Buddhist practitioners have understood for centuries that the illusions we encounter in dreams are the same ones we encounter in waking life. Andrew Holecek shows us how to harness the Vajrayana techniques of dream yoga in order to wake up to reality.
According to legend, when Siddhartha was glowing right after his enlightenment, people asked him if he was a god, a prophet, a rishi, or a saint, and to each he replied, “No.” What he simply said is “I am awake,” and his answer became his title. The word “Buddha” comes from the Sanskrit root budh, which means “to awaken” and denotes one who has awakened from the deep sleep of ignorance. Thus from the outset, Buddhism has been intimately connected to literal and figurative sleep.
One way to understand the Buddha’s teachings is that we’re actually the most spiritually awake in deep dreamless sleep and the most asleep in so-called waking reality. Unfortunately, most of us have got it completely backward. Spiritual practice, and the nocturnal meditations, can lead us to this realization.
The nocturnal meditations begin with lucid dreaming, which is the launching pad for exploring the deep inner space of the nighttime mind. In lucid dreaming, you’re fully conscious within the dream and therefore can do almost anything you want within it. Lucid dreaming is the ultimate in home entertainment. Your mind becomes the theater, and you are the producer, director, writer, and main actor. You can script the perfect love story or the wildest adventure. Lucid dreaming can also be used to solve problems, rehearse situations, improve athletic performance, and work through psychological issues. From the trivial to the transcendent, lucid dreaming provides a spectrum of experience mostly concerned with worldly matters and self-fulfillment.
Students of lucid dreaming work with the technique of recognizing dream signs as a way to trigger lucidity. Dream signs are events that alert you to the fact that you’re dreaming. If you see your dead uncle, for example, that’s a pretty strong sign that you must be dreaming, so you can use the appearance of your dead uncle to wake you up to the fact that you’re dreaming.
However, lucid dreaming alone will not wake you up in the spiritual sense. If you merely indulge your fantasies, lucid dreaming becomes super-samsara. When intention is involved, even at the level of a dream, karma is created. Lucid dreams are not karmically neutral. If you want to go deeper, lucid dreaming can develop into dream yoga, which is when it becomes a spiritual practice. While lucid dreams can create negative karma, dream yoga is designed to purify it. “Yoga” is that which yokes, or unites. Dream yoga is designed to unite you with deeper aspects of your being and is more concerned with self-transcendence.
With dream yoga, instead of using your mind as an entertainment center, you turn it into a laboratory. You experiment with dream meditations and study your mind using the medium of dreams. For example, one dream yoga practice is to change the objects in your dream. You can turn a dream table into a flower or transform your boat into a car. You can also add or subtract things in your dreams, or shift their size: expand a home into a mansion and then shrink it down into a dollhouse. Why would you want to do this? Tenzin Wangyal says:
Just as dream objects can be transformed in dreams, so emotional states and conceptual limitations can be transformed in waking life. With experience of the dreamy and malleable nature of experience, we can transform depression into happiness, fear into courage, anger into love, hopelessness into faith, distraction into presence. … Challenge the boundaries that constrict you. The purpose of these practices is to integrate lucidity and flexibility with every moment of life and to let go of the heavily conditioned way we have of ordering reality, of making meaning, of being trapped in delusion.
Another practice is to create a frightful dream and then work with your fear. If you’re already in a nightmare and you become lucid, relate to your fear instead of running from it. This practice can show you that it’s not the contents of the nightmare that scare you, but rather your habit of taking the events to be solid and real. Discovering that dreams are safe—which is brought about by waking up to their illusory nature—is essentially discovering that you do not need to fear your own mind. Dream yoga shows you that your mind is safe and basically good.
You can then take this insight and bring it to daily life. Nightmarish life situations become softer and more workable when you realize that reification—mistaking things and thoughts to be so solid and real (the very definition of non-lucidity)—is fundamentally illusory. Dream yoga offers a marvelous opportunity to work with your mind in the fluid context of a dream and then transpose the insights from your dreams directly into waking life.
In dream yoga, dream signs can also be engaged in waking life to clue you in to the fact that you’re asleep and dreaming right now. For example, if you see the world as solid, lasting, and independent—and who among us doesn’t?—then you’re dreaming. This unholy trinity is a classic set of dream signs that clue you in to the fact that you’re asleep in the world of duality.
