“A person can test if his soul and spirit are truly and completely bound to God by this sign: if as soon as he awakens from sleep there falls into his mind holy and pure thoughts of God’s greatness, while his physical needs and worldly desires are forgotten from his heart. Then, he knows for sure that his soul is pure.” –Zev Wolf of Zitmar 

A famous Bengali writer came to visit Sri Ramakrishna one afternoon. During their conversation, Sri Ramakrishna asked him:

“Well, what do you say about man’s duties?”

The author (smiling):

“If you ask me about them, I should say they are eating, sleeping, and sex-life.”

Sri Ramakrishna (sharply):

“Eh? You are very saucy! What you do day and night comes out through your mouth. A man belches what he eats. If he eats radish, he belches radish; if he eats green coconut, he belches green coconut. Day and night you live in the midst of ‘woman and gold’ [lust and avarice]; so your mouth utters words about that alone.” [1]

Whatever thoughts occupy our consciousness during the day will be what comes into our mind upon waking. If we spend our time thinking about gratifying our physical desires, then this will be what we think about before sleep and what enters into our mind when we arise. But if we keep our mind focused on God, no matter what we are doing during the day, then the presence of God will permeate our consciousness, and it will be the first thing that comes into our mind when we awake.

Our first thought is even more important than it at first appears. In his teaching, Rebbe Zev Wolf goes on to explain the nature and significance of this ‘first thought’ in greater depth:

And this first thought can be given the name ‘first light’, because all that he will think and do during the day is bound up and dependent upon this first thought. And within this thought are all the specific thoughts that he needs, and all the advice that he requires to fulfill his day’s activities, to arouse himself to serve God, and to raise up the Shechinah [the Divine Presence] according to his ability – all this is contained in this ‘first light’.

Our first thought is a beacon that shines upon whatever else we do. It is a ‘seed thought’ which contains the kernel of the specific mindset that we need to adopt in all our activities and interactions on that particular day. It is a flash of inspiration from our soul that is meant to direct and guide us – a Divine impression that aligns us with the working of the Cosmic Pattern at that moment in time and space.

Sri Ramana Maharsh provides further insight into why this first instant after awakening is so vital:

”Just on rising up from sleep and before seeing the objective world, there is a state of awareness which is your pure Self.”

“It is neither sleep nor waking but intermediate between the two.”

There is the awareness of the waking state and the stillness of sleep. It is called jagrat-sushupti. Call it wakeful sleep or sleeping wakefulness or wakeless sleep. It is not the same as sleep or waking separately. It is atijagrat (beyond wakefulness) or atisusshupti (beyond sleep). It is the state of perfect awareness and perfect stillness combined. It lies between sleep and waking: it is also the interval between two successive thoughts. It is the source from which thoughts spring; we see that when we wake up from sleep…Go to the root of the thoughts and you reach the stillness of sleep. But you reach it in the full vigour of search, that is, with perfect awareness.” [2]

The experience of the ‘first light’ is more than just a moment of intuition or inspiration. It is an altogether unique state of consciousness where we are still linked to the pure consciousness of our true Self, before the mundane consciousness of the ego has taken hold of our mind. It is a place of perfect silence and stillness – a taste of the infinite peace of the Absolute.

In his spiritual autobiography, ‘My life and Quest”, Arthur Osborne describes his own experience of this moment of ‘wakeful sleep’:

“It was about six o’clock one June morning in 1956 that the first awakening to Reality occurred. I was alone in the room when I awoke and sat up in bed…I just was – my Self, the beginningless, immutable Self….There was no excitement, no joy or ecstasy, just an immeasurable contentment, the natural state, the wholeness of simple being.” [3]

So, it is not so much the actual ‘first thought’ that is of essential importance, rather it is the state of consciousness in which we awake – the state of rightness, the state of profound peace and inner contentment – the state of resting in our true Self. If we can hold on to this state – its light and energy will infuse our whole day, guiding and directing all that we do. This is why it is called ‘first light’: when we hold on to this first moment of pure consciousness, it illuminates everything else that we do and think during the day.

In the continuation of his teaching, Rebbe Zev Wolf makes clear that holding on to this first thought is something that must continue throughout our waking activities:

“And it is incumbent upon him to not let go of this ‘first thought’ from his inner consciousness for even a second. Rather, he should keep this thought with him throughout his activities during the day. Even if other ‘good thoughts’ come to him, nonetheless he should not let go of this ‘first thought’…. This ‘first thought’ is a great advantage in guiding a person in fulfilling his day’s (work) activities.”

Arthur Osborne outlines a similar process in his description of how he turned holding on to the moment of wakeful sleep into a potent spiritual exercise:

“Bhagavan [Ramana Maharshi] has said that the state to be aimed at is a sort of waking sleep; also that it can be experienced at the moment between waking and sleeping. I prolonged the state as long as possible. During the weeks that followed, this formed my mode of meditation: particularly, of course, while waking from sleep (while falling asleep I found it more difficult) but also throughout the day – retiring into impersonal consciousness, seeing the flow of events drift past on its surface.” [4]

This approach to the first moments upon arising represents a fundamental change in the way that we begin our day. Ordinarily, we get up, hop out of bed and begin our day’s activities. In fact, even before we leave our bed, a whole gambit of thoughts, responsibilities and problems fall into our head, to which we immediately turn our attention.

Instead, we are being told to wake up slowly, while keeping all mundane thoughts at bay, and strive to hold on to the first moment of pure consciousness – our ‘first light’. Then, we prolong that moment for as long as possible. Only afterwards, do we begin our normal activities.

Once we have started our daily routine, we still do not let go of this ‘first light’. All through the day, we work to stabilize our mind in this consciousness. And we keep referring back to this first moment of peace and clarity, until it becomes a vital, living place inside us.

First light shines forth on many levels. On one level, it is a sign that our heart and mind are wholly bound to God. On another level, it is a flash of inspiration from the spiritual realm to guide us through our day. On the highest level, it is a momentary experience of the pure consciousness of the Self.

When it is experienced on this highest level, the effects of ‘first light’ are profound and far-reaching. The following description by an English college professor of her sudden and unexpected ‘meeting with the Self’ conveys something of the power and impact of such an encounter:

“It had the stillness of humility shining with surprised joy…

“How can I explain? I can only use negatives.

“I saw nothing, not even light.

“I heard nothing, no voice, no music, nothing.

“Nothing touched me. Nor was I conscious of any Being, visible or invisible.

“But suddenly, simply, silently, I was not there. And I was there. It lasted for a moment, yet it was eternal, since there was no time.

“And I knew, as certainly as I know I am trying to write it down, as certainly as I know that I live and eat and walk and sleep, that this world, this universe, is precisely as we see it, hear it, know it, and is at the same time completely different. It is as we see it because we are of it; it is also and at the same time wholly other…

“It was not different materially. It still had form, and colour, even good and evil, and animals and people, but it was conceived differently, as a whole, perhaps, as a spiritual entity. And it filled me with awe and grave joy and certainty.” [5]

If we can hold on to this first light, it will change our lives. It will totally transform our perception of reality. Like the first rays of dawn that sweep away the darkness and light up the morning sky, this inner light will remove the dimness of physical consciousness from our mind and illuminate our entire being with Divine light.


Copyright © 2008, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, ‘M’, translated by Swami Nikhilananda
  2. Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Venkataramiah
  3. My Life and Quest, Arthur Osborne
  4. My Life and Quest, Arthur Osborne
  5. The Following Feet, Ancilla