We all know that meditation, as well as sleep, are very similar in their benefits. They offer deep relaxation, joy, and a release (if only temporary) from the incessant demands of life. It is perhaps only natural then that we should ask the question: Which of these two—sleep or meditation—offer the better benefit? Let us see what Paramhansa Yogananda has to share on the topic.
The content of this blog is fairly “advanced” stuff, so we preface it (for legal reasons, if not for the humor!) with a warning:
In his Autobiography of a Yogi, in the chapter “The Sleepless Saint“, Paramhansa Yogananda, then the young boy Mukunda, describes his thrilling meeting with the saintly Ram Gopal Muzumdar. Ram Gopal, who has attained complete spiritual liberation through his deep Kriya Yoga practice, shares the following with young Mukunda:
For twenty years I occupied a secret grotto, meditating eighteen hours a day. Then I moved to a more inaccessible cave and remained there for twenty-five years, entering the yoga union for twenty hours daily. I did not need sleep, for I was ever with God. My body was more rested in the complete calmness of the superconsciousness than it could be by the partial peace of the ordinary subconscious state.
The muscles relax during sleep, but the heart, lungs, and circulatory system are constantly at work; they get no rest. In superconsciousness, the internal organs remain in a state of suspended animation, electrified by the cosmic energy. By such means, I have found it unnecessary to sleep for years. The time will come when you too will dispense with sleep.
This heartfelt testimony from Ram Gopal does seem to answer our question completely. I find it intriguing that there are two complete opposite paths man can follow. The first extreme is for years to sleep daily but never meditate (“extreme” is perhaps a peculiar expression since almost six billion pursue this path, and what six billion do becomes commonplace and is no longer extreme!) The second extreme is to daily meditate so deeply that one, in Ram Gopal’s words, “finds it unnecessary to sleep for years.” The word “extreme ‘ being justified here, since very few can do this.
As yogis, the second extreme catches our heart’s fancy. The first path leads to repeated disappointments born of enduring the duality of happiness and suffering. The second path epitomizes complete freedom for the yogi, with the freedom from sleep being symbolic of a true awakening from the hypnotic sleep of maya (cosmic delusion).
On the humorous side, have you ever paused to notice that both of these paths—the worldly and the yogic—lead to sleeplessness? The dictionary has a synonym for sleeplessness – the word insomnia. Many of us are familiar with this kind of sleeplessness where over-exertion, stress, and anxiety keep the mind restlessly churning so that sleep becomes nearly impossible. What an unattractive state when compared to Ram Gopal’s description of yogic sleeplessness!
The next question also arises naturally: How can we reach Ram Gopal’s state of yogic sleeplessness? The first thought for most of us, fired up by Ram Gopal’s extraordinary testimony, is to try to meditate longer by skimping on sleep. Ram Gopal’s testimony, however, is not a prod for unbalanced living. Swami Kriyananda records in Conversations with Yogananda:
Saints often adopt extreme measures in their search for God – virtually starving themselves, for example, or going for long periods without sleep, or deliberately creating discomfort for their bodies. Many devotees wonder if it wouldn’t help them to adopt similar practices, even if they are following the more moderate path of meditation and Kriya Yoga. With such aspirants in mind, the Master, who himself had undergone severe austerities during his youth, counseled people generally, “It is best not to be fanatical in your search for God. Only those with some measure of realization can safely afford to risk their health and physical well-being in seeking Him. Without realization, such practices make one fanatical.”
This, in summary, was the reason for the “warning sign ‘ at the beginning of this blog! It is a wonderful aid to meditation to be well-rested with a good night’s sleep – then we are ‘awake and ready’ when we meditate, not nodding sleepily. Paramahansa Yogananda encouraged Swami Kriyananda to sleep seven hours daily in addition to meditating deeply.
This balanced path is the sure way to yogic sleeplessness. As one’s meditation deepens, he naturally finds great physical and mental rest and refreshment in addition to deep spiritual joy. As that happens, the need for too much sleep ebbs away of its own. This is what happened to the Sleepless Saint. He stated that deep samadhi released him from the need to sleep and not the other way round. The key to remaining ever-awake in the joy of yogic ecstasy is thus to deepen our meditations, rather than to starve the body of sleep.
Deep meditation is the ‘great weaner’ for it weans us off all lesser ‘addictions:’ sleep, intoxicants, hard to erase negative tendencies, boredom and the stress-inducing inability to cope with life’s challenges.
Did Paramhansa Yogananda “dispense with sleep” as Ram Gopal predicted? Here is a fun story from The New Path, narrated to Swami Kriyananda by Dr. Lewis who was Yogananda’s first American Kriya Yoga disciple:
“I was telling you,” Dr. Lewis continued, “that Yogananda never sleeps. I’ve found this to be true even when he snores! One day, many years ago, he was lying in his room, apparently asleep, and snoring quite loudly. I tip-toed stealthily into the room and tied a string to his big toe, doing my best to make sure he felt nothing. I should add that we were both young then. Master was still snoring peacefully as I crept back to the door. I was about to tie the string onto the doorknob when he stopped snoring long enough to say, ‘Aha!’”
It is wonderful to meditate deeply and to affirm Ram Gopal’s blessing to Mukunda, “The time will come when you too will dispense with sleep.” As we practice the balanced path of Self-realization laid out by our guru, we too become true professionals who can safely discard the warning above, and daily perform the stunt called sleeplessness!