Sleep & Dreams
Published in AEON
In Evelyn De Morgan’s numinous painting, Night and Sleep (1878), Nyx, the mighty Greek goddess of night, hovers across a dusky sky with her beloved son Hypnos, the sweet-natured god of sleep. The painting and the Greek gods it captures depict a radically different way of understanding and relating to sleep. In antiquity sleep was personified, transcendent, even romantic.
Both Nyx and Hypnos had personality. Nyx was beautiful, shadowy and formidable – the only goddess Zeus ever feared. A Mother Nature figure with attitude, she was most protective of her son, even when he engaged in divine mischief. Which he did. But Hypnos was also gentle and benevolent, an androgynous mamma’s boy. Occupying a liminal zone between sleep and waking, he often seemed a bit dreamy. If he showed up at a sleep clinic today, he would likely be diagnosed with narcolepsy – a disorder of heightened permeability in the boundary between waking and sleep.
Nyx and Hypnos were denizens of the underworld. She was the original night owl, a fierce guardian of nature’s circadian rhythms who magically transformed day into night. With her support, as seen in De Morgan’s painting, Hypnos gently scatters crimson poppies, sleep elixirs, over the planet below. As in the more recent tale of the Sandman who sprinkles sleepy dust over the eyes of children, we are reminded that sleep is bequeathed from above. That sleep is grace.
Nyx and Hypnos were a dynamic duo of sorts – supernatural heroes who romanticised night and sleep. Nyx gave birth to sleep and created an aesthetic of darkness where Hypnos could flourish. And Hypnos loved sleep. Surrounded by fields of wild poppies on the River of Oblivion, his lair was a sanctuary – a cool, magical retreat open to all in celebration of the sensual, even sexy, mysteries of sleep.
Today, mother and son have been largely forgotten. Nyx has been in exile for well over a century as our night sky is eroded by light pollution. And Hypnos is remembered mainly by his namesakes, hypnosis and, surely to his chagrin, hypnotics. Sleep is no longer personal, transcendent and romantic – it is medical, mundane and pragmatic.
Published in The Huffington Post
When we think of dreaming, we typically think of being in a different place — another state of consciousness, a dream world or dreamscape and certainly not in Kansas anymore. In reality, however, it only looks like we’re not on Auntie Em’s farm. Dreaming, after all, is more about a different way of perceiving. It’s about seeing with dream eyes.
Extensive research confirms what we all have long known: that our perceptual processes are markedly enhanced during dreaming. We can, for example, simultaneously see what lies directly before us and behind us as well as the room we’re in and the building housing it. Our sense of self — that is, how we see ourselves — can also morph wildly in our dreams. Viewed through dream eyes, I can be me, or a part of me watching me, or someone else entirely.
Viewed through dream eyes, I can be me, or a part of me watching me, or someone else entirely.
The psychologist and poet R.D. Laing described the limitation of waking eyesight in a short but poignant verse:
The range of what we think and do
Is limited by what we fail to notice
And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice
There is little we can do to change
Until we notice how failing to notice
Shapes our thoughts and deeds.
Seeing only with our waking eyes results in loss of peripheral vision. If the devil is in the detail, the angel is in the bigger picture.
Published in The Huffington Post
Maybe you’ve just made love. Maybe you’ve stumbled into bed, exhausted. Or maybe you’ve been reading or watching television and find yourself nodding off. So, you turn to your partner, say goodnight, and go to sleep. I imagine this is the most common bedtime story for couples in our world.
It reflects a ubiquitous belief that sleeping and dreaming are essentially solo experiences. As much love and connection as there may be between two people, there are some things we simply do alone. Although we might share lovemaking, dialog, or dance, when we go to sleep, we go away. We leave one another to descend into our own, private realms of consciousness.
The passage from waking to sleep takes us through a liminal dream. We wade into a shallow stream of consciousness that washes through our thoughts and feelings, dispersing the mind in preparation for sleep. We’re called upon to let go — to release tensions and, most notably, our intentions — to be able to cross the border into slumber.
