1.38 Wide Asleep
Updated: Mar 3
YOGA SUTRAS OF PATANJALI | CHAPTER 1 - SAMADHI PADA | VERSE 38 | COMMENTARY
स्वप्ननिद्राज्ञानालम्बनं वा ॥१.३८॥
Svapnanidra̅jñana̅lmbanam va̅ ||1.38||
By witnessing sleep and dreams (the mind can be made steady).
“The moment you know you are sleeping; you are already awake.”
- Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
As a human being, we have a great range to experience the variety of the world we live in. This variety is also expressed in our inner worlds – we feel so many different emotions other than happy or sad like anger, jealousy, compassion, curiosity, love, fear, disgust, agony, and so many more which I lack to state not because of my lack of ability to feel but my lack of vocabulary. Words anyway fall short to describe emotions. Yet, I find it quite ironical that we tend to live as if the world is dichotomous.
The two large boxes we have are labelled ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’. We divide them into further smaller boxes of "Right" and "Wrong". Any experience, any thought, any person, any circumstance, and we, consciously or unconsciously, label it as “good” or “bad”. Once we have labelled them, they cease to be what they are for us. Being kind is good. Being jealous is bad. Feeling anger is wrong. Being generous is right. Being productive is good. Resting is unproductive and a waste of time, hence it is bad. God is good, human being is bad. Being rude is bad. Being polite is good. A person is rude once and we label the person as rude. The person is always going to be that “rude person” in our mind instead of just being a person. Even now as you are reading this (and I am writing it) you (and I) have labelled this pattern of labelling as ‘bad’. The depth and the possibilities of the concept have been lost. The habit is so intrinsic, our mind cannot stand without it. If we take away the categorization skill of the mind, we suddenly feel our intellects have been handicapped.
This dichotomy does not start from our intellect, but from our instincts. But our instincts cannot be fooled as easily as our intellects. The first dichotomy is the most glaring one which we as a species have been trying to conquer for a long time. Life and Death. We are either alive or dead.
What happens when a person dies? They become a nobody – no body - no possessions, no family, no friends, and no likes or dislikes. The body is dropped. The senses are lost. No one expects anything of them, and everyone will tell you what a good person they were. It must be a relief to be dead and be free from all the expectations, but for that a good life is necessary first.
We experience this state every day when we sleep. Sleep is quite similar to Death. There are no sensations, no identities, no thoughts. If you had a good day, you would have a good night’s sleep as well. It does not matter to your mind whether you are asleep in a castle or a prison cell.
All of us experience the state of wakefulness and sleep and dreams. But there is another state that is beyond these. There is an interface where we are neither asleep, nor awake. The quality of being awake is described as being in activity and motion. The senses are active – we see, we hear, we smell, and we taste. Our individuality and ego is expressed. The brain analyses the information from the senses, and we act accordingly. The quality of sleep is the lack of sensations. We lose our sense of self.
But in the interface, we are awake, but there are no thoughts (until we want) but a pervading awareness. The sense of self exists, but it encompasses not only the body and mind, but all the space around us. The eyes see, but get to make a choice if we want to process what we see. We are able to listen, see, feel and process without any veil of our desires and emotions. There is power. There is control. There is connection - our existence expands from a small body to Nature itself.
Being aware in sleep is one of the toughest sadhanas. Sadhguru of Isha Foundation also mentions this sadhana in his books and talks. Bhagavan Ramana Maharishi has also talked about the state in which one becomes aware of the sleeping state. You can try it for yourself. When you lie down to sleep tonight, simply try to observe your mind slipping into the sleeping state. It is extremely hard, and needs a lot of regular practice of being continuously aware of the activity of the mind beforehand to witness sleep, but you can still give it a try. I have experienced it once during my teacher training program. I was doing rigorous sadhana every day, and was in the grace of the Master. Watching myself sleep was one of the strangest experiences of my life, and when I woke up, I was not sure if I had really slept that night or not. It took me some time to realise that I had actually been able to witness the vrittis of sleep for the entire night.
The Masters like Sadhguru and Ramana Maharishi have given an easier way to observe this state. Instead of observing the state while going into sleep, observe it when coming out of sleep. There are a few seconds when we are waking up from sleep that we can be aware. At the moment, we are neither asleep, nor awake; we are in a transcendental state. If we learn to observe this state, and slowly hold the awareness even while we are awake, the mind can go into Samadhi.
The sutra has a subtle layer. In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says that the Yogi is asleep when the ordinary people are awake, and awake when the ordinary people are asleep. Adi Sankaracharaya explains what the Lord is saying - The enlightened being understands that all he is seeing is a dream, and not true. They are asleep to its effects, and are not swayed, as one is not swayed by a dream, not matter how extraordinary it might have been. Ordinary people, in their ignorance, believe this dream to be true and keep on struggling and resisting. The enlightened is awake to the reality that is the source of everything, the reality within. The ignorant is not aware (asleep) to this true nature. Take a minute and look back. Is not your life like a dream? Eating, sleeping, working, talking, crying, laughing…it is all transient. The “awake” truth is flowing, changing with time – if the awareness does not flow with it, are we experiencing truth?
But there is something in you that is real and has not changed at all, and the only few moments in your life that have really stayed with you are those in which you experienced the vastness of your existence, your unchanging core that is pure.
The sutra urges the practitioner to become aware of his sleep, to see that it is all a dream. To remember the transience of all. In the words of John Green "We are small, and so frail, so gloriously and terrifyingly temporary." Once this experience is established, a transformation takes place, and the mind becomes steady in itself.