Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. This week is a re-broadcast of one of my favorite episodes of Insights at the Edge and one of the episodes that has received the most positive feedback from listeners—Falling in Love with Sleep with Dr. Rubin Naiman.
Rubin Naiman is an internationally recognized leader in integrative sleep and dream medicine. He serves as the sleep specialist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, directed by Dr. Andrew Weil, with whom Dr. Naiman coauthored the Sounds True audio program Healthy Sleep. Also with Sounds True, Dr. Naiman has released the audio program, The Yoga of Sleep: Sacred and Scientific Practices to Heal Sleeplessness.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Rubin and I spoke about the contemporary problem of hyperarousal, how it interferes with healthy sleep, and the psychological roots of hyperarousal in our society. Rubin also shared with us dos and don’ts for getting a good night’s sleep, including useful bedtime rituals and the power of weaning ourselves off of an alarm clock. Finally, Rubin and I spoke about some of the deeper dimensions of sleep, including the function of dreams and what it might mean to approach our life from what he calls a “united states of consciousness,” where we appreciate the commonality that exists between sleeping and waking.
Here’s my very intriguing, helpful, and mind-opening conversation about falling in love with sleep with the man we’ve dubbed “The Sleep Doctor,” Dr. Rubin Naiman.
I joke sometimes that Sounds True should talk about itself as a company that’s helping people go to sleep as much as we’re helping people wake up. The reason is that there is such a need in our culture for people to receive help with the issues of insomnia that they face, that we’ve produced several programs on helping people go to sleep. And so Rubin, to begin with, I’d love your help in understanding how insomnia, and problems with sleeplessness, have become such an epidemic in our culture.
Rubin Naiman: Yes, I think that’s a really important question to start with. And they are an epidemic, I think, by any definition of that term. You know, the numbers are astounding, and they seem to be growing year by year. Conservatively, we have 60 million American adults, and probably many times more around the rest of the world, who struggle with insomnia. At least 20 million struggle with sleep apnea. And other numbers for lesser sleep disorders. But if you step back from formal sleep disorders, the National Sleep Foundation, in their annual polls, generally finds somewhere around 60-70 percent of Americans reporting at least one clinical symptom of sleep disorder at least a few nights every week.
It’s so common, it seems to wash away. It’s just not something that stands out when people chat about their night at the water cooler at work the next day. It is an epidemic, and I think that, even more importantly, the ramifications are quite profound. It’s one of those situations that is so big, it’s hard to grasp, it’s hard to see. But we do need to step back far enough so that we can take a look at it, an honest look at it, and react to it.
We know that chronic sleep loss is a critical factor—it increases the risks for all major disease categories. We’re talking about heart disease, cancers across the board, neurological disorders, autoimmune disorders like arthritis, metabolic disorders like diabetes, and even serious emotional or mental problems. We know, for example, that a year of off-and-on insomnia is the single strongest predictive factor for future clinical depression. So it goes and on and on and on, and what we believe today is what meditates this, the reason the loss of sleep has such a profoundly negative effect on our health, is that it increases chronic inflammation. And I think most of us now are now aware that chronic inflammation is a substrate of all these intense physical and mental problems.
TS: So Rubin, why are we having such a difficult time getting a good night’s sleep, today, in this time in history, in the Western world?
RN: I think the short answer to that is that we’re too clingy around wakefulness. If you ask the average person who can’t fall asleep or stay asleep at night what was going on at that point, they’ll typically say to you: “You know, I’m tired, I’m fatigued, I’m worn out, but I’m just not sleepy enough.” And that truth is—when we take a closer look at it, and we encourage a more mindful view of what’s going on, it turns out that the vast majority of people with insomnia, with sleeplessness, are not insufficiently sleepy. They’re plenty sleepy. But they’re too wakeful.
This is an issue that, I think, has some important spiritual ramifications as well. When we look sleep, most of us know that we define it in terms of levels, or stages. We have stage one: light sleep; stage two: it’s still light but a little deeper; three and four is deep sleep. People get that there are different stages of sleep. But I think one thing that’s so obvious that we tend not to focus on is that there are different levels of waking. We see waking as sort of all or none. I’m awake or I’m asleep. But that’s not true. And if we take even just a quick glance inside at our own experience, most of us won’t acknowledge, “Well, I can be awake to different degrees.”
It turns out that most people with insomnia have something that is now called “hyperarousal.” That’s a technical term for what I would call “too awake,” too excessively awake. Now, we want to be able to sort of peak out with passion during the day. We want to reach certain heights of awareness and experience creativity, or productivity. But we can’t stay at the peak the entire time. And I think a lot people sort of paste their psyches onto that high point and cling there, and then after a while they don’t even recognize that they’re sort of stuck on the ceiling of wakefulness. Even if they come down a little bit, they’re still way up in the air. So the problem is learning how to come down from excessive wakefulness.
