Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  The Yogas of Sleeping and Rising according to Sutra

(5.96) To sleep, I should lie in the appropriate position –
Just as Protector Buddha lay when he entered paranirvana –
And before falling asleep, with alertness,
Make a definite decision to rise quickly.

I tend to think of sleep as nourishment for the subtle mind.  We all know our body needs nourishment to remain healthy.  If we have been meditating for some time, we also realize that our gross mind also needs a healthy diet of virtue to maintain its vitality.  In the same way, sleep is how we nourish our subtle mind.  When we fall asleep, our gross winds and minds dissolve and our subtle mind becomes manifest.  Sometimes we have awareness of this, remembering our dream, but most of the time we have little to no memory of what happened while we slept.  Unless we are an accomplished completion stage meditator, the only time our gross winds and minds dissolve in this way is when we sleep (or when we die).

If we fail to get adequate sleep, everything quickly unravels.  We become more irritable and our body is more likely to become sick.  Why is this?  Because our gross minds arise out of our subtle mind, and our body arises out of our gross minds.  If our subtle body is not given a chance to rejuvenate itself, the gross minds and gross body which emerge will likewise reflect the underlying imbalance within our subtle mind.  So the first and most important thing to know about sleep is we need to get enough of it!  For most people, this will be between 6-9 hours of sleep, with most people being fully functional with an average of 7-8 hours of sleep.  We all know the stories of the great yogis who can get by with little or not sleep, but then again we are not great yogis so that is certainly no reason for us to not making getting adequate sleep a priority.  But we shouldn’t go to the other extreme and get too much sleep, because then we become groggy and lethargic.

When we go to sleep, we are advised to sleep on our right side, with our right hand underneath our pillow under our head.  Our left hand should be resting comfortably along the side of our body.  Our legs are generally together, but it is normal to have some slight displacement so the knees and ankles aren’t hurting one another.  There are many reasons for falling asleep this way.  First, it is a stable position that doesn’t strain any part of our body.  Second, the acids in our stomach will stay there since the opening of our stomach to our esophagus will be facing up.  Third, our inner winds circulate much easier compared to having our face buried in our pillow or snoring like a mad man on our back.  Fourth, sleeping in this way is conducive to better mindfulness both as we fall asleep and during sleep itself, enabling us to better bring our practices into our sleep.

Before we fall asleep, we should do two things.  First, we should resolve to get up when it is time to wake up.  For those who have to work, this seems an obvious necessity but the point is much deeper.  When we normally wake up, our only desire is usually to go back to bed.  Once we start giving into this tendency, it quickly becomes a habit.  Then, to avoid being late for work, we need to set the alarm even earlier.  But this means we are getting less quality sleep.  Additionally, wanting to fall back asleep when it is time to wake up quite simple makes us suffer more.  Our suffering, quite simply, comes from not accepting reality as it is.  The reality is it is time to wake up.  Not wanting to wake up doesn’t change that fact, it just makes us suffer more when we have to force ourselves out of bed.  If instead, we resolve the night before, that we will quickly rise we blast through this daily pain and get to the other side of it.  We might even become one of those people who doesn’t need to become addicted to coffee to get up in the morning.  Finally, there is a close relationship between disciplining ourselves to come out of the sleep minds and maintaining good concentration during meditation.  When we meditate, our mind naturally becomes more subtle.  Normally, the only time our subtle minds become manifest is when we sleep, which is why we are so prone to falling asleep while meditating.  If we develop the strength of mind to arise from the mind of sleep every morning, then we will have greater ability to do so while we are meditating.

The second thing we need to do as we fall asleep is choose to mix our mind with some object of virtue.  The reason for this is both simple and instructive.  The last mind we have as we fall asleep determines the general trajectory of the minds we will have as we sleep and dream.  If we fall asleep with an agitated mind, our sleep will be fitful and our dreams troubled.  If we fall asleep with a calm and peaceful mind, we will sleep well and our dreams will generally be pleasant.  Tantric practitioners are taught to fall asleep in the lap of their guru, or as the self-generation or even while remaining absorbed in clear light emptiness.  We can also fall asleep meditating on love, compassion, or even mounting taking and giving upon the breath.  We can fall asleep believing that we are going to die in the night and generate a strong wish to wake up in the pure land so that we may complete our training.

Most of all, I would say we should try fall asleep with a mind of faith, strongly believing you are in the living presence of your guru.  In all the great religions, it is said if we remember holy beings at the time of our death with a mind of faith, they will bless our minds taking us to a fortunate rebirth.  Faith is a naturally virtuous mind, and wherever faith meets a good heart, blessings spontaneously flow.  All of our Dharma training has, in the final analysis, one purpose:  preparing our mind for the time of death.  If we practice training how to die every night, when the actual time of our death comes we will know what to do.  Because we have spent every night for the last 20, 30, or even 60 years with our holy Spiritual Guide, we will have a very close and personal relationship with him and it is certain we will feel his presence when we need it most at the time of death.

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