By Dr. Rubin Naiman
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.
Most adults seem to have forgotten about the possibility of such a shared free fall into sleep. Although it’s normal to take about 10 to 20 minutes to nod out, we generally wind down our pillow talk and sign off at the start of this process. Many of my insomnia patients, both single and coupled, confess to struggling with a particularly challenging strain of loneliness that shows up when they can’t get to sleep. The liminal dream dialog offers a unique opportunity to provide support to and deepen intimacy with our partner.
Experiment with slipping away together. With lights out and eyes closed, assume your favorite sleep position and engage in a liminal dream dialog. Let go of expectations. Get loose and loopy, and stay open to the same in your partner. Speak your mind, your heart and your funny bone. Let the child inside of you chatter. Giggle, gaffe or get existential. It’s perfectly fine when one of you drifts off into the silent end of the stream of consciousness. Imagine that the door to this dialog remains open throughout the entire night.
This practice of liminal dream dialoging reminds us that sleep and love share some wonderful features. Both require vulnerability. We shed our personas as well as our clothes in sleep and in love. Both call for unconditional surrender. We fall in love. And, we fall asleep. Both sleep and love alter our ordinary consciousness by ushering us into a mysterious and, at times, delirious world of dreams. Just as we can come together in love, we can learn to go together in sleep.