There has certainly been an interesting stream of posts this month regarding sleep. I wanted to jump in and participate, but what I came up with, after contemplating the whole topic for some time, was to look further into what it means to actually be awake. I can't really help it, I'm a Buddhist and as a Buddhist I am trying to follow Buddha's example of an "awakened being" --- but what does that really mean?
So at the risk of taking the discussion in a somewhat different direction, I would like to ask the question: "When we are 'awake' are we actually really awake?"
According to the Buddhist teachings, we spend most of our time in this world in a kind of daydream. Within our "daydream" we are relating to what is going in our world but our sense of reality is heavily filtered by memories, habitual patterns of our mind, projections about the future etc. etc. etc. During the night, when we are "asleep," our story lines continue in the form of night dreams.
Just as we take our reality within the night dream to be completely real (e.g. if someone is chasing us in the dream we run), in a similar way, during the "daydream" we take our projections to be real ("that person doesn't like me, I suck at my job, I'm in love and now everything is going to be perfect, I need chocolate ice cream right now"). We rarely, if ever, have a good look at the quality of our mental activity to see how much of it is fabricated and distorted, and how much of it is accurate and clear.
That's where the practice of meditation comes in. During sitting meditation, we look directly at the mind's activity and can recognize (on a good day) that we are often completely carried away by our thoughts. Periodically, within the meditation session, and sometimes in daily life, we actually awaken from our "daydream" mind, and experience a clear (if brief and fleeting) moment of being awake, present, without a thick filter of thoughts and pre-conceptions. You can actually do that right now for a moment.
Take a break from reading this blog, and for a second look away from the computer. First take three mindful breaths and then concentrate on the sounds around you, the sounds of the street or what have you. What is it that you hear? What does it actually sound like? Just simply be present and hear what you hear without qualifying or evaluating further.
Experiencing the moment in this way is in fact a glimpse of the Buddha nature or "awake" mind that so many people are writing about these days -- a simple moment of awareness unfettered by memories of the past and projections about the future. Recognizing this "moment'" -- recognizing and expanding that recognition -- was and still is the essence of the Buddha's teachings. The discovery of this kind of direct awareness is often described as finding a treasure hidden in plain sight or a jewel in a rubbish heap.
Buddhist monks or yogis sometimes participate in long retreats with very little sleep and sit upright in a meditation posture for 24 hours a day for considerable periods of time. In that situation, the sleep is very light and one never goes very deeply into unconscious states. Obviously these practices are very intense and not particularly designed for lay people like you and I. They may not really mesh with living fully in the "world" as we do.
However, the practice of awakening from the daydream, both in formal meditation sessions and in our daily lives, can mesh with people like us. You can do it at work, on vacation, after a wonderful night of rest, or even if you've had three hours' sleep the night before and are up late struggling to finish a project or a term paper. This practice of awakening from the daydream, connecting with the awakened state of mind, beyond judgment, evaluation, causes and conditions, in this very moment, is always available, and can be profound and surprisingly refreshing!
David Nichtern and Cyndi Lee's DVD, Om Yoga and Meditation is available through Amazon.com.