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
11 thoughts to “Conscious Sleep”
Very sweet that Sri Ramana Maharshi enjoyed the sound of his own snoring. One comment about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s test for Self Realization, he taught that the witnessing of sleep, when it has become permanent, is one possible indication of what he called “Cosmic Consciousness”, the first stage of Enlightenment. I don’t believe he taught that if witnessing of sleep was there, it necessarily indicated a person had become Enlightened.
Thanks for the correction. I’ll change that. In the meantime I’ll remove the paragraph about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Because it was wrong. 🙂
Ive had this happen 3 times. I didnt do anything unusual to try to bring it on. I just woke up fully while aware that the body was deep asleep. It was very peaceful. I dont recall how long it lasted, well its timeless anyway so that makes sense. Im not sure if thete is really any point to it happeming again but certainly wouldnt mind if it does.
This is a topic I’ve been wondering about a lot. It’s very exciting to hear about it from a person that actually experiences it. Thank you,
You’re welcome. It’s easy to find theoretical commentary about things like this but not so easy to find descriptions of what the experience feels like. I think most enlightenment literature is like that. It seems that most people, including most enlightened people, like to theorize more than they like to describe. The day I wrote this blog post I searched the web for about 30 minutes for first-person descriptions of conscious sleep and only found the one I linked by Patricia Bralley.
Advaita vedanta often refers to the waking , dreaming and deep sleep states of consciousness. There has been treatises on this. Realised masters have observed that waking state is no different from dream state only that it is longer in duration than dream. Just as one wakes from a dream and realises it is a dream, one should wake up from the waking state dream to realise its illusionary nature. While i deeply respect these teaching and experience of realised sages, it always use to make me wonder if there is a physiological reason behind such spiritual experiences. As a starting point , I read up on sleep and dream states. I found that REM state sleep is characterised by dreams that are assorted and random in nature with no logical reasoning and there are many physiological explanations for the bizarre nature and randomness of the dream and one such reason being that DLPFC ie the waking state memory and cognitive capabilities are deactivated during dream ie no logic would prevail in a dream. This was a great revelation to me as to why one does not remember body and the environment during dream or deep sleep and why the dreams made no sense. This is also the logic in vedantic treatise that uncannily resembles the physiological state in dream described by deactivation of DLPFC. Recent medical research also points to possibility of waking state consciouness coexisting with dream state where waking consciouness is aware that it is dreaming. Meaning that DLPFC and the associated neural circuits responsible for waking state consciouness is active while the dream is in progress. Is this state the Turiya or the 4th state referred in vedanta . Is this the beginning of a physiological explanation to a spiritual phenomena
When we think “I’m dreaming” while we’re dreaming, that only means that our dream state is a bit more like the waking state than usual. But the dream state isn’t turiya; the waking state isn’t turiya; and a mixture of the two isn’t turiya either.
Turiya isn’t a state of experience. It’s the precondition for such states. The states of dream, wakefulness, deep sleep, coma, Alzheimer’s disease, samadhi, every imaginable state of experience — they come and go on the substratum of turiya like TV shows come and go on a television. These states are the TV shows and turiya is the television.
Of course you’re correct that scientists have found physiological correlates of all those states. If you want to experiment with this yourself, you can buy a relatively inexpensive EEG machine and watch the electrical activity of your brain as you go in and out of meditation. I’ve done this myself. But turiya doesn’t come and go because turiya is always “there”, it always exists. It’s like a television: No matter what TV show you watch, the TV is there. Similarly, no matter which state we’re in, turiya is there. It’s there when we dream, it’s there when we’re awake, it’s even there when we’re unconscious. Since it’s always there it correlates with every physiological state.
The experiential state that’s closest to turiya is nirvikalpa samadhi. If you want to find physiological correlates of turiya — like I just said, I don’t think you can, I think this attempt is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of turiya, but if you want to try — wouldn’t it make sense to look at nirvikalpa samadhi instead of the dream or waking states?
Turiya is pure consciousness. What is the physiology of consciousness? How do our nervous systems create or connect to consciousness? Nobody has the slightest idea.
If scientists understood the physiology of consciousness, they could (for example) build robots that feel pain. But nobody has the slightest idea how to make a robot that feels pain. Not even the faintest dimmest tiniest inkling of an idea.
Dream and wakefulness are states of experience. That means we are aware OF things. In the dream state, we are aware of our fantasies. In wakefulness, we are aware of information collected by our sense organs (in other words, we’re aware of the world). But turiya isn’t a state of experience. Turiya is pure consciousness. It’s awareness without an OF. It’s consciousness without an object.
There are many physiological differences between the dream state and wakefulness, but why would anyone think those differences tell us anything about turiya? Turiya is the same in the dream state and wakefulness.
The sages tell us that even when a person is dead and his body has rotted, turiya is still there. “What were you before your birth?” asks Nisargadatta. His point is that turiya, the Self, is always “there” regardless of the state of our bodies. If that’s true, we’re not going to have much luck finding a physiological correlate of it.
Quite a bit of scientific research has been done on physiological correlates of meditation-related states. You can read about some of it in these two books:
Zen and the Brain
Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives
I find this very interesting on remaining Consciously Aware while sleeping. Do you know how we do this? Thanks, much love.
I guess to stay aware before falling a sleep. Observing ones breath is very helpful and then when breath almost stop you can practice awareness of the “I” or self enquiry just like Ramana Maharshi is teaching. You must not lose awareness there should be such determination to stay aware like fighting for your life. With such attitude one day you will suceed and then all effort would worth it you will find true happiness life will be amazing every moment just like you were small child just being that bliss aware of it.