TS: Now, I want to dig into this a little bit, because when you were talking about the levels of sleep, I totally tracked with you, and I could imagine kind of light, falling asleep, and then being in a deep, dreamless state of sleep. I get that. How would you describe the different levels of wakefulness?
RN: There’s a common belief that doesn’t hold water—both, I think, culture-wide and also in professional circles around sleep. The belief is that sleeping and waking are essentially opposite and mutually exclusive conditions, and it’s a serious misunderstanding. It just doesn’t hold water. So, somebody wakes you up in the morning and you might say, “Leave me alone, I’m sleeping.” Well, when you’re talking, you are to some degree awake, and the truth is, you may still be to some degree asleep. So we can have degrees of sleep and wakefulness coexist. I think it’s important for people to get for lots of reasons.
I actually—going back a step, then I’ll come back to your question—I believe pretty strongly based on the data we have today, and also based on spiritual perspective of sleep from around the world, that sleep is the default. Meaning, that other things being equal, we are all, always already asleep. And that sleep is a substrate in consciousness. It’s in there. I think a lot of what we refer to [as] elements of serenity and inner peace really are exactly the same as these deeply profound states of sleep. They’re inside of us.
From a scientific perspective it’s interesting, the brain is set up to—it has an “on” button around the production of melatonin that’s always on. It’s set up to produce melatonin all the time. That’s the default. It stops producing melatonin when we’re exposed to light. So that melatonin is suppressed, but it’s always geared to be going. In that sense, metaphorically, we’re always geared to be asleep. So when we try to understand waking consciousness, I think we need to look at it in terms of a hierarchy that goes from a fundamental deep base of serenity and deep sleep that comes up to lighter and lighter stages of waking.
You know, data that we have on studies of long-term, accomplished meditators has indicated for a long time that human beings have the potential of cultivating awareness—what we might call “wakefulness,” but I think “awareness” is a better word—in these deep states of serenity. Now, most of us can’t. Most of us kind of lose consciousness, lose awareness, when we go even into light sleep. Although some people can retain awareness into deep sleep.
So awareness is sort of separate. When we come up that ladder, if you will, from lower states characterized by delta EEG—these are very sort of high-amplitude low-frequency waves, [and] the brain is deeply synchronized—we come up to lighter states of sleep, and what I would call lower stages of waking, where maybe we’re in a sort of restful—alpha states are good examples of that. Alpha states are referred to both as resting wakefulness and wakeful sleep. So an alpha state is a point where the continuity between sleeping and waking becomes evident. We can go up from there, of course, [into] the beta states, which is a whole range of beta states that go up between, say, 12 cycles per second on up towards maybe 30 or 40. Then we can go up into gamma states.
So people can sort of locate their awareness at various points on this ladder, if you will, going up and down. They can also have a broader awareness. There are kinds of coherent or integrated consciousness—I like to think of them [as places] where you can have elements of very deep, serene states of sleep present with highly focused high beta, high gamma states. We can train our consciousness up and down this ladder, if you will. We can train it to be focused on much higher states, or much lower states. And I think an expanded consciousness is one that includes all the states at the same time.
TS: I’m really trying to understand the problem of hyperarousal. So, when we’re hyperaroused, what state are we in?
RN: OK. Let me come at it from another angle. We know what goes on in the body during hyperarousal. There [are] elevated EEG [readings], so we’re in high beta and sometimes low gamma states. So, the brain waves are high frequency, low amplitude. They’re buzzing. The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis—[there is] this sort of neuro-hormonal flow, if energy in the body is highly activated. Hyperarousal is associated with increased metabolic rate around the 24-hour circadian cycle. Hyper arousal is associated with increased core body temperature. So we’re basically running high and running hot. It’s kind of an aerobic consciousness, if you will. And a lot of people habituate that. Probably more women than men in our world, for some obvious reasons. But people spend so much time in it that it becomes their inner standard for waking consciousness.
TS: Now, you said probably more women habituate to it than men, and for obvious reasons, but it wasn’t obvious to me what those reasons are. I’d be curious to know.
RN: We’re in a transition of culture today where many women are saddled with two complete sets of roles. Many of them are playing previous-times roles as mothers and homemakers and so on, and simultaneously taking on roles in the workforce as professionals. So there is data showing that women spend more time working than men. I think they’re pushing a little but harder. And we see significantly more women suffering from insomnia. Some of that may be role-related, some of that may be hormone-related. But we know more women are more hyper-aroused than men.
TS: OK. So I think I get a sense of this hyperarousal epidemic. What are your suggestions for people to escape from hyperarousal as they get into bed at night?
