The general perception about sleep is that it is meant to provide rest after the activities of waking life. A third of our life is spent sleeping. Sleep is synonymous with dreams; every night one sees a dazzling show of flying, running, and visiting exotic places, becomes a child again, assumes various disguises, and even meets people who are otherwise impossible to meet. At times, there are scary nightmares too – running for your life, facing a disaster, and all sorts of horrible things happening around you.
The idea of dreams, popularized by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century, was familiar to ancient Indians.
The consciousness – the foundation of life – is seen as quadrants of waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and cosmic. The Mandukya Upanishad (Verse 4) calls the dream state as the second phase of consciousness and terms it the “wisdom realm,” where effulgence is enjoyed in seclusion as the experiences of the seven limbs and nineteen faces.
स्वप्नस्थानोऽन्तः प्रज्ञाः सप्ताङ्ग एकोनविंशतिमुखः
प्रविविक्तभुक्तैजसो द्वितीयः पादः ॥
The inner wisdoms of the dream-place are seven limbs (the senses of hearing, touch, sight, taste, smell, and the subtle and causal body) and nineteen faces. The second stage is the effulgence enjoyed in seclusion.
The seven limbs are the senses of hearing, touch, sight, taste, smell, and the subtle and causal body. The nineteen faces are the five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space), five sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin), five action organs (speech, walking, grasping, excretion, and procreation), and four internal organs (mind, intellect, ego, and consciousness).
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (IV.3.9), a dream is seen as a processing of the impressions of waking life in one’s inner light.
प्रस्वपित्यस्य लोकस्य सर्वावतो मात्रामपादाय स्वयं विहत्य स्वयं निर्माय स्वेन भासा स्वेन ज्योतिषा प्रस्वपित्यत्रायं पुरुषः स्वयंज्योतिर्भवति॥
Asleep, taking the matter of this world from all sides, by Himself dissolving it, by Himself creating it, by His own effulgence, and by His own light, this Purusha becomes Self-luminous.
So, experiences of the mortal self are examined by the immortal Self, making dreams indeed more real than waking life.
In Tibetan Buddhism, an entire skill set is developed to use dreams for correcting the cycle of karma, which is seen as the force of conditioning of past lives driving the present life. By being conscious during dreaming, one can carry out “software corrections” to set right the waking life. This is called “Dream Yoga.”
Interestingly, one technique of Dream Yoga is to treat waking life as a dream state, as it is also mostly imagination and interpretation rather than experiencing.
Most of the time, your mind is wandering in memories or creating fantasies. The other technique is to keep your mind within the body as much as possible. Becoming conscious of your breath as and when you notice your mind wandering away from the present moment helps a lot. Finally, starting your sleep lying in the famous Lion Posture of Buddha – the left hand resting on the left thigh; the right hand placed under the chin, and the right nostril gently blocked by the finger of the right hand – with an intent to be conscious in the dream state, holds the key.
Consider sleep not a time to rest but as primary life. Every day you are prepared by sleep to perform on the stage that is this world. In the dream world, you are helped to discover the features of the world that you have either ignored or could not grasp. Take these clues back to the waking world the next day and live your life with greater awareness and wisdom.