Thursday, August 18, 2011



[A young and learned Seeker raised a question on the experience of Deep Sleep and its significance in knowing the natural state.  I have given a response based on my understanding. Rupert Spira has been extremely kind and gracious to vet the text for correctness of expression. Please feel free to let me know if any part is not clear.
I have slightly edited the write up on 31 Dec 2011 for greater clarity -- ramesam.]

Question:  Deep sleep is considered to be a natural state (swabhAva) -- ATMA SWARUPA which we experience daily. Taittariya Upanishad also says so, can you explain a little more?

ramesam:  Thanks for the question. 
I realize that you already know the answer. But such questions and consequent recapitulations (manana) as a part of mutual discussions between co-seekers are a form of nidhidhyaasana
 and are very much encouraged by scriptures. 
I shall spell out here my understanding in simple words devoid of the dense layers of 'mystique' we come across in the ancient texts.

Every person (whether Realized or not) has an ID (unique name, an identity for functioning in the world). The ID is a sum of the autobiographical memories and the current sensations received through the five senses. The autobiographical memories tell me that I am so and so, my name is such and such, I am a human being, I am a professional, I am trained in a specialty, I aspire for some particular goal etc. The current sensations are interpreted by mental processes to give me a feel of the presence of a body for me 'here' and a world 'out there' for transactions by 'my' body.

The combination of autobiographical memories and the unconscious processing (i.e. processing that goes on without 'my' conscious awareness) of the worldly sensations is usually called 'mind'.  By 'processing' I mean to refer to the interpretation that goes behind every sensation to give a meaning to the sensation.  Without the mental processing, the sensations will have no meaning.  They just remain as some nameless tingling. For example a perception by the eye is seen. The eye does not know what it perceived. A 'color' is ascribed with a name to it (as green/red/blue), a shape is assigned (round, jagged), a fragrance is identified (pleasing or some kind) and finally an identification is done that "I see a flower." Thus the mind is always actively interpreting the sensations from the five senses when we think we are "conscious" and see a world.  We often equate our ‘being aware’ to the presence of such an active mind. 

Now is there a time when the presence of the mind is missed or in other words is there a time when the mind is absent? What happens when the mind is absent? Who or what remains there when the mind and mental processes are not going on?

A time does exist in the day when we do not feel the worldly sensations. It happens during our dreaming (it can be daydreaming or night dreaming - makes no difference). We are not aware of the normal wakeful world external to us and we are lost in our own imaginary dream world. This is the state of "dreaming." During dreaming, sensations from the body or the  external world are not received but the mind is active and the mental processes keep going on.

[If I close my eyes now, all the sights go away and to that extent the mental processes connected with vision are absent.  (Of course, it is not totally true because the mind still sees ‘darkness’). Similarly I may shut down my ears, sense of touch etc.  Even then, the knowledge that I have purposely shut down my senses is present and a stream of thoughts continue to arise as it  happens with deaf, blind etc. people. Therefore, such a shutting down of one or more senses can happen in the wakeful state.  But it is not dreaming.] 

There is another state that occurs naturally when the sensory organs are not active and also the mental processes do not take place. This is the "deep sleep" state that all of us go through. This state comes on its own without any of our effort. I cannot pre-decide that I will be in 'deep sleep' right now or at a specified place or time. I do not have to spend energy or practice any technique to get into 'deep sleep state.' In this 'deep sleep state', my "mind" (= autobiographical memories + mental processes)  is not present. What is there then?

Because the mind is absent, I have no perception of any "object" or a memory of perceiving any object during the deep sleep state.  Even the time factor in statements like "I had a deep sleep from so and so time to so and so time" is a later 'thought'.  The thought about time duration (how long) concerning 'deep sleep' arises now in the current moment of making that statement in a wakeful state. Actual time lapse is not experienced during deep sleep by me. Hence time and space as well are absent during deep sleep. Though autobiographical memories (of a 'me') and mental processes of giving a name and form to the worldly sensations received by my senses are absent, something is alive and continuing all through because after I get up from sleep I say I am happy, I slept soundly. This statement about happiness and having slept soundly has not come from a memory of the experience we had during the deep sleep state.  Who is then making this statement?