RN: Right. Well, they need to start working on it before they get into bed. I like to say, you want to hit the brakes in your car before it’s actually in the garage. You want to slow down as you’re getting in. You know, I had an opportunity to do some work around Tour de France, and other situations where people intentionally go very fast. One example is if you ask a race car driver what’s the most important part of their car, from my naïve perspective, I thought they would say the motor, the engine. But they’ll actually say the brakes, because the more confident in their ability to slow down and stop, the more confident they feel about going fast.
A lot of folks are hyper-aroused, [and] I think the metaphor for the sports car is fitting for them. And it’s fine to be agile and go fast. But the stronger the engine, the faster you can go, the better brakes you need. Some people identity with airplanes, you know, high-flying jets and leer jets and so on, and I think that that’s fine, too. I think it’s OK to get hyperaroused, but if you’re a jet, you need a longer runway. And so this is about slowing down, really getting that you need more braking time, more time to descend.
I think the short answer to this is about developing a personalized bedtime ritual. You know, being able to shift gears. First of all, recognizing the altitude or the speed that one is moving at, really getting that, and then getting the sense for when they need to hit the brakes, when they need to descend. Now this is different for different people, though I think there’s some common elements. I think it’s just very helpful to start literally moving more slowly at night.
Related to that, I routinely recommend that people dim their lights. I’ve written and spoken extensively about my belief that in our world we have a darkness deficiency—we need more time in dim light and dark space. And there’s really good evidence for this. Darkness also slows us down. If you simply dim the lights in your home at night, you’ll find you’ll walk a little more slowly. You know, when we slow down our large motor movements, we literally will slow down our thinking. We’ll start to slow down. So dimming the lights at night is really helpful. I think also doing some ritual in which you shift into another element, and this is about maybe taking a warm bath, a Jacuzzi, a shower. Doing some kind of ritual where there’s cleansing, but there’s also this movement, this slowing into another element, very helpful.
A third piece would be some kind of process around letting go of the day. Probably the most common way of doing this is journaling. And I think journaling is great. I think people can also journal verbally, or orally, if somebody’s with a partner. It’s a wonderful joint practice to slow down together and just process the day. As a part of that, I also think it’s helpful to not only look at your day in terms of the sequence of events, what went on, and one’s emotional or cognitive reactions, but I think it’s helpful at this point in the day to review your day as if it was a dream.
This is about bedtime stories. I think we are better when we can wrap the day up with a bedtime story. Most of what goes down as bedtime stories are metaphors that we can identify with. You know, they’re different journeys that people have. But I think we can also create our own personal bedtime story by looking back at this day as one page in our lives. Even if the day was filled with sort of ordinary, mundane tasks, to try to re-position and re-consider, re-contextualize them in the larger picture of the journey of our own lives. It think it really helps us let go of the day if we can assign meaning to it. So that’s the intention of processing and journaling at the end of the day.
One last piece is related to how we get into bed. And I think this is a very important piece. I really enjoy talking to people about this. I’ve asked lots or people over the years specifically about their bedtime ritual. And the most common one—there’s actually data on this—is that at bedtime, people are typically sitting up in bed. Many people are reading. Some people are watching TV. And some people are doing both. There’s kind of a clinging to the waking world, particularly with television. A lot of people then resist going down. They resist sort of letting go, even though they’re sleepy and their head is bobbing. Often what they’re trying to do there is crank up their sleepiness.
There’s a common misbelief, what I would actually consider a dysfunctional belief in our world, that a good sleeper is somebody who goes out the moment their head hits the pillow. They go out like a light. And this is actually a pretty common complaint—or, I should, say it’s an envy that’s voiced by lots of partners. They’ll say, “My bed partner is a great sleeper, goes out like a light when their head hits the pillow.” If you routinely fall asleep quickly like that, it’s not a sign of being a good sleeper. In fact, it could be a sign of a sleep disorder, because you’re excessively sleepy at bedtime. I think it’s really important to wind down more slowly.
So here’s the recommended alternative. First of all, I left out a piece of this, and that’s before people get into bed, I think the most common practice is setting the alarm clock for the next day. And it’s a really interesting practice for a number of reasons. So, people set their alarm clock and get into bed and then try to nod out. When we routinely wake up with an alarm, we’re doing a couple of things: We’re snipping off the tip, the tail end of our dreaming process, because we do most of our dreaming as we’re awakening. And number two, if we routinely wake up with an alarm, we’re snipping off the end of our sleep and we’re never getting enough sleep. So there’s a simple practice where people can go to bed a little earlier each night and work it out so that they can wake up without an alarm.
