|Suffer from insomnia? Perhaps it has something to do with Pride and Fear of Death.|
"As important as an objective biomedical view of sleep might be, it is insufficient because it largely disregards the experience of the sleeper. It largely disregards sleep. The brain doesn’t sleep. Neither does the body. We do.
Great philosophers have taught that most of us mistake the limits of our own perception for the limits of the universe. Nowhere is this conundrum more relevant than in our contemporary take on sleep. We are mired in a pre-Copernican-like, wake-centric era regarding consciousness. We presume waking to be the centre of the universe of consciousness, and we relegate sleeping and dreaming to secondary, subservient positions.
Looking at sleep solely through waking-world eyes is like looking at a glorious night sky through dark sunglasses. We are caught in wakism, a subtle but pernicious addiction to ordinary waking consciousness that limits our understanding and experience of sleep.
Wakism underlies the medicalisation and domestication of sleep, reinforcing a dysrhythmic, relentless and speedy posture of hyperarousal. ...
Hyperarousal is an inevitable consequence of our wakism. It refers to a turbocharged pace of life that is not modulated by adequate rest.
Strongly endorsed by popular culture, hyperarousal is a socially contagious condition rooted in an arrogant disregard for natural rhythms. It’s a cheap high, a kind of synthetic passion that is not without serious side effects.
Characterised by racing brainwaves and a rapid heartrate, hyperarousal is linked to an overheated body and mind. By tethering us to the heights of waking, hyperarousal not only interferes with our nightly descent into sleep, it also masks our daytime sleepiness. Hyperarousal and insomnia both encourage drug and substance dependence. Caffeine, energy drinks and stimulant drugs help stoke perpetual flight, while alcohol, marijuana and sedating medications provide temporary, artificial respites.
From Icarus’s unchecked aspirations to Peter Pan’s resistance to landing, hyperarousal is clearly an archetypal human challenge. We are drawn to heights, to defy gravity, to fly with the gods. We’ve learned that it’s acceptable, even preferable to be up at night. And we just don’t want to slow, descend, and stop. We see glory in breaking free from the circadian dictates of Mother Nature.
Such adolescent defiance is emblematic of our rock ’n’ roll heroes. The Stones keep rolling, Aerosmith keeps soaring, and Jim Morrison made good on his pledge to never come down. Michael Jackson’s signature moonwalk and his Neverland estate are striking symbols of our wakism. Although attributed to an overdose of propofol, the actual cause of Jackson’s death was complications of hyperarousal. The epidemic of superstar deaths associated with desperate pharmaceutical measures to descend is sobering.
Hyperarousal leaves us sick and ‘t’wired’: simultaneously tired and wired. Being t’wired is the psychological equivalent of being on the rack. While wakism perpetually draws us upward, the gravity of our mounting sleepiness pulls us downward. We are uncomfortably stretched in opposite directions by equally potent forces. Not surprisingly, hyperarousal is linked to depression, which is characterised by a persistent sense of feeling stuck.
Contemporary medical views presume that there’s nothing in the world of sleep worth personally investigating. Sleep itself is believed to lie outside of our potential for awareness. And though we can be aware of dreams, they are too often deemed meaningless. Dismissing the value of dreams shuts the door on our most accessible, direct experience of sleep. It also dampens the sensual dimensions of sleep, which are most evident in dreams. In fact, whether aware of it or not, we routinely become sexually aroused in our dream sleep.
Mythic perspectives suggest that there is something in the deep waters of sleep worth accessing, and invite us to personally investigate it. Metaphorically, they encourage us to practise our descent into the waters of sleep with our third eye open.
From a mythic perspective, deep sleep is a state of profound serenity. But we commonly fail to notice it due to our pervasive wakism. We presume awareness of deep sleep is impossible because we have no waking reference points to conceptualise, name or recall it. But emerging research in yoga nidra, which focuses on sustaining awareness into deep states of relaxation and sleep, confirm what spiritual texts have suggested for centuries: that awareness of deep sleep is, in fact, attainable. Like other mythic approaches, the Advaita Vedanta, a school of Hindu philosophy, views deep, dreamless sleep as the highest state of awareness – a return to our default consciousness, our deepest Self.
Sleep loss, then, is not simply a medical problem; it is also a critical spiritual challenge. Our epic struggles with accessing deep sleep are, fundamentally, struggles with accessing deeper aspects of ourselves. As wakists, we presume that who we are is limited to our waking-world identity. Essential parts of who we are, however, are obscured by the glare of waking life. And these become more visible at night – in the deep waters of sleep and dreams.
Deep, natural sleep threatens our wake-centric self. It makes sense that Thanatos, the Greek god of death, is the brother of Hypnos. An uneasy, archetypal relationship between sleep and death is, in fact, common in many cultures around the world. The Dalai Lama teaches that the psychospiritual experience of falling asleep is identical to that of dying. Our familiar, waking self dies in sleep. Opening to an ongoing dialogue with Hypnos – cultivating deepening awareness of sleep – teaches us that our ordinary waking self is but a limited sense of our deeper sleeping self.
The trajectory with which we approach sleep – how we dive into bed – will impact the depth of our descent. Surrendering our waking sense of self calls for a posture of humility. Humility is the antidote to hyperarousal. It counters the arrogance that informs our medicalisation and wake-centrism. Humility is the essential missing ingredient in our failed efforts at healing the insomnia epidemic."