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What Is Sleep and Why Is It So Important?
Sarah: I have been trying to understand the teachings on the deep-sleep state, as I have had a problem sleeping since very young and nothing seems to help. Since Vedanta became the most important thing to me, I have been totally dedicated to self-inquiry and my sadhana, but sleep has gotten worse, not better. Can you explain what sleep is and why we need to sleep?
Sundari: Sleep is an interesting topic, and insufficient or poor sleep plagues many people. In some parts of the world, especially in the US and other First World countries, insomnia has become a worldwide epidemic. The causes of insomnia are many, and usually complicated. It could be a physiological reason, like the lack of certain nutrients (see more on this at the end of this article), lack of exercise, lack of sunshine or an unhealthy diet; it could be a medical reason, like adrenal or thyroid gland malfunction, heart, kidney or musculoskeletal and kidney problems, among others; it could be situational: how you live and work, where and when you sleep; it could be neurological or the result of mental health problems.
Most often, the reason for lack of sleep is psychological – usually the result of too much rajas – stress, anxiety, worry, anxiety over results, the perpetual doer syndrome. Sleep is a particular kind of tamasic thought which we need to cultivate, but too much tamas can also be the reason for lack of sleep, such as depression, guilt and other deeply negative states of mind. Although wanting to sleep all the time is often a sign of depression, lack of sleep also causes depression and more tamas, in a vicious circle, just like excess rajas builds on itself to create more rajas, which can spiral out of control. Additionally, insomnia can be the side effect of too much sattva or shakti. When the mind is extremely “high” and clear, it is often difficult to locate enough tamas to sleep. Sattvic types are often addicted to the feeling of experiential bliss brought on by spiritual experiences like meditation or epiphanies. We call this the “golden cage of sattva.” Highly rajasic and sattvic types tend to hate tamas because they feel it as an alien, heavy, oppressive energy in the mind. Whether the mind is controlled by rajas or hooked on sattva, it rejects tamas like the plague.
Lack of sleep is a form of torture; in fact sleep deprivation is and has been used effectively as torture through the ages. Persistent lack of sleep is so detrimental psychologically, emotionally and physically that it can cause damage to our DNA. It is necessary for the repair of the body, and lack of it raises the risk factors for just about every disease, as it effects our immune system, among many other physiological and neurological functions. It precipitates aging and also makes us prone to lack of memory, emotional problems and accidents because the mind cannot function properly without enough sleep. The typical lifestyle today is highly rajasic, extroverted, desire- and results-based, stressed (and depressed), producing the “wired but tired” syndrome.
We advise people who have serious problems sleeping to encourage the sleep-thought by curtailing rajasic activities and food towards evening, to slow down, avoid computer work or watching movies or videos on a computer a few hours before bedtime. Meditation and quietening the mind or even just sitting quietly or listening to very soft, sattvic music helps for a very rajasic mind, but may also enhance a very sattvic mind. At the end of this article, I give a meditation that came to me as a visualization for sleep and it works like a charm for me, but one must be consistent in the practice.
If either too much sattva or too much rajas is the problem and none of the above suggestions work, take the last resort and eat something tamasic, watch a boring movie or a documentary (on a big screen, preferably) that does not intellectually stimulate the mind. In fact avoid anything that stimulates or agitates the mind. I love nature documentaries and find they work well to encourage tamas when my mind cannot find the sleep-thought. Often nothing seems to work, but as with every other issue in the apparent reality, knowledge is the answer. If the mind is too sattvic, too rajasic or too tamasic and can’t sleep, you need to do inquiry into the physiological, psychological and lifestyle issues underpinning the problem and make lasting changes. There is no way around this. I have provided a fairly comprehensive list of dos and don’ts at the end of this article, but there is no magic wand. Along with the practical or physical reasons for insomnia, it can take retraining the mind to think differently, which is no easy or quick-fix process.
