The Three States

When you’re in your normal, daily, waking state of being, for about sixteen hours of your day, you automatically assume that the person you are during these hours is you. Right? “The guy on your driver’s license,” as James calls him. That’s who you think you are.

You’re walking around, thinking and acting as a person, and there is a continuous life that happens as an unbroken thread – your life – regardless of the fact that sleep interrupts this waking state for eight hours every night. When you wake up in the morning, life goes on, as if there was no break. You know your name, where you are, and all the details about your life, because your memory fills in the sleep gap effortlessly.

But have you ever thought about what happens to waking-state guy when you are asleep? I think most of us have the assumption that waking-state guy becomes “dormant,” the body immobilizes so it can recharge and regenerate, the mind sorts out the events of the day through dreams, and in deep, dreamless sleep we get a nice, peaceful break from all mental activity. It’s kind of like hitting the “pause” button on your life.

Is that what’s really happening? Is the guy on your driver’s license present, even as a dormant presence, in your dreams at all? Where? When dreaming guy appears, he thinks he of himself as the only “me,” and he doesn’t even suspect that anyone else besides himself is the real “me.” To him, the only world is the dream world, and he is completely convinced the events he experiences in the dream are 100% real!

To the dreamer, there is no waking-state guy. He never thinks, “Hey, I wonder if I’m warm enough in my bed right now.” When you are dreaming, you take yourself to be that person you are in the dream, and that world is all you know.

Doesn’t this set off some alarm bells? Like for instance: when I’m dreaming, and I have no doubt at all about the fact that I’m that guy in the dream, then couldn’t that same thing be going on when I’m awake? Couldn’t I be in a similar sort of “dream” right now, convinced this “I” is the real me?

Mightn’t I wake up any minute, and like I do when I come out of a dream, might I not say, “Oh, that was just a dream. None of that was real. That was an imaginary person in an imaginary world.” Yes, you might.

Before I talk about the implications of that line of thought, let’s look briefly at the third state you might be in, and that is deep, dreamless sleep. In deep sleep, you are peaceful. You remember this peace in the morning, but while it’s happening – while you’re in deep sleep – you have no knowledge of it happening. You have no knowledge of being present there.

The deep sleep state requires a bit more of a discussion than I’m going to try and undertake here. Suffice it to say that the deep sleep state, the dream state, and the waking state are the only three possible states you can appear in. It’s the experience you’ve been living for your whole life, and yet it’s pretty easy to have it escape your notice that you are always appearing as one of those three states.

So now back to the discussion of what is implied by the fact that both waking-state and dreaming-state guys think they are the “real” you – the “only” you. And in deep sleep, you’re there, but you don’t know you’re there. So examining the three states of your being over the course of a 24-hour period, you have to now ask: Which one am I?

Am I the guy who is here for sixteen hours a day, doing his life, but is conspicuously absent the rest of the time? Am I the guy who has really oddball, nonsensical adventures at random intervals during the night? Or am I the guy who doesn’t even know he is there for several hours at a time? Which of the three are you?

Answer: none of the above.
YOU are the substrate of all three states! You know this to be true: “I am always here, in all three states. I am present in waking, I am present in dreaming, and I am present in deep sleep.” YOU are the consciousness that pervades them all, in all their differences. YOU, unchanging consciousness, are never absent, in all three states. It is YOU that illumines the presence of these three different “bodies”.*

Now, the most valuable knowledge we can glean from this “Three States” teaching is that which sheds light on the waking state. Why? Because that’s the guy who suffers. Waking-state guy is the only one who longs to be liberated. So what can waking-state guy take away from this teaching?

Well, first of all, just by having read through this, you’re looking at the “I” in the waking state somewhat differently, I hope. The assumptions about this waking “I” being “who I am” have weakened just a bit, enough for you to go exploring. You may now be thinking, well, then, is this a dream, too? Why should I presume that this waking-state reality is any more real than my nighttime dream? And how would I wake up out of this waking-state dream? And into what would I awaken?

I would awaken into the knowledge that the one unchanging, continuous presence which pervades all three states – consciousness – is actually who I am. This is liberation!

And simultaneously, I would see that the liberated one – Mr. Liberated Waking State – is not a real entity at all, but merely an object appearing in consciousness, just like the dreamer and the deep sleeper. So Mr. Waking State was never bound, and he was never liberated. All three states, including the liberated one, collapse into simply the one consciousness that is
YOU – already free, without form, without a body, without a state.

So use this wonderful teaching to start thinking along these lines. You never were this person in this waking state. When you’re walking around doing your daily stuff, just stop for a minute and think about who this is, this waking-state person. Where is he going to be when I go to sleep? Why do I think this is who I am? What is overarching all three states that is here right now? While I am dreaming, what will I be then just as much as I am right now? Consciousness! Already free, beyond bondage and liberation, beyond all limits.

*This is the gist of the “Three States” teaching of Vedanta. Its origin is the Mandukya Upanishad. The Three States is only one of many teachings of Vedanta. But you can see how powerful just one of them can be, as a means of self-inquiry. Sometimes James will remark, “You only need one teaching. One will do it.” And yet there are at least one or two dozen to put in your tool box, to sort out who you are as the Self from who you are not. What I’ve written here is a very basic telling of it. Here is a translation and commentary by James Swartz that goes into much more detail.