In many spiritual traditions, you can read of people claiming that they never lose contact with awareness, even during deep sleep. In Hinduism, this is called ‘Sushupti’. This sounds fantastical to the majority of people, as their whole lives they have the sense that when they fall asleep each night they lose consciousness. Barring dreams, there is nothing to recollect about being asleep. No sense of awareness, no subtle ‘I am-ness’, no dark luminosity shining steadily throughout all stages of sleep — nothing. So when you hear or read about some people being aware during dreamless sleep it sounds totally mystically amazing. But so does lucid dreaming to many people. And to those who can lucid dream, the awing impossibility of such a consciousness feat is demystified. Those in the lucid dreaming scene understand it is a skill that requires repetitive training and that there are a number of techniques; and that if one is dedicated one can become better and better at lucid dreaming, and it happens more reliably.
Learning to maintain awareness during deep sleep is much the same in this sense as learning to lucid dream. It’s doable. It takes time. It’s not as insane as one may think. And like lucid dreaming, if you don’t keep it up you will lose it — sort of. There was a period in my life when I practised lucid dreaming a lot and would very frequently achieve it. However, now I don’t think much about lucid dreaming or do the techniques which encourage it, but despite that I still lucid dream from time to time (though not as frequently as before). This is because my lucid dreaming ‘muscles’ naturally retain themselves a bit — the same can be said for being aware during deep sleep.
I actually think just as people make the argument that you do always dream every night, you may just not remember it, the same could be argued for being aware during deep sleep. You already do it, you just don’t remember it. And so this practice is about training yourself to remember what is already happening.
Requirements — in order to do this I believe you must meet the following:
I would think having a least stream-entry would be necessary, but I have been told that it is possible to stumble into this state without it.
Have immediate, on-hand access to something in your experience you may deem ‘pure consciousness’ or ‘being aware of awareness’ or ‘contentless consciousness’ or whatever you may call it. This has a sense of liveliness of being that doesn’t diminish, even when you’re tired. A vibrancy without colour. *
Be able to relocate and set your default attentional resting point to a desired feature of experience willingly.
Be able to set an intention and consciously remember it throughout the majority of the day.
Decide you are committed to achieving this — it could take upwards of a month to get your first night in which you recognise you didn’t lose awareness.
Make ‘pure consciousness’ the resting place of your attention throughout the day. This means whenever you’re not explicitly engaging in an activity that requires your attention/focus, your attention will return to ‘pure consciousness’. So you’re walking down the street, hold your attention at/on/in ‘pure consciousness’. You’re just sitting waiting for a minute, contact ‘pure consciousness’ with your attention and keep it there. In fact, whenever you remember and your attention isn’t required elsewhere, tune into the vibrancy of always awake awareness. Eventually, if you do this enough your attention will automatically default to this feature of experience. It will become the habitually most salient part of experience (whereas normally for most people, it’s their thoughts or body sensations).
Reflect throughout the day on how you’re always experiencing, you’re never not experiencing something — you only think there are moments you don’t experience, but those are just thoughts which take place in experience. Inhabit this line of thinking.**
At night when going to sleep set the intention that you will maintain contact with awareness throughout the whole night.
While falling asleep keep attention on ‘pure consciousness’ and go to sleep like normal.
As soon as you wake up remember your ‘pure consciousness’ and your intention.
Repeat and maintain steps 1.- 6. as part of your daily habit — That’s it!
What does awareness during deep sleep feel like? What am I actually trying to achieve?