Technically referred to as Stage I sleep, the transition from waking to sleep is characterized by complex neurological changes, including increased alpha EEG, decreased premotor cortical activity, and the galvanization of mirror neurons. Alpha EEG, of course, is a sign that the brain and body are relaxing. The associated quieting of the premotor cortex, a set of small areas just north of our temples, signals a critical diminishment of intention. This, in turn, engages our mirror neurons — the neural networks that mediate empathy.
What all this suggests is that in those fleeting moments when we are drifting off, we become especially empathic. It’s not a surprise that our capacity for empathy is inversely related to the extent of our intentions. As our intentions diminish, our psychological posture shifts from desire to receptivity. For many of us, our capacity to be fully present, openhearted and deeply empathic is greater during the transition into sleep than at most other times of day.
As children, we instinctively knew that the descent into sleep could be a social experience. In hushed post-bedtime conversations with our sibs or more playful exchanges with our friends at sleepovers, we would go gently into the night —together. Under the approaching cover of sleep, we would whisper dreamy thoughts and share secret feelings and far-fetched fantasies. As kids, we knew how to surrender waking, how to descend through a fuzzy and fading liminal dream dialog.
Published in The Huffington Post
Typically undercover by day and out of awareness throughout the night, the bed is the most primordial of furnishings in our lives. We are conceived, born and die in a bed. We make love, sleep, dream, heal and are entertained in our bed. We burrow deeply into it in times of sorrow and awaken to a new day from it each morning.
Our very first bed was a cradle of loving arms with an undulating soft chest as a mattress. It was alive, sensitive and responsive to our subtlest needs. Sleep was a dynamic process, a natural collaboration between the sleeper and this living cradle. Unfortunately, this sense of an organic sleep experience is quickly forgotten as we grow up. The bed devolves into a thing – an inert piece of furniture or equipment where we stash the body for its overnight recharge.
I don’t mean to sound animistic and suggest the bed is alive in any literal sense, but I am suggesting that it is more like a vehicle than a static piece of furniture. Children, who intuitively sense that sleep and dreams carry them to another world, are frequently drawn to beds in the shapes of cars, trains, wagons, boats and airplanes. Although beds and vehicles may appear to be complete opposites in one respect, they actually have much in common. Both transport us to another place. And although often taken for granted, both cars and beds require a dynamic relationship with their owners. Just as we think about car and driver, it’s useful to think in terms of the bed and sleeper.
A good car integrates performance, comfort and safety. We expect it to perform – to provide us with reliable and efficient transportation while requiring minimal maintenance. Of course, we also prefer that it transport us comfortably. And we fully expect that it will do so safely. Cars can also be personalized, allowing us to configure seats, mirrors, sound systems, GPS, temperature, and other variables.
Published in The Huffington Post
Dr. Rubin Naiman doesn’t want to just raise awareness about the importance of sleep. He wants to change the way we think about it, by blasting through the assumptions and misunderstandings that have for so long defined — and limited — the conversation.
A clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, Naiman is particularly interested in dreams. In answer to my questions, he passionately and eloquently makes the case that we can truly benefit from opening ourselves to our dreams and meeting them on their own terms rather than trying to view them through the lens of waking life.
Why do we dream?
Great philosophers have taught that we routinely mistake the limits of our personal perception for the limits of the universe. Nowhere is this fundamental error more evident than in our posture toward dreams and dreaming. Because we live in a world where dreaming is so utterly misconstrued and commonly dismissed, we fail to recognize the critical role it plays in our health and happiness. I’ve come to believe our blind spot around dreaming is at the root of so much that is wrong with our world today.
REM sleep has been shown to be essential for learning and memory consolidation. In fact, diminished REM sleep is a hallmark of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. REM sleep also actively regulates our feelings and moods. It’s not a surprise that mood disorders, depression and anxiety, are frequently associated with a pattern of disrupted dreams.