Encourage the Sleep-Thought
A very good practice if you have a chronic insomnia problem (and not just the occasional bad night) is to make a point of encouraging and allowing the sleep-thought whenever it arises in the mind, no matter the time of day. Obviously, it will not always be possible or convenient to indulge the sleep, but if your lifestyle allows it, sleep when the sleep-thought comes, do not suppress it! If you tend to be highly rajasic or sattvic and you cannot sleep, learn to recognize tamas when it arises and love it. This builds a vasana for sleeping, which is one you definitely want to have. James has had this policy basically his whole life; he never resists sleep unless it is impossible to sleep, like when he is teaching. His motto is: “Obey your tamas!”
The problem with highly rajasic types is that they just cannot let go, their doership is so ingrained, so driven and so manic that if the sleep-thought arises they automatically and unconsciously suppress it, without even noticing that this is what they do. They have such a fear of missing out, of not achieving what they want to achieve, of failing, of not getting what they want, they will drive themselves literally into the ground. A long or peaceful life is not a likely outcome. Not sleeping becomes an entrenched vasana. Sattvic types also tend to avoid tamas, although in their case, the tamas-thought just does not arise.
The Three States: No Real Day or Night for the Self
If you are highly rajasic, the ego will not like hearing this! What this may require for you (which is how James relates to life) is to drop the concept of “night and day” and replace it with the three states, waking, dreaming, sleeping. Those are the only three states available to the jiva. What does it matter when they are experienced? There is no law that says you must sleep only when it is night-time. Our bodies are genetically wired to sleep when we are tired, but modern-day life and work ethic has made us all into zombies, chasing objects to make us happy. On top of that, our sedentary indoor lifestyles are not conducive to good sleep. Our Paleolithic ancestors, contrary to what we like to believe, had pretty good lives. Yes, they had to forage for food and avoid being eaten by wild animals, but on the whole, they actually worked very little and slept a lot more than we do, and had exposure to the elements, particular natural sunlight. The hardwired and puritanical belief that you are lazy and a no-good if you sleep in the day is nonsense. We should follow the lead of the Latin countries and bring back the siesta! What we do instead is self-medicate with pills, “recreational” drugs, TV, alcohol, coffee, sugar (as in sweets foods and carbs) and all the many weapons of mass distraction available through the entertainment industry.
Some of us, myself included, prefer being awake in the day and sleeping at night; my biorhythms work better being synchronized with the natural circadian rhythms. Many of us who work in the day have no option but to sleep only at night. However, if it is possible to sleep in the day, it is possible to develop a vasana to do so. I have sporadic sleeplessness due to body karma (I have an old neck injury) and changing environments/time zones, the result of constant travel. We all benefit from encouraging and developing the sleep-thought, but if your problem is chronic lack of sleep, then this is especially important. You need to encourage that sleep-thought as much as you can, wherever and whenever possible. If your guna profile is predominantly rajasic or sattvic, make friends with tamas; in fact as a jiva, see it as your best friend!
What Is Sleep?
Deep sleep is a state where consciousness is (apparently) identified with the causal body; it is awareness experiencing its own nature, or bliss, in the form of a very special thought. We cannot experience without a thought, so there must be a particular kind of subtle thought present, a vritti (called prajna) that makes falling asleep and sleeping possible. I call it the sleep-thought. There is a reason we call it “falling” asleep because in order to sleep, the mind must surrender the subtle body to Isvara, the causal body. Prajna, the sleep-thought, may be present when we need it, but it is often ignored if there is either too much tamas, too much rajas or too much sattva present in the mind obscuring it. If we bring awareness to the gunas and how they operate in the mind, we can manage them to encourage enough tamas to sleep by suppressing rajas and sattva. It is the rajasic and sattvic thoughts that take us away from sleep, and the tamasic thoughts that take us towards it.
Prajna makes the bliss we experience in deep sleep possible, as it is experiential and comes from the absence of objects, including and especially vasanas. The mind (subtle body) is not present, because it is one with undifferentiated consciousness, therefore all vasanas are dormant. Your gross body is also not present (for you) in deep sleep, although it is visible to others who are not sleeping. You are not aware of the body, the mind, sleep or consciousness in deep sleep. The absence of mental activity defines deep sleep. To all intents and purposes, you, as the person you think you are, are not present in deep sleep. Only you as consciousness/the causal body are present, aware of the absence of objects and enjoying limitlessness, but without knowledge.