Well if you already have access to something you would call ‘pure consciousness’ then it is like whatever feeling you associate with that — a ‘raw knowing’, ‘the background hum of being’, a ‘colourless shapeless is-ness’. Except normally while you contact that during the day there are also other sensate impressions, like gross somatics sensations and thoughts and sights and emotions, and the sense of time and space. During deep sleep, there is none of that other phenomenological baggage. What the experience is really like is you slowly fall asleep (as you usually do) while being ‘aware of awareness’ and then you wake up the next morning and are still ‘aware of awareness’ and you realise that there was no discontinuity of consciousness. There was no perceived break in experience from night till morning. Thoughts and awareness of the body and everything else fade out and if you are particularly mindful of the falling asleep process you can notice this series of ‘shut-downs’ happening over the course of around 5 or 10 minutes (once the onset of sleep starts). Then everything gets extremely peaceful, then there is normally dream content and before you know it you are awake again.
What does awareness during deep sleep NOT feel like?
-It does not feel like you are in a little dark room just waiting for hours, because even the sense of time and space are not being registered (actually they are just very minimally — see the points with asterisks at the end of the article).
-It is not like some epic God blast of euphoria.
-There are no thoughts, no interpretations of the event while it’s happening. There are no judgments, no emotions and no suffering (or very incredibly minuscule levels of suffering — everything is relative suffering compared to nirvana).
-There is no sense of self (epistemic agent) during deep sleep. So in some way you don’t ever feel like you have the experience. After you wake up and the self reforms you can reflect back and egotistically claim your achievement.
-You don’t feel like you were awake in a mentally active way the whole night or that you had to do anything to maintain awareness during the night and if didn’t then you would have lost it.
+You do feel like you slept, but the telltale sign is you realise that there was no discontinuity of consciousness, that’s it. Again, there was no perceived break in experience from night till morning and when you reflect on this it’s actually a pretty normal experience.
I want to highlight the mundaneness of the experience, so to encourage people it’s possible for them — though I don’t want to take away the profundity of it either, though I will admit I may be. It really is like going to sleep as you normally do every night, and if the sense of being ‘aware of awareness’ is already available and known to you then this sushupti experience won’t be totally alien to you. It is incredibly peaceful and heavenly in a way, because you really get to better contrast the lightness, simplicity and lack of suffering of this experience compared to the normal experience of being awake during the day — though these are interpretations after the event. In the same way that lucid dreaming is magical and exciting at first so is this.
*There is wide disagreement about whether ‘pure consciousness’ is actually feasible as according to dependent origination consciousness cannot be separated from phenomena. Any sense that you have of being ‘aware of awareness’ is signalled via subtle sensations. How do you know you are ‘aware of awareness’ other than very subtle sensations merely indicating that such a thing as ‘contentless consciousness’ exists? Then you are not simply ‘aware of awareness’ as you are actually aware of subtle sensations and are then inferring the existence of something ‘pure’, or removed, or separate from the other. If it is separate then how does that fare for a belief in non-duality?
The belief of pure land consciousness is normally associated with the earlier stages of awakening, as the meditator doesn’t quite yet have the discernable phenomenological skills to more clearly decipher more direct experience from what is actually a subtle interpretation of experience. I believe consciousness is co-dependently arising with content in the mind and cannot be perceived without some quality along with it (be it a sensation or thought impression, with a type of space and time). And if that minute sensation were to not be there but be removed from consciousness, then you wouldn’t be left with an experience of ‘pure consciousness’ but rather nothing. This is why even consciousness is empty. However, I won’t claim to have the final say on the matter, as I could easily be accused of my own criticism (not deciphering more direct experience from what is actually a subtle interpretation of experience).
For this exercise however, it doesn’t matter. We can work with formation, even if it is ultimately delusion.
**“you’re never not experiencing something — you only think there are moments you don’t experience, but those are just thoughts which take place in experience.” Maybe you think this line of thinking isn’t necessarily the most epistemologically legitimate position, or maybe you do, it doesn’t matter for our purposes (though certainly interesting). Just entertain this line of thinking as it is helpful for this exercise. The point is to think in such a way that aids the rest of your cognitive faculties to tune into the seeming constancy of awareness. Just like when learning to lucid dream, a helpful technique is to think a lot about dreams and lucid dreaming during the day.