When considering rest, most of us think of sleep. When we sleep we enter what the Greeks called Lethe, the river of oblivion, we forget our responsibilities, our worries, our plans, our to – do lists, and slumber for a while in that subconscious world. We sleep, and we dream, the body/heart/mind processing experience, sometimes we wake with vivid, intriguing images, at other times with a start, troubled, disturbed. Antonio Machados’ poem ‘ Last Night As I Was Sleeping’, speaks to the way that sleep can be an active process of digesting experience:
‘Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvellous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.’
Our sleeping life is a mystery. Of course there is the science of sleep, which can tell us some facts about the experience, but why we dream what we dream, that is an unanswered question. One that Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung endeavoured to map with some degree of success. Most of us are fiercely attached to our sleep, and become very agitated when awoken at our inconvenience. It is something that participants on mindfulness courses struggle with. In choosing to undertake a meditative practice, one of the first challenges we encounter is when. How to make 30/40 minutes each day for oneself, to train, calm, and get to know the body/mind. People report, ‘I am not a morning person’, the allure of sleep being drug like, the warm, cosy bed on a cold morning heaven sent. ‘Sleep, the poor persons nirvana’, I have heard it said. My sense is that the word ‘poor’ in this statement is not describing economic status, but a poverty of waking life.
I remember being in my early twenties and recognising that I loved sleep more than life. It became an opening for me, how could I live in such a way that I wanted to get up in the morning, and love life as much as sleep. Meditation practice became a key resource in this aspiration. Not only does the practice of meditation allow us to tune up our senses, our sensitivity, and capacity to experience life more richly and vividly, but it also allows us to find a quality of rest, that mostly we don’t experience in sleep.
In meditation we train the mind to pay attention, we practice the art of releasing unnecessary, and unhelpful thoughts patterns. We put down the weight of the future, of the past and of evaluations, analysis and judgment of this moment. We come to rest in the simplicity of the breath. The whole organism is allowed to rest, without the stimulation of thinking. Isn’t it true that when we think, we often experience, or re-experience, the emotions and physiological responses associated with the thinking. It’s almost as if we are in a simulator. When we think about something anxiously we live it, when we worry, we live it, when we remember difficulties, we re-live them. Planning for the day, we live the anticipated experience over and over again, exhausting! This saps energy from the system. When we can be focused and attentive in the moment, we are not losing energy, the system is concentrated in the here and now. There is less unrest, and therefore more ease, greater rest.
Meditative practice can be challenging in the beginning. It takes hard work, and some courage, but the rewards are priceless; a life lived richly and fully , and with greater well-being. Here’s a musical gift on the subject of the mind, and rest, with the wise words, and teachings of Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche: