The Holiness of Sleep
“there is some aching
that will only heal…
in the mosque of sleep.”
― Sanober Khan, Turquoise Silence
Sleep is so precious to me that I unabashedly call it holy. It’s a metaphysical state, in that it looks like the body is doing nothing while, in fact, millions of invisible biological processes are whizzing and whirring. Sleep energizes the invisible batteries that power me through the day, either opening or locking a daily allotment of clarity, patience, and productivity. More than food or caffeine, sleep is my fuel. When I get enough of it, I feel whole, ready, and present. Without enough, I feel tattered and disassociated. It’s one of the basic conditions of my mental and emotional health. It is so essential to my being that, like love and water and Torah, it really seems to come from God.
Anyone who has ever struggled with a baby’s sleep and wake cycles knows just how fragile sleep is. The first few months of life seem to be one long exhausting time for everyone involved. Some of our attempts to acclimate babies to the fact that, here on planet Earth, we sleep when it’s dark outside are actually laughable. One of our kids napped best with a vacuum running outside his room. Another (very environmentally aware) family I know drove their child around for an hour in their car to put him to sleep. Every night. Until he was six.
One of my favorite podcasts, called Ten Percent Happier, recently did a sleep episode during Mental Health awareness week. I learned a lot from the guest, Dr. Sara Mednick, about considering sleep cycles even during the day.
Falling asleep can feel scary sometimes. Regrets, fears, l‘esprit de l’escalier (that fantastic French term for “what you wish you’d said in a previous conversation”), self-diagnoses of the most fatal conditions–all these swirling around while you’re trying to relax and power down? Oof. Everyone has their tricks for getting into, and back into, that sweet oblivion.
Our desert-dwelling and temple-keeping ancestors probably had a different relationship to sleep than we do. They lived in a world without electrical illumination, so their darkness was much darker than ours. Their sleep wasn’t protected by home security systems. They may have had to “sleep with one eye open” to survive the night. The feeling of anxiety around sleep may not actually be a modern condition.
On nights when I’m overwhelmed by anxieties, I try to remember the final lines of Adon Olam:
בְּיָדוֹ אַפְקִיד רוּחִי
בְּעֵת אִישָׁן וְאָעִירָה
וְעִם רוּחִי גְוִיָּתִי
אֲדֹנָי לִי וְלֹא אִירָא
B’yado afkid ruchi, b’et ishan v’a’eera, v’im ruchi g’viati Adonai li v’lo ira.
In God’s hands, I put my spirit. At the moment I fall asleep and when I wake up, if my spirit escapes, God is mine and I will not fear.
If that doesn’t work, I take a melatonin gummy.
If we can actually achieve this desired state, how amazing then it is to dream? It’s your imagination’s nightly wild ride, your brain’s private discotheque. You can discover new rooms in your childhood home! You can fly or drive a bus! You can understand other languages and cruise around foreign cities! And yet, that freedom from the constraints of real life means that dreams can also be very dark and scary, taking you to places you don’t want to go; we all know what waking up from a bad dream feels like. On rare occasions, you can even get messages from the dead.
One of my favorite passages from the book of Psalms (92:3) says it is good to:
לְהַגִּ֣יד בַּבֹּ֣קֶר חַסְֽדֶּ֑ךָ וֶ֝אֱמֽוּנָתְךָ֗ בַּלֵּילֽוֹת
L’hagid baboker hasdecha v’emunutcha baleilot
to talk about God‘s goodness in the morning and about God’s faith in us in the evening:
I have been getting to know the Morning Gratitude practice here at The Soul Center over the last few weeks. It has been a beautiful invitation to me to enter this circle and join with others who are so beautifully committed to showing up for each other and for the practice of expressing gratitude in the morning. We start with the Modah/Modeh Ani and continue through some stretches, body scans, awakenings, and add Hebrew prayers that highlight our gratitude. At the center at the core of this practice is a journaling exercise that asks us to write five or ten things that we are currently feeling gratitude for. This may sound easy, but it really is a spiritual discipline. To ask myself on a daily basis what am I grateful for, to consider the quality and shape of that gratitude, to express not only what am I thankful for, but also who and what am I so unbelievably lucky to have in my life and what have I worked hard to achieve and feel a deep reward…that is the practice. Those of you who’ve been engaged in it know how powerful it is. If you’re curious what it’s like, please join us on Zoom at 8:45 on weekdays.
Sometimes the answers to these questions flow easily. Sometimes I have to really dig deep in order to answer them. I recognize that my life is filled with blessings, but that my kvetchiness often is an obstacle to seeing those blessings for exactly what they are. The practice of thanking God for five different things every day is an exercise in clearing away the kvetch and focusing on what is good. It’s a balance that has really helped me calibrate what is important. And it helps me stay focused on God as a source of all blessings. It doesn’t mean that I don’t experience challenges or other obstacles, because I certainly do. And ultimately I think that God is the source of that as well. But I’m trying to recognize God‘s holy presence in my life, even in my sleep.
Want to talk more about sleep, dreams, or holiness? I do too! Email me and let’s chat on the phone, go for a walk, or sit on the comfy couches of The Soul Center.
Warmest wishes from my soul to yours,