Lotuses of Nighttime Lucidity: Renewal and Intensification of Sleep Yoga
Shared here is a practice update on some amazing results of renewed interest in sleep practice.
Inspired by my friend Jim, who is talented at lucid dreaming and even at fading out to the Clear Light Mind in dreamless sleep, I’ve recently committed to some “efforting,” even though that sort of tantric down-pull has in the past plunged me back into Progress of Insight stage cycling. I may be past that danger now because of progress in Dzogchen practices, so I’m experimenting with some tantric magic now.
I don’t gain much traction from western lucid dreaming methods. They feel clunky and not aligned with ultimate reality. For example, I have an app on my phone called Awoken. It is a cool app as such things go. It sounds off 10 times a day with bird chirping to signal that I need to do a “reality check.” A reality check is a series of reality-testing tasks one does to make sure one isn’t in a dream currently. The idea is that if reality checks become a habit in the waking life, then eventually the habit will make its way into dreams, where one then questions the reality of the dream and wakes up within the dream.
To some extent, for me, this works, but the problem remains that it posits a distinction between what is “real” and what is a “dream.” The entire method asks one to discriminate along a line of duality: reality versus dream. By contrast, ancient Tibetan methods have the daytime practice be to see daily life as a dream, because it is a dream, a projection of mind, essenceless. So one puts dream half-and-half in one’s dream coffee and drives a dream car to a dream office. The emphasis is completely different here: It is to see both sleeping reality and daytime reality as one seamless dream projection.
My experiences with dream and sleep lucidity have in the past come from dream incubation rituals, which invites teachers to appear in the dream, as asked, to teach me. I’ve enjoyed nearly 100% efficacy with this method on the first night I invoke a teaching.
Mainly, lucidity has arisen as a mere side effect of my Dzogchen practice. In these instances, I would normally be disembodied and referenceless as a “subject.” The “scene” would be minimalist, almost devoid of setting, and then totally devoid and without narrative development of any kind. These seem to be experiences of Clear Light Mind.
Most notably, immediately after the opening of rigpa in July 2015, I experienced a couple of weeks of uninterrupted lucidity in mostly dreamless sleep. To “wake up” in the morning without waking up at all is an almost indescribably strange experience. It brings home the seamlessness of night mind and awakened mind profoundly. This was the one effect of that life-changing retreat of 2015 that faded after a few weeks. I spent nearly a year working with dreams to try to recoup that attainment permanently, but I ended up putting that work aside because other Dzogchen practices called to me in the daytime insistently.
Dzogchen Trekchö is a path of integration, as is Tögal, or the Clear Light visions. In Trekchö one “cuts through” remaining obscurations of rigpa on the spot, off the cushion. Even so, there is normally one main obscuration that proves difficult to resolve for quite a while.
Accordingly, I’ve been noticing for months, since I’ve been off Cymbalta, that on the threshold of sleep, as I’m going under, some intense dark anxiety arises, terror. At that moment, I want only to escape my own terror, so I dive into the sleep of ignorance, or I wake all the way up and have to deal with insomnia borne of hyper-vigilance. I understand that some of this likely stems from a traumatic incident when I was 18 years old, when my mother fell and stopped breathing while I was asleep. That event plunged me into 10 days of hallucinations that everything organic was decaying and dying before my eyes, over and over again. I was not delusional: I knew the hallucinations were just that, but I couldn’t stop them until a session of hypnosis finally got me to sleep again. When I awoke the visions had stopped, but my problematic relationship with sleep had just begun.
Similarly, in the morning as I’m rising out of sleep, I sometimes feel intense depression, as in clinical depression. This affect seems cognitively linked to lack of achievement the day or night before, when I’ve not stayed on task or accomplished something on my agenda. Once I sit up in bed and begin meeting the new day, that mood evaporates rapidly and completely.
I’ve long pondered these threshold remnant clinical agitated depression manifestations, unsure what to do about them. The problem is that, in order to make a decision to practice through them, I would have to have sufficient lucidity to so decide. But the whole problem is that I don’t have the lucidity in those moments, so how do I get at the lack of lucidity to cut through it? It is a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Hence, the difficulty of this part of the path.
Sleep is a final frontier. A leftover boundary exists where I must discern how to bring lucidity into the most compelling remaining impulse to escape experience. I must stop leaping into darkness or bobbing back up into unrest as ways of escaping pain-memory. At least I can see these liminal moments and acknowledge them, though, so there is hope—hope and faith.
With this, I’ll briefly describe recent results with Tibetan methods from the Bönpo Mother Tantras. Both methods are nighttime methods that are partnered with the aforementioned mindfulness to see everything as vividly dream-like during the day. If you would like to try these practices, which I highly recommend over western techniques, see Geshe Tenzin Wangyal’sThe Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, and the second part of Andrew Holocek’s Dream Yoga: Illuminating Your Life through Lucid Dreaming and the Tibetan Yogas of Sleep.
