We give this advice hoping that sleep will provide sanctuary and restoration. And yet, rest is often elusive and our dreams are perplexing. Sleep consumes roughly one-third of our lives, but how well do we understand it and how does it relate to our spiritual lives? Youth start in the Sanctuary.
Reading One: Last Night, As I Was Sleeping, by Spanish poet Antonio Machado
Reading Two: Dream Narratives from the Bible
Once, Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hate him even more. He said, to them, “Listen to this dream I had.” We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
“His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.”
Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers, “Listen he said “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and elven stars were bowing down to me.” When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?”
“Why Job do you contend with God, saying “He will answer none of my words?” For God speaks, though people do not perceive it. In a dream in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on mortals, while they slumber on their beds, he opens their ears, and terrifies them with his warnings, that he may turn away from their deeds, and keep them from their pride, to spare their lives from the Pit, and their lives from crossing the river.”
Ecclesiasties 34 2-7
“Whoever has a dream I like one who tries to catch a shadow or chase the wind. Divinations, soothsaying and dreams are vain, unless they be sent by the Most High.”
Jacob left Beer-Sheba, and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. And taking of the stones at the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed there was a ladder set up on earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
And the lord stood beside him, and said, “ Know that I am with you and will keep you where ever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.”
Last year when a small group of Worship and Music Committee members sat down to brainstorm all the many ways we are and can be people of sanctuary this year someone mentioned sleep. I was befuddled, how can sleep possibly be considered a sanctuary? The Latin root is sanctus which suggests an experience of the holy. I am just ending a 10 year stretch of menopause impacted sleep, an experience far from holy. Sadly, I am not alone. One-third of Americans report getting insufficient sleep — that is, fewer than seven hours a night. One in four suffer acute insomnia meaning that they have difficulty sleeping 3 times per week. The CDC calls this pervasive lack of sleep a “public health epidemic.”.
My favorite local coffee shop sells merchandise brandished with their amusing slogan: “Sleep is for the weak.” After petroleum, coffee is the world’s most traded commodity. From Red Bull to 5 Hour Energy, products claiming to boost one’s energy proliferate. This curiously strained relationship with our body’s need for sleep prompts me to reflect on what within us fuels this scorn for sleep, what spiritual dynamics might lurk beneath this epidemic? And to ponder what might we do to turn this epidemic around and actually discover sanctuary while we sleep, which in the old English use of the word, means a feeling of wholeness?
For spiritual clues, I decided to see what the Bible had to say about sleep. The psalmist writes: “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper” (121:4-5a). The psalmist is saying, unceasing vigilance is the Creator’s domain; our striving to “neither slumber nor sleep” is to grasp for a station that is not ours. That is, we aren’t little godlike keepers of every aspect of our lives.
I then checked what the Bible had to say about beds, beds being the place where sleep happens or not. Aside from the Song of Solomon, where the main purpose of a bed is for making love, beds are where you commune with your own heart (Psalm 4:4), get chastened with pain (Job 33:19), meditate in the night watches (Psalm 63.6), and water your couch with tears (Psalm 6:6). A bed is where you give birth, pray, dream, weep, languish, and die. According to the Gospel of Luke, you may even get raptured there: “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.” In the bible a bed, in short, is where you face your nearness to or farness from God. Whether you are a religious person or not—a bed is where you come face-to-face with what really matters because it is too dark for most of your usual, distractions to work. When sleep is elusive we try a book and when that does not work, there is solitaire. If solitaire does not work, there is the white noise machine. If the white noise machine does not work, there is an app on our phone and if that doesn’t work, there is a pill. Does any of this sound familiar?
Carl Strand who spent time as a Zen monk, also spent 10 years waking up in the middle of the night, lying there for a couple of hours before drifting back to sleep. He began to wonder what was wrong with him and in his search for answers, he came across a sleep study conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health that told him nothing was wrong with him at all. That prior to the invention of the light bulb, almost no one slept 8 hours at a time. In the long centuries before the advent of electricity, people spent as much as fourteen hours of every day in the dark, which affected their rest as well as their activity. When the researchers at NIMH recruited some of the most normal people they could find to replicate that pattern, those people began to discover states of consciousness that they had never experienced before. At first they played catch-up, sleeping an average of eleven hours a day. Eventually they settled down to eight hours again, but the hours were not consecutive. With fourteen full hours of darkness available to them, most lay quietly in bed for a couple of hours each night before falling soundly asleep. Four hours later, they woke up and spent another couple of hours resting before falling asleep again. The rest hours turned out to be the most interesting ones to the scientists, since during those hours the sleepers were neither actively awake nor soundly asleep. Their body chemistry hovered somewhere in between, just like their brain waves did. The director of the study said that it was like finding a fossil of human consciousness, a state of awareness that had largely withered away. In prehistoric times, this rest state may have provided a channel of communication between dreams and waking life, supplying rich resources for myth and fantasy.