But the other piece of this, the critical piece in setting an alarm, has to do with a question that I love to ask people. And that question is, “Where do you go when you go to sleep? Where do you go?” Some of that is evident when the light goes out. You know, people pull the blanket up, [put their] heads on the pillow, and it’s evident in what people think. Most people I ask, when I ask people to tell me what their thoughts are, most people tell me they think about the next day. They think about simple things like, “What will I wear in the morning?” “What will I feed the kids?” “I’ve got to get the car to the shop,” “I’ve got a dental appointment.” This and that and the other thing.
I find it really interesting, because if you look at sleep as—I would think of think of it as sort of an overnight spiritual getaway. If you look into this as sort of a little vacation you’re taking, or a respite, a spiritual respite from the day, it’s interesting that people spend—people go into this vacation focusing on what they’re going to do when they get home. So they descend into the waters of sleep without a conscious intention. They descend into the waters of sleep without a conscious intention of experiencing sleep. Instead they’re focused on sort of a shoreline of [the] next morning’s awakening.
I think this is a really critical factor affecting both the depth of our sleep and the larger relationship we have with sleep. So what I encourage people to do as part of this ritual of getting to sleep is just simply consider the possibility that there’s something in sleep itself that is of great mystery, of great potential value. There’s something obviously in the world of dreams, but also in the deep serenity that comes with sleep. And when one goes to sleep, to allow oneself to aim for that, to allow oneself to descend and enjoy. I talk about a mindful approach to sleep, and it’s a little tricky, but the metaphor here is keeping your mind’s eye, keeping our third eye open, as you’re descending into sleep.
TS: Well, it’s interesting listening to you Rubin. You’re really reframing the sleep process in a pretty radical way. Not as something that’s a means to an end—which is that I wake up the next day feeling refreshed and ready to hit it again in waking consciousness—but that it’s really an end in and of itself.
RN: I really appreciate your saying that. Thank you. Yes. Sleeping is, in one sense, a means to an end, but it’s that’s the way most of us, including mostly professionals, see it. We see sleep as being functional. And we do this with food, as well, today. The truth is, foods are functional—you talk about functional medicine. I think when I hear somebody say, “I’m going to have some salmon for dinner tonight because I haven’t had my omega-3 fatty acids this week,” it’s a little heartbreaking, you know? Have salmon if you really enjoy salmon. You can know that it’s going to boost your omega-3s.
Sleep does some wonderful things for us, you know. It improves our immunity. It improves our stamina. It improves our memory. It improves the away we look in the world. It helps us stay healthy. It is really functional. But if those are the only reasons we go to sleep, we’re losing, I think, what is sleep’s greatest gift. I think it’s a gracious gift. I think in sleep we’re taken freely, with no effort, into a place of incredible serenity, incredible beauty, incredible healing. A place that, I think for many of us, we have such limited waking world references for that we frequently, we immediately, forget the experience. But yet it’s not just functional, it’s something joyous.
I’m writing a piece now about falling love with sleep. I just did a conference and there are people who take me aside and they will whisper things like, “I love sleep.” They don’t want the people around them to hear that, because it’s almost like it’s a deeply intimate spiritual belief that they know other people won’t understand and they’re protecting it. And some of these folks really mean it. You can come to a place in your life where you appreciate sleep as much as waking. And [for] some people, maybe even more than waking.
TS: Now, I want to cycle back to one thing that you said, which is this idea that I could wake up without the alarm clock, and make it in on time to work for my various appointments, etc. How long a commitment would it take, how many days would I have to go to bed early such that I could start waking up, say, at 6 or 7 [a.m.] reliably without an alarm clock?
RN: I think it really depends on the amount of sleep debt an individual is carrying. A lot of people have been cutting their sleep short for weeks, months, and even years. It doesn’t appear from research findings that we have to pay back our entire sleep debt, but I think it could be a matter of weeks for the average person. But it’s really about experimentation, and just allowing oneself to spend a little more time in bed. And maybe just backing up that bedtime for a while. Maybe going to bed an hour earlier, noting when one is sleeping, going to bed a little earlier, and then you can continue to use the alarm clock for a while. It may be that after a week or two you’ll wake up 5 or 10 or 15 minutes before then. And then you’ve got it beat.
I think getting rid of the alarm clock is an incredibly good idea. First of all, it doesn’t set us up to—it sets us up to go to sleep and not to the next morning’s waking. But also most alarm clocks today have digital displays, and even that little bit of light can be unhealthy. Particularly for women. It suppresses melatonin. Most plug-in alarm clocks also give off a little electromagnetic field. A lot of people sleep pretty close to their bedstand, and this thing, although it attenuates quickly, it can affect melatonin levels in your brain. So there are lots of reasons to lose the alarm clock.
TS: And so you suggest that it’s best to sleep in total darkness.
