Sleep as a Healer

33By Bertram von Zabern, M.D.
Issue: Fall 2003, Sleeping and Waking - Issue #33

Almost one-third of our lifetime is clouded in a state of unconsciousness or dream. Sleep powerfully commands us to its domain when, after an extended day, it stops us from continuing earthly work. While scientific research has provided many details of the chemical and electrical activity of the brain, and psychology has offered insights into the subconscious motivations of dream life, neither has revealed much about why this mystery is such a necessary part of existence.

More than any other modern research, Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy leads toward an inner understanding of sleep by viewing its spiritual dimension. Although sleep appears as a dullness of the mind, in its reality it is an enhancement of consciousness our usual intellect does not grasp. We catch a glimpse of the higher dimension of sleep at the uncomfortable moment when we happen to be woken up from deep sleep, say, at 2:30 in the morning. The discomfort is not a physical pain, but rather the feeling of being torn away from an inner state of bliss, to which one would dearly like to return. Once we are ready to rest again, we have to wait patiently until sleep takes us back to its sacred place.

Rudolf Steiner pointed out that the spiritual life of the human being, in thinking, and as the source of self-consciousness, engages during daytime in many practical earthly matters and impressions that are alien to its true being. It is at night that the spiritual self returns to its home, the spiritual world, and reconnects with its genius.

While we are awake, we make many errors in how we relate to the world and to the creative powers that govern nature. For example: we eat chaotically, our eyes and brain have to deal with a computer monitor or a TV set, our emotions are caught up in financial worries or in irrelevant disagreements. All this negatively affects the health of the body we have received from nature, and ultimately destroys it. But there is immeasurable wisdom at work to create and balance the functions of the brain, the heart, liver, kidneys and so on. While we sleep, the wisdom of creation tries to heal the damage caused in body and soul during wakeful life.

About every third person in the United States suffers at some time in the course of a year from insomnia and seeks help for it. The cause is usually subtle imbalances rather than illness-related pain or crisis-generated anxiety. Every organ system goes through typical biological rhythms, among which the changes of day and night are especially important. One of the main liver functions, for instance, is assimilation, the building up of new substances like sugars, essential fats and proteins. This phase becomes predominant in the evening and beyond midnight. During deep sleep, the assimilation phase turns into a phase of elimination, breaking down old substances to be detoxified and excreted through the bile. The latter phase prevails during the second, dream-rich part of sleep, and extends into awakening and the active morning hours.

We are unaware of the subtle turning point between the two phases of liver function at about 3AM, unless it is pushed out of balance by mistakes in nutrition. Therefore, for a patient, who typically wakes up between 2 and 4 o'clock in the morning, it is helpful to have a light supper earlier in the evening without alcohol and to use herbal or homeopathic remedies to support the liver's function. Similarly, imbalances of other organs need to be considered as causes of poor sleep.

Among different life rhythms, heart beat, blood pressure, fluid elimination, digestion are closely dependent on our daily lifestyle. The answer to imbalances is not an escape from contemporary life and its obligations, but lies rather in improving eating habits, exercise, and timing of sleep. Also, stress reduction is a major challenge that may require professional help and careful inclusion of balancing activities. Invaluable support comes from, music, eurythmy and artistic work.

Knowing about the spiritual essence of sleep, we can try to build up an activity that strengthens our inner equilibrium, such as the evening retrospect meditation, In it, we picture hour by hour in backward sequence the experiences of the day. This exercise reveals a wealth of otherwise lost memory images and helps to bring about a sense of inner reflection, gratitude and peace. This retrospect meditation not only prepares us for good sleep, but it can become a modest part of the restorative work the wisdom of sleep-life accomplishes every night for us.

A healing science of sleep is one that encompasses the life of body, soul and spirit. Our homework in studying it is to try to balance our own lives.

Bertram von Zabern, M.D. practices anthroposophically oriented family medicine and psychiatry in Temple, NH.