All the huge dream moments of the Bible make more sense to me now. Jacob in his moment near Haran was describing such a channel. I wonder how we can reclaim this state of consciousness? Perhaps, instead of turning on the light and reaching for a book in the middle of the night, we can welcome the restful time as a moment of between dreams and waking. Avoiding alcohol before bed can help too since alcohol represses the rapid eye movement stage of sleep during which we dream. But perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome is our disbelief that our dreams mean anything. Psychologist Carl Jung once said, “most modern people feel alone in the world because they assume there is nothing that they have not made up.” This assumption,” he says “is the very best demonstration of our god almightiness, that we think we have invented everything psychological.” He goes on to say, “To train people to experience something which is not their intent, something strange, something with which they cannot identify. This becomes the experience of God.”
Years ago, I was in therapy with a Jungian therapist, who also happened to be a catholic nun. She encouraged me to keep a dream journal, and with her guidance, I had a few experiences of lucid dreaming, in that something in my consciousness was telling me to pay attention, that this was important. All the dreams involved water. In the first one, I was a captain in a small motor boat, the hand tiller kind and I was driving around a small lake. Suddenly, I was being shown by a diver that below the water the dam creating the lake had a huge crack in it. I started to have a whole series of water and dam dreams that centered for me on messages of shame, agency, and healing. In one dream, the boat had sunk, and I was free swimming. During this time, I started to pay attention differently during my waking hours too. Once, while I was at UU Rowe conference center, an hour a half west of here, I was sitting on the stone wall above a historic mill dam, when a beaver came out of the water, rounded the wall, and sat a few feet from me where we held each other in mutual regard. A moment full of strangeness and meaning.
Whether you remember your dreams or not, no worries,“great work is done while we sleep,” writes Wendell Berry. Robert Stickgold, head of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School offers a fascinating view of what this work is. He likens sleep to the fairy tale of The Shoemaker and the Elves. You know the story where the poor shoemaker, cuts the last of his leather, and leaves the cut pieces to be sewn in the morning. But when morning comes, two pairs of shoes, the most beautiful he had ever seen, lay on the bench with no sign of anyone having been there. The shoes are spectacular, better than anything he could have made alone and sell well above his asking price. This happens every night and before the shoemaker knows it, he isn’t poor anymore.
Our nocturnal elves work in 4 ways while we sleep says Robert. First, our minds extract the gist of our lives. Second, our minds review our experiences to discover the rules of our lives and how our world works. Third, sleep helps us foster insights that are so critical to our lives and fourth, dreaming is an integral part of this entire process.
To demonstrate how sleep extracts the gist of our lives Bob gives his subjects a list of 10 or so words and then tests their recall. One list he uses is:
The recall list would include related words not on the original list, for example in this test he would add the word “doctor” and half the people would raise their hand, because the brain is extracting the gist of the list. Bob then wondered how much would people remember 12 hours later if they first slept before being retested? What difference does sleep make? He discovered the group who slept remembered more overnight, then those retested during the day. But what surprised him the most is that the group that slept recognized words that didn’t epitomize one list but brought the lists together. For example, the group that had slept recognized descriptive words like swirl, rough, or soft, words that connect across groups, a phenomenon that for him represents the creative intrusion that happens while we sleep.
To discover how sleep helps us figure out the rules of our lives he showed his subjects a repetitious numeric sequencing and asked them to complete the sequence hundreds of times. Unbeknownst to them there was a short cut, or a trick that completes the sequencing faster. Ten percent figure this out at the first trial. Those that didn’t came back either in the evening or the next morning for another trial. Two and half times more people in the group that slept before the second trial figured out the trick, even when they didn’t know there was trick to be found. Lastly, he did an experiment to discover the power of dreams. He asked subjects to navigate a three-dimensional maze on a computer, and asked half of them afterwards to take a 90-minute nap before navigating the maze again. Those that napped finished the maze a minute faster. But more significantly, one of Bob’s students wanted to know more about the impact of dreams during the nap so she woke the nap group up and asked if they were dreaming about the maze. In her experiment those that said yes, showed a ten percent improvement in their ability to complete the maze. One dreamt about a memory of being in a bat cave that felt like a maze. Another simply dreamt about the music of the game. Dreams in which the brain is processing information at multiple levels, integrating old memories, and emotions, to imagine possible futures.