I am a big fan of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – I believe that they are full of insights that can help us better understand our experiences on a daily basis and give us tools to deal with life’s challenges. There is one sutra though that deals with dreaming and deep sleep states that I could never quite understand, and all the commentaries I’ve read I’ve found unsatisfactory.
I am talking about sutra 1.38 Svapna-nidra-jnana-alambanam va, which is often translated as Mental stability also comes from observing dream and deep sleep states. This kind of translation confuses me. How can we observe a deep sleep state if we are unconscious? And remembering our dreams can be quite disturbing, too (as, I am sure, you’ve experienced). How is that supposed to stabilize the mind?
Most commentaries I’ve seen caution us NOT to try to interpret our dreams, but rather to “imagine the peace of deep sleep” (1) or to focus on the “vitality one feels on waking” (2).
All of those commentaries are interpretations, of course, of the original text, so let’s try to translate the sutra word by word to see if we can get any clarity.
Svapna– dream state
Nidra – deep sleep
Jnana – knowledge, study, investigation, observation, experience
Alambanam – having as support for attention, object of concentration
Va – or
This sutra comes in a group of other sutras that describe different strategies we can use to stabilize and focus the mind. “Alambanam va” references that idea, meaning “And another way to achieve mental stability is…” So the main key to this sutra is the word “jnana”, which has a variety of translations and each translation would change the meaning of the sutra. It could be:
“Knowledge that comes from dreams and deep sleep states stabilizes the mind” or
“Study of dreams and deep sleep states stabilizes the mind” or
“Investigation of dreams and deep sleep states stabilizes the mind” or
“Observation of dreams and deep sleep states stabilizes the mind” or
“Experiencing the dreaming and deep sleep states stabilizes the mind”.
This is quite a range! All these translations have different meanings, but they all seem to boil down to the idea that some sort of important knowledge can be gained from either understanding the states of dream and deep sleep or experiencing them. And this would lead to mental stability.
And guess what? Modern neuroscience tells us that both of those are correct. If you understand what is going on in your mind at different stages of sleep and how they alternate throughout the night, you will be aware of the importance of sleep and will be less likely to cut it short. And if you experience a full sleep cycle every night, it has a profound effect on your memory, learning capacity and emotional stability.
So looking at the sutra 1.38 through the prism of modern science we can translate it like this: “Understanding the purpose of dream and deep sleep states and experiencing them fully leads to mental stability.” This translation makes sense to me (of course, this is an interpretation, like any other commentary :)).
Next time we will take a closer look at how different stages of sleep affect those mental functions and how a full-night sleep contributes to mental stability. Tune in!
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1. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda
2. The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Bernard Bouanchaud