"The bliss of deep sleep is a free sample of the awareness enjoyed by the mystics when they are awake."
Meditation is sleep! A bold statement perhaps, no doubt contradicting much of what is written on the subject. Well now that I've stated the premiss let me defend it. I intend to claim that meditation is nothing other than the conscious and wakeful accessing of the place we go when we're deep asleep.
This is also a kind of follow up piece to a blog post I wrote a few months ago called 'Meditation and Sleep'. I'm not sure that title drove the message home hard enough so the 'and' is out and the 'is' is in. If that makes sense.
I first became interested in the practise of meditation when I was eighteen. Lots of different reasons why, I'd just been reclassified as an adult but wasn't sure that I really felt any different from when I was five years old. What was it in me that remained the same whilst other things changed? Materialist reductionism had become less than satisfying as a philosophy. It was also perhaps a search for sanity in what I perceived as an increasingly mad world (George W. Bush had just been elected U.S. President – that was the final straw).
I had no real idea what meditation was but thought shifting consciousness somehow sounded interesting. Luckily this was right at the time when internet shopping had just taken off, so I was able to order a book on the subject. In spite of my initial lack of knowledge however, I felt I had an intuitive sense of what meditation was about and that this book would really just confirm my expectations and explain more of how to go about it. I felt it would all be something to do with dropping awareness back into deeper levels of the mind and accessing the relaxed and intuitive capacity that was to be found there. Well, when the book arrived, I was surprised to find it made no mention of such things, rather it explained that meditation was all about bringing ones attention out of ones head and into the world, then attempting to hold it there. I got the point, that we're overly consumed by our rational minds and need to break free of the constant cognitive chatter, but this just seemed like a rather arduous and unnatural way of doing it. Having always had a rather unjustifiably high opinion of my own ideas, I decided my way sounded better so I would go with that.
So I would sit and drop my awareness back, attempting to consciously enter the place that nears the border between wakefulness and sleep. I had some very interesting experiences of entering a dreamlike state of consciousness, but always it would end the same, with me falling asleep. I also noted no lasting benefits to this practice, I didn't feel any more enlightened for the rest of the day, in just the same way we don't carry the relaxation of deep sleep into our waking day.
And so after a while I relented and went with what the book recommended. Standard stuff, I would sit and bring my awareness to my breath, re-placing it there every time it fell away. I would do this maybe three times a day for what started at twenty minutes a time, the rest of the day I would live as a constant mindfulness exercise attempting to be continuously aware of my bodily sensations. I had a job in a mail room at that time, putting letters in envelopes all day, which was perfect for this. I carried on this practice fairly intensely for about two years.
I'm not saying that I didn't experience benefits from this, I'm sure I did, but after a while I didn't feel those benefits were proportionate to the time and focus I was putting in. Also, I started to question the fundamental logic of what I was doing. I'm supposed to be accepting of the moment as it is, and yet really I'm always trying to change this moment into a better one where I'm more present, awake and conscious. I'm attempting to realise than my individual sense of self is an illusion, and yet my individual sense of self is hard at work trying to achieve this! It all seemed contradictory.
One morning after a poor night's sleep I was just too tired and decided it was a fruitless endeavour to try to meditate, so I just lay on my sofa for the allotted time period and took a nap. A funny thing happened, I went into a state where I was sort of awake and asleep at the same time. Rather than being identified with my thoughts I felt identified with the 'blackness' in which they were arising. There was an amazing feeling of spaciousness and liberation here, freedom from being my thoughts! But again I would end up falling asleep and I detected few lasting effects from this practice on the rest of my day, I wasn't more relaxed or nicer or anything like that.
At this point I could describe my meditation experience as being as if there were a line running through the centre of my head, extending out the back at one end and out between my eyes at the other. I could either sink back or expand out along this line and this would determine whether I would had a deep and relaxing but drawn in experience, or a shallow but expansive one. It really was a case of either/or.
This contradiction resolved for me when I realised that the answer lay in a juxtaposition of the two approaches. Moving awareness only outwards (onto the breath or something like that) is fairly pointless, it might have some limited benefit for a while but it seems to me that this is cancelled out as there always has to be a you there to keep doing this task. This becomes rather problematic if the ultimate purpose of meditation is to lose the sense of a separate self. Similarly, only sinking ones awareness back inwards is also futile. It may briefly feel great the way falling asleep does, but it can't be sustained for long without actually falling asleep. And even if it could, it's not a good place to drive a car from or operate heavy machinery or anything like that. Holding my attention out in the world (again perhaps on the breath) acts as an anchor that prevents me from falling asleep when I then allow my awareness to fall backwards into deep Consciousness.
In fact more than being just possible it was essential to do so for the following reason. If I take an analogy with lucid dreaming as a starting point, I experience myself as a character in a dream who wants to also know his real identity as the dreamer, the one consciousness in which the dream is arising. The dreamer and the dream must arise together as a primal duality, you can't have one without the other, obviously there can be not dream without a dreamer but equally a dreamer without a dream is just asleep. To put it another way, consciousness needs something to be conscious of, else it is unconscious. This was the root of my problem, I would look within to become conscious of consciousness itself, aware of awareness. What I failed to recognise was that consciousness itself is not a 'thing' in the sense that thoughts or material objects are, rather it's the thing in which these things arise. Therefore, every time I would attempt to become conscious of consciousness, I would go unconscious - every time the dreamer became aware only of himself, he wasn't dreaming any more and therefore ceased to be. The result, I fell asleep. This is why it is essential that when awareness delves inwards and seeks to become aware of itself, it also reaches outwards to remain anchored in the world (on something like the breath) and by doing so the primal duality remains.¹
What does this look like in practice?
Sit and anchor yourself in the body by becoming increasingly aware of its sensations. You may choose to particularly focus on the breath. Remember this is not the meditation itself, it's merely the set up to prevent yourself from losing consciousness when you fall backwards into the sleep state.
Become increasingly aware of the thoughts as they rise and fall in your head. Then become increasingly aware of the dark depths that they are rising and falling within.
Now simply fall backwards into the sleep state, just the same way you do every night in bed, letting go of the attachment to the outer world. And now here's the difference to actually falling asleep, as you feel yourself entering the depths, begin to undulate your awareness inwards and outwards so as not to lose connection with the material world and fall asleep all together. You may find the breath helpful in this regard, to sink into the depths on the out breath, and pull yourself back out into the world on the in breath.
A final note, in my previous post 'Meditation and Sleep'² I stated that 'Everyone is already an expert at falling asleep and therefore it's a great starting point to explain meditation.' A lot of people got back to me and said that they weren't experts at falling asleep and actually found it very difficult. Fair enough, whilst I didn't write this with the idea of developing a cure for insomnia in mind, if you struggle with this, I think it can only help to explore the line between wakefulness and sleep consciously. What I personally find is that if I do this practice when I want to go to sleep at night, if at some point I just 'let go' of the anchor of holding my awareness in the world, I drop right off. Best of Luck.
1. I've written this piece as concisely as and non-metaphysically as possible – for more depth on the lucid dreaming analogy I'd recommend Tim Freke's books, either Lucid Living or The Mystery Experience.
Artwork courtesy of Kazuyo Yamada - http://kazuyo.exto.org/