Tibetan Dream Yoga & Sleep Yoga

Lucid dreaming may seem like a nifty little mind-trick to some, but the truth is that it is so much more than that. Lucidity is in fact one of the core tenets of Tibetan Dream Yoga and Sleep Yoga, as it is considered the only path to true enlightenment in day-to-day life, and the only way to break out of the circle of reincarnation, attaining a higher condition, after death.

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For religious people, lucidity is an essential component of everyday life. They do not just strive to develop the ability to trigger lucidity at will, their goal is to become lucid every single night, all through their lives. For a spiritual person like that, dream lucidity is the equivalent of being lucid in the “real” world, while awake, and the real world is not considered any more real than the dream one.

While lucidity is essential for living a spiritually fulfilling life, its ultimate goal is far beyond that, and indeed, for a layman, it may seem a little sinister: through it, devout Buddhists prepare for death.

This is a Dream...

When a person dies, he/she is thought to arrive to this intermediary state first, called “bardo.” This is where it is decided whether the person attains liberation, or whether he/she goes on to be reincarnated. The goal of every spiritually dedicated Buddhist is to be liberated.

This intermediate, bardo state is a lot like a lucid dream, and those who know how to handle themselves in such a situation, how to take control of certain aspects of their dreams, will obviously be able to navigate the intermediate state better as well.

There’s a lot more to Dream Yoga than that, but that is its essence in a nutshell. For a regular oneironaut, Dream Yoga has much more mundane and “practical” applications.

Attaining lucidity within a dream is just a first step towards exploring this fundamental yet utterly uncharted dimension of our existence. Lucid dreamers will tell you that there are different degrees of immersion within a LD, and that taking control and performing “cool things” such as flying and walking through walls requires mental skills and expertise. This is what Dream Yoga is meant to help with.

We humans are conditioned by our reality to hold such feats impossible to accomplish – even within a lucid dream. Through the practice of Dream Yoga, one will overcome this conditioning, and he/she will open up a whole world of new LD possibilities.

Tibetan Dream Yoga – Obstacles

To be able to practice Dream Yoga, one will have to overcome a number of obstacles. Fortunately, these obstacles are very well defined, and are thus relatively easy to deal with.

The obstacles I’m talking about are agitation, laxity and drowsiness. Agitation is quite possibly the biggest enemy of concentration. With your mind in an alert state, jumping from one thing to another, you will find it next to impossible to attain the state needed for lucidity.

While it is on the other end of the alertness-spectrum, laxity hinders concentration as well. Your mind might be calm while in this state, but it is weak and unwilling to put in the effort needed for proper focus.

If you ever tried to induce lucid dreaming, you probably know all too well how much of a problem drowsiness can be. You do not want to drift off to “proper” sleep (the sleep of ignorance in Buddhism), thus missing the lucidity train completely.

The Fundamental Practices of Tibetan Dream Yoga

According to Tibetan “theory,” the practice of Dream Yoga is based on four cornerstones. These “preparatory” factors cover everything Dream Yoga is about.

Before delving any deeper into this issue, please remember that Dream Yoga extends far beyond the realm of dreams. In fact, the way the mind is used during waking life carries just as great an importance from its point of view.

Changing the karmic traces

This state of affairs makes perfect sense indeed: if you manage to alter the way you relate to life in general during your waking life, you alter your dream experience as well.

Dream Yoga views your waking life as a sort of dream too, therefore do not be surprised if hear/read about the “dream of waking life” and the “dream of sleeping life.”

This sort of duality is extremely important from the raw perspective of lucid dream induction. The recommended “reality checks” during the day are among the most important lucidity triggers. By recognizing your waking life for what it really is: a dream, you will develop the skills needed to accomplish the same within an actual dream.

This process is known as the changing of the karmic traces in Dream Yoga, which is indeed the source of the whole concept. Karma is the ingredient which builds up the present from bits and pieces of the past, and seeing waking life as a dream effectively built up and guided by karma, is a highly logical conclusion.

Seeing yourself as nothing but a figment of a dream, an entity without substance, can be surprisingly easy. Remember, to practice the changing of your karmic traces, you should not just repeat that you are in a dream and that nothing about you or the world surrounding you carries any significant substance: it is much more important to actually feel it all.

The power of this approach should not be underestimated in regards to lucid dreaming. Those successful at this practice will achieve lucidity in real life as well as in the dream life.

While hands-down benefic when it comes to the attainment of lucidity, this core tenet of Dream Yoga carries certain dangers too. It is extremely important that – while practicing during waking life – you respect the limits set by logic and physics. Also, respect your responsibilities. You may be a top-notch Dream Yoga practitioner, but that will not absolve you from paying the bills and dealing with other similarly mundane – and possibly unpleasant – aspects of reality.

Overcoming Grasping and Aversion

The second cornerstone of Dream Yoga is about grasping and aversion – more precisely about its removal from your life.

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Grasping and aversion is in essence a depiction of the duality existent in most people’s lives. People usually cram their lives into a rigid box, defined by their preferences and aversions. We all tend to relate to everything we encounter as “good” or “bad.” We either like things and people or we don’t. In a larger, philosophical sense, good and bad do not exist and the duality they define is the hallmark of an inferior way to perceive life.

