Conscious Sleep

Conscious Sleep is something practiced in Zen monasteries – monks can, if they choose, remain upright sitting while sleeping.

I trained to teach the Alexander Technique in the 1980s at the Institute for the Alexander Technique in New York City, under the directorship of Thomas Lemens. Our training hours were from 6:30 am until 10:30 am – two staggered three hour groups. This enabled us to work eight-hour day jobs, something essential for most New Yorkers as life there is quite expensive.

I took a job doing renovation work on upscale apartments and condominiums. My prior work experience had been as an actor, and I decided to leave that behind. Doing jobs like plastering and painting ceilings is extremely demanding on use. One cannot simply space out as one can at most desk jobs – pain from misuse comes very rapidly when you are standing on a ladder working overhead.

Eventually, I got good at directing myself while working, but sleeping became a challenge. I would begin the night on my back, on an old, compacted futon on the floor, my head supported by just the right thickness of pillow (sometimes with a book or magazine under it!), but as soon as I fell asleep my childhood habits of curling up would assert, and I’d awaken in discomfort and direct myself to open out again. I passed one period during which I rarely slept for more than an hour without awakening when I drew my arms and legs in, pulling my head painfully back and down – hard to believe that was how I’d slept my whole adult life!

At one point, after stripping paint from woodwork for several days in a row, I developed painful tendinitis in both wrists. I realized that I had a habit of curling up my arms during sleep, flexing both wrists while bringing both hands in towards my shoulders! The lovely tendinitis awakened me every time I retracted thus, so I learned to stop it. It certainly contributed to my tendinitis!

Gradually, I was able to remain open while sleeping – some aspect of consciousness  persists during sleep, I realized. In noisy New York, I learned to sleep through the wail of sirens, but would awaken to the whimpering of my infant son in the next room.

I no longer have the experience of waking up stiff from having slept in a bad condition, although lengthening more to attain uprightness is still an opportunity for conscious direction!