The "i" which we normally assume we are, is the symbol or shorthand for our ID - the summation of our autobiographical memories and body sensations. So this "i" which is not the true "I" usurps the property of the ever-existing Awareness and makes a claim for the "happiness" of the deep sleep. So the little “i” says : “i had a good sleep.” In fact the true "I" and 'happiness' are not two different things. It is one and the same.  But the "i" thinks it is different from "I" and feels it has experienced 'happiness' imagining itself to be a separate entity different from happiness. “i” could as well have said that “i” experienced "I" (“I” is another name for Happiness).   But it cannot say so because “i” (a thought) is not outside “I” (= Happiness)!   In other words, there is only (unadulterated) Happiness when “i” is absent. Another name for “i” is ego.  ("I" is called Brahman and "i" is chidabhaasa in the Vednata lingo).  "i" gets generated the moment a thought of a  "me" being separate arises.

Expressing it differently, mind is absent in deep sleep. Therefore, there is no world (because a world arises only when a thought arises and thoughts are what the mind is made up of).  As mind is absent, the small “i” (which is also a thought) is also absent and whatever is there in deep sleep is merely nameless natural state. In other words, a distinct experiencer, the act of experiencing and a separate object to be experienced do not exist. That is to say that there are no multiple things and whatever is present is I which is the same thing as Happiness, the atmaswarupa.  

The so called Direct Path approach asks you to understand this clearly about deep sleep where only Experiencing (or Consciousness = Happiness) exists without any objects or the small "i" and asks you to make an effort to stay in that position as Consciousness. So the key is “deep sleep knowingly.” Atmananda Krishna Menon says that this Direct Path approach is adopted from Aitareya Upanishad. 

Is deep sleep then the be all and end all?:

Mandukya Karika of Gaudapada and traditional advaitins follow a different logic.  They consider 'deep sleep' as one of the transitory states and an unbroken abidance in Consciousness (Brahman) is beyond the deep sleep state.

They point out that deep sleep is also time dependent and hence it is also a state like the dream and wakeful states.  Moreover, they maintain that we continue to non-apprehend Brahman in the deep sleep state.  In the wakeful and dream states we not only non-apprehend Brahman (i.e. do not realize what It Truly Is) but also mis-apprehend (i.e. understand It to be something other than what It really is).  Hence, only the component of taking Brahman to be something other than what It is truly stops during deep sleep but our inability to know the Truth (non-apprehension) continues.  The traditional advaita says that mind is not annihilated in deep sleep but remains dormant and it rises again when we wake up. Some others say that mind sees ‘darkness’ (= ignorance) in deep sleep and therefore, a perceiver continues to exist with ‘ignorance’ being the separate 'object' that is perceived.  Instead of various ‘objects’ veiling the truth as it happens during wakeful state, it is ‘ignorance’ that veils the Truth during deep sleep.  We may appreciate that there is no fundamental difference in these expressions and they say the same thing from different viewpoints about "veiling" the Truth.

Traditional Advaita says that the three states of awake, dream and deep sleep occur as passing phases over an ever existent unchanging background of Consciousness (Reality = Truth) and is called as Turiya. Advaita urges the seeker to understand this Turiya and meld into It his  imaginary "ego." To abide in Turiya unceasingly  is Liberation. If 'A' represents the wakeful state, 'U' represents dream state and 'M' represents deep sleep, the half tone following 'M' and the silence stand for the everlasting Turiya as depicted in Mandukya Upanishad. 

Greg Goode explains well these differences in a recent interview. 
I am quoting Greg below:
Atmananda Krishna Menon regarded deep sleep as a ‘key to the ultimate’ and said that if a student is ready and able to seriously contemplate and investigate deep sleep, then this alone is enough without the need of having to experience or to spend years cultivating Nirvikalpa Samadhi. 
Traditional Advaita Vedanta (of which the Tripura Rahasya is an expression) treats deep sleep as a very subtle covering, but a covering nonetheless. The direct path treats deep sleep as your nature - witnessing awareness with no objects.
These approaches differ, but there are reasons relating to the assumptions in the two sets of teachings.
Tripura Rahasya seeks to posit the mind as the site of awakening - traditional Advaita Vedanta speaks of the "akhanda akara vritti," which is said to be the mental modification that causes awakening. Awakening is definitely said to happen in the mind, being a modification of the mind. So the mind must be active for this to happen.
The direct path is different - awakening is spoken of inspirationally and rhetorically - but it is not seen as a true biographical event, especially one that requires explanation. An awakening event, like any event, would be a phenomenal event. But as such it is a mere appearance in awareness, so it can't be a real, functioning portal through which you transcend phenomenality. From the beginning there was no such need.