Red Lotus Sacred Dream Lucidity
In addition to daytime and nighttime preliminary practices, Wangyal details sacred dreaming methods that involve waking up every 2 hours during the night and moving into a specific sleep position each time. The main practice, though, is tantric visualization of a four-petaled red lotus. The red lotus is visualized out in front, in the dark, but then shrunk and brought in and down into the throat chakra, which is the power seat of communication and dreams. The difficult part of this visualization for me is that the perspective is top-down from behind the eyes and into the throat. This is a pretty weird perspective to try to gain, especially because I’ve worked so long now at not localizing subjective reference at all, let alone behind the eyes or in the head.
At any rate, the red lotus is luminous, filling the space with red light, radiating from the throat to fill the room. Andrew Holocek suggests a preparatory practice that involves tracing the shape of a four-petaled lotus over and over and over again on paper so that the “feel” of the shape can be internalized as body-knowledge. Tantra is normally associated with imaginative visualization, but just as, in my book, the bodily spaciousness attainment is the most important one, so tantric success is more about feeling the projected presence than about “seeing” it. It is important to feel the red lotus in the throat and to feel the nectar of that red light illuminating outward from that chakra to fill the room, to fill space.
After enjoining the tracing of the red lotus on paper, Holocek’s version begins with tracing the shape repeatedly out in front with one’s extended finger, in the dark, while in bed, Then the flower is taken down into its home in the throat chakra. He then emphasizes that the flower should not remain cartoon-like but be seen and felt as vivid and three-dimensional, alive with reality.
Finally, both books describe the inscription of seed syllables, or letters, on each of the four petals, with a fifth one, om, in the center of the flower. The seed syllables are each associated with one of the five elements. Each is also traced, in Holocek, on paper (preferably in proper colors) and then traced in the dark in front first. The order followed can be that of the earth into water, water into fire, fire into air, and air into space—the order of dissolution in death and release into the bardo. When the flower is in the throat, the letters are traced out in stages as sleepiness intensifies. Holocek remarks that when the letters are included then the blessings and powers of the buddhas are internalized in the dreamer. This was an aha for me: It is a spell, as with sigils. Sigil means seal. The letters are the seals of the spell.
The very first night I tried this practice, I had some results that amazed. First, I almost never make impulse buys, but the night before I read all this, I impulsively purchased an automated home lighting system that enables colored lighting. The instructions for the yoga are to see everything as red light and to try to sleep with some actual light on. So I set my new system on a timer to fade out from bright red to dull red and then out.
I mentally went around the four petals in my red sleep chamber, as though circling some drain slowly, and then slipped into some kind of altered state through the om in the center. There was nothing in this state in the way of Jenny, and there were no objects, with the exception of red-tinged formless light. Suddenly a huge white number 17 burst forth in vision. It was insistent, pregnant with some secret meaning. It excited me with its hot-white urgency, which of course brought Jenny back online, whereupon I woke up and recorded the dream.
Then after being a up for 10 or 15 minutes, I repeated the trip around the lotus petals. This second time I went back through the center into a red-light formless lucidity in which there was no Jenny and no objects except the red diffuse light. Somehow the fact that my body was sleeping in my bed was “known,” but not in any sort of discursive way and not with any feeling of a Jenny-body or Jenny anything per se. It is really hard to describe this referenceless knowing, its manner of being knowledge while remaining without any subject-object markers or narrative delineation.
After a good while in this state, Jenny began reconstituting enough to critique the fact that the red light was a kind of object, which is funny. At a certain point, the referenceless knowing has to know that it knows in order to be complete, but that can devolve, like the creation narrative, or Dependent Origination, into individual consciousness. Jenny began remembering that this red light ought to be out by now because the timer was set for the red light to fade to off within 40 minutes of going back to bed. This memory brought home that I was really just sleeping, and this realization that I was sleeping woke me up! I opened my eyes from red light that had bathed its own awareness to the black darkness of the actual bedroom, a transition that was mind-blowing, to put it mildly.
Closer toward morning, I had a regular not-quite-lucid dream. Before me stood Jim, who is a lucid dream sign and teacher in my dreams, and Andrew. Together they were holding a torch aloft, like the Statue of Liberty. Suddenly, that aloft light changed into an IV bottle, and I knew that the medicine was for me. I said to Jim, “What?” And he replied, “This is the juice!” That’s exactly what Jim would say.
The next morning I read everything I could find about the number 17. It is apparently a number of purification and approaching enlightenment. In the major arcana, it is the Star, which has significance as a Jenny card in some of my readings recorded in this journal. I had the night beforehand been scheduling a sangha call on the topic of dream practice for Sept. 17.