Sleep Defined by the Absence of Objects
The only objects present in deep sleep are ignorance and nothing (no objects), which are experienced and known through inference when the deep-sleeper wakes up, and the bliss ends, which is why prajna means “almost enlightened” – because it experiences the limitlessness and bliss of awareness – but because the intellect is not present, it lacks knowledge of what it is experiencing. The subtle body, or microcosmic causal body, which seems to belong to the jiva (although it really belongs to Isvara) and produces the jiva’s karma, “disappears” into the macrocosmic causal body, or the deep-sleep state. It is the same for everyone. The macrocosmic causal body is another name for Isvara. It is pure tamas.
Dreamless sleep is known also known as the bliss sheath, ananda-maya-kosha. In moments where there seems to be no doer/experiencer, there must be a witness present who knows the joy/bliss. If not, how would the jiva or deep-sleeper know joy/bliss was there in the first place? How can the jiva say that it did not know anything while it was asleep unless awareness was there to witness the absence of knowledge? Therefore the deep-sleeper cannot be the lack of knowledge or ignorance, the experiencing entity.
Many inquirers get confused, reasoning that because the subtle and gross bodies are not present in deep sleep, and you cannot remember what you don’t experience, this means there is no experience taking place in deep sleep. But the causal body is present, so experience is taking place there. If consciousness/the causal body were not present, the body would die. There must be awareness present to keep the body alive, and to know that you don’t remember. Memory, like ignorance or knowledge, is an object known to you.
Tamoguna and the Doer
Deep sleep is the presence of tamoguna alone. Rajas and sattva are dormant, which is why to sleep we must “find the tamas-thought.” Sattva points to the Self, rajas points to the world, tamas to sleep. The ahamkara, ego, or “I” sense, belongs to the subtle body, but because the subtle body is not there to be conditioned, there is no sense of individuality in deep sleep, which is a great relief for the mind. Sleep replenishes and repairs the gross body and enlivens the subtle body, which is why it is so refreshing and vital for psychological and physical health. Sleep is a gift from Isvara, as it gives the mind a break from desire, the vasanas and the sense of doership, which weigh so heavily in the mind before Self-knowledge removes samsara, the hypnosis of duality and doership. Even a short period of sleep deprivation is detrimental; lack of sleep is cumulative and very hard to remedy. It exhausts the mind making it too dull (tamasic) for self-inquiry.
The Doer Never Sleeps
Many people unconsciously resist sleep because the ego does not want to let go, so it “tries” to sleep. The interesting thing about sleep is that you can’t try to sleep, because the very act of sleeping is surrendering the doer, in this case, the one trying to sleep. The doer, like the body, is not really conscious, so does not sleep. It appears to be conscious because the light of awareness shines on it. The only way to sleep is for the mind to lock onto the tamas-thought and let go of the doer. When the mind is asleep, there is no doer. But who or what is keeping the body breathing, digesting, blood circulating, etc. while it is asleep? Isvara, consciousness. As mentioned above, sleep, the causal body, can only be entered if the microcosmic causal body (aubtle body) is surrendered to the macrocosmic causal body, Isvara.
Karma Yoga and Guna Management
Good sleep depends a great deal on guna management. If we do not manage the gunas correctly during the day, we will not sleep well. There are many things we can do to overcome sleep problems, but the main solution to insomnia is to cultivate tamas at the right time of day, and of course apply karma yoga. The desire for sleep is the problem, and the anxiety that builds up because of not sleeping simply compounds the problem. Getting more anxious and stressed because you can’t sleep is clearly not conducive to sleeping or peace of mind. If sleep eludes you no matter what you try, there is nothing to do but accept this with equanimity, while committing yourself to make lasting changes to lifestyle and resolve all binding psychological issues. Although there are chemical solutions to insomnia, such as sleeping pills, this is a course of action that should only be taken as a very last resort or as a temporary measure. Dependence on chemicals to sleep soon becomes a binding vasana, and when this happens, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to resolve the underlying reason from the insomnia.
