“In times past, human activity naturally downshifted as dusk signaled the approach of night. There was no push to get home, since most people were already there. As daylight gradually receded, the world quieted and the chirping of crickets and trilling of night birds began, as all things darkened, slowed, and cooled. In modern times, however, as dusk approaches, night begins with “the rush hour”—a massive, noisy, grinding, smoky movement of people and machines. Automobiles, buses, trains, and planes shuttle hoards of people from places of work, school, and daily activity back to their homes. Lost in this bustle, we typically thwart the onset of night.” — Rubin Naiman
Therapy’s Strategies For Curing Our Culture Of Insomnia
Rubin Naiman on Using Nightmindedness to Solve Sleep Disorders
Traditionally, sleep and darkness have had positive connotations. Nyx, the mighty Greek goddess of night, lived underground and ascended to the sky at day’s close to bring dusk and darkness. Her son, Hypnos, the sweet-natured god of sleep, would accompany her each night, sprinkling sleep-inducing poppies over the earth below. To enter this blessed state, the myth suggests, requires acquiescence to darkness itself.
Yet many of us don’t go gently into the night: we knock ourselves out with alcohol, sleeping pills, or sheer exhaustion. Our widespread fear of and disregard for darkness—both literal and figurative—may be the most critical, overlooked factor in the contemporary epidemic of sleep disorders. We suffer today from serious complications of a kind of psychological “nightblindness:” a far-reaching failure to understand the significance of night and darkness to our health and well-being.
Unfortunately, sleep medicine—that branch of the health sciences devoted to treating sleep disorders—offers little relief from our nightblindness. Sleep specialists pay virtually no attention to the larger cultural and natural milieu of night. Having made its bed with the pharmaceutical industry, sleep medicine offers us little more than a seductive array of knockout pills. Rather than an honest encounter with night consciousness, it encourages anesthetized unconsciousness.
Psychotherapists, with their focus on shifting states of consciousness, as well as behavior and lifestyle, are ideally positioned to help address today’s sleep epidemic. However, we must rethink our approach to night, sleep, and dreams. Approaching sleep primarily from a waking-consciousness framework is much like trying to understand darkness by using a flashlight to illuminate it. To help our clients sleep better, we ourselves must become more “nightminded,” and less “nightblinded.”
In our culture, daylight is dominant, overvalued, and even deified, while darkness is dismissed, devalued, and often demonized. From divine light to light beer, things associated with the metaphor of light suggest goodness. We want to shed light, see the light, and lighten up.
In times past, human activity naturally downshifted as dusk signaled the approach of night. There was no push to get home, since most people were already there. As daylight gradually receded, the world quieted and the chirping of crickets and trilling of night birds began, as all things darkened, slowed, and cooled.
In modern times, however, as dusk approaches, night begins with “the rush hour”—a massive, noisy, grinding, smoky movement of people and machines. Automobiles, buses, trains, and planes shuttle hoards of people from places of work, school, and daily activity back to their homes. Lost in this bustle, we typically thwart the onset of night.
Most of my insomnia clients routinely remain active until bedtime. While the natural world around them is yielding to darkness, they turn on lamps, televisions, and computers, continuing the daytime hustle with projects, e-mail, errands, exercise, and entertainment.
But recent research suggests that merely being quietly awake in a darkened space produces beneficial effects on our bodies and minds. Just as light stimulates the release of serotonin, which energizes us, darkness encourages the production of melatonin, the key neurohormone in our nocturnal biology. There’s mounting evidence that even minimal nighttime light exposure can damage our circadian rhythms and suppress the production of melatonin.
In our attempt to excise darkness from our lives, we’ve damaged the integrity and rhythm of our consciousness. With the loss of night, day loses its partner in the sacred dance of circadian cycles. Activity becomes dangerously devoid of rest. We lose our sense of the basic pulse of night and day—our awareness of life’s natural rhythms. Ultimately, we lose our experience of the seamless continuity of consciousness, our sense of wholeness.
Nightmindedness is a psychological state—a practice of accessing and expanding one’s sense of night consciousness. In contrast and as a complement to waking consciousness, which is driven largely by intention, night consciousness is informed primarily by a posture of reception. It isn’t simply about utilizing sleep-promoting techniques, but about encouraging an integration of consciousness. Being nightminded is about extending awareness into arenas that we believe lie outside of our awareness. It’s a way of seeing in the dark—a kind of third-eye vision.
Ultimately, cultivating nightmindedness is less about getting to sleep than letting go of waking intention—learning to untether oneself from one’s daytime consciousness. To help clients achieve this, we need to explore their personal sleep stories, evaluate their daily habits and activities, and help them become aware of the ways in which they unknowingly import waking consciousness into their night worlds, or undermine their ability to sleep in other ways.
What Is Sleep?
The popular Beatles lullaby “Golden Slumbers” reminds us of an age-old conviction that sleep is “a way to get back home.” I believe that sleep delivers us nightly to an exquisite, sublime state of serenity—a place so still and deeply peaceful that most of us have little or no waking-world frame of reference for retaining it in memory. Being able to achieve this mentally and physically renewing state of complete relaxation is the ultimate reason for cultivating nightmindedness.
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