RN: Yes. This is something we’ve known for a number of years. You know, the word “light” is a term we associate with “good” things—spirituality, and the divine, and being informed, and so on. But the metaphor loses its value at night. We associate light with “good” things and dark with “bad” things, right? Dark is associated with dark nights of the soul, the Prince of Darkness. My hope for the redemption of the word “dark” comes with its newfound association with chocolate. I think over time we’re going to love the word dark a whole lot more than we do.
There’s evidence that sleeping even with a small amount of lights on, like night-lights, can actually increase the risk for cancer. Being in relatively bright lights, like being up at night working, shows a dramatic increase in risk for cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization not long ago listed shift work—which of course keeps people up and exposed to light at night—as a probable carcinogen. So it’s good to sleep in the dark, yes.
TS: Now, in listening to you, the other observation that I’m making is you talked about our sleep debt. And I thought to myself, “Oh, we have another debt crisis here on our hands.”
TS: And I’m curious what you think is the psychological roots of our attachment to waking consciousness? What’s really going on that as a culture we’re so attached to this state of hyperarousal?
RN: Yes. I can share my personal opinion. I don’t know that it’s a greater truth, but I can just share how it looks to me. I think that some of it has to do with sort of the notion of original sin, in the sense that I think many of us have grown up believing that we have to earn redemption, that we have to work really hard to prove that we are good people, loveable people, to achieve the success that would be a reflection that the divine is blessing us.
Many of us, I think, have learned to work too hard. Now, I’m not opposed to hard work when it’s work that’s driven by joy and creativity. But I think so many people—I think as Winston Churchill said, most of the world’s work is done by people that don’t feel very well. That’s a different kind of work, and I think that’s part of the drive behind this excessive, we might even call it an addiction, to waking consciousness. That we have to prove something.
TS: I think that’s helpful. I think that’s important. Now, Rubin you did a fabulous job of talking about how we might hit the brakes gradually before we pull into the garage, under the covers, in our bed, but I’m curious: what about that person who wakes up in the middle of the night reliably, [at] 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m., and goes, “Oh, S-H-I-T, I can’t believe I’m awake again. I’m not going to get a good night’s sleep.” What should I do? Should I stay in bed? Do I get up and, you know, do some yoga practice? Or, what do I do?
RN: Yes. That’s a great question. And that’s exactly what they say. It’s very common that people wake up and respond to that awakening with an expletive. And one thing we know for sure is waking up and reflexively cursing your awakening will probably not help you get back to sleep.
So a couple of things: One is, more often than not, what wakes us up is not what keeps us awake. What wakes us up is not what keeps us awake. So we might have to wake up to use the restroom, and that’s perfectly normal. We would wake up, we would be partially awake, and then we’d go back to bed and go back to sleep. We might wake up because we have some indigestion. We might wake up in response to a hot flash. We might wake up as, actually, a natural phenomenon. There is some evidence from some historical data that people prior to the industrial revolution would routinely awaken every night for an hour or two with something called “night watch.” And it was actually a sacred time. So there are lots of reasons people wake up.
Going back the point of awakening, I think it’s really critical to begin with forgiving nighttime wakefulness. And this is actually true if we’re having trouble falling asleep or waking up. Too often we go to war with that. We go to battle with it. And of course that’s kind of a typical posture in our world toward any kind of problem: we fight it. We fight illness, we battle symptoms, and so on. But what’s needed at night is just an open-hearted receptiveness. If we awaken, it’s really OK. Waking up in the middle of the night is, most of the time, a normal reaction. It’s our response, our appraisal, our reaction to the reaction that tends to keep us awake. And that example of hurling an expletive at it is very common. So I think if people can—if they awaken, just be with that, be mindful of it, notice the stillness, maybe notice what’s going on in their bodies and in their thoughts. And if they can do that from a place of acceptance and peace, more often than not, I think they’ll drift back to sleep.
When people awaken and they find that they’re experiencing what I call “cognitive popcorn,” where the mind is just popping all of these thoughts left and right, in moments like that when there’s some agitation in the background, and that does happen, it’s really helpful to get out of bed. You don’t want your bed filling up with popcorn. You don’t want the bed associated with or classically conditioned for wakefulness. And so we recommend, and this is a standard conventional sleep medicine recommendation, very gently, without beating oneself up, getting out of bed, sitting down somewhere away from the bed. My suggestion is that people sit quietly in meditation or prayer with the lights off or dim. Keeping night there, and wait for what I call the “single bob rule,” and you wait for your head to bob. And when your head bobs, it means you’re starting to fall back asleep. You go back to bed.
In cases where there’s a lot of agitation, sometimes people are in and out of their bed quite a bit, but reducing the number of minutes one spends awake in bed, night after night, will actually increase the propensity to sleep when one wakes up in the middle of the night. So you want to take your wakefulness gently out of bed, and then go back bed when you’re starting to feel sleepy.