The Endless List of Things to Do
The perpetual doer never stops doing. It has a never-ending list of things it needs to accomplish. If you want to sleep well, your lifestyle must be such that whatever is on your list to accomplish that day should not be more than you can accomplish in one day. When that list is complete, you should not add one more thing to it. This is not an easy habit to cultivate for highly rajasic doer types, but it can be done with enough vigilance and determination. What price peace of mind? Rajas is like a wild horse. If you want to train it, you must be patient, diligent and highly motivated. If you don’t succeed, it will run your life. It is a like a big fat rat full of desire, sitting on top of you, always gnawing away, always hungry, always dissatisfied.
Vedanta says that sleep is the result of good (punya) karma. If rajasic thoughts consume the mind and emotions, we will not be able to follow dharma, which means we are not doing the appropriate actions or living the kind of life conducive to peace of mind. Dharma is not upheld when we cannot reign in our desires and projections, manifesting in obsessive behaviour, of whatever kind. Sometimes, the inability to sleep is the result of deeply buried and unresolved psychological issues (pratibandikas or samskaras) that are the result of karma from “previous” lives, carried over through the subtle body into this incarnation. There is a backlog of rajas that causes huge pressure in the mind and must be balanced if peace of mind or moksa is the main aim. It is not your fault or “your” doing, you did not make yourself like this, so don’t beat yourself up.
Or it could also be that the mind is agitated through guilt, shame or worry over things we have or have not done that we know are not dharmic. Even sattvic behaviour can become obsessive.
Fear of Death or “Nothingness”
Night-time, the dark, symbolizes the parts of ourselves we cannot see, the unknown, unpredictability, danger. From our ancestor days, no doubt night-time was a time of greater physical threat. Inability to sleep can also be caused by the unconscious fear of death, especially as we get older. Sleep is like a mini death in a way, which is why the ego often resists it. It is ultimately about surrender, loss of control. The ego is a fear-thought born of the belief in separation, and sleep requires the ego to give up its attachments to objects, mainly its identity. Sleep is like nothingness; it is unknown and unknowable. But the ego must let go or sleep does not come.
Unconscious Fears and Desires
Another big (and very common) issue is what we call “free-floating anxiety”; it is a by-product of very deeply rooted samskaras, which have their origin in fear of course. This fear, as all fears, originates in macrocosmic rajas (projection) and it is part of the dharma field. It is not specific to anyone, but it feels like it is. This fear is the “wound of humanity,” as I sometimes call it. It is the king of all vasanas, also what we call primordial beginningless ignorance, another name for Maya. If Self-knowledge is not firm, it causes a non-specific unnamed existential fear, or dread. It is the fear that causes knots in the solar plexus. It is sometimes called the fear of “being and becoming.” It often manifests as panic attacks and other serious mental disturbances. The Christians call it “original sin.” It is always present, yet hidden in the causal body, and it is looking for objects to attach to (rajas/tamas). It is related to “others”; it is the ultimate experience of duality, or “otherness.” And its favourite time to make an appearance is “in the dark,” at night, when negative thoughts tend to loom larger than life.
Anxiety Over Results and the Perfection Vasana
There is another issue which is rarely dealt with, and it is often a cause of bad sleep, and that is anxiety over fruits of action. People who have strong perfection vasanas (very strong likes and dislikes) and need things to be a certain way (their way) to be satisfied often have a hard time with sleep, as they do with being satisfied or happy. This is because karma yoga is very difficult for them to practise, even if they may know intellectually that only Isvara is in charge of results, not the jiva. This kind of mind has a neurotic need for order in its reality and gets distressed if it cannot achieve it, whether this is in its home, work or personal environment. It has an obsessive, atavistic need for control, which can be masked by sweetness and (seemingly) sattvic activities like yoga, tai chi, meditation, etc. or even the formal or informal behavioural sciences, like astrology, the enneagram and traditional psychological therapies. I think most of us have experienced professional (or so-called professional) “life coaches” who are themselves in dire need of life-coaching!
