It started in my late twenties. I’d be in deep, woolly sleep when, suddenly, I’d wake with a heart-thumping realization: I am powerless against the passage of time. Day by day, I am aging, and sooner or later I will die.
I assume this involuntary memento mori started when I was within spitting distance of my thirtieth birthday because, until that age, I’d been like a lot of other young people. Deep down, against all logic, I believed I’d be forever young, immortal. Then a few hairs turned gray, the faintest of faint lines etched themselves around my eyes, and I glimpsed the inevitable destination of this train, my body.
Siddhartha woke up when he saw, at the deepest level, that he wasn’t separate from the world.
Of course, my mortality was the last thing I wanted to dwell on. So, I plucked the grays, held mirrors at a safe distance, and kept busy. Very busy—all day long. It was only in the quiet of night that thoughts of my mortality could gain a foothold. Deep, dreamless sleep gave me a taste of extinguishment. Sleep woke me up to the truth of impermanence.
In this issue, we explore the myriad ways that sleeping and dreaming can help us awaken. In Buddhism, the end goal of practice is awakening, but what, in the ultimate sense, does it mean to wake up?
In “Awake in the Now”, Karen Maezen Miller says that awakening is sometimes called seeing beyond seeing since it transcends the narrow, subject–object duality with which we usually perceive the world. Our misperception of a separate, permanent self is at the root of our suffering; we suffer when we try in vain to bolster our separate self, and by putting our separate self first, we make others suffer, too.
Siddhartha woke up—he was enlightened—when he saw, at the deepest level, that he wasn’t separate from the world. We are all buddhas in the process of waking up, Karen Maezen Miller reminds us. So, the story of Siddhartha’s awakening is our own.
In “Is This a Dream?”, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche explains Tibetan dream yoga, a body of teachings and practices that can help us wake from our delusions. Lucid dreaming—knowing that you’re dreaming yet remaining in your dream—is the most widely known aspect of dream yoga. Equally important, however, is recognizing that so-called waking reality is as insubstantial as a dream. Tenzin Wangyal teaches that when we develop true lucidity in the day, we have greater freedom in our lives—more peace and joy. We can choose how to react to situations rather than acting out of conditioning.
Writing these words, I wonder what other insights I might personally glean from sleeping, dreaming, and waking.
That habit I had of waking up with a start, with my mortality wrenchingly present in my mind, was something that plagued me—off and on—for more than fifteen years. Then one day I realized it wasn’t happening anymore; like everything and everyone, those thoughts and feelings were also impermanent. Now, when I wake up in the night I might remember that I used to have a painful awareness of my own death, but I don’t feel any panic. I just roll over and drift off.