How I Learned to Love Sleep and Dream Well

Lessons from the meditation cushion can help bring sweet dreams to the pillow

I’ve had a complicated relationship with sleep and dreams from the start. I was that kid who feared the dark and made my parents leave the hall light on and my bedroom door cracked open all night. Even then, I’d lie beneath my floral-print comforter, not feeling at all comforted. Listening to the restless creaking of our old house I’d wonder if it, too, was having a hard time settling down for the night. Then, when I’d finally doze off, I’d often be haunted by nightmares. As an adult, too, a reliably peaceful night of easy rest, it seemed, was beyond me.

And I know I’m not alone. As grownups we may overcome our fear of monsters lurking under the bed, but anxiety about the night still clings like a stubborn shadow when the sun goes down. Millions of Americans have experienced some form of insomnia, and as a nation we spend billions of dollars each year to address our sleep deficit. All this sleeplessness takes a toll on us individually and as a culture. We suffer from lost productivity at work, increases in obesity and anxiety, diminished cognitive function — and the list goes on.

In response, doctors prescribe sleep medicines — few of which offer lasting results. But now more and more people are coming to realize that we can’t just pop a pill at night and chug a caffeine-drink during the day to simulate the effects of a good night’s rest. Instead, we must work from the inside out to become truly healthy and happy. In fact studies now show that meditation and mindfulness practices that cultivate present-moment awareness, are as effective as medication (if not more so) in helping people to sleep soundly and dream well.

But sitting still or lying down and turning inward is a not easy. How do we stay present — and stay put — when we’re frightened of the dark, or when carefully buried memories threaten to pounce when we close our eyes? I believe these are the challenges at the heart of our collective sleep deficit. The very things we need to sleep well: Stillness, quiet, and darkness, are the very things we stay busy, plugged in, and hyper-connected all day to avoid. Beneath it all is our discomfort with the unknown and uncertain aspects of our lives, and the emotions we so often reject or repress by the light of day.

On the meditation cushion we can practice sitting through uncomfortable feelings, and staying present with the otherwise submerged fears and worries that fuel our restlessness. Working with dreams can teach a similar lesson in creative and engaging ways.

Dreamwork, the practice of recalling, recording, and talking about dreams and nightmares with a friend or therapist, as a form of inner work that teaches us to turn toward (rather than run from) the monsters and mysteries of the Psyche. We use active imagination, journaling, and lucid dream techniques, among others, to bring conscious attention to the images and stories our subconscious mind dishes up. When we turn to face our fears of the dark — nightmares and all — we gain courage and confidence that we can carry with us all day long. Thus we clear a path to dreams of increased clarity that can guide, inspire, and support us.

Combining these two practices: mindfulness-based meditation and dreamwork, has proven to be the best medicine for me, not only for improving my sleep, but for improving my experience awake, as well.

I now have occasional nightmares, but I’ve also enjoyed many more dreams of beautiful landscapes blossoming with fantastical flowers, wise teachers, and experiences of love and bliss. Dreams have become my allies, and I invite sleep as the territory I cross in order to reach them. Now I teach others to use mindfulness and dreamwork to help them sleep and dream well so we can all befriend the night, and more fully — and joyfully — welcome the dawning of each day.

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