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Lying With Lions and Lambs: Why Clergy Should Help Heal Sleeplessness

By Dr. Rubin Naiman

Whether as a biblical icon or a secular notion, the image of the lion lying down with the lamb is one familiar to most of us. For some, it symbolizes an unattainable utopian state. For others, it holds the promise of a miracle in which opposite forces come to peace. This image is also suggestive of the most critical personal and cultural challenges underlying the sleep epidemic as well as the potential role of clergy in healing it.

Despite frequently being depicted in repose, the lion commonly symbolizes vigilance, power, and aggressiveness. In sharp contrast, the lamb is associated with innocence, amity, and submissiveness. Getting the lion and lamb parts of ourselves to lie together peacefully may be our greatest personal challenge to obtaining healthy sleep. Sleeplessness is strongly linked to hyperarousal — a relentless lionesque vigilance — as well as an insufficient lamb-like submissiveness to sleep.

Too much lion and not enough lamb also characterize our society’s fundamental posture toward sleep. Conventional approaches to the treatment of sleeplessness are lionesque, that is, informed by a highly aggressive medical posture. Rather than cultivating lamb-like submissiveness to invoke sleep, we are encouraged to fire heavy rounds of sleep medications to stun the lion.

This personal and cultural imbalance of lion and lamb is rooted in the medicalization of sleep. Over recent decades, sleep has been abducted from its natural home in our personal lives and become the exclusive province of the healthcare industry. Viewing sleep as an essentially scientific phenomenon shrouded in medical complexities obscures its deeply personal and exquisitely spiritual dimensions.

Restoring sleep to its natural home requires balancing our scientific, medical views with more traditional, sacred views of sleep. This is less a doctor’s responsibility, more of a clerical challenge. Priests, ministers, rabbis, imams and other spiritual leaders are in a better position to remind their followers that sleep is not simply a lionesque biomedical force, but also a lamb-like spiritual experience.

The stereotypic image of congregants nodding out during services reminds us of a key forgotten truth about sleep. People don’t actually fall asleep at sermons because they are bored. They fall asleep because they are sleepy. And, perhaps even more importantly, because they feel safe. Not just physically and emotionally safe, but also spiritually safe. Is there a kind of deep soul safety we experience in being part of a flock?

Because it stems from an undercurrent of deep trepidation, deep spiritual safety is precisely what we need to antidote the ubiquitous hyperarousal that undermines so much of our sleep. Cognitive-behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which has been shown to be safer and more effective than sleeping pills, generally addresses physical and emotional safety issues. Though this might be sufficient for some, many more could benefit from directly addressing issues of spiritual safety.

Spiritual safety stems from faith. Given that nearly three-fourths of Americans express a belief in God, hyperarousal can and should also be approached as a spiritual challenge — a question of faith — for those individuals. Not surprisingly, early research in this arena has revealed a link between religious doubt and poor sleep quality.

Beyond all the scientific complexities associated with it, falling asleep can be understood as an act of faith. The submission to sleep requires extending trust to something greater than ourselves. Sheep, of course, sleep best in the company of the flock and shepherd. The process of getting to sleep, then, can be approached as an opportunity for spiritual practice.