Ever since I was a child, dreams have fascinated me. Where did they come from? Good ones were marvelous. And flying! I had to slowly learn to fly over many dreams as a kid. First running and jumping, somehow slowing down the float back to earth. Then creating a little airplane around me – I remember it was red – that would go further. Finally learning that there was a certain thing I could do with my mind and I would just float up! And the puzzlement and disappointment after waking when I would stand in the middle of my bedroom and try to create that special levitation attitude – and it just wouldn’t work here! And trying to figure out, was it a valid mental action that just didn’t work on this level of reality, or couldn’t I recall the mental attitude just right?
I’ve been too busy the last few decades to pay much attention to my dreams, so long time no fly. But I frequently slip into little dreams, dreamlets I call them, while practicing various kinds of meditation. There I am, trying to do some meditative practice, such as following the flow of the most prominent sensations in my body moment-by-moment, but then there’s this intriguing flow of light and dark, muted colors, dimly perceived shapes inside my mind – my eyes are usually closed – my body sensations have faded. Maybe I’ll come back to body sensation after a few seconds of this vague, amorphous light show, but often the forms get much more vivid and, without really being aware of the transition, I’m having a dreamlet. For a few seconds to a few minutes, I’m in a visual world, things are happening, characters are talking, I’m doing things, then suddenly I’m back in my body, realizing I’ve lost it, forgotten the meditation technique I was trying to do. At that point I can feel guilty that I’m bad and a failure, or just get back to the meditation technique.
Some years ago I was on a meditation retreat led by Shinzen Young in Arizona, complaining to him about my sleepiness in meditation, when he suggested that it might be interesting to reframe my experience. Instead of “I’m failing,” how about “I’m exploring the bhavanga.” The bhavanga? I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded a lot better than failure!
Shinzen explained, and I’ve since done a little scholarly research on it, that bhavanga is a Sanskrit term. A typical definition is found at http://www.wisdomlib.org/definition/bhavanga/index.html :
Sometimes rendered life stream. In Theravada Buddhism, this is the underlying stratum of existence that is used to explain memory and other temporal phenomena such as moral accountability. It is described by Buddhaghosa and others as the natural condition of mind, bright and shining and free from impurity. Note that it is regarded as a conditioned phenomenon, not as a soul in the sense of Western religion. (The Sarvastivadin/Mahayana treatment of bhavanga is different.) See also alaya vijnana.
I don’t know whether Shinzen intended for me to get so fascinated by it, it may be a side trip on the way to liberation, but I have gotten better and better at observing it during formal meditation. It’s hard to remember specifics of it if you come back to full consciousness, I think the mind is designed to not bother to put this into long-term memory, but I find Shinzen’s idea that by bringing more “light of consciousness” to the depths of the mind, it gradually makes you more conscious, less blocked.
It’s as if below the surface of my conscious mind (and perhaps for everyone) there is a continuous process generating visual “thinking” possibilities. Sometimes they rise to consciousness, as in a nocturnal dream or flashes of hypnagogic imagery, my dreamlets, but almost all of it is not consciously noticed. I suspect it is doing a lot of background shaping of conscious experience, though.
In this brief article, I want to share a simple and practical technique for observing the bhavanga, for hovering on the threshold of the dream world. Hovering, being in a balanced state, is the key thing here. If you don’t “slip down” toward the state, visual imagery is hard to observe, but if you “slip” too far down you get lost in the dreamlet and may simply go into prolonged sleep. I sometimes picture it as the Valley of the Bhavanga or the Valley of Hypnagogia. If you’re back from the rim you can’t see down into it at all, but if you climb down to far the walls get steeper and you’re too liable to slip all the way down into sleep…..
The figure below, drawn for me courtesy of Diane Meyer, gives you the basics. Lie down comfortably on your back, eyes closed. A quiet, fairly dark room helps. You can let all of your body relax except for one forearm, which is held vertically upright, resting on its elbow. You’ll quickly find tactile vertical as the position in which it takes almost no effort to keep your arm balanced there. The hand can also be kept balanced vertically too, but sometimes I find it easiest to just let my hand fall to some relaxed position. It’s the forearm position that matters.
Now you just calmly observe your mind as you continue to relax. If your forearm starts to tilt to the side, gently bring it back to vertical, to the minimal effort position. As you slide toward sleep, the imagery of the bhavanga, from vague, amorphous shapes and colors to full dreamlets, will manifest.
The skill you eventually learn is to keep a little attention on the forearm, such as by lightly checking on it every few seconds, and when it starts to tilt – this happens as you start sliding too far down into the bhavanga – gently make it balanced again. You now have a biofeedback device, your forearm, that enables you to hover on the threshold, far enough into the bhavanga or hypnagogic state to observe a lot, but which gives you gentle feedback if you sleep too far into the falling asleep zone, and which gives you even stronger feedback – the arm falling and hitting the bed – if you go all the way.
I came across this technique while still a teenager, reading old journals on psychical research and parapsychology. I can’t find the exact reference, my journals don’t go back that far, but I think it was a little article titled something like the “Four-eyes Technique” in an issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in the early 1900s. The author had figured this balancing technique out and was using it because he thought it would help ESP messages get through when they couldn’t penetrate the everyday noise of his conscious mind. The four eyes referred to success in a telepathy experiment, if I recall correctly from that long ago, when he got an image of someone wearing glasses, which was the target being sent. I can remember “four eyes” being a slang term for people wearing glasses when I was a child.
At any rate, it’s a practical way for exploring the bhavanga. I tend to especially use it on long meditation retreats when I’m very tired and just don’t feel like sitting up in the zendo in a formal meditation posture. This way I go back to my room, lie comfortably on my bed, “activate my biofeedback instrument,” and bring some consciousness to the depths while my body gets some physical rest. And if I’m very tired, of course, forget the forearm, I take a brief nap…… 😉