining fixed in the aspiration, to eventually find ways to overcome this slipping back and even turn sleep into a state of yogic progress.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The consciousness in the night almost always descends below the level of what one has gained by sadhana in the waking consciousness, unless there are special experiences of an uplifting character in the time of sleep or unless the yogic consciousness acquired is so strong in the physical itself as to counteract the pull of the subconscient inertia. In ordinary sleep the consciousness in the body is that of the subconscient physical, which is a diminished consciousness, not awake and alive like the rest of the being. The rest of the being stands back and part of its consciousness goes out into other planes and regions and has experiences which are recorded in dreams….”

“At night when one sinks into the subconscient after being in a good state of consciousness we find that state gone and we have to labour to get it back again. On the other hand, if the sleep is of the better kind one may wake up in a good condition. Of course, it is better to be conscious in sleep, if one can.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Sleep, pp 311-314

Sleep, Rest and Consciousness

Western scientists describe the various stages of sleep. Yet they are looking at sleep from outside and do not know how to correlate the stages with the movement of consciousness during sleep. They recite facts based on observation and brain wave activity and pronounce that one is experiencing waking, transition to sleep, REM sleep in the dream state, or deep sleep. We must ask, however, what is the status of consciousness during sleep. Where does the awareness go? What is it that sleeps and what is the purpose of sleep?

The subjective experience of most individuals is one of unconsciousness. When they are asleep, their waking personality is absent. Even in dream, they may or may not actively identify themselves as ‘actors’ in the dream space. Assuming they identify their ego-personality as the ‘I’ in the dream-state, they do not always act according to the outer personality in the waking state, so we cannot say conclusively that the sleeper is expressing the personality of the waking individual.

Sri Aurobindo provides insight into the status of consciousness during sleep and he also correlates the stages of sleep with the action of consciousness in other realms or planes of awareness.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “In sleep one very commonly passes from consciousness to deeper consciousness in a long succession until one reaches the psychic and rests there or else from higher to higher consciousness until one reaches rest in some silence and peace. The few minutes one passes in this rest are the real sleep which restores, — if one does not get it, there is only a half rest. It is when you come near to either of these domains of rest that you begin to see these higher kinds of dreams.”

“A long unbroken sleep is necessary because there are just ten minutes of the whole into which one enters into a true rest — a sort of Sachchidananda immobility of consciousness — and that it is which really restores the system. The rest of the time is spent first in travelling through various states of consciousness towards that and then coming out of it back towards the waking state. This fact of the ten minutes true rest has been noted by medical men, but of course they know nothing about Sachchidananda!”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Sleep, pp 311-314

The Process of Sleep and its Transformation in the Practice of Yoga

If we examine the sleep state, we can identify different phases of ‘normal’ sleep patterns for human beings in general. Starting from the waking state where we are conscious of the sights, and sounds of the outside world, as well as the thoughts and emotions and nervous impulses, feelings and pains of the physical body, we ultimately drift off, either quickly or slowly, into a state where these external perceptions and sensations recede and we enter the true sleep state. Initially this may be a state of light sleep, and various events, sounds, disturbances can easily awaken one from this stage. Usually on a regular repetitive cycle, we then enter into what is known as REM sleep, where the dreams take place. We do not generally pay attention to all the dreams that occur in REM sleep, only those that occur as we approach the waking state. That is why we tend to only remember the last dream of the night before we awake, or, if several, those after which we immediately awoke. Then there is a state of deep sleep when we neither react to external stimuli consciously nor are actively dreaming. This state provides recuperative rest to the physical body.

When people try to conquer or transform the sleep state generally, they either try to find ways to stay awake, whether through natural powers of concentration, exercise of will-power or potentially through chemical means, such as use of caffeine or other drugs. These steps however tend to have a deleterious effect on the physical body and the conscious awareness, and despite temporary ability to stay awake, eventually lead to torpor and fatigue of the body and a rebound reaction into tamas.

What is involved in the transformation of sleep is not to artificially try to stay awake, but to infuse consciousness in ever greater degrees into the various stages of sleep. Some people use the power of affirmation prior to sleeping to guide the consciousness into a state of luminous awareness. Some people actually understand the power of the sleep state in problem-solving and set an issue before the awareness before sleep and wake up with the answers!

Some utilize a journaling process to systematically record the dreams they recall, and in some cases, they can actually gain additional recall beyond the final dream through this process.

All of these things are necessarily limited methods but they tend to increase the awareness throughout the sleep state, without thereby disrupting the positive things that sleep provides to the body, the nervous system and the mind. The real answer however is to allow the higher consciousness to act as the individual increases receptivity.

It has been shown that a state of deep meditation can restore the body every bit as much as deep sleep, but the yogin is not in an unconscious state of deep sleep, but in an advanced state of increased consciousness. This provides us a clue to the eventual way to transform sleep.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “It is not a right method to try to keep awake at night; the suppression of the needed sleep makes the body tamasic and unfit for the necessary concentration during the waking hours. The right way is to transform the sleep and not suppress it, and especially to learn how to become more and more conscious in sleep itself. If that is done, sleep changes into an inner mode of consciousness in which the sadhana can continue as much as in the waking state, and at the same time one is able to enter into other planes of consciousness than the physical and command an immense range of informative and utilisable experience.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Sleep, pp 311-314