Shakespeare wrote in 1606 that sleep was the “chief nourisher of life’s feast,”capturing the period’s feeling that our diurnal nature was something to embrace. But as history unfolds, the culture tide begins to shift against sleep.
When Napoleon Bonaparte was asked how much sleep one should get he said, “Six for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool.” During her reign as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher declared, “Sleep is for wimps.” Even the fictional character Gordon Gekko of Wall Street summed up the attitude for hard-hitting businessmen of the eighties with the famous line, “Money never sleeps.”
In the 20th century, sleep was a habit not compatible with greatness. Fast forward to present day, however, and you’ll have a hard time finding a thought leader who doesn’t list “plenty of sleep” as part of their peak performance toolkit.
There are hundreds of studies proving lack of sleep is, in fact, “a calamity” that leads to stress, obesity, and a whole host of serious illnesses.
The problem is history’s disdain and our modern embrace are just two sides of the same how-to-productivity coin. We still don’t like sleep. We’ve simply accepted it as necessary. Like the chore of filling up the car with gas on the way home, we “gotta feed the pump.”
But sleep is more than a productivity hack. It’s through sleep that we flirt with the flowers and tangle with the weeds of our subconscious. When we sleep we plug into the deepest and most mysterious parts of our brain. It’s our chance to float on the nocturnal brink of yesterday and today, and allow our imaginations to not only recharge but to fully come alive.
Sleep is not something that must be dealt with. It’s a portal to inspiration, creativity, and connection to ourselves and the world around us.
To sleep is human.
In1922, Thomas Edison wrote in his diary that, “The man who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully awake — he has only different degrees of doze throughout the twenty-four hours. We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it a loss of time, vitality and opportunity.”
Edison wasn’t kidding. He even invented the lightbulb to liberate us from the chains of nature’s light and dark cycles. Thanks to his aversion towards “lost time,” today we have the power to decide when our days should start and end.
However, even though Edison talked a big game about only needing “three to four hours” of sleep per night, he was well aware of the imagination superhighway that begins at the brink consciousness.
At the crossroads of being awake and being asleep is the mysterious state called hypnagogia. Taken from the Greek words “sleep” and “guide,” it’s the initial phase of sleep where alpha and theta brain waves swirl. It’s here — at the gates of slumber — where million dollar ideas are born and creative carrots are dangled just out of reach.
Edison being Edison, invented a way to capture this semi-hallucinatory state by taking a nap in a chair while holding a steel ball. The second he’d fall asleep the ball would drop and wake him up. He would then return to his work is a suspended hypnagogic start without any “lost time” or post-nap grogginess.
The artist Salvador Dali used the same trick. He used one-second, micro-naps to ride the wave of heightened creativity by holding a spoon in his hand while drifting off.
Setting traps for subconscious brilliance with steel balls and silver spoons may be clever, but these examples underscore is the necessity of sleep for the creative process. The brain and body need rest, but the imagination needs to dance.
And the muscles of creativity prefer a circadian tango when no one is watching.
Dreams have always been one of nature’s dirty little secrets. They’ve been thought to be visions of the future, memories from past lives, and messages from God. It’s only recently that which we’ve begun to crack the code on just what’s happening when we drift off to dreamland.
Rosalind Cartwright, author and sleep researcher writes in her book, The 24 Hour Mind, that dreaming is how we regulate our emotions and makes sense of the world around us.
“We stay busy [during the day], but in the inaction of sleep we turn inward to review and evaluate the implications of the day.” -Rosalind Cartwright
Those challenges we face throughout the day — the approaching deadlines, the little comments that didn’t sit right, the weight of the world itself — pile up and create emotional charges. Our dreams are then based on new emotions being mended with old memories in order to diffuse these charges before they become real problems.
Like laundry at the end of the cycle, our emotional charges need to be sorted, folded, and put in the proper place. Dreaming is how our brains iron out the pesky details of the day before they have a chance to register as wrinkles on our moods and behaviors.
There is a magical part of each morning before the wave of to-dos and what to dos have a chance to bombard the brain. It’s that moment when black night has turned to blue morning and the soft light of day first hits our face. You aren’t quite awake or asleep. A single instance of waking reverie. It’s as if your consciousness gets to walk freely into the realm of dreamy illusions, as if entering a forbidden door, only to be pushed out into the morning air of reality.
There’s a beautiful passage by the poet Daniel Hawthorn about this feeling:
“The moment of rising belongs to another period of time, and appears so distant, that the plunge out of a warm bed into the frosty air cannot yet be anticipated with dismay. Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space, where the business of life does not intrude; where the passing moment lingers, and becomes truly the present; a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath.”
It’s this quick glance into our subconscious scenery that lingers under our eyelids, makes us crave, “just five more minutes.” But dreams, like desires, are elusive. The more we chase them, the more they slip away.
But as we wake up from a night’s sleep, feel our skin against the sheets and our legs against our lover, we emerge into the newness of the morning more human than when first laid down. We emerge sorted out and connected to our creativity. Our imaginations were taken off the leash of the daily doldrums of reality.
Sleep isn’t just a prescription for efficiency or productivity or a tool for more busyness. It’s a robust part of life that fuels connection and creativity. It’s one of the ways we get a clear view of what’s worth accomplishing in the first place.
To sleep is human.
To dream is divine.
And in the reverie of waking, we find what it means to be truly alive.