Sleeping, Dreaming, and Waking Up

The name “Buddha,” means “one who is awake.” Sam Littlefair shares three Buddhist teachings on sleeping, dreaming and – finally – awakening.

Sam Littlefair
22 February 2021
Photo by David Clode.

Buddhist teachers often describe our deluded experience of life as a “waking sleep,” in which we fixate on our illusory perceptions and remain oblivious to reality. This metaphor goes back to Siddhartha Gautama, who is said to have “woken up” with his enlightenment, earning the name “Buddha,” which means “one who is awake.”

It can be useful to understand waking life as akin to a dream. By recognizing our experiences as illusory, we can train ourselves to wake up to the reality of life. Below, two Buddhist teachers talk about just that. First, Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche explains Milarepa’s “eight bardos,” or transitional states, including the bardo of dreams, in which one can develop an understanding of the nature of reality. Then, in two articles, Andrew Holecek explains how to do it.

When we meditate, we’re trying to wake up from the dream of our ignorance. But what is awareness when we’re actually asleep? Holecek says that “we’re actually the most spiritually awake in deep dreamless sleep and the most asleep in so-called waking reality.” As such, in the Buddhist tradition there are practices for fostering awareness in deep slumber in order to learn to wake up after you’ve woken up. In “How to Practice Lucid Dreaming,” Holecek explains how to maintain awareness after you’ve fallen asleep. Once you’ve got that down, you can try nighttime meditations called Dream Yoga, which Holecek introduces in “What is Dream Yoga and How Do You Practice It?

On the face of it, it sounds exhausting. But I think the point of meditation — at night or during the day — is to give our tired minds space to rest.

The Eight Bardos

According to Tibetan Buddhism, all life and death take place in the gap, or bardo, between one state and another. While the most famous bardo is the one between death and rebirth, there are others that also shape our lives. Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen presents a commentary on Milarepa’s song of realization “The Eight Bardos.”

Dreams arise when we sleep. Most dreams arise out of our habitual tendencies, whether based in this life or some other lifetime. While we are dreaming, the experience seems true. When we go places in the dream, we perceive that we are really going there, meeting people, eating food, seeing things, and so forth. We don’t see the dream as a dream until later. When we awaken we say, “Oh, that was just a dream, not something real.” But when we interact with people in the daytime, we see that experience as real, as being fundamentally different from our dreams. In actuality, our dream experiences and waking experiences are both illusory. They have the same nature.

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How to Practice Lucid Dreaming

Andrew Holecek teaches us how to be awake when we’re asleep.

Lucid dreaming is a unique hybrid state of consciousness in which the conscious mind faces the unconscious mind directly. When you transform the unconscious ground of your experience, you can transform everything above.

In general, lucid dreaming is used for purposes of self-fulfillment, while dream yoga is used for self-transcendence. Dream yoga transcends but includes lucid dreaming.

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What Is Dream Yoga and How Do You Do It?

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.

Lucid dreaming is the ultimate in home entertainment… If you want to go deeper, lucid dreaming can develop into dream yoga, which is when it becomes a spiritual practice.

Experiences we gain from practices we do during our dream time can 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.

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Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair is the former editor of He has also written for The Coast, Mindful, and Atlantic Books Today. Find him on Twitter, @samlfair, and Facebook, @samlfair.