In essence, this is a simple way of analysing our experience of the world. But it uncovers confusions in our understanding, and it is those confusions which make us discuss it in our complicated ways.
In what we call the 'waking state', we think of our bodies as 'awake'. We think that they are awake to an outside world, which is made up of objects. Our bodies perceive these objects, in various different parts of space. So we think that these objects co-exist in space; and we describe the world as a composite structure, in which these differing objects are related together.
But how is it that we describe the world? We describe it in the course of time. And there is an essential difference between space and time. Space is made up of co-existing points. The different points of space can exist together, in relation to each other, at the same moment of time. But time is made up in quite a different way, of moments that pass by.
As time is experienced by each one of us, moments do not co-exist. Two different moments are never present together. When any moment occurs, other moments are not there. Previous moments are now absent; future moments have not yet occurred. As each moment occurs, it replaces previous moments; and it is in turn replaced, in the stream of passing time.
As time goes by in mind, it is experienced as a stream of perceptions, thoughts and feelings that keep on passing by. At each passing moment, some perception, thought or feeling appears, taking part in a process of conception that displays a changing world to each one of us.
In what we call the 'dream state', we experience this conceiving process in our minds. And here, by using the word 'dream', we imply that the world conceived does not exist outside the mind. A mind that's caught in dreams has only an inside.
When the world is thought known by a body, in the waking state, we often speak of a world outside the body and the mind. And that outside world is thought different from the mind inside.
But this difference does not apply to the dream state. A dreaming mind has only an inside. Its dreamt-up world is not outside its own internal process of conception. The dreaming mind has only an inside, with no outside, despite the world it dreams about.
But how can there be an inside, if there is no outside to contrast it with? What sense can we make of our conceiving minds and their capacity for dreaming within themselves?
These are delicate questions. To examine them properly, we have to look at our minds from their own point of view. We have to leave behind the co-existing objects and the structured space of the waking state; as we consider our minds as they are in themselves, in their own replacing process of conception.
In that replacing process, time alone is present. There are no co-existing objects, in the structured space of an external world. There is only a process of conception, made up of passing moments that can never co-exist. But then, how can one moment be related to another? How can one passing moment be contrasted and compared to another, so as to know that change has taken place?
As time passes in the mind, something must continue through the change, so as to know the different moments that occur. There must be a knowing something which stays present in our minds, while perceptions, thoughts and feelings come and go.
That knowing something is called 'consciousness'. It is a knowing principle that's somehow shared in common, by the differing perceptions, thoughts and feelings we experience in our minds. As we experience change, consciousness is that which knows.
But what is the 'knowing' of that consciousness, as it stays present through the changes in our minds? That knowing is no changing action, of body, sense or mind. For all such bodily and sensual and mental actions change, from one moment to the next.
In fact, no bodily or sensual or mental acts can ever know anything themselves. They can only function to produce their bodily and sensual and mental appearances, which are all known by consciousness. In this sense, consciousness is a subjective or knowing light, by which all appearances are lit, through all our differing and changing experiences.
That consciousness illuminates itself. Its knowing is no changing act, but its own being in itself. Its very being is to shine, without the need for any physical or sensual or mental appearances.
In the waking state, consciousness seems mixed, with physical and sensual and mental appearances. In the dream state, exactly the same consciousness seems mixed with mental appearances alone. But then, is there a state where consciousness shines purely by itself, so that we may discern its unchanging light from all the changing show that it illuminates?
Yes, there is such a state, where consciousness is found all alone. This state is called 'deep sleep', but it is highly paradoxical.
The trouble comes from our habitual way of looking at deep sleep. As a matter of ingrained habit, we see deep sleep from the viewpoint of the waking or the dream states. Then it appears that deep sleep is an 'unconscious' state, where consciousness is absent or has disappeared.
But in this habitual view of deep sleep, we utterly confuse what's really meant by the word 'consciousness'. The word refers to just that knowing principle which is shared in common by all states of experience. It is the one principle which is always present in all states. No matter what may disappear, the disappearance must be lit by consciousness. So consciousness stays present there, through all appearances and disappearances. The words 'appear' and 'disappear' do not apply to it.
What we experience in deep sleep is that all waking and dream appearances have disappeared. The waking body and its differentiated objects have all disappeared. So have the dreaming mind and all its changing perceptions, thoughts and feelings. All space and time, all world outside and mind inside have disappeared. There is no physical or sensual or mental content in deep sleep. There is no space, no time, no difference, no change, no outside, no inside.
There's only consciousness itself: completely unperceived, unthought, unfelt, beyond all space and time, beyond all difference and change, beyond all outside and inside. The content of deep sleep is only consciousness, shining on its own.
When the experience of deep sleep is thus examined in itself, it gives up its appearance as a changing state. It thereby points beyond this appearance, to an unchanging background of consciousness, which is common to all states.
In the mANDUkya Upanishad, that background is called chaturtha or the 'fourth'. The waking state is called jAgarita-sthAna; the dream state is called svapna-sthAna; and the deep sleep state is called suShupta-sthAna. The word sthAna or 'state' is applied specifically to the three states. The changeless background is called simply chaturtha or the 'fourth'. The word sthAna or 'state' is not applied to it. This, I would say, is the Advaita view, specifically described as such in the mANDUkya Upanishad.
For those who practice yoga, the state of nirvikalpa samAdhi is sometimes called turIya, which also means the 'fourth'. But this, I would say, is a yogic description, explicitly describing turIya as a fourth state. This yogic description is quite different from the mANDUkya description of chaturtha as a changeless background, beyond all states that come and go. A great deal of confusion is caused by indiscriminately mixing up these two different descriptions.
In the 'waking' state, a body is assumed to know a world of structured space. This 'waking' body has an inside and an outside.
In the 'dream' state, a mind is thought to undergo a changing process of conception, in the course of passing time. This 'dreaming' mind has an inside, but no outside.
In the 'deep sleep' state, all 'waking' and 'dream' appearances have disappeared. The content of deep sleep is just consciousness, which is shared in common by all changing states. That consciousness is always present, throughout all experience. It does not appear or disappear. It has no inside, no outside.
Thus, 'deep sleep' points to a changeless background of true knowing, which continues through all states that come and go. That background is sometimes described as the 'fourth', beyond the three states of 'waking', 'dream' and 'deep sleep'.
Warning: the above description is made only from one particular point of view. There are, of course, many other points of view, which will not quite agree with it.
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