Does Awareness – Openness Clarity Sensitivity – disappear during deep sleep?

A Student writes:

If awareness – openness – clarity – sensitivity – have an ongoing reality, why do they disappear under anaesthetic or deep sleep ?

Lama Shenpen replies:

We use terms like openness, clarity and sensitivity to talk about fleeting experiences – it is a long journey to realise that the real Openness-Clarity-Sensitivity are not the fleeting experiences of them that we notice in our life – those fleeting experiences are signs that the underlying Openness Clarity Sensitivity is there but not fully experienced. 

If under anaesthetic or in deep sleep the underlying Openness Clarity Sensitivity really went anywhere, how would it come back?   It gets obscured but it doesn’t go anywhere. That is where we need to focus our meditation practice – on discovering and trusting that Openness Clarity Sensitivity is just there – it’s the obscurations that come and go. 

But, looking at the sky covered with clouds it really looks like the sun is coming in and out, so it takes a kind of faith, confidence or deep background knowing awareness to learn how to work with that situation. 

We cannot think our way into that certainty – it’s listening, reflecting and getting used to it – meditating on it – again and again and again. It takes a long time but each step of the way feels very positive.


It seems helpful to sense the ‘heart as something that endures, but my experience suggests it does not and that it does come and go (with sleep in particular). 

Lama Shenpen:

Your experience suggests it – but it is not actually true – that is what the Dharma is all about – finding what is actually true!


The sense of spacious, empty awareness also seems to come and go in daily life. Does this appear to be the case because we loose connection to it through distractions and reactive emotions?

Lama Shenpen:

Yes – that’s why we call ourselves practitioners on the path. Somehow that sort of thing takes ages to wear down – to wear out and to realise what is really going on, and what just seems to be the case.


When there’s calm, it returns. I know the familiar metaphor of the sky always being there and clouds coming and going. But what if the sky metaphor is a clever way of talking about it, to imply its permanence, when in experience, it certainly appears to come and go? How do we verify this?

Lama Shenpen:

Over time. There are lots of ways of coming at this problem – it’s what all the Dharma methods are about – just this very problem!


Can you comment on the way awareness and the heart appear to come and go?

Lama Shenpen:

To be honest it is very mysterious how the Openness Clarity Sensitivity can appear to come and go.  Queen Shrimala in the Shrimaladevi Sutra says to the Buddha, there are two great mysteries that are hard to understand – first how the chitta (heart-mind) is primordially pure and second how what is primordially pure can become obscured.

It is impossible to make sense of either point as long as we are trapped in avidya*. The question then is how to break into that avidya bound world and open out into the Reality it is obscuring? That is our task in the Awakened Heart Sangha – to just keep pursuing the Truth using all the methods the Buddha taught.

A weasely ansewer perhaps but as the Buddha said to the Queen: such questions are hard to answer and only great Bodhisattvas like yourself could know the answer. So we are going to have to be patient. The good news is that even though the path is long – it feels better every step of the way!

Lama Shenpen Hookham

[*Avidya – (Skt) – often translated as ‘ignorance’. The fundamental state of not recognising our true nature, that keeps us in the state of confusion and grasping at the unreal as real. It is the cause of all suffering.]

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One thought on “Does Awareness – Openness Clarity Sensitivity – disappear during deep sleep?

  1. In this long learning, may I ask whether it may be quicker to take the path of compassionate meditation – loving-kindness, concentrating how we are all connected; or on emptiness, a seemingly more intellectual appraisal of the deep reality you mention here?

    I notice that the practice of joy is very important in the latter, where we might be led to a cool appraisal of our world, not getting lost in fleeting feelings and deep passions, and I imagine that a practice concentrating on compassion would not involve this potential problem?

    Somehow with everything in the mind, our only way of knowing, we are in danger of solipsism, and have to unite this with the understanding that it somehow is not only all in my mind, but also apparently ‘out there’. I am getting lost in my ideas of mind, aren’t I? I look forward to your teaching on Emptiness next weekend!

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