TS: And what about this idea of how many hours I need to sleep in order to be healthy? Meaning, I’ve heard some people say, “I can only sleep a couple of hours a night and I’m fine, because I meditate and do spiritual practice and I don’t really need very much sleep.” Other people [might] say, “If I don’t get eight or nine hours, I’m a zombie the next day.” I think part of the reason people have that expletive when they wake up in the middle of the night is this idea that if I don’t get x number of hours of sleep, I’m going to be a mess the next day. Is that a myth? Or is it different for different people? What’s going on?
RN: Well, it is different for different people. There are probably a very small, tiny percentage of people who are true short sleepers and can get by with very little sleep. But they’re far and few between. There are also lots of people who need at least 9 or 10 hours, or some even 11 hours a night and it’s considered normal. Einstein, I understand, routinely slept 10 hours a night.
The most common question I’m asked when I speak in different places is “How many hours of sleep should I get?” And it’s a little bit like asking, “How many calories should I eat?” Of course, you would say, “It depends. How old are you? How much exercise do you get? What’s your weight? Are you pregnant?” It really depends on circumstances.
The best measure of whether or not one is getting sufficient sleep is looking at how one’s energy flows the next day, keeping in mind that there’s a normal ebb and flow of energy. We’re not machines, we don’t hum steadily through the day. It’s absolutely normal for energy to dip in the middle of the afternoon, actually it has little dips through the day with ultradian rhythms, but we get a bigger dip in the middle of our waking day because we’re all programmed to take naps whether we override that or not. So energy ebbs and flows, but if you can get through without relying heavily on stimulants or high glycemic foods, you know supercharged, what I call counterfeit energies, then you’re probably getting enough sleep.
The concern about a difficult next day is a common one, and it’s one that contributes to a difficult next day. If people wake up and they’re anxious about what the wakefulness is going to do to them the next day, then they’re going to have more trouble falling to sleep, and of course it’s going to spin round and round. The deeper truth, and I think one worth repeating, is that we are just remarkably resilient beings, you know? We’re just resilient. And we’ve got good bumpers. We can take a bad night or two. I think we need to be careful about what we do that day. If somebody’s up the entire night, for example, energy will ebb and flow, you won’t just be keeling over into sleep the next day. We’re made to take that. I think when people remember that they can deal with a bad night, it also helps minimize the anxiety about having a bad night.
TS: It’s very interesting to me that you said that some of us actually do need 9, 10, or even 11 hours of sleep, and the fact that you put Einstein in that list of people who benefitted from 10-ish hours of sleep. Because I think there’s this idea sometimes that if you need 9, 10, 11 hours of sleep, that something’s wrong with you. Are you lazy? Are you sick? What’s wrong with you that you need that much sleep?
RN: Right. I think that’s really common. In fact, when I hear about what we call long sleepers, people sleeping 9, 10, 11 hours, I secretly think they’re blessed. You know, they’re really blessed.
TS: Now Rubin, I want to ask you a personal question, which is, in listening to you and hearing you describe an article you’re writing, “Falling in Love with Sleep,” I would describe you, as, you know, the man who loves sleep—loves the phenomenon of sleep, loves the benefits of sleep. How did this happen in your life that you fell in love with sleep?
RN: I’m not sure how to answer that. And I don’t think, honestly, that it’s that unusual. I think there are lots of people around. Maybe I’m just one of the few who’s willing to admit it, because, you know, the 60 million insomniacs get a little frustrated with you when they hear that. I do love sleep. And I can say I take naps when I can. And there’s just—when I crawl into bed at night, or when I get on the couch to take a nap, I sometimes will just giggle to myself.
There’s just something beautiful about keeping sleep close at hand. This is something I first saw with my dog, who’s been gone for awhile, but years ago I used to watch him. And we would romp and play and I’d throw things, and we’d be doing things and we’d be active. [But] if I stopped to talk to somebody, or get on the phone or something, he would, within 10 seconds, just be right asleep. It’s like he had something right as his side. I think animals do that, they keep sleep close at hand. It’s just there. It’s like, if you’re not doing anything, it’s like, “That’s fine, don’t worry about me. I’ll take a nap.” So I’ve learned a bit from dogs, and a little bit from cats about that. To keep sleep close at hand.
We were talking earlier about consciousness, and I think, when we have—it’s sort of like carrying a secret with you. I think about people who smoke tobacco, for example. When I used to work with smokers, would say, “Cigarettes are my friend.” They love the fact that they could keep a pack in their pocket, and they’d have it accessible, right there. I sort of feel that way with sleep, you know? It’s a friend that you can carry with you. It’s a source of joy and peace that you can carry at your side. And I think it’s there for everybody. It doesn’t really require any practice. In order to get good sleep, there’s just more stuff that you have to let go of, but nothing you have to acquire. It doesn’t require fancy equipment. You can do it in many places. You can learn to sleep in even some very odd positions.