But there’s more. When I came into the office building at work that day, I found that someone had drawn a huge red lotus on the white board I pass by every day. I asked a coworker who drew it, and he said, “My daughter was just in here last night and drew that thing, but I have no idea why.”
Blue Lotus Sacred Sleep Lucidity
After all this, I continued to read the later parts of Geshe Wangyal’s book, which concerns the ultimate goal of sleep practice: to stop dreaming altogether, to have the body rest while the mind remains stainless in the referenceless Clear Light of rigpa. This attainment is much harder to reach and generally takes much more time.
However, I reflected on where I apparently am on the Path and how and why clunky dream methods have not been working for me. I determined that I should try to leave dreaming behind altogether and work with a practice that is like the red lotus one but with a blue lotus. Instead of letters or sigils on the petals, the blue lotus of sacred dreamless sleep is adorned with colored tigles, drops of light, again in the colors of the elements. The one in the center is blue-white. This is a simpler exercise, as there are not four different sleeping positions to have to remember to assume throughout the night, and no complicated Tibetan letter shapes to memorize.
Last night was my first night with this practice. Results were amazing, even though I did not have lucidity throughout sleep. I began by praying wholeheartedly to a dakini, Salgye du Dalma, who is the protectress of sleep yoga. I got in bed and closed my eyes after my preliminary practices, Nine Breathings of Purification, yidam practice with this dakini, and about 90 minutes of my main Dzogchen practice.
When I got in the position that Wangyal instructs (left side for women), I was intending to imagine the blue lotus, with the dakini in the center embodied as a blue-white luminous tigle. I was intending to do the whole in-bed practice, which involves seeing a yellow tigle on the top petal, a blue one on the right, a red one at the bottom, a green one on the left, and the blue-white one in the center. I was supposed to travel in a clockwise direction as I became sleepier and sleepier, as though spiraling down the drain, as with the red lotus dream practice, but with the difference that this lotus is supposed to be placed at the heart chakra, not the throat.
But when I prayed from my bed to Salgye du Dalma again, what happened was so remarkable that I never even started with the tour of petal-adorning tigles at the heart. As soon as I called out her name, a luminous and fluidly shifting blue flower shape appeared before me, whether my eyes were closed or open! I mean this was not imaginal visualization, but was there in the room, in front of me!
Over the past 5 or 6 months, I have sometimes seen a domed matrix before sleep. It has irregularly angled and irregularly spaced “grid” lines and a bright violet nimitta beyond the open top at center. This matrix appeared last night right before I called on the dakini. Then, after I called on her, the matrix suddenly shifted and became the blue underwater-like flowing flower with bright luminous white center. Although this was before my eyes instead of in my heart, I remembered to keep my heart open and in flow. But I kept my eyes on the flower in front rather than bring it in and down into my heart.
Yes, I then got all excited and even started imagining telling Jim about all this. I started telling myself, “Bad Jenny! Stop!” I thought I would get pulled out by this excitement. But even while I was falling into this discursive planning and excitement, the flower kept blooming, growing, softly and luminously waving as if under water. It faded and collapsed only if I completely roused myself, and as soon as I went back into relaxation, it began its dance again.
So I was like “Oh, hot damn! this is for real!” I just gazed on the center white tigle, but then something strange happened. There was a flash of the the violet matrix, then the flower again, and then I was absorbed into the light at the center of the flower. There were some shifting scenes and times, and I was traveling fast through ages. Then all stopped and I was in a primitive, prehistoric cave. The cave walls were lighted because light of the dakini came there with my mind. All these cave drawings of animals and men with tools and spears were there, in quietness, timelessness. The texture of the rock could be seen and felt.
This didn’t feel like a dream. It felt like being there. I was also still aware, somehow, that I had gone into the blue flower and that my body was in bed, although I couldn’t feel the bed or my reclining body, and all this was somehow known beyond memory reference or discursive thought.
So this was traveling. Finally.
Afterward, I must have fallen into Stupidity Sleep. In the morning, I was lying in the liminal state and was thinking of things I need to do, like a do list, and suddenly I would be there doing these things. Like I was at the bank actually doing a task, and then I was driving home from work, through the campus gate. It felt as though I were actually bringing these planned actions to fruition on another plane. Again, I was really there, not just dreaming. It was full-on traveling while I was still aware, two places at once, but no place.
I’m planning to clean up my altar, order a picture of this goddess (although her true form is a bright blue-white tigle), and adorn the altar with blue flowers and all sorts of blue things and luminous white things. I’m Salgye du Dalma’s Number 1 fan. I’m going to be her devotee from now on, bend the knee.