These dreams signs help us understand what it is that buddhas wake up from and what they awaken to. They wake up from seeing the world as solid, lasting, and independent to seeing it as open, impermanent, and dependently originated. They wake up from the delusion of materialism and into a dreamlike reality. It’s the irony of spiritual awakening—we awaken to the opposite of what we consider normal awakening each morning.
Through the practice of dream yoga, you become a spiritual oneironaut. Oneirology is the study of dreams, and oneironauts are those who navigate the dream world. Just like astronauts explore the outer space of the cosmos, oneironauts explore the inner space of the mind.
The science behind modern lucid dreaming has been a huge boon for dream yoga. With their sophisticated analysis of dream cycles, sleep pharmacology, and high-tech gadgetry, Western lucid dream researchers have vastly increased access to lucid dream states, and therefore the ability to practice dream yoga (no lucid dreams means no dream yoga). In my own experience, I had hit-and-miss results with traditional induction methods. But when I added the modern techniques, my lucid dreams increased dramatically. Ancient dream yoga and modern lucid dreaming make fantastic sleeping partners.
If you want to go deeper, dream yoga can develop into sleep yoga, which is when awareness spreads not only into dreams but also into deep dreamless sleep. With sleep yoga, your body goes into sleep mode but your mind stays awake. You drop consciously into the very core of your being, the most subtle formless awareness. It’s an advanced meditation and an age-old practice in Tibetan Buddhism.
For most of us, dreamless sleep is the antithesis of awareness. It’s a total blackout. Nothingness. But for a sleep yogi it’s a mini-enlightenment, a descent into the awakened mind, because it’s a nondualistic state. The formless awareness of dreamless sleep is not nothingness, but no-thingness (emptiness). We don’t recognize it when we fall into dreamless sleep because we’re so habituated to identifying with the forms that arise in awareness rather than with awareness itself. We identify with thoughts, emotions, and other mental forms, not with formlessness. So when formless awareness is pointed out in dreamless (formless) sleep, we unconsciously say to ourselves, “That’s not me, I’m not nobody, I’m somebody!”—and pass out.
We can learn something about the nonduality of deep inner space by looking at deep outer space. Imagine floating in outer space, where the light of the sun is constantly streaming. If there’s no object placed in that light and space, then nothing is actually seen. The only thing you see is the blackness of outer space. You don’t see the light. But the instant you put an object into that streaming light, both the light and the object (duality) suddenly appear. Physicist Arthur Zajonc explains, “Without an object on which the light can fall, one sees only darkness. Light itself is always invisible. We see only things, only objects, not light.”
It’s exactly the same with the darkness of the deep inner space of your own mind. Replace “light” with “awareness” in the above quote to see how this applies to your dreamless mind. The light of awareness, the Clear Light Mind (The Great Eastern Sun in Shambhala Buddhism), is constantly streaming. But if an object, in this case a thought form, doesn’t arise in that light and space of the mind, nothing is seen. It’s perceived as a total blackout, which is exactly what we perceive in dreamless sleep. In the education of the night, sleep yoga can be likened to graduate school. It gives you a sense of how far these nocturnal meditations can go.
There’s one final destination of the night. Dream yoga and sleep yoga can develop further into bardo yoga, which is when you use the darkness of the night to prepare for the darkness of death. “Bardo” is a Tibetan word that means “gap or transitional state,” and in this case it refers to the gap between lives. If you believe in reincarnation and want to know what to do after you die, bardo yoga is for you.
On one level, all of dream yoga and sleep yoga is a preparation for death. There’s an intimate relationship between the process of going to sleep, dreaming, and waking up, and the process of dying, the after-death state, and being reborn. The Dalai Lama says, “A well-trained person can recognize a strict order in the four stages of falling asleep and is well prepared to ascertain an analogous order in the dying process.” Bokar Rinpoche adds, “The energy governing each element ceases to be functional and is absorbed into the energy of the following element. This process of absorption of the four elements into each other does not occur only at death, it also happens in an extremely subtle manner when we fall asleep or when a thought is removed from our mind.”
How To Do Dream Yoga
Three key ingredients are needed to begin lucid dreaming. First, strong motivation to become lucid is critical and creates momentum (karma) that carries into the dream world. It’s as if you’re “seeding” the lucid dream, a technique that is basic to any level of dream induction or incubation.
Have you ever had to get up early and not had an alarm clock? By setting a strong intention to get up at a certain time, we often wake up at that time despite not having an alarm. In the same way, we can set an internal alarm to wake us up within our dreams by setting a strong intention.
