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Ultimately, we need to understand that it's impossible to "go to sleep," as if we're proceeding intentionally toward some destination. We can go to bed, but, as anyone who's had even a single night of insomnia will attest, we can't instigate sleep of our own volition. In fact, any effort we direct at doing so will activate the intentional mind and increase our wakefulness.

Like most of my insomnia clients, both Jonathan and Christina readily came to understand that importing waking-world intentionality into the world of sleep simply wouldn't work. Rather than trying to "go to sleep," I encouraged them to begin a practice of letting go of waking. Letting go of waking is a simple, yet sometimes elusive, process of surrendering our waking sense of self—the person we believe we are during the day.

What Is Sleep?

I think it's useful to look at sleep onset as a personal spiritual practice. Such a practice addresses specific questions about what one needs to feel safe enough to surrender one's waking self. Recognizing the psychological threat associated with this process, sacred traditions around the world offer special bedtime prayers and rituals to create a sense of safety at this juncture. Letting go of our waking self is, in one sense, a profound act of complete surrender to something outside of our selves. It's a kind of dying.

The relationship between sleep and death is archetypal. Tibetan Buddhism teaches that the experience of falling asleep is psychologically equivalent to dying. It's interesting to note that Hypnos's twin brother was Thanatos, the god of death. And, of course, the sleeping are commonly described as being "dead to the world." But this latter notion reflects a waking-world bias, in that it defines sleep strictly in terms of the absence of waking. What are we actually surrendering to when we "die" into sleep? Is there more to sleep than un-(waking world)-consciousness?

Sleep scientists generally say no. It's widely accepted that we can't have any conscious awareness of non-REM or dreamless sleep. Growing empirical and anecdotal evidence, however, is now challenging this belief, suggesting it may well be possible to cultivate awareness of sleep itself. Some accomplished meditators, for example, can generate EEG activity that's reminiscent of deep sleep while they're wide awake. More commonly, people aroused out of normal sleep states report being aware of their sleep.

The popular Beatles lullaby "Golden Slumbers" reminds us of an age-old conviction that sleep is "a way to get back home." I believe that sleep delivers us nightly to an exquisite, sublime state of serenity—a place so still and deeply peaceful that most of us have little or no waking-world frame of reference for retaining it in memory. Being able to achieve this mentally and physically renewing state of complete relaxation is the ultimate reason for cultivating nightmindedness.

Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., is the sleep specialist and clinical assistant professor of medicine in Dr. Andrew Weil's Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and the director of sleep programs for Miraval Resorts. His publications include Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming and Awakening and Healthy Sleep with Dr. Andrew Weil. Contact:

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The following Audio Courses related to this subject or author are available: 

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