Recent research suggests that REM sleep essentially functions to process waking-life experiences. Sometimes referred to as the second brain, our gastrointestinal system intelligently processes — or sifts through, digests and assimilates — the food we consume. Likewise, in REM sleep the brain sifts through, digests and assimilates the vast array of information and experiences we “consume” by day. Acting like a second gut, it selects what will be purged and what will be permanently assimilated into our long-term memories — into who we are. We are remade and updated nightly during REM sleep.
Just as updating a computer requires temporarily shutting down its operating programs, REM sleep takes us “offline” by inhibiting the use of most of our senses and voluntary muscles. We are disconnected from the world around us, functionally disembodied as our sense of self is updated nightly.
Published in The Huffington Post
Given all the concern about insomnia and sleep deprivation, it’s too easy to overlook the fact that there are exceptionally good sleepers among us. They tend not to get much media attention. In fact, I’ve found they are rather reticent to boast about their joyous relationship with sleep. Frequently, one of these great sleepers will approach me after I’ve done a presentation and actually whisper, “I love sleep.”
It’s too easy, even seductive to become preoccupied with the treatment of sleep problems — with sleep techniques and sleep aides and sleep paraphernalia. It’s not that these aren’t necessary; it’s just that they are rarely sufficient.
As a sleep specialist, I’ve learned as much about healing sleep from superb sleepers as I have from those struggling with sleep. Improving our sleep health is not just about avoiding dysfunctional sleep patterns and habits; it’s also about re-envisioning ourselves as superb sleepers. My observations have taught me that truly great sleepers share a number of important sleep enhancing attitudes and characteristics:
1. Superb sleepers welcome their dreams, even the challenging ones. Because they know that dreaming is natural, healthy, and supportive of their emotional well-being, they are open and receptive to the mystery of their dream lives. Most insomnia occurs during the latter part of sleep, a time when we do most of our REM sleep and dreaming. Being on good terms with our dreams can help us stay in the game throughout the entire night.
2. Superb sleepers typically awaken without an alarm.Because they know how much sleep they need, they get to bed in time to allow for that. And, they know when they will awaken naturally. Routinely awakening with an alarm clock snips off the end of our sleep. Would we ever consider setting an alarm to limit other natural and enjoyable activities like dinner or lovemaking? Does our sleep really need to be restricted or restrained in this way?
3. Superb sleepers have an intuitive regard for routines and rhythms. Rhythms are the infrastructure of sleep. And routines are our personal way of dancing to those rhythms — of balancing activity and rest. Unfortunately, modern life is dysrhythmic and staccato. We hear little about the “rat race” anymore, but this is because we are inured to its overarching presence in our lives. It’s fine to accelerate when necessary, but too many of us have lost our breaks.
4. Superb sleepers are accepting of periodic nighttime wakefulness. They know that waking up occasionally from sleep is not a sign of a sleep disorder and won’t affect the overall quality of their night. They don’t fret and get back to sleep easily. In fact, they might get up for a few minutes and enjoy the exquisite stillness of night. Historical evidence suggests that prior to the industrial revolution people commonly awakened for a stretch in the middle of the night. This is probably a more natural pattern of sleep that we now misconstrue as insomnia.
5. Superb sleepers have good “sleep self-efficacy,” that is, faith in their own ability to sleep. Because they hold it in high regard, they are on good terms with sleep and live with confidence that it is accessible whenever needed. This is not to suggest that someone with a history of poor sleep can just throw a switch and improve their sleep self-efficacy. But this can be achieved over time through sleep-hygiene practices.
6. Superb sleepers know how to truly let go. They are adept at forgiving the loose ends of the day and trust that things which remain unresolved today can be addressed even more effectively after a good night’s sleep. Letting go is not just a psychological maneuver; it’s also a deeply personal and rewarding spiritual practice.
