Discovering a Whole New World of Sleep

"We are in dire need of restoring our sense of sleep’s mythic dimensions – of reimagining our personal experience of sleep. I believe this can be best accomplished through poetry, spirituality and, ultimately, personal investigation." Dr. Rubin Naiman

This Thursday, our community will gather for an event with Dr. Rubin Naiman, one of the country's preeminent sleep specialists. Despite being a doctor, Dr. Naiman believes we have to take a much wider approach to understanding our sleeping lives than that which we learn from a strictly scientific perspective. Read on for a short, fascinating Q & A that barely scrapes the surface of what we'll discuss Thursday. 

Tell me a bit about what brought you to your work?

My primary interest since I was a teenager is consciousness. And that is really a question about aliveness, sentience. I wondered, what do these come from? Early on in college, that led me to an interest in dreaming. I worked for ten years with a focus on the relationship with dreaming and health. Specifically, I did a lot of work with cancer patients and the connection between cancer, health, and dreaming. I joined the staff of Canyon Ranch (a world-renowned health resort) in 1990 and opened the sleep center there. I began looking at sleep and dreams from what we today call an integrative perspective, which is we used to call holistic. It’s a comprehensive approach that brings together the worlds of science/medicine and consciousness/spirituality. If you triangulate it, it looks different than what most of us have come to believe and what our culture believes. Merging the scientific with psychological and spiritual approaches has some pretty profound implications. We have some raging issues surrounding sleep, and despite what we’re doing it’s not getting better. We’ve overly domesticated sleep. It’s almost like sleep is this wild consciousness that can’t be contained in the realm of waking. 

Which spiritual modalities are most valuable to our sleep? 

So much has been written about sleep from eastern traditions, specifically Buddhist and Hindu. Some of these writings go back four to five-thousand years. The science emerging in recent decades matches up with what these ancient meditators found; it’s not a surprise. The problem today is we tend to approach things just with science, which gives us a limited, myopic view. Today, there’s so much effort to reduce consciousness to the brain. What we need to understand is that the brain doesn’t sleep, the body doesn’t sleep, we do. As humans. And we’ve lost sight of that. Sleep science has taught us a lot about what sleep looks like in the brain, but very little about the sleepy people. People think sleep lies outside their grasp. This opens the door to people relying on alcohol and medication. When we reduce it to its biological function, people lose faith in their ability to sleep. Our personal experience, our sentience, and what we feel is equally important to the objective experience of the science. We need to find a balance between the experience and science. The reason most people stumble when trying to sleep is that the part of us we call I, the waking self, is totally incapable of sleeping. From the perspective of the waking self, falling asleep is an accident. The part of me that I call “I,” we cannot make an accident happen. It requires a relinquishing of waking self. 

I’ve always wondered about the connection between sleep and death, and have had experiences where I felt like in going to sleep; I was completely resetting my life. What are your thoughts on that? 

Sleep and dreams are lot bigger than waking. Some cultures call it cleaning! Many say the psyche leaves the body when we sleep. Sleep is an out of body experience where cleaning happens. The cleaning crew comes to us. Here there needs to be a separation of body and mind. The body goes down to sleep. We let the body go and in a sense return the body to the earth. Then mind rises. For many, the body and mind get stuck together. They float up a little bit.  People stuck in limbo. From the Greek mythological perspective, the Greek god of sleep was Hypnos, but his brother was Thanatos, the God of death. 

We're so excited to learn more at our event with you. Can you recommend any first steps we can take on our own to better understand our sleep or dreaming?

Yes! The last large piece I wrote is published on the British website Aeon. It's called "Falling For Sleep and is an overview of the relationship of spiritual and mythological perspectives. It’s a great place to start! At the event, we'll talk about liberating sleep and dreams from the constraint of common consciousness and how to make sleep a benevolent force in your life!

To join us for Wild Sleep and Dreams :