I think that the more I learn about sleep, honestly, the most important things about sleep [are] not from books—well, some from ancient spiritual writings—but I think mostly from listening to other people talk about their sleep. It’s something we tend not to do. Because we presume that sleep is unconsciousness, and inaccessible from consciousness. The notion of falling in love with sleep seems foreign to people. But I don’t know, I think it’s such an obvious thing. It’s such an incredible gift to all of us. The world of sleep is available; it’s ready and available to everybody.
TS: Now Rubin, there are many, many things that I’m considering talking to you about in the little bit of time we have left, but I want to make sure that we talk about what you find the deepest level of interest for you in sleep, and the world of sleep. So I want to go right to that. And I don’t want to guess, but I want you to tell me: what aspect of sleep do you currently find the most intriguing and interesting, and important to you?
RN: Yes. I’d say two things equally. One is dreaming. I’ve been interested in dreaming for 30 years, and it’s what led me into a deeper interest in sleep. But there are two separate, really distinct and disparate views of dreaming: One is the study of dreams, the psychological or psycho-spiritual study of the dream. You know, its meaning, its interpretation, and so on. And the other is the more neurocognitive, physiological study of REM sleep, and I’ve been interested in both. Over the years it’s been a great challenge and kind of fun work trying to triangulate the two. What is this thing? What does the dream look like from a bifocal view, looking at it both through the eyes of both neurophysiology and psychology? So dreaming [is important,] and then of the subjective experiences, of course. I think dreaming is just fascinating.
In short, what I believe today is that dreaming and waking are actually the same. That waking is dream consciousness that has been contained and framed and channeled and sort of grounded by the body, by somatic experience. It’s shaped by sensory experience and motor output, so that the dream gets channeled through the body and it becomes a waking. When the dream’s no longer confined or constrained or framed within sensory experience, within the body, it’s what we experience at night. It becomes expansive and ephemeral and mystical. So I think we can learn so much about consciousness by a descent into the dream.
Dreaming is part of sleeping. You know, dreaming—I believe we dream all the time. But dreaming becomes most evident, most visible through the windows of REM sleep. I think of REM sleep as being these windows that cycle through the night, they get larger and larger. They’re picture windows through which we can most clearly see the dream. So that’s a big part of it. The dream, I think, is a constant reminder to me that the world is so much bigger than what appears, you know, there’s resonance behind all things. And bringing a dream consciousness, what I think of as sort of a macro-spective posture toward the waking life, I find is both enjoyable and it’s a great relief. There’s a lot of detail behind that, I’m sure I can’t go into now.
TS: But you’re saying something very wild here, and I want to see that I’m following you. When you’re saying waking and dreaming are the same, you mean that there’s sort of a range of experiences that are available to us that express themselves differently when we’re asleep than we’re awake? But that there’s a—I mean, help me, I’m not sure I fully understand you, Rubin.
RN: I’m working on some writing now that’s called The United States of Consciousness. I think that in our world, for some cultural and psychological reasons, we segregate consciousness. So one example we talked about earlier was we look at sleep and waking as being opposite, mutually exclusive conditions. And they’re not. We look at dreaming and waking as being opposite, mutually exclusive conditions. I think we even install these artificial boundaries between waking and sleeping, and sleeping and dreaming, and waking and dreaming. And if we begin looking at those boundaries, we can actually restore them to their original permeability. We see a continuity of consciousness, a way of being aware in which there are elements of wakefulness and sleep and dreaming simultaneously. Sort of a whole being consciousness, if you will.
The Jungians have talked for years about the waking dream. And when you look at the night dream, the night dream has certain qualities, a certain way of seeing. For example, when we dream, pretty much everything that shows up in the dream is deemed meaningful. If you dream about something ordinary that you wouldn’t think twice about in waking life, when you wake up from it you go, “Oh my God, I dreamt about a cat, what does that mean?” Or, “I dreamt about a cloud or a feather, or a tree, or a person.” Things that we deem relatively meaningless, or not important in waking life.
There’s something about dream consciousness that just presumes meaning in all things. So that’s one example. We can carry that way of seeing into waking life. And then we have an element of the dream, of dream consciousness present in waking. Frankly, I think creative people do this intuitively. They’ve learned to see through dreamy or dreaming eyes into the waking world. And they see beyond what most of us would see with ordinary eyes. Does that make sense?
TS: It does. And I think that the “united states of consciousness” is a very helpful phrase that clues me into what you’re saying here. Now, was there a second thing that you wanted to say about the sort of deeper waters...
