Last summer I experienced conscious sleep for the first time. I mean conscious deep sleep, not lucid dreaming. In this article I’ll describe what it felt like.
Conscious sleep is mentioned in some of the upanishads, especially the Mandukya Upanishad, which says that the three states of consciousness — waking, dreaming, and deep sleep — are witnessed by turiya. This Sanskrit term means “the fourth” but it’s not a state like the other three. It’s pure consciousness, the Self, the witness of the three states. Since the Self never changes, turiya must be alert at all times including during deep sleep. In experiential terms this implies that we are conscious during deep sleep.
Here’s what happened to me on July 27, 2015. This is a copy of the notes I wrote the next day with only slight changes.
At about 2 am I lay down and tried to get about four hours of sleep before I had to wake up for an 8 am appointment with a healer to remove a blockage from chakra 4B. I had hoped to arrange my sleep schedule so I was well rested before the appointment, but things got screwed up and I was sleep deprived yet couldn’t sleep. I lay down and tried to do intense Self-enquiry as I fell asleep. On my mind was advice from a friend about “no knowledge” so I was trying, I suppose, not to know anything. I seemed to enter the deepest meditation state I’ve ever been in. There was a sense of murkiness and confusion as if the mind was completely turned off. My body was incredibly relaxed. My arms were splayed in a strange lifeless way that I’ve never seen before. Twice my left arm jerked upright, fully extended — one time pointing at the ceiling — then fell back a fraction of a second later and resumed its lifeless state like the arm of a corpse. It was like a scene from a horror movie where a corpse suddenly moves.
This went on for hours. At times I was less confused and murky than other times. During one of the less murky times I tried to refocus my attention on Self-enquiry and the word “One” came into my mind like an instruction that I should say to myself to help the focusing. It seemed like a word that I would never think of in a million years, creating the impression that it came from the inner guru or something outside my mind. At one point I felt myself descending or moving back into myself and became frightened that something terrible was about to happen. I think it was a presentiment of ego death. I think this is the first time I’ve been afraid during meditation since 1998 when my kundalini woke up.
It wasn’t until twelve hours later that it occurred to me that I had fallen asleep without realizing it, and that for the first time I had been conscious during deep sleep. The murkiness probably came and went because I was drifting up and down through levels of sleep.
The strange movements of my arm reminded me that soon after my kundalini woke up in 1998, my girlfriend became afraid to sleep with me. She said energy moved in my sleeping body, scaring her. If she was seeing my arm jump around like that, I understand perfectly why it gave her the willies.
I experienced conscious sleep again a few days later but it hasn’t happened since.
Rajneesh (Osho) discusses conscious sleep in this remarkable essay.
Here’s a quotation from A Sadhu’s Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi by Sadhu Arunachala (A. W. Chadwick):
Someone said one day to Bhagavan [Sri Ramana Maharshi], “Is it true that the jnani [a Self-realized person] is conscious in all the three states, even when he is sleeping?”
“Yes,” replied Bhagavan.
“Then why does Bhagavan snore?”
Bhagavan replied, “Yes, I know that I snore, I could stop it if I wished, but I like it.”
Here’s a statement by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj quoted from Seeds of Consciousness:
Question: Can Maharaj witness his deep sleep state?
Maharaj: Oh yes, I witness my deep sleep very nicely.
Here’s another first-person account by Patricia Bralley.
Here’s a scientific paper that shows that people who claim to experience conscious sleep have different EEGs during sleep than people who don’t make that claim. I think the main significance of this paper is that it suggests that conscious sleep really happens. I already know it happens because I’ve experienced it myself.
Three days after I wrote this post, completely by accident, I ran across a book called Sleep as a State of Consciousness in Advaita Vedānta by Arvind Sharma. That link goes to a free PDF.
Ramana again from Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, number 609:
Moreover, the sleep state is not recognized to be one of awareness by people; but the sage is always aware.
Here’s a quote from Questions and Answers by The Mother (Mirra Alfassa), 21 April 1929:
…there is the possibility of a sleep in which you enter into an absolute silence, immobility and peace in all parts of your being and your consciousness merges into Sachchidananda. You can hardly call it sleep, for it is extremely conscious. In that condition you may remain for a few minutes, but these few minutes give you more rest and refreshment than hours of ordinary sleep. You cannot have it by chance; it requires a long training.
Jan Esmann describes his experience of conscious sleep in his second BatGap interview starting at 38:23.
Photo copyright 2011 Xavier Ortega