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We Don't Get Sleep Because We Don't 'Get' Sleep

Like our conception of health, which is generally understood as the absence of disease, we naively conceive of sleep as the absence of waking.
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I believe the main reason we struggle with epidemic sleep disorders is our failure to examine fundamental misconceptions that inform our understanding of and approach to sleep. These misconceptions are rooted in a tendency to define sleep negatively -- that is, in terms of what it's not. Like our conception of health, which is generally understood as the absence of disease, we naively conceive of sleep as the absence of waking. When we are asleep, we are "dead to the world" -- to the waking world. Even scientific and medical definitions of sleep cast it in terms of what it's not. Sleep specialists refer to sleep as "non-REM." It's not dreaming.

Waking has become a synonym for consciousness; and sleep, considered its opposite, unconsciousness. Someone who exhibits limited awareness while awake may be accused of being 'asleep.' Noted sleep specialist, William Dement writes, "It is impossible to have conscious, experiential knowledge of non-dreaming sleep." Because it's unconscious, sleep is believed to lie outside the realm of subjective experience and, therefore, to be devoid of personal meaning. It's reduced to a functional physiological process. Nothing personal.

In fact, the most common presumption we hold about sleep, both scientifically and culturally, is that it functions to provide essential physiological support for waking life. Virtually all the research questions we ask about sleep focus on its role in supporting complex aspects of health and performance. Sleep serves waking life. Who would argue against this obvious truth? But is it the whole truth?

Well, if sleep is not waking and sleep is not dreaming, then what is it? Is it unconsciousness, impersonal and strictly functional? These common presumptions result in a blinding wake-centric bias. Trying to 'get' sleep solely from a waking perspective is like trying to understand darkness by illuminating it with a flashlight. This approach discourages us from developing a more intimate, personal relationship with sleep and, thereby, precludes our taking greater responsibility for it.

"If you only have a hammer," said Abe Maslow, "you tend to see every problem as a nail." Likewise, if you only have waking, you will view getting to sleep only as another waking activity. We simply can't go wakefully into sleep. The subtle though ludicrous notion that we have to be awake to get to sleep is depicted in a classic "Three Stooges" skit. After fighting with Curly to get him to sleep, Mo turns to Larry who is already sleeping, slaps the top of his head and yells, "Hey, wake up and go to sleep!" Twisted as such a reproach may be, it's the most common cognitive error underlying the nightly flood of sleep inhibiting anxiety experienced by millions of insomniacs.

From a wake-centric perspective, we have no alternative but to carry waking cognitive and behavioral ways of being into the night. We routinely smuggle information, entertainment, technology, light, food, substances and lots of worry into our bedrooms and beds. The single most critical factor impairing healthy sleep is not, as is commonly believed, that we are insufficiently sleepy at night. It's what sleep science calls hyperarousal -- that we are excessively wakeful.

Solid empirical evidence suggests that sleeping pills provide no significant improvement in sleep. They essentially mask poor sleep with amnesia. But because we confuse sleep with unconsciousness, we believe that substances and medications that mask waking can legitimately serve as sleep aids. I believe that this is the fundamental error that continues to perpetuate skyrocketing sleeping pill sales.

Sleep science pioneer Alan Rechtschaffen stated, "If sleep doesn't serve an absolutely vital function, it is the biggest mistake evolution ever made." But couldn't we say the same about personal experiences like eating and sex and even love? The fact that something is functional, however, does not preclude it from also being personally meaningful. Viewed as an unconscious physiological function, we cannot directly access sleep. We can only manage it indirectly through manipulating our physiology and our environment with ineffective sleeping pills and overpriced mattresses.

Our wake-centric views artificially bifurcate waking and sleep. In reality, sleep is no more the opposite and absence of waking than darkness is the opposite and absence of light. In fact, brain EEG models suggest that both sleep and waking can be understood in terms of a larger, all-encompassing, continuity of consciousness. They're on a continuum.

We could benefit greatly from a more nuanced sense of our own consciousness. We are capable, to varying degrees, of being simultaneously awake and asleep. The pendulum of consciousness swings through repeating circadian cycles of waking and sleep. Although waking is strongly informed by sensory input and sleep is not, it's the same pendulum.

The belief that sleep is unconsciousness discourages us from opening to a more direct experience of it. Rather than willingly descending into a mysterious sea of sleep, at lights out our attention typically drifts to the shore of the next morning's awakening. This is like spending an overnight getaway fixated only on our return home.

We can practice remaining mindful -- keeping our mind's eye open -- as we descend into the lovely restorative waves of sleep. This is more than a simple philosophical stance. It's about a critical shift in consciousness that provides a foundation for healthy sleep. As a complement to science based recommendations for better sleep, we can begin a personal relationship and conversation with sleep itself -- on its own dreamy terms.


The purpose of my blog, 'Getting Sleep:' A Mindful Approach, is the exploration and enhancement of sleep from an integrative -- body, mind and spirit -- perspective. Future articles will elaborate upon various practical themes and topics in support of healthy, natural sleep and dreaming.

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