I’m in the final stages of editing the next book in my Dream Yoga series, called “Dreams of Light: The Profound Daytime Practice of Lucid Dreaming.” This was previously titled “The Seduction of Being,” but the publisher wanted the change. Below is an introductory riff on emptiness, one of the most difficult, but important, topics in the world of Dream Yoga. This is such an important topic for deep divers of dream yoga, so more to come soon.

Emptiness is the heart of Buddhism. It is also the heart of dream yoga and the practice of illusory form. The Dalai Lama says, “In the Buddhist context the practice [of dream yoga] is aimed at the realization of emptiness.” Buddhist scholar Serinity Young agrees: “The illusory nature of dreams serves as a prime example of emptiness.”[1] And Mingyur Rinpoche adds, “During the daytime, phenomena appear to be more dense. This makes daytime a tougher schoolroom for learning about emptiness. It’s much easier to recognize emptiness in dreams.” In Buddhism it is taught that all the teachings converge onto one point, and emptiness is that pointless point. To realize emptiness is what it means to wake up in the spiritual sense.

Emptiness is intellectually challenging and emotionally daunting. There is part of you that doesn’t want to hear these teachings. In many ways emptiness is the end of form as we know it, the death of materialism, and for a fully formed and materialistic ego, it is akin to death. Yet in order to be resurrected into the awakened state, conventional forms must die, or more accurately, be seen through. Lakar Rinpoche writes:

We are so addicted to looking outside ourselves that we have lost access to our inner being almost completely. We are terrified to look inward, because our culture has given us no idea of what we will find. We may even think that if we do, we will be in danger of madness. This is one of the last and most resourceful ploys of ego to prevent us from discovering our real nature. So we make our lives so hectic that we eliminate the slightest risk of looking into ourselves. Even the idea of meditation can scare people. When they hear the words egoless or emptiness, they think that experiencing those states will be like being thrown out the door of a spaceship to float forever in a dark, chilling void. Nothing could be further from the truth. But in a world dedicated to distraction, silence and stillness terrify us; we protect ourselves from them with noise and frantic busyness. Looking into the nature of our mind is the last thing we would dare to do.[2]

Because emptiness is so exacting, the teachings progress through three stages. The first stage is understanding, which is what we’re considering now. With this first stage, you grapple with emptiness intellectually, reflect upon it, contemplate it deeply. At a certain point you experience it, which is profoundly transformative. Experience is the second stage.[3] This is when you truly see the world as illusory for the first time. You’re no longer faking it. You’ve made it. You’re getting a glimpse of how a buddha sees the world.

As pivotal as this is, experience isn’t stable. You get it, but then you lose it. Because of the power of our conditioned habits, this new way of seeing tends to fade as old ways reassert their influence. You wake up, but then you doze back off again. It is likened to the morning mist, which evaporates. Experience always has a beginning and an end. But with sustained effort, experience matures into the third stage, realization. Realization is when the glimpse transforms into a steady gaze. What was once a peak (or peek) experience becomes a stable plateau.[4] Now you’ve really got it, and you don’t lose it. You wake up and stay up.[5]

[1] Dreaming in the Lotus: Buddhist Dream Narrative, Imagery, and Practice, by Serinity Young, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA., 1999, p. 163.

[2] Glimpse After Glimpse; Daily Reflections on Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche, HarperCollins, New York, NY., 1995, July 7th entry. 

[3] Buddhism talks about the five paths, which are really five stages along the path. The first path is the path of accumulation. The second path is the path of preparation. These first two paths are all about developing an increasingly refined inferential understanding of emptiness. The third path is the path of seeing. This is when we first see emptiness. It’s sometimes referred to as the path of direction perception, in contrast to the path of inferential understanding. The third path is also associated with the first bhumi (ground). The fourth path is the path of meditation, or the path of familiarization, where we become increasingly familiar with the direct experience of emptiness. It is on this fourth path that we traverse the remaining nine bhumis. The fifth path is the path of no more learning, or the full realization of an awakened one, a Buddha. This is when the light of lucidity is fully on, 24/7. The flashes of illumination (along the bhumis) have been transformed into abiding light.

The path of seeing is a major “before and after” experience. Once you see reality, emptiness, you’ll never be fooled again. You may forget now and again — that’s what constitutes the journey through the bhumis and the fourth path — but you’ve truly seen the light, the light of enlightenment. 

[4] It’s very easy to get stuck at the level of experience (nyam in Tibetan), and not let it mature into realization (togpa). Many meditation “masters,” especially in the West, are trapped at the level of nyam, which can be the most insidious of all traps. The tradition talks about “realized beings,” not “experienced beings.” Experience is an intermediate stage, not the final destination. See Just When You Think You’re Enlightened, by Andrew Holecek, Buddhadharma Magazine, Summer 2014. 

[5] In contemporary terms, experience is correlated with fleeting states of consciousness, and realization is correlated with stable traits of consciousness. See Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, by Daniel Goleman and Richard J Davidson for an insightful look at how experience and realization effect your body and brain – and the importance of differentiating between states and traits. 


Dreams of Light: The Profound Daytime Practice of Lucid Dreaming

by Andrew Holecek (Author)

With Dreams of Light, a world-renowned expert in lucid dreaming and Tibetan dream yoga guides us into the tradition’s daytime practices

Most of us are absolutely certain that we’re awake here and now―it’s a given, right? Yet, according to Tibetan dream yoga, ordinary waking life is in fact a delusion, as illusory as our nightly dreams. Read more.