If your lifestyle is too rajasic for whatever reason, you will always be worrying about what is happening/hasn’t happened/is going to happen/might/might not happen, now or tomorrow or whenever. The anxiety goes into the unconscious, where it remains, arising to disturb you most when you should be sleeping. It builds up too, from day to day. Unless we can practise karma yoga in all areas of life, surrendering the results of action to Isvara, taking one day at a time and seeing it as complete, no matter what has happened or not happened, good sleep is much less likely.
1. Practical Solutions for Insomnia
A meditation that I find works wonders is to visualize the sleep-thought as the wise old man or woman who is waiting patiently and lovingly for you throughout the day. Say hello to them every so often as you spot them going about your business. Flesh this visualization out by letting the wise elder instruct you that they are the sleep-thought and they will guide you safely into depths of the cave of the causal body. Look at them and lock on, don’t let go. When you are ready to sleep, the elder takes you by the hand, walks you carefully and gently into the cave, transitioning from light to dark. See this as an actual cave. Shed your shoes and any uncomfortable clothes at the entrance of the cave. Hold the hand of the wise person as they guide you into the growing darkness of the cave, until it is pitch black and you cannot see anything. Feel the safety of the space, the soft earth below your bare feet. Feel the ever-present Self in the silence. Know it is you, watching out for you.
• Descend stairs, a ladder or an incline into the depths, all the while holding onto to the sleep-thought as it takes you deeper and deeper into the causal body. Remember, don’t let go! If the mind wanders, bring it back. Focus the mind on the old man or woman leading you, even if you can no longer see them. Let the sleep-thought reassure you that all is well, you can relax in the silence and darkness, you are safe and protected by the Self, your own true Self. When you get to the “bottom” of the cave, you can lie down. Usually I fall asleep way before this. If you keep practising this, it works.
Reduce stress! All types of negative emotions, like worry, fear, anxiety, depression, guilt, etc. can keep you up at night. Stress tops the list when it comes to pinning down the cause of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. A balanced sattvic lifestyle is as essential for sleep as it is for peace of mind. The critical concept here is acute versus chronic stress. We are genetically wired for dealing with acute (brief/infrequent) stress, as in fight-or-flight activity. This makes use of glucose and fat released from the liver. Our bodies are not well suited– or adapted, for that matter – to the stresses of modern-day life. While the era of technology has ushered in a host of advantages for homo sapiens, overall we have paid a big price in our physical and mental health.
The modern stresses we deal with today in our “must-have,” desire-driven societies are cumulative and deadly. When the body is subjected to chronic stress (any stress), it releases the hormone cortisol – which is the hormone equivalent of pure, unadulterated rajas; it’s like pure alcohol – producing that immediate hit, but the price, long- and short-term, is high. This stress compounds itself, as the more stressed we get, the more stressed we get. Abnormally high cortisol affects sleep, again producing more cortisol, on and on in a vicious, never-ending cycle. It’s called a “feed forward” mechanism in biology. The health consequences of this spiral are a suppressed immune system, chronically elevated blood sugar levels, decreased insulin sensitivity, impaired memory, decreased sexual drive and ability – the list is long. Rajas is no joke. The problem is that many people feel so trapped by their karma that they have no choice but to normalize the abnormal and keep acting out insane lifestyles. Most rajasic types are bored and addicted to stress, so seek out activities, people, music, entertainment, anything that keeps the mind extroverted and agitated.
2. Physiological Recommendations
Lack of potassium can lead to difficulty staying asleep throughout the night. Potassium is an essential mineral “salt” that is sometimes referred to as the “good salt.” It’s most commonly known for its role in blood pressure regulation, and it works synergistically with magnesium to improve sleep, among other things. This combination may be of benefit if muscle cramps are keeping you awake.
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to excessive daytime sleepiness. Although good supplementation works, spending 20 minutes in the sun every day (or as often as possible) is optimal.
Vitamin B12: if you suffer from sleeping difficulties, research shows that taking vitamin B12 helps because it plays a vital role in melatonin production. Melatonin has been called “the sleep hormone” because it is responsible for letting you get a good night’s sleep. As you age, it becomes increasingly more difficult to get a good night’s sleep because your body becomes less efficient at making this hormone.
3. Lifestyle Issues