Healing our sleep disturbances requires more than adherence to sleep hygiene regimens, a high tech mattress and the proper dose of melatonin. Our common tendency to reduce sleep to a biomedical process has led to a mindless and mechanistic approach that overshadows our personal relationship with sleep.

We don't get sleep because we don't 'get' sleep. We cling to limited presumptions about sleep that compromise our efforts at healing it. A mindful approach to sleep must begin with an examination of our mindlessness about it.  In recent years cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) has offered us just that. In contrast to conventional medical approaches, effective CBT-I strategies have drawn attention to the key role that dysfunctional mental processes play in screwing up our sleep. I believe mindfulness is a natural and absolutely necessary extension of such cognitive behavioral approaches.

We cultivate a more mindful approach by tuning into the subtle, delicate and nuanced experiences associated with sleep. This may include observing 1) bodily sensations such as heaviness, lightness, energy and stillness, 2) mental experiences such as thoughts, feelings, judgments and expectations, and 3) psychospiritual postures such as the desire to control or willingness to surrender.

Such observation should be casual, that is, non-analytic and unhampered by intentions. The specific focus of a mindful sleep practice can include anything and everything associated with preparing for, drifting off into and arising from nightly sleep as well as daytime naps.  I suggest practicing in the following five arenas:

1) Investigate dusk and darkness. Reduce your use of light at night and tune into the subtle shifts in consciousness around the gradual onset of night. What do you see when you keep your eyes open in the dark? What emotions does this elicit?

2) Carefully explore the bridge between waking and sleep. Notice where you go when you first "go to sleep." Where does your attention go when the light goes out? Does it descend with you into slumber's the watery consciousness? Or, does it just leap ahead to the next morning's awakening?

3) Flirt with sleepiness. Notice the gentle hold of gravity over your body. Let sleepiness build in your eyelids and arms, legs and torso. Do you experience any push back against it? And, be mindful of the sensation of letting go, of submission to sleep. As much as you can, notice how waking consciousness dissolves into your sleeping self?

4) Explore any nighttime wakefulness you may experience. Whether it's a momentary awakening to use the restroom or a more protracted encounter with insomnia, notice your reactions. Are you accepting of such arousals? Or, do you react with judgments, battles or self-recrimination?

5) In contrast to the common practice of shooting out of bed upon awakening, let yourself arise slowly and mindfully in the morning. Linger in your bed, in your grogginess for a few moments. Of course, this is more easily accomplished without an alarm clock. We do not typically awaken in the morning from sleep, but from our dreams. Without expectation, just notice what arises with you when you arise more slowly. Can you catch translucent glimpses of dream images before they fade into the light of day?

Practicing a mindful approach to sleep opens the way to a personal and more peaceful relationship with sleep. In doing so, we can learn a lot about our sleeplessness. We may observe that what wakes us up is not typically what keeps us awake. And that what keeps us awake is the vengeance with which we try to get back to sleep. A heightened awareness of the extent of our inner skirmishes around sleep provides an invaluable opportunity to give up the battle, which can help us reduce our anxiety and achieve better sleep.

A more mindful approach to sleep can also help us restore our faith in sleep as a natural and friendly process. It's a more honest approach that reveals sleep's impressive power and its utter sweetness. It's an approach that encourages us to become less controlling and more willing to engage in a cooperative relationship with sleep.

We come to see that exploring the depths of sleep is essentially about exploring the depths of our own selves.  If dreaming is a reflection of unconscious experience, sleep may be viewed as a direct experience of our deeper, unconscious self. Could it be that struggles with attaining deep sleep mirror struggles with connecting to our deeper selves?

Although it may be as challenging for us to sustain awareness into deep sleep as it is for a fish to become aware of water, many sacred traditions around the world suggest it is possible.  For example, Western mystical philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, and Eastern spiritual teacher, Sri Auribindo, both wrote about the possibility of cultivating awareness of deep sleep. The Dalai Lama says, "Sleep is the best meditation."

If we learn to keep our mind's eye open in the depths of the sea of sleep we can meet sleep on its own comforting terms. A more mindful approach to sleep reveals its gift of ineffable tranquility. Sleep graciously delivers us to a depth of serenity for which we have little if any waking frame of reference. If we are willing to approach sleep in this new way, we will inevitably learn to love it once again.

About the Author

Rubin Naiman Ph.D.

Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona.

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