Many years ago, Science magazine declared that one of the most important and unanswered questions in science is What is the universe made of? Today, we still don't know the answer.
Part of the problem is that we, as human beings, are part of the very universe we are trying to understand. Therefore, it goes without saying that if we don't understand our own nature, we are likely to misunderstand the nature of the universe.
To fully understand ourselves, we must look at the entire breadth of our life experiences. Usually, this doesn't happen. Most of our analysis happens from one state of mind--the waking state, which we are in right now. All that we know about perception and reasoning, we know based on our waking experience. Since we don't conduct scientific experiments in our sleep or in our dreams, those two crucial states of human experience don't contribute much to our understanding of the universe.
The dream and deep sleep states have something important to teach us. If we want to know the nature of the universe and our own nature, we have to consider all the data we have access to, not just the data we accrue while having a waking experience.
The dream state
Within a dream, we assume an identity, operate in an environment, and are subject to apparent cause and effect. The content of the dream appears to be made of matter. You and I, as characters in that dream, cycle through successes and failures, ups and downs. What is the nature of that dream world and what can it tell us about the universe?
A close analysis of the dream state tells us that what we consider to be matter within a dream is nothing but mind on waking up from the dream. What we consider to be an enemy in our dream is nothing but our own nature as the mind. You, as the mind, become both the hero and the villain in the dream, not to mention the battlefield itself. Within the dream, such insights are not revealed. One has to become wise to the dream’s nature to see them. The implications of this on our current experience in the waking state can be startling.
But even an analysis of the dream state is not enough. What about that great mystery we call the deep sleep state? The mystery that both scientists and sages wonder about? What secrets might it whisper about the nature of the universe and ourselves?
The mystery of deep sleep
Deep sleep is a unique state of experience. It is the experience of no thing. In deep sleep, the individual mind withdraws all its activities and returns to its dormant form, just as a turtle withdraws from activity by pulling its limbs into its shell. In its dormant form, the mind no longer projects any experience. It rests in undifferentiated potentiality, replenishing itself for the next outing, whether that be as an episode of the dream state or an episode of the waking state. When the mind wakes up, it recognizes it is replenished and is able to say "I slept well."
When I sleep, the world disappears to me, but is still present to you. My mind does not project since it is dormant, while yours still projects. On the other hand, when you sleep, your mind stops projecting its interpretation of the world, while my mind continues interpreting a world.
As long as we are in deep sleep, we are in a state of indeterminate identity. I can't say I am Anoop while I'm asleep. Anoop is a costume I don only upon waking up. In fact, the very notion of a particular, localized, personal "I" is lost in deep sleep. The reason identity is indeterminate in deep sleep is because not only does the mind not project the personal identity "Anoop", its dormant state also veils the underlying consciousness that is present. It is this underlying consciousness that replenishes the mind when it sleeps.
This is key to recognize: The mind sleeps. The mind dreams. The mind wakes up in the morning. You are the underlying consciousness that illumines these states. In the previous sentence, "You" does not refer to a personal you. It is not the individual you, nor the individual me. It is the non-dual itself, beyond individual, world, and mind. That non-dual "You" assumes the identity of an individual in the waking and dream states. And it un-assumes it in deep sleep.
When you sleep and I sleep, we go to the exact same "place." It's not a physical location of course. You may go to sleep in France and I may go to sleep in the United States, but when we sleep, we leave the mental projection of a physical world and go to exactly the same "place"--the non-projected domain of non-dual consciousness. It's just that we typically don't know it because the dormant mind's habit of projection veils the underlying consciousness even though it is not actively projecting when we sleep.
When the habit of mental projection is recognized by the even subtler mind, the tendency to get lost in the projection diminishes. As this happens, the veil of the mind thins, and it no longer hides the underlying consciousness that is ever-present in waking, dreaming, and sleeping. When the veil reaches a threshold of becoming sufficiently thin, what was previous known as deep sleep simply turns into deep rest.
Thereafter, there is only projection and non-projection. Projection includes the waking and dreaming (and daydreaming) states happening during deep rest, whereas non-projection is deep rest without projection. Sleep as it was once known is converted into timeless rest, beyond states of mind. In other words, sleep is only sleep so long as the dormant mind veils consciousness. When it no longer veils consciousness, sleep becomes timeless deep rest.
All three of these states—waking, dream, and deep sleep—must be understood to know the nature of reality, the nature of the universe, and the nature of ourselves, because each has its own unique vantage point on the sense of identity and the experience of what the world is.
How do we get there?
Sink into the silence of meditation. (If you’re not sure how to start, start here.) Release any judgement from the mind. Allow it to exhaust itself. As you sink deeper, know that the silence that becomes you is connected to the silence that swallows the mind in deep sleep. This may not be apparent at first, but with practice, the mind will let go of its misconceptions.
There is no new knowledge to gain. There are only misconceptions to release.
Ultimately, there is no fundamental difference between waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. All three involve the appearance and disappearance of experiences, like waves in an ocean. Knowing this is possible when one recognizes oneself as the ocean instead of a particular wave. The ocean represents reality, the nature of the universe, and our own essential nature. They are one and the same.
We are consciousness itself, which appears in part as waking, dream, and deep sleep states. The universe too is no-thing other than this consciousness--our very own nature--appearing as mind and matter.
Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership from McGill University. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of the book Michelangelo’s Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. Follow him @DrAnoopKumar.