RN: About sleep?
RN: I hinted at it before. I think it’s serenity. I found years ago, I was at one point going through sort of a crisis point in my life. I was going through the end of a relationship and my days were filled with angst and neurosis, you know, fear, grief, and all that. And at that time, it was so notable that I would wake up feeling really good. Until the second I remembered my name. And then it’s ka-chunk, it’s as if my personality was downloaded in a flash and then I’d start feeling crappy again. But what I learned then, I began exploring this, that sleep took me, sleep dipped me into this beautiful—the waters of healing, this space of serenity. And typically when we wake up, we kind of reconstruct the waking self, even before we become conscious.
Some of it’s conscious. When we awaken, many people, before they open their eyes, will think about what day it is. And they’ll go, “Oh, it’s Wednesday, or it’s Saturday,” and, you know, when I am and where I’m positioned in time has an impact. Most people, for example, have a different sense of self on a Saturday than they do on a Monday. And then also in that awakening process there’s an orientation to place. There’s something that people will experience if they’re traveling, you know? You wake up and you get, even before you open your eyes, that you’re not even in your own bed. You get oriented to where you are.
And then the [thought] that comes even before, that I think we can cultivate awareness of, is that we can actually come to, we can awaken, before we remember our names, before we download our waking world personality. And that’s the part of us that’s just emerging from the waters of sleep. We’re still wet with this beautiful warm serenity. I think [doing] that can allow us to carry some of this incredible peace and healing from the world of sleep and the world of dreaming back into the world of waking.
It always reminds me of that wonderful Rumi poem: “Don’t go back to sleep. The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.” He talks about the door being round and open. Don’t go back to sleep. So this, you know, we can create a permeability, an openness—we can keep the door open between that night consciousness world and the day world. And I think when we do, we carry into waking both serenity from sleep and we carry mystery and expansiveness from the dream.
TS: One final question, Rubin. I’m often asked this a lot by people who are deeply into spiritual practice. And they want to know if certain spiritual teachers are able to maintain a sense of awareness 24/7. So even in the deepest states of sleep, there’s still some quality that they could call “awareness” that is there in this united states of consciousness. And I’m curious what your view and experience is of that.
RN: Well, my personal experience is, I think, somewhat limited. It is something I’ve worked on cultivating, carrying, and sort of keeping [the] third eye open into sleep, and I have to caution people. When I first started doing this it actually disrupted my sleep, and I think it was because I was keeping more of the scientific observer in the awake and carrying it into sleep. And that’s not the part of us that can really help us there.
There are writings by a number of spiritual teachers. The two that I’m most familiar with are Sri Aurobindo and Mother, the woman with him, and Rudolf Steiner. In their works, there’s reference to awareness in sleep. Sri Aurobindo, and Mother in particular, wrote about retaining constant awareness through waking and through sleep. And I think she was someone who officially, technically, slept very little—maybe two, three hours a night—but she did write and she would talk about how she wouldn’t lose consciousness, and there wasn’t a need to lose consciousness. I think when consciousness is that soft, is that loving and compassionate, it doesn’t interfere with the serenity, with the deep rest that comes in sleep. So she could be present with it, without reacting to it. Which I think many of us would. But yes, there is evidence. And I’m sure there’s a lot more evidence.
The Dali Lama once said that sleep is the best meditation. And the Tibetan Buddhists have this elaborate set of sleep and dream yogas—I understand very challenging yogas, in which students are encouraged to cultivate mindfulness both of dreaming and sleeping. And I should add that I think in contrast how we look at it in the Western world, these students are encouraged not to meddle with their dreams. When we think of lucid dreaming, we think of taking waking world control and power and importing it into the night, you know? But they’re encouraged not to do that. They’re encouraged just to be there and witness, and not to alter it. But I do think it’s a distinct possibility.
TS: Rubin, thank you so much for speaking with us. I’ve been having a wonderful conversation here with Dr. Rubin Naiman, who will be the host of a three-part live online video series with Sounds True called Ask the Sleep Doctor. Beginning on November 2, you’ll have your chance to ask questions to Dr. Rubin Naiman, who we’ve dubbed “The Sleep Doctor,” and learn essential practices for healthy sleep and dreaming. Dr. Rubin Naiman has also published with Sounds True a program along with Dr. Andrew Weil called Healthy Sleep: Wake Up Refreshed and Energized with Proven Practices for Optimum Sleep, and also a two-session program called The Yoga of Sleep: Sacred and Scientific Practices to Heal Sleeplessness.
You’re certainly in a profession where we need you, Dr. Naiman, so thank you.
RN: It’s been a great pleasure, Tami. Thank you so much.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voice, one journey.