Rupert Spira (who also follows direct path approach) explained thus:
We can look at deep sleep from two points of view: 1) from the perspective of the waking state, that is, ‘on waking up,’ and 2) from the point of view of the experience itself.
From the perspective of the waking state, deep sleep appears as a vague memory of a blank nothingness, which apparently lasts for an undetermined period of time. This memory, like all memories, comes in the form of a thought, which, like all thoughts, irrespective of whether they are about the past, present or future, takes place in the ‘now.’
The ‘deep sleep,’ to which the ‘memorising-thought’ refers, is utterly non-existent at the time of the occurrence of the memorising thought. In other words, the only evidence, in the waking state, for the existence of an experience called ‘deep sleep’ comes in the form of a thought.
Thought first imagines deep sleep and, in order to conceive of it in its own language of apparent objectivity, it superimposes onto it the qualities of blankness and duration.
From the point of view of experience itself, which is the only valid point of view, what is known as deep sleep, is simply the presence of Consciousness without the appearance of mind (taking mind here to include all thinking, imagining, sensing and perceiving).
But from the point of view of experience, which means from the point of view of Consciousness, there is no experience of a dark, blank nothingness. Rather, there is only the ‘experience’ of itself, which means only the presence or being of itself. This is neither deep, dark, blank or asleep. It is dimensionless, present, luminous, alive and awake.
The three states of awake, dream and deep sleep could be likened to a film, a document and a screen-saver appearing on a computer screen. The differences are not for the screen, they are for the mind.
Consciousness ‘never’ ceases to be this ‘wide-awakeness.’ The term ‘deep sleep’ is a misinterpretation of the reality of experience from the ignorant point of view of thought, that is, from the point of view that ignores the reality of experience.
The ‘dream’ and ‘waking’ states are two other interpretations or names that the mind gives to the reality of Consciousness, when it (Consciousness or experience) is imagined through the limiting and distorting lens of thought.
When we watch television we say that we are seeing a ‘film,’ the ‘news’ or a ‘documentary.’ Each of these labels is only a different name for the same screen, just as the waking, dreaming and deep sleep states are different names that thought gives to the reality of Consciousness.
For the screen there is always only itself, just as for Consciousness there is only 'knowing-being' itself.
It takes something outside the screen, one who imagines they are not the screen, to see the ‘film,’ the ‘news’ and the ‘documentary,’ just as it takes an imaginary entity who has seemingly separated itself from the seamless totality of experience to apparently see something other than Consciousness.

A Model for Nirvana: (adopted from an article written by me in 2004 at

Body is the ensemble of all the organs and limbs.
Mind is the ensemble of all our thoughts, feelings, ideas, images, emotions, qualia etc.  
[Let us assume mind–body duality in building this model, though neuroscientifically it is not correct because mind is considered to be none other than what the brain does. Still this assumption of mind and body to be different entities does not invalidate the point to be made here by this model.  Please see the figure below.]

There are two entities viz. mind and body.  They can be either in alert or active state or in inert or restful state.  The two entities and the two states can give rise to only four outcomes by combination. 

The four outcomes are:

I – Wakeful State when both mind and body are present and active: 13 - 40 Hz Beta and Gamma waves of the brain in EEG, gives raise to what we call conscious state, interpreting the neural firings in conjunction with sensory inputs to give a meaning to our perception.

II – Dream State when the body is at rest and mind is active:  Dreams happens mostly in REM sleep, Brain as active as in wakeful state, but does not have the benefit of sensory inputs.  Memory reorganization takes place.

III – Deep Sleep when both mind and body are at rest: 0.3 – 3 Hz, Delta waves of the brain in EEG, Neural firing occurs in a few disconnected islands, synaptic activity is reduced, and also reduction in free radical generation. Hence a feeling of rest comes. Toxic material disposed.

IV – What is this possible fourth outcome when body is present and active but mind is not active or totally at rest? 

Does this fourth position also occur as easily as the other three without any special effort on our part?  In this outcome, when the mind and thoughts are absent, a sense of a distinct “individuating me-thought” will be absent and hence no ego will be there.  How does the body then function and what primes its activity? What is it that is present and guiding the body in its activity when the mind is not there?

                   Fig:  The Four Outcomes





[Note: For recent comments (July 2012) on expanding this model to include "sleepwalking" etc., please see:

Further a Series of 17 articles with the title, "The Enigma of Deep Sleep" were posted by me at the Advaita Academy between Nov 2013 to Nov 20154