The following is a conversation between Nisargadatta and a questioner, about sleep, dreaming, consciousness and awareness.
Q: Coming back to sleep. Do you dream?
M: Of course.
Q: What are your dreams?
M: Echoes of the waking state.
Q: And your deep sleep?
M: The brain consciousness is suspended.
Q: Are you then unconscious?
M: Unconscious of my surroundings — yes.
Q: Not quite unconscious?
M: I remain aware that I am unconscious.
Q: You use the words ‘aware’ and ‘conscious’. Are they not the same?
M: Awareness is primordial; it is the original state, beginningless, endless, uncaused, unsupported, without parts, without change. Consciousness is on contact, a reflection against a surface, a state of duality. There can be no consciousness without awareness, but there can be awareness without consciousness, as in deep sleep. Awareness is absolute, consciousness is relative to its content; consciousness is always of something. Consciousness is partial and changeful, awareness is total, changeless, calm and silent. And it is the common matrix of every experience.
I find this suggestion of awareness during sleep absolutely fascinating.
It is common in dreams for me to have the sense of being “me,” even though I may be in bizarre situations or doing very strange things. There is the sense of a world being experienced, and there is also a sense of emotional arousal in dreams. “I” can be afraid, or feel anger, or even love. The person is very much present, albeit in an incoherent form.
In contrast, Nisargadatta seems to be suggesting, in deep sleep there is simply the pure sense of being, without any personhood involved at all. Of course, by implication he is also suggesting that this sense of being can be realised even during the waking state: pure being without being anything, or anyone, in particular.
It is fantastic to experiment with this insight while awake. First, I remind myself of this idea: I am not the person I take myself to be, or I am not this body and mind. This thought, even though merely a memory, subtly changes the sense of moment-to-moment experience, and makes “me” immediately aware of the current of selfhood as it is maintained in daily, mundane life. Then, there arises the question: If not this, then what am I? A profound sense of doubt and wonder then comes up, a state in which every answer seems very trivial.
I sink back into the stuff of daily life very soon: emotion, ego-identification, threat. But meditation has subtle and far reaching effects, I think. And the current of insight always has the potential to rise to the surface again.