The Link Between the Waking and the Sleeping States

Trance as I am sure you understand is anathema to Zen teachers. The notion of someone on a cushion entering into a state where they might be suggestible, vulnerable to someone like Bela Lugosi in a kimono and fright wig is bound to be repudiated in any zendo.

The really odd thing is that in the earliest records we have of the teachings of Gautama the Buddha, nine trance states are mentioned and described, and the records are consistent in the sermons found in Tibet, China, and Southeast Asia. Trance states, or meditative states. Or whatever Houdini did in that coffin.

I’ll bet Houdini did attend rather closely to his breath. The records indicate that was also the practice of Gautama, both before and after his enlightenment–bringing to the fore mindfulness with respect to the in-breath and out-breath.

What I find is that if I attend to my sense of location as I am falling asleep, sometimes my awareness seems to shift around. I’m here in my body, then I’m there; sometimes in my head, sometimes in my chest or shoulder, sometimes in my leg. Here’s a description a friend in New York City gave, when he looked for the same thing as he tried to return to sleep:

I woke up at 4:30 AM, after a quick drink of water. returned to bed and tried your practice.

I hope I did it correctly, I was somewhat surprised that my mind moved around quite a bit. not fast, but in slow motion the awareness would shift, from left cheek to right side of torso etc. The end result was a light sleep state, but I was glued to the bed and then woke up exactly at 6AM, feeling refreshed like I had a complete 8 hours of sleep.

My friend wanted more details of how it worked than I could give him. This morning I rewrote a commentary on Yuanwu’s teaching I made last night, and I think I included some of the details my friend wanted. Here’s the commentary:

You must strive with all your might to bite through here and cut off conditioned habits of mind. Be like a person who has died the great death: after your breath is cut off, then you come back to life. Only then do you realize that it is as open as empty space. Only then do you reach the point where your feet are walking on the ground of reality.

(Zen Letters, translated by J.C. and Thomas Cleary, pg 84)

Yuanwu opened his paragraph by telling the reader to “bite through here”, drawing to mind the placement and movement of the jaw relative to the current sense of location; placement and movement of the jaw involves the sense of proprioception, or “the awareness of movement derived from muscular, tendon, and articular sources” (Sherrington, “The Integrative Action of the Nervous System”, 1906). Yuanwu urged his reader to realize how their proprioceptive sense informed their sense of location, just as the Gautamid did in his description of the first meditative state (MN III 92-93- Pali Text Society pg 132-134).

Yuanwu pointed to proprioception together with the sense of location as a way to “cut off conditioned habits of mind”, to cease any voluntary activity of thought or direction of the body, just as though one were letting go of life itself. Yuanwu stated that as a matter of course, such a cessation of habitual activity results in a feeling that the activity of breath has been cut off, and causes a person to come to their senses as though they have been returned to life from the dead. Returned to one’s senses, the location of awareness is freed to shift in three dimensions without restriction, as though in empty space; single-pointedness of mind is experienced along with the ability to feel necessary to the relaxed movement of breath. With a sense of the location of mind informed by the feeling of proprioception, activity can take place through the stretch necessary to the relaxed movement of breath rather than through the conditioned habits of mind.

Although Yuanwu is not explicit that walking on the ground of reality requires a state of relaxation like that in hypnosis, he is quite explicit that walking on the ground of reality is associated with an experience of necessity connected with the movement of breath, and I believe it is here that the link between the waking and the sleeping states lies.

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