Published in The Huffington Post
“What’s the best thing in the world?” asked my mother. When I was a little boy, she played this curious game with me. It didn’t matter that we had done it countless times before, that I already knew the right answer, and that I would once again tease her with childish responses I knew she would dismiss. The fact that she was smiling and in a playful mood was reason enough for me to engage her.
My first answer was always, “Ice cream!”
“No,” she smiled.
“Then cartoons!” I insisted.
“No,” she replied.
“Toys! Toys are the best things in the world!”
“No, no, no…” She smiled and shook her head.
“What then?” I shouted through my giggles and large gestures.
“Sleep,” said my mother. “Sleep is the best thing in the world!”
I would continue to argue, explaining how waking was so much better because you couldn’t do anything fun during sleep. But she held firm. And as the years passed and I came to understand my mother’s traumatic history as a teenager in a Nazi concentration camp, I knew she meant it. Sleep was the best thing in the world. She loved the escape and respite it provided her.
Certainly one does not have to suffer by day to appreciate the gifts of sleep by night. But this kind of story calls attention to an important psycho-spiritual question: Is sleep a great escape or is it a gracious return? Do we go to sleep, as modern science suggests, primarily seeking respite and restoration from the challenges of waking life? Or, as many sacred traditions around the globe teach, is the essence of sleep about returning to our true spiritual home?
Where do you go when you go to sleep?
Over the years, I’ve asked many people — patients, students, and friends — to describe where their attention is drawn after the lights go out and they close their eyes. Believing it’s a sign of a good sleeper (which is not actually the case), some proudly report “going out like a light” whenever their head hits the pillow. Because they’re instantly whisked away, they don’t really go anywhere.
Most others I’ve asked report fixing their attention on the waking world. They might review that day’s experiences or, more commonly, turn their thoughts toward the next day. As they begin their descent into the warm dark waters of sleep, they reflexively set their sights on the shoreline of tomorrow morning’s awakening. Rather than staying present with the psycho-spiritual transition into the sleep state, they opt to plan their re-entry into waking life. “What will I wear tomorrow? Is there enough milk in the fridge? Oh, I need to remember to…” It would seem that most of us don’t mindfully go to sleep. We skip over it.
What might we find in sleep?
What are our personal beliefs about the fundamental nature of sleep? Clearly, our willingness to proceed mindfully into the waters of sleep — to metaphorically keep our inner, third eye open after we close our worldly eyes — depends on what we believe we might actually encounter there. Will it be… nothing? Possibly nightmares? Something numinous? Or maybe all of the above?
Many of us tend to skip over sleep because we’ve been taught to equate it with unconsciousness, which suggests there’s simply nothing there to experience. Equating sleep with unconsciousness increases the risk of confusing it with the knockout of substances and sleeping pills. Sleep is not unconsciousness; it’s another kind of consciousness. Because it lies outside of our culture’s consensual field of awareness, it is, more accurately, subconscious.
Compelling spiritual as well as scientific literature suggests that we have the capacity to cultivate greater awareness of sleep. At least around its edges. In eastern traditions, nothing-ness is associated with inner peace, serenity and even divinity. French poet-philosopher, Paul Valéry, said “God made everything out of nothing. But the nothingness shows through.” Mostly, I think, during sleep.
We also skip over a more mindful descent into sleep because the experience is just a little too close to witnessing our own demise. The process of transitioning from waking to sleep involves the temporary dissolution of our ego or waking sense of self. Tibetan Buddhism teaches that the psycho-spiritual experience of falling asleep mimics that of dying. It’s no surprise that in Western mythology, Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, was brother to Thanatos, the god of death. If it’s any consolation, the vast majority of us do not actually die in our sleep, but during waking.
Anxiety about bad dreams and nightmares is another reason many of us would rather skip over sleep. Even more challenging than the nothingness and ego death associated with sleep are the bad dreams and nightmares it commonly dredges up. Bad dreams are like frightening movies; they are plentiful, unsettling and at least a bit intriguing.