Thursday, July 06, 2006

Witnessing During Sleep

Big Yawn
Originally uploaded by orinborg.
In contrast to Buddhist striving for non-attachment, Maharishi insisted that we not consciously try to negate desire or feel detached from activity. The witnessing that occurs in Cosmic Consciousness is maintained far beyond any conscious attempt, or mood-making, as he called it. In fact, witnessing is maintained even during sleep. And Maharishi suggested that witnessing during sleep actually made for a better test of ones state of consciousness, than reports of witnessing during daily activity.

In practice, witnessing during sleep can be a rather strange experience. During my days of heightened awareness, I’d go to bed and wait for sleep to come. I’d wait for that feeling of “being awake” to wane - and it never would. Finally, I’d roll over, adjust the pillow and think, “Won’t I ever go to sleep!”

Then, in retrospect, I would realize that for some time I had not had a single thought. Nor, in retrospect, could I recall hearing any outside noise. Only then would I realize that I had been sound asleep. It just didn’t feel like it since I had been suspended in Wakefulness itself. No thought, no sound from external world. I had been experiencing Pure Consciousness, the transcendent foundation for all thinking during the “unconsciousness” of deep sleep.

In 1997, researchers published what to me is a remarkable study in the journal Sleep (20: 102-110.) They took eleven long-term meditators who reported witnessing during sleep and recorded their EEGs. Previous studies of people practicing TM had shown that the subjective experience of transcending (Transcendental Consciousness) correlated with an increased theta-alpha EEG pattern. Now, in the meditators that reported witnessing during sleep, scientists found this same EEG pattern coexisting with the delta wave activity of deep sleep. The EEG showed that the theta-alpha pattern was being maintained in non-REM stage 3 and 4 deep sleep. This unique EEG pattern was seen in the witnessing meditators, but was absent from two control groups of short-term meditators and non-meditators.

Clearly, witnessing can arise in the absence of epilepsy and psychological disturbance, despite having qualities related to classic depersonalization. The scientists researching TM now argue that witnessing can be related to states of consciousness with distinctive neuro-physiology, namely Transcendental Consciousness, and the first stage of enlightenment, Cosmic Consciousness.

This is interesting to me because different paths cultivate very different experiences. Understanding witnessing physiologically may be a first step towards being able to objectively define a “higher” state, or states, of consciousness.


Colin said...

Thanks for posting this, it is refreshing to read the personal account along with informed references to scientific research.

I had very clear experiences of witnessing during sleep while I lived and worked in a TM community, more of a retreat lifestyle really.

The first time I noticed it happening there was a realisation "oh... here is my body sleeping, and here am I aware of that" it felt blissful, a calm and deeply satisfying, 'no thoughts' kind of awareness.

This happened about 20 years ago, not every night but now and then I would notice the witnessing enough to recall it next morning. This went on for a sustained period over several months. I don't think it happens now, or maybe it is so familiar that I no longer 'notice' it as I did when it was something completely novel.

I wonder how you would describe this process of growing accustomed to witnessing sleep. Is it still a vivid experience for you after years? does it come and go?

Pat Bralley said...

Hi Colin,
Witnessing in sleep is kind of a mystery to me as my experience of it through the years is very much like your own. AND, I don't know what it's "supposed" to be. Ha! Which is one reason for sharing in this blog. Why not just see what long time meditators - Western, householders experience.
I think in a way there is some getting use to it so there's not sure a contrast as when it first happens. It's almost like witnessing can give you better understanding of pure awareness than sitting in meditation. And that seeing can be stunning.... and then it becomes more the norm. And yes, it does seem to come and go. :) Not that that's the right answer - it's just how my body does it.
Also (not to confuse the issue) but to say "I would notice witnessing enough to recall it" sounds to me more like lucid dreaming. It sounds like you were able to think about the witnessing while sound asleep. I never would express it that way. To say I witnessed deep sleep means upon awakening, I look back and notice "wow!" There would however be no I there, either during deep sleep or how I would articulate the memory upon awakening. Same thing holds for "here is my body sleeping." There is an I noticing that. And that seems more like how I understand lucid dreaming. I don't know if the lucid folks speak of lucid deep sleep. Hope this helps and doesn't just add to confusion. I think the important point is that some familiarity with the pure consciousness is gained.

Colin said...

Pat, thanks for a prompt reply, I wanted to think it over a bit before continuing, I am wanting to understand exactly what is meant by witnessing sleep, because I have heard that once established the experience would be on-going. So maybe I simply had a foretaste, as one might have a foretaste of unity consciousness before getting established in that state.

Since the experiences I described happened years ago my only clear memory of it is that it was blissful, and the sleep was deeply refreshing. As I said it was only the first time that I had some 'realisation' i.e. a recognition that this is new. every time after this I would simply be aware of sleeping.

I understand lucid dreaming to mean a dream like scene where I am conscious of being able to steer the dream any way I wish just as a writer makes up a story.

Perhaps it is not fruitful to dwell too much upon whether an experience is this or that, or clear or not. I seem to recall student Sidhas are discouraged from keeping a diary or intellectualising too much about experiences. However I cannot help wanting to understand, I am not content with foggy notions and wishful thinking. MMY after all would go to great lengths to explain in detail what might seem like a simple point, so we could appreciate the exact nature of consciousness.

Shall we peruse the matter further?

Pat Bralley said...

Hi Colin,
Until the mind is clear about what an experience means, I find there’s always some degree of agitation and confusion. So, if an explanation can be found – good! On the other hand, enlightenment isn’t about the mind understanding something. So even here it gets rather circular and confusing, doesn’t it?

It sounds to me like you’ve witnessed during sleep and that you’re clear on that. There is an interview on Buddha at the Gas Pump with Pamela Wilson. In it Rick Archer (an old TM teacher) asks about witnessing during sleep. Pamela’s response is that some awakened people notice it, others don’t. It all depends. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi set it as a criterion for deciding if one was in Cosmic Consciousness because one’s experience during the day could be misinterpreted by “wishful thinking.” So, MMY established a criterion beyond that muddle – but apparently, it’s not beyond all muddles we can make! So, maybe your real question pertains to being in CC? The mind would want to know that too.

Is any of this a fruitful line of inquiry? If it quiets the mind, yes. If it leads to deeper experience here and now – even better! So, kind of tracking this discussion into related topics I’ll mention yoga nidra. I’ve never practiced it but plan to try Richard Miller’s version soon. Here’s a Wikipedia definition that I find interesting:
Yoga nidra or "yogi sleep" is a sleep-like state which yogis report to experience during their meditations. Yoga Nidra, lucid sleeping is among the deepest possible states of relaxation while still maintaining full consciousness and is called Lucid Sleep in west. Lucid dream is the western term used to denote a practice that is much less powerful than Yoga nidra. The distinguishing difference is the degree to which you remain cognizant of your actual physical environment as opposed to a dream environment. In lucid dreaming, we are only (or mainly) cognizant of the dream environment, and have little or no cognizance of our actual environment.

“Actual environment” here means pure consciousness, I think. Gary Weber, who I respect as a fairly awake fellow, gives this synopsis. I like his presentation of layers and how we need to work with each:

Hopefully, this helps,