By Dr. Rubin Naiman
“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. What can render even the scariest movies tolerable is maintaining some awareness that we are seated safely in a cinema or in our living rooms. Bad dreams and nightmares are a normal part of sleep and more manageable if we maintain mindfulness of the fact that we are truly safe — resting securely in the theater of our beds.
As the ego dissolves into the sea of sleep, it opens us to the vast and numinous world of dreams. Our willingness not to run and hide from our nightmares allows us to stay in conversation with this exquisite world. Chronic dismissal and loss of our dreams bleaches the color and mystery from our lives, leaving us mired in the mundane. Depth psychologists have traditionally viewed depression in terms of a loss of one’s dreams.
There is considerable spiritual as well as scientific literature supporting our potential to cultivate lucidity, that is, awareness or mindfulness of our dreams as they are occurring. Most of us view the dream through our ordinary waking world eyes, which is tantamount to looking at the night sky through sunglasses. Among other benefits, the practice of lucid dreaming teaches us to see with a new set of eyes — our dream eyes. We can also learn to use our dream eyes while awake to experience the waking dream, the numinous dream-like context of waking life.
Sleep is both a great escape and a gracious return.
In her youth, my mother came to love sleep predominantly as a great escape. Over the years, however, she also came into deep appreciation of where sleep took her. Despite her life-long struggle with PTSD, she continued to sleep and dream quite well until she passed away in her 80s — peacefully and, of course, in her sleep.
We all have the freedom to take from sleep what we need. We can and should use it for escape, respite and restoration. And we can also practice remaining open to sleep as a nightly return to a state of grace by bringing more mindfulness to bed.