By practicing this tenet, one will effectively distance him/herself from all emotion. When you feel anger or joy over something, be aware that it is but a reaction of your grasping mind to impose its own comfort-focused limits on you. Tell yourself your anger is nothing but a dream, and as such, it entails no real substance. Indeed, your emotional states are created by your own mind, and its filter of sensations, bodily states, thoughts and karmic traces.

Whenever you encounter a situation that elicits a certain type of emotional response in you, look right past it. Do not just label it as enjoyable or disappointing/worrying.

What is the practical purpose of this practice though?

It will eliminate the tangled-up hurdle of negative emotions which hinder you in accomplishing lucidity. In waking life, you’ll be able to use this method to release depression, anger and unhappiness. You will find that once released, these emotions shall dissolve like the bad dreams they truly are.

As such, the potential usefulness of this Dream Yoga element should not be underestimated. It may present you with quite unexpected benefits in entirely unexpected areas of your life.

The teachings of this Dream Yoga practice may indeed extend to issues such as addiction, since they provide a viable path to giving up all attachments. Simply suppressing desires will not work and is an unhealthy approach. Releasing them and then watching them dissolve does not work against spiritual development and it brings about true freedom.

Dream Yoga reorganizes perception and it alters the view and thus, it exposes desires and addiction for what they really are: illusions within a dream.

Strengthening of intention

The strengthening of the intention is the third cornerstone of Dream Yoga.

If you ever tried inducing lucid dreaming before, you know exactly what this is about. The gist of it is to really make a sort of promise that you will recognize the upcoming night’s dreams for the dreams that they are. You are in essence making up your mind that you will become lucid during your dreams.

As a Dream Yoga practice, the strengthening of the intention is about more though.

Upon going to bed, try to evoke your day’s memories. These memories are not just dream-like, they are indeed dreams at this point. Focus on this dream-like nature of your memories. They are the most likely to pop up in your dreams, and if you practice recognizing them as dreams, you’ll have an easier time actually recognizing them as such during your dreams.

Reviewing the night

The fourth cornerstone of Dream Yoga is about remembering your dreams and cultivating joyful effort.

This practice is a post-wake-up one, which requires practitioners to remain in bed after waking up and to try to recall their previous night’s dreams.

If you recall a dream during which you failed to achieve lucidity, tell yourself that it was indeed a dream and promise that next time you will indeed recognize it as such.

Intention-strengthening has a place in this practice as well. Set it as your strong intention to keep up the practice throughout the day. This latter part of the practice morphs into the practice-segment focused on the altering of the karmic traces, thus making the circle full.

Sleep Yoga

In addition to practices aimed at bringing about lucidity, Tibetan Yoga provides ways of relieving stress and tension before bedtime. Primarily aimed at improving the quality of sleep, Sleep Yoga can deliver a bevy of other benefits. The ultimate goal of Sleep Yoga though is to maintain awareness even in the deepest stages of sleep.

Setting up the right kind of sleep environment is essential, and Sleep Yoga recommends the use of a candle or small, dim light, to stimulate awareness. The light also has special, divine significance, representing the dakini.

Other than that, the preliminary sleep yoga practices are similar to the ones I’ve already discussed in other articles on this site. Relaxing, taking refuge in the dakini emanating from the above mentioned light and generally having positive/good thoughts is the way to go.

Sometimes, more radical preliminary practices may be applied, though these are mostly not for the public at large. One such practice is going without sleep for several nights in a row. The length of such a preliminary cycle can extend to as many as 5 nights – obviously not really a practical approach for the rank-and-file oneironaut.

As the dreamer goes to sleep after the said period of sleep-deprivation, he/she is awakened periodically and asked about lucidity/dreams. The logic behind this practice is to exhaust the conventional mind, thus staving off the “sleep of ignorance.”

Types of Sleep

In the Buddhist Dream & Sleep Yoga tradition, three sleep stages are discussed:

  • Sleep of Ignorance – collapsing to a dark sleep in total exhaustion and total lack of awareness when we’re very tired. No dream recall. Equivalent to normal non-REM sleep.
  • Samsaric Sleep – dreams which occur due to daytime experiences, especially emotions. Equivalent to REM sleep.
  • Clear Light Sleep – this is the ultimate goal of Sleep (and Dream) Yoga practice. Clear means empty; Light means awareness. It is a state of consciousness in which one is deeply asleep yet fully aware. Not aware of anything in particular; one simply rests in a meditative state of pure awareness. Not even the sense of I remains.

Sleep Yoga is the process of transforming Sleep of Ignorance to Clear Light Sleep, while Dream Yoga attempts to reach Clear Light Sleep through Samsaric Sleep.

In Western Sleep Medicine, normal sleep is regarded as cycles of REM and non-REM sleep stages. However, this Tibetan ancient tradition reveals that both are pathological. When we are fully healthy, we need neither sleep nor dreaming…

Conclusion: Tibetan Dream Yoga

To some of you out there, lucid dreaming may seem like a novelty and a phenomenon for modern science to figure out. As you can see though, its science has been figured out and it is by no means something new. Its significance in Buddhism is immense and its practice is a lifelong quest for students of the religion.

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