Sacred Sleep

I have been thinking about sleep.

In our culture we tend to look at sleep as a waste of time, a self-indulgence. I suspect this is something deeply embedded in our Protestant consciousness, probably related to passages from Scripture like Proverbs 6.10-11: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.”

But there is far more to sleep than this, even if one allows some truth in it, which may be more than it deserves! The very space between waking and sleeping is a liminal place, a place of realisation. Entering into sleep mindfully, as intentional practice, can give rise to what I can only describe as attentive sleep. The Buddha is quoted as, “l[ying] down and go[ing] to sleep mindfully and fully aware.”

The very surrender to sleep is in itself an act, and a source, of wisdom. I wrote the other week about the grace of intentional surrender to illness and death when it appears that these are at last inevitable, and perhaps consciously embracing sleep is part of this finding of grace within the peace of letting go.

Sleep is sacred ground. As Rubin Naiman has pointed out, it can be both the expression of and the entry into a place of deep spiritual safety. We seem very ignorant of this, despite our understanding of sleep as essential to physical healing. I can find little on the subject in those Quaker writings with which I am familiar, and even William Penn, writing in 1699, only acknowledged sleep as healing the body:

Love silence, even in the mind… Much speaking, as much thinking, spends; and in many thoughts, as well as words, there is sin. True silence is the rest of the mind; and is to the spirit, what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.

Given our propensity to explore this dimension of the spiritual safety of Meeting for Worship, I am surprised that more work has not been done in this area!


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