Monday, August 28, 2006

Talmud considers sleep a gift from God

Raised in an Orthodox home in New York and New Jersey, speaking only Yiddish, Rubin Naiman attended a Lubavitch yeshiva with the intention of becoming a rabbi. “In the spirit of Judaism, I went into informed sleep and dream work” instead, says the psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Program in Integrative Medicine.

In his recently published Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming and Waking, Naiman writes, “It’s a shame to confuse the metaphor of darkness and evil with night. Our disturbed relationship with night is ultimately rooted in our discomfort with and denial of the dark side of our own senses.”

“The Hebrew notion of ein soff, or endlessness, refers to the infinite sea of darkness from which light and all creation emerges,” he writes. “From the Jewish perspective, the new day does not start with dawn but with dusk and darkness.”

Both of Naiman’s parents were Holocaust survivors; his family arrived in the United States when he was seven months old. “My parents,” he says, “and I think this is true for lots of survivors — loved night. It was the end of suffering for the day.”

In his work, Naiman has illuminated his parents’ “deep regard for sleep” and connected research on sleep and dreams to his Jewish upbringing. There are over 200 references to dreams in the Talmud, which, he says, considers sleep a gift from God.

The “deep wisdom of Judaism” is related to two directives from God during the time of Abraham, says Naiman. One is “go forth” and the other is “rest,” or Shabbat. “The piece that’s missing,” he says, “not only for Jews, but for everybody in civilization today, is the balancing factor of go forth then stop and take a rest.”

Naiman says he thinks the concept of “go forth” became the seed of the Industrial Revolution, noting that the two most commonly traded commodities in the world today are oil and coffee — two different kinds of fuels. Coffee, he says, was introduced by the Arabs in the 1500s, in Safed, in what was then Palestine.

All-night prayer vigils began with the advent of coffee, which made its way to Jerusalem and then into southern Europe. “Jews became very prominent trading coffee,” notes Naiman.

In the pre-industrial era between 1500 and 1830, people had very different sleep patterns. The common pattern, says Naiman, referring to Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close, was retiring to bed at dusk, waking in the middle of the night for prayer, contemplation or to make love, and going back to sleep. “It was considered a very sacred time,” says Naiman. For Jews, this concept of tikkun chatzot, or midnight service, refers to the “sweetest hour,” he says. “In the middle of the night the gates of heaven are visible; the permeability between earth and heaven is much greater.”

Today, the overabundance of light at night does not easily allow us to “slide into sleep,” he says. “We awaken primarily because we have not ventured deeply enough into sleep. We remain too anxious to completely let go, hovering too close to the surface of our waking consciousness.”

The Talmud recommends a 30-minute daily nap, but, says Naiman, “what happened with industrialization is that we stopped napping. We began working like machines. Because we were so overtired, we overrode middle-of-the-night waking. We’ve industrialized sleep.”

Ironically, he says, our opportunities to rest during the work day are called coffee breaks. When patients ask him how much sleep they need, Naiman asks how much rest they get during the day. Most people, he says, confuse rest with recreation, but true rest involves deeply restful states while awake, such as those achieved by people who are accomplished at meditation.

There is a widespread view today that sleep quantity and quality diminish with age. It may be the other way around, says Naiman; perhaps we prematurely age as a result of poor sleep.

Dreaming is another part of the sleep puzzle. Quoting the Talmud, Naiman says, “A dream unexamined is like a letter unopened.” The Talmud suggests that every dream can have at least 24 different meanings, but he says this is not meant to encourage an exhaustive search for every interpretation: “It is meant to remind us that dreams come from a very different world than the one we spend most of our waking hours in.”

There is a lot of press today about sleep deprivation, says Naiman, but “we are at least as dream-deprived.” Many medications, such as aspirin and Tylenol, mild tranquilizers such as Valium, heart drugs and beta-blockers inhibit melatonin and therefore dreaming at night.

“What concerns me most is that virtually all anti-depressant medications suppress dreaming,” says Naiman. “I’ve come to believe that the major cause of the clinical de­pression epidemic in the U.S. today is not dreaming.”

“That’s my interpretation of ‘whoever sleeps for seven days without dreaming is considered wicked,’ which it says in the Talmud. It’s not a moral thing.” People deprived of sleep start to hallucinate after a few days, says Naiman, continuing, “We have to dream.” For example, he says, “schizophrenics hallucinate wildly, and it’s dream material breaking through into waking consciousness.”

Another detriment to sleep is that we drink inordinate amounts of alcohol in our culture, reducing the REM (rapid eye movement) part of each average 90-minute sleep-dream period, which, says Naiman, stems from our basic rest and activity cycles that occur throughout the day.

Most dreaming takes place during the second half of the night. If you restrict people from dreaming, says Naiman, there is a period called reduced REM latency that pushes dreaming into the first half of the night, causing both sleep and dream deprivation.

“One of the most characteristic patterns associated with clinical depression is reduced REM latency,” says Naiman. “I think of depression as being a psychological fever. I think of anti-depressants in the same way as taking an aspirin or Tylenol to cut our fever. By pushing dreams away we’re treating the symptoms. My belief is that depression is an essential call for deep rest.”

Depressed people react to this need by trying to withdraw socially, says Naiman. But, he says, everyone needs to balance Shechinah, or the feminine face of God, which in­cludes rest and receptivity, with the masculine principles of activity and drive. There has been a “squelching of the feminine” in our lives, he says.

“When the world is all lit up our attention is drawn to it,” says Naiman. “When we allow ourselves to be in darkened space, we close our eyes, we dim the lights at night, we become introverts. We’re excessively extroverted in our world today.”

Naiman says the average person is afraid of spending 10 minutes alone in the dark. “We’re back to Shabbat. It’s an act of faith to stop working for a day, to trust the world and not manage everything.”

There’s an understanding in Judaism about the difficulty of transitioning from waking, active life to sleep, says Naiman. “Prayer, either personalized or ritualized prayer, is very useful in this conscious intention of letting go of the ego,” he says. “It has to happen when we nap, or else we won’t fall asleep; it has to happen when we go to sleep at night.”

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