The Gift of Sleep
I’ve always had an interesting relationship with sleep.
Since I was a little girl, I’ve had intense, outlandish dreams almost every night. I’m a fairly even keeled person in ordinary life (if a little exuberant), but as soon as my eyes button shut, I’m plunged into a world of dreams more vivid than waking life, a complex web of plots and people interconnecting, a landscape where the ordinary and the fantastic coexist. While my body shuts down, slowing to the pace of my deep rhythmic breathing, my mind and intuitions, or whatever spins dreams, shudders into a terrible, twinkling wakefulness.
I’m often a bit baffled at my mind’s own fungibility; I wish these centres of connectivity and creativity could be with me in my waking hours. But, of course, that would defeat the purpose. Whatever the purpose is of dreams (psychologically, spiritually, or whatever), they remain so scientifically opaque.
My mother tells me that when I was a child, I would bumble downstairs first thing in the morning, plant myself at the kitchen stools while she made coffee, and report my nightly dream. They were so absurd, she said she thought I was telling them to get attention, youngest child that I am. But I still remember some of those dreams. They’re imprinted on my memory, often mainly for their memorable colours, intense emotions, and characterswho throbbed with reality.
So, yes. I’ve had an odd relationship with sleep because of dreams.
But, this has it’s benefits: I can almost always fall asleep.
I discovered a few years ago that, supposedly, if you remember your dreams, you are not, for whatever reason, remaining in REM sleep (the sleep cycle that most replenishes the sleeper). Realising this set off a lightbulb for me. I often awake from dreams feeling utterly knackered (as they say here in the UK), I rarely awake feeling “rested,” and am often vaguely sleepy.
Ah! I thought. I’m never really sleeping. This makes sense.
But, as I said, this has it’s benefits. Being almost always a little bit sleep deprived means I’ve never been particularly susceptible to insomnia. I could at any moment take a nap. I count it a kind of skill of mine. Granted, a fairly useless skill in most situations.
But in that new apartment, or on the train, or jetlagging, or sleeping in a friend’s house… Sleep was always only a few deep breaths away.
Since starting my Phd, I’ve experienced a new and merciless foe: insomnia.
Last Wednesday after a fairly ordinary day, I happily curled up in bed. I cacooned myself in comforter, rubbed my face against the pleasant crocheted throw on my bed, and waited for sleep to take me.
And I laid there.
For an hour and a half.
Nothing particular was on my mind. I was peaceful. At rest. I just laid there.
After falling in and out of four hours of sleep (and several very specific reality related dreams, I might add), my eyes popped open… at 5 AM.
About 5:30 a friend calls on the off chance that I was awake.
Funny you should ask…
As I type this it is 3:15 on Monday morning. Sleep evaded, as they say. But it has its benefits: tonight I’ve outlined a chapter of my Phd, watched an episode of my present TV obsession, and written this blog.
Like I said, I’ve always had an interesting relationship with sleep.
Once a friend who suffers from chronic insomnia said to me “You know what it’s taught me: sleep is a gift. Not everyone knows that.”
It was one of those things said in passing, but the words planted themselves in my brain. Her simple suggestion pinged and echoed around my mind, settling into bog of my memory; it held a certain weight. Sleep is not a resource to mine, but a gift to receive. The more we seek it, the more it evades us. We are dependent on something out of our control. And that tells us something about the sorts of creatures we are.
Have you ever thought about how odd sleep is? For 6-9 hours a day, most people lay unconscious, in a temporary paralysis, basically having hallucinations. You, me, Donald Trump, Beyonce, the Pope. The rich, the poor, the wicked and the righteous. Almost every day we will all return to our chamber, weary worn from the day, shut our eyes, and wait for the magic like spell of sleep to fall over us, leading us into the pastel coloured halls of our subconscious (did you know most people dream in pastel?) And then we will awake, refreshed or at least happily washed of yesterday’s useless short term memory. The alchemy is complete.
A gift indeed.
But what sort of gift is this? And what does it tell me about the sort of creature that I am? What kind of creatures we are? You, me, Donald Trump, Beyonce, the Pope.
Sleep demonstrates strange and deep magic of surrender. My need for sleep teaches met that contrary to the machinations of Sherlock (a la Benedict Cumberbatch), there are some things which cannot be attained through effort and whirling cognition, but only through waiting, quiet, receptivity.
And I don’t only mean this in an abstract, overly-spiritualised way. It’s quite practical: if you do not sleep, your cognitive functions are impaired. It is through surrender to unconsciousness, a literal letting go of control, that our day-ready minds are even able to function. That state of surrender and rest is prior, and I think in some ways more fundamental, to our existence.
The gift of sleep teaches me that wisdom does not come through acquisition it comes through patience. As I wait for my eyes to become heavy, as I wait for the gift of sleep, I hear God’s voice through the rhythms’ of my body whispering “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). I cannot through my own effort bring sleep (in fact, that will probably have the opposite effect). I cannot through my own effort creatively address every problem in my life through sheer willpower and intellect..
I recognise now an irony in my desire to access the creativity of my dream self in my daytime hours; surely it is the inactive, receptive, and subconscious nature of sleep that unlocks such sensitivity and connectivity. My very desire to control and apply my creativity is what’s most likely to curb it.
Sleep is God’s reminder and God’s kindness to me; a reminder of my dependence, a kindness of reprieve from the striving of ordinary life. It reminds me of what sort of creature I am: created, contingent, limited.
As I’ve written this, something has occurred to me which probably occurred to you several paragraphs ago. It’s this: sleeps current shyness towards me is probably related my preoccupation with “handling” my life. In the ongoing mental whir of trying reckon this new stage, with new people, new tasks, with the old questions, the unfinished stories of the last season of my life, and the future which looms over and lures me on, I’ve been treating sleep like a resource, not a gift.
I’ve been lying here still, without the knowing that I’m not God.
Funny, my eyelids finally feel heavy.
It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labours;
For He gives to His beloved even in their sleep.