On the Spirituality of Sleep

This month I started teaching a theology class on “Kyivan Spirituality” here in the parish and at our seminary in New Jersey. They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Given how mundane (i.e. non-spiritual) I am, there has been a LOT of prep work involved. St. Theophan describes this phenomenon in the introduction to his compilation of the Philokalia when he likens reading the Philokalia (a compilation of teachings from holy men) to journeying into a foreign land. Of course, spirituality (like all theology) should not be treated as a dry academic topic: it must be lived, and it must be lived well.

Most of the advice given in books like the Philokalia were given to monks, people whom God had set apart to completely devote themselves to love, prayer, and sanctification through Christ. They are trained by their elders to become “spiritual athletes” through a challenging regimen that encompassed every element of their lives. If we tried to embrace their regimen in its totality, it would destroy our marriages, our careers, our parishes; and lead us into either despondency or prelest. Treating their regimen like a smorgasbord [by] incorporating those things that suited us best would do us little more good, and would probably end up either hurting us or stroking our egos without any real benefit. What we need is the discernment to figure out which of their lessons apply to those of us living in the world, and how they should be applied.

[The image of the monk as professional athletes and us as amateurs is appropriate. Using their work-outs would kill us! Nor is it simply a matter of building up to what they do: they are at a completely different level. I could never bench press 300 lbs, no matter how long I worked up towards it and would only ruin my health trying.]

Spiritual warfare is both real and dangerous, so simple experimentation is not a good way to figure things out [imagine the monks as professional football players or Spartan warriors and you can see the danger here: we just can’t compete/fight at that level!]. What we need are spiritual mentors to help us develop habits that will help us develop into secular (i.e. non-monastic) spiritual athletes, well equipped for our parts in the battle. In the absence of such mentors, it is best to stick with the basics: a prayer rule that includes morning and evening prayers; regular worship & participation in the sacraments; and immersion within a loving family and community.

Having said that, there are still things to be learned from the Philokalia and works like it. For example, we should not attempt to follow the prayer regimen of monastics, but there is little doubt that we should, like them, use a “prayer rule” to structure our day and fill in the time between structured prayers with love and gratitude (i.e. the unceasing “prayer of the heart”); nor should we attempt to follow their diets completely, but is there any doubt that we should be more attentive to how, how much, and what we eat? We have much room to improve in the regard even within the relatively confines of our regular fasting schedule.

But my favorite example is not praying or eating, but something that is even dearer to my heart: sleep.

Monks are encouraged to sleep much less than we would consider comfortable (or even necessary). In the “Little Russian Philokalia, Volume 4, St. Paisius Velichovsky recommends 6 hours of sleep a night for novices, 4 hours for intermediates, and 2 for advanced monastics. Can you imagine 2 hours of sleep being enough? I can do that for a few days, but St. Paisius was recommending this as a habit/way of life! He teaches that the body can become used to less sleep, just as it can become used to more; but whereas extra sleep encourages sin, less sleep makes one stronger and more angelic. We had a fun discussion of this topic in seminary a couple of weeks ago, and the consensus seemed to be that 1) the advice of monks to monks should be filtered through a spiritual father and 2) we probably should be more intentional about our sleep. I think they were right on target: I am less concerned about the hours of sleep people get, but rather that they are sleeping well.

Of course I sleep 12 hours a day. It’s the only thing I enjoy that doesn’t cost any money.

– Unnamed former boss of mine (great guy, but not what you’d call ambitious)

We know from Genesis and the Psalms that sleep is a gift from God, but we also know that sloth is a sin. I think we are probably pretty careless about our sleep. 60 Minutes did a really good show a couple of weeks ago on sleep. In it, scientists describe how sleep depravation affects performance and health. I have seen how false-machismo in the field will lead people to deprive themselves of sleep for extended periods of time, and how their performance degrades as a result. The science presented during the show confirmed my anecdotal observations in spades. Moreover, the scientists described how a lack of sleep leads even healthy people toward diabetes, and how it firmly sticks the appetite switch in the “HUNGRY” position. This led me to recall that one of the hypotheses for our obesity is that we are simply hungrier than our ancestors; I guess it isn’t just artificial sweeteners that make that happen!

As for the quantity of sleep, multiple deployments have allowed me to test my tolerance: I can manage on 4 hours of sleep/night for about 2 months, as long as I am able to get exercise, take breaks, and generally follow a regular schedule. Any longer than 2 months, and I will start suffering until I recharge. 6 hours seems optimal for me,and I can sustain it “in equilibrium” as long as I do the other things my body (to include my soul & spirit) needs. The irony is that, given my ‘druthers, I will lay in bed much longer than 6 hours, even though this always makes me lethargic for the rest of the day. It’s not just that sleep is free: I am lazy.

While the 60 Minutes results seem to contradict the advice from the monastic elders, they both describe reality. First, these monks are athletes; they would probably be “outliers” in the scientific investigations. Second, they develop habits that reinforce their wakefulness and avoid conditions that would make times of drowsiness a serious liability (e.g. driving or other activities that require split second decisions). For example, monks are encouraged to stand and/or do repetitive work with their hands when drowsiness tempts them to sleep. Moreover even if monks are hungrier for getting less sleep, the rest of their lives are structured around dealing with and controlling physical temptations like hunger (perhaps hunger would then become like a spiritual bench press, increasing in weight as they got stronger). The studies on the 60 Minutes show were of people with average lifestyles; as such they describe the physical effects of sleep among average “fallen” men. Monks, on the other hand, are ascetics, striving for sanctification. The Spirit strengthens and transforms them, making them like angels on earth, prefiguring life in the days to come. I dare say that there will be even less need (or desire) for sleep beyond the eschaton than there is now among monks on Mount Athos.

In the end, I do not plan on working towards getting 2 (or even 4) hours of sleep. I am a man living in the world. But I will strive to be more intentional about how, why, and how much I sleep. [Until, that is, my spiritual father tells me differently.] Now, if only I wasn’t so hungry all the time…