Second, good dream recall is also essential and starts with the firm resolve to remember your dreams. Dream journaling also helps. Keep the journal by your bed and write down any snippet of any dream. When you wake up, ask yourself, “Was I dreaming?” Close your eyes and try to go back in to recapture any part of the dream.
Take advantage of prime-time dreamtime, which begins about two hours before you normally wake up. A proven technique is to wake up two hours before normal, stay up for fifteen minutes or so, then go back to sleep with the intent that “I will wake up in my dreams, I will remember my dreams.” This technique is perhaps the single most effective method for achieving lucidity.
Finally, there are many specific Eastern and Western induction techniques, such as taking the supplement galantamine to increase dream clarity, wearing dream goggles (that register the rapid eye movement (REM) characteristic of the dream state and signal to you that you’re dreaming), and visualization practice (imagining a red lotus at your throat as you fall asleep). For Buddhists, one of the most effective methods is mindfulness meditation, which wakes you up to the contents of your mind. By becoming lucid to (mindful of) the contents of your mind now, you will naturally become more lucid to the contents of your mind during dreams. Many studies have shown that mindfulness meditators have more lucid dreams.
The reason we might want to engage in these nocturnal meditations is because they work directly with the tectonic plates of our experience. As any depth psychologist will tell you, whatever you do with your unconscious mind has vast repercussions in your conscious life. The smallest shifts in tectonic plates have massive surface implications. Your earth can quake toward enlightenment very quickly when you work with the ground of your experience.
When we relate to our mind in meditation during the day, we’re mostly working with surface levels of the conscious mind, which is as direct as we can get. It’s a start. But these conscious levels are projections of deeper unconscious strata that underlie all surface experience. If we can work with these unconscious levels directly, which is the rare opportunity provided by dream and sleep yoga, we’re now facing the mind point-blank.
It’s akin to why hypnosis can be so transformative. What you do “down there” has a big effect on what happens “up here.” The nighttime meditations are even more transformative because they go deeper. You’re not just working with the leaves and branches of the tree of samsara (the domain of psychology, hypnotherapy, or other self-help methods). You’re not even working with the trunk (classic meditation). You’re working with the very roots of your entire experience. Transform those roots and you’ll transform everything above.
According to Traleg Rinpoche, dream yoga can unleash potentials that have not been previously accessed, tapping into untapped reservoirs of wisdom. He relates many stories of dream yoga practitioners maturing dramatically in one night. The first Karmapa, for example, attained his enlightenment by doing dream yoga. You can go to sleep confused and wake up transformed. Namkai Norbu Rinpoche says, “It is easier to develop your practices in a dream than in the daytime. In the daytime we are limited by our material body, but in a dream our function of mind and our consciousness of the senses are unhindered. We can have more clarity. Thus there are more possibilities. … If a person applies a practice within a dream, it is nine times more effective than when it is applied in waking life.”
The inner yogas of dream and sleep are almost like a shortcut to enlightenment, a quick inner path. They work with aspects of the mind that are the shortest distance between you and awakening. But quick doesn’t mean easy. Because it’s more direct, it’s also more difficult. Still, knowing about the potential for rapid and enduring transformation can inspire you to undertake these practices and stick with them.
The Fruition of Dream Yoga
With the nighttime yogas, you can bring sleeping and dreaming fully onto the path. For those who are busy, it’s like adding a night shift. You no longer have the excuse that there isn’t time to meditate. Moreover, you can transpose insights from the night into the day. Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche says:
Experiences we gain from practices we do during our dream time can then be brought into our daytime experience. For example, we can learn to change the frightening images we see in our dreams into peaceful forms. Using the same process, we can transmute negative emotions we feel during the daytime into increased awareness. Thus we can use our dream experiences to develop a more flexible life. With continuing practice, we see less and less difference between the waking and the dream state. Our experiences in waking life become more vivid and varied, the result of a light and more refined awareness… This kind of awareness, based on dream practice, can help create an inner balance.
To gain mastery over dream and sleep is to gain mastery over your own mind. The real point isn’t to control your dreams but rather to have control over your mind. By gaining mastery over your mind, you become fearless in the dark. The nighttime yogas can illuminate and therefore eliminate fear, the primordial emotion of samsara.
By conquering fear, we also vanquish hope. This is the desperate hope of the ego, not the wholesome aspiration of waking up to benefit others. Hope and fear are the parents of the eight worldly prisons, and with the nighttime practices we can escape these confining walls. With no hope for pleasure, gain, fame, and praise, we are no longer controlled by the fear of pain, loss, shame, and blame. As this equanimity matures, we eventually have no preference for samsara or nirvana—both are seen to be illusory.
Dream yoga also develops both relative and absolute siddhi, or psychic power. Relative siddhi is when you have power over the world; absolute siddhi is when the world no longer has power over you. In terms of relative siddhi, masters who have accomplished dream yoga and truly see the world as a dream can manipulate the physical world as if it is no longer physical. Miracles happen when you tune in to the miraculous and illusory nature of reality. Christ did it, the Buddha did it, and masters from any tradition can do it. Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche says, “It is possible to trust such accounts if you understand that the nature of samsara is indivisible appearance and emptiness like a dream or a magical illusion.”
In the case of absolute siddhi, which is much more important, dream yoga reveals the dreamlike nature of experience, and therefore it has less power over us. The world only has the power we give to it, a power we unwittingly bestow when we take things to be real. If we freeze the world into concrete and steel, that nightmare of reification can hurt us. That’s what it means to be non-lucid—taking appearances to be real when they are not. If we see the world as illusory, it can’t fundamentally hurt us. That’s what it means to be lucid—to cut through delusory appearances to the truth. As it says in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, “Emptiness cannot harm emptiness.” When you wake up spiritually, you feel things more (because you’re so awake) but they hurt you less (because there’s nobody to hurt).
Another fruition of dream yoga is liberating humor. Seeing things as solid, lasting, and independent is such a joke. And dream yogis get it. When we “break up” in laughter or “crack up” after a good joke, that lighthearted feeling comes from breaking or cracking our solid and serious approach to things. The more solid the setup, the bigger the joke. The lifelong narrative of seeing things as solid, lasting, and independent is suddenly turned on its head, and that’s a gut-buster. The Dzogchen master Longchenpa said:
Since everything is but an apparition,
Perfect in being what it is,
Having nothing to do with good or bad,
Acceptance or rejection
You might as well burst out laughing!
While the awakened ones are full of humor, they’re also full of compassion. Imagine being in a room full of hundreds of sleeping people while you’re the only one awake and wandering around. Some people are sleeping soundly while others are writhing and moaning from an obvious nightmare. Your natural response, especially if it’s a room full of loved ones, would be to rouse them from their slumber and say, “Wake up! It’s just a bad dream.” This is how the awakened ones spend their lives.
Dream yoga also inspires simplicity. What’s the point in spending your life chasing dreamlike apparitions? When you’re no longer caught up in illusory appearances, you cease grasping after them. When grasping ceases, so does samsara. The end of materialism (seeing things as solid, lasting, and independent) means the end of consumerism. Matter just doesn’t matter anymore.
Sleep is a unifying factor of humanity. Everybody sleeps and dreams. This biological camaraderie is just the outer level of a deeper spiritual union and points to one of the greatest benefits of the nighttime yogas: their ability to yoke us to all sentient beings.
When we fall asleep, we drop below the dualistic ego, where difference is synonymous with division, and discrimination, strife, and warfare are sparked by the illusion of separateness. We temporarily disconnect from the superficial layers of mind and connect to our shared awakened nature—our collective buddhanature. As dream researchers Jayne Gackenbach and Harry Hunt assert, “The further down the rabbit hole you go, the more collective the experience becomes.”
We may not be awake to it yet, but this is where we go every single night. At this ground zero of being, ignorance is replaced with insight, multiplicity is supplanted by unity, and duality melts back into nonduality. So at our core, below any surface language, race, color, or creed, we are absolutely all the same.
The practices of the night lead us to this unified field and awaken us to the universality of the human condition. For you see, when you go to sleep you’re actually going to meet me, and every other sentient being on this planet, at this deepest possible level. We’re going to sleep together and rest in the same luxurious bed of the primal mind. Our job, when we arise each morning, is not to forget this nightly reunion. Rumi put it this way:
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase
doesn’t make any sense.
So the next time you see me, or anyone else, remember that we’ve met before. Remember that at this most fundamental level of being, we’re still together. It’s time to wake up to that truth.
Adapted from Dream Yoga: Illuminating Your Life Through Lucid Dreaming (Sounds True, 2016).