Harried By Rest

Finding Joy in Leisure

As a Zen priest, father, and husband sometimes I’m so busy that I feel guilty about taking rest or finding pleasure in quiet moments by myself.  以閑為楽 means, to find pleasure in leisure, or to find pleasure in a quiet place removed from the concerns of the world.  On the surface it seems obvious that we should find joy in leisure time, but I find the statement to be a personal challenge from the universe to wake up to the joys of life all around us, even when we are totally stressed out.

I’d like to use the concept of leisure to segue into Zen perspectives on rest, specifically sleep.  While finding joy in leisure is not the same as sleeping, there are certain parallels between the two.  Both, for example, are sometimes considered luxuries, and perhaps not something to be taken seriously by the majority.  To demonstrate my point, I recently heard a sportscaster ask a professional basketball coach how he slept at nights before a tournament.  He said that he gets something like 2 hours of sleep at night and that, “sleep is over-rated.” 

Similarly, when I was training with my teacher and asked her how she worked without taking breaks she responded, “You have to rest in the work.”  No doubt this can be a useful and practical attitude to have for many endeavors, one’s that you feel passionate about, or there’s an urgency to something, or it’s a matter of life and death.  Zen does teach that each moment is a matter of life and death.  However, sustaining that attitude all the time can lead to extremism at worst or perhaps burn out, and disregards the moderation or “middle way” that Zen also upholds.

To be honest, Zen teachings on sleep are quite ambiguous.  Many cast a dark shadow on the subject.  Sleep is considered one of the five hindrances to awakening.  There are stories of a monk who cut off his eye lids so that he would not sleep.  Another is of the Buddha admonishing a sleepy monk to wake up.  The monk was so ashamed of his practice that he vowed never to lie down to sleep.  He consequently went blind.  These stories are held up as noble ways to wake up.  Zen Master Dogen is said to have had an awakening when his teacher hit the sleeping monk next to him.  While the historicity to such stories is questionable, they nonetheless generate anxiety about sleeping within a Buddhist context.

It wasn’t until my health began to wane due, in part, to lack of adequate sleep that I began taking sleep more seriously.  While this change of habits and ideas of sleep happened over a decade ago, I can’t help but think how difficult it is to prioritize sleep.  I’m not alone in this.

I heard a recent podcast that featured sleep expert Dr. Gina Poe on “The Huberman Lab.”   Dr. Andrew Huberman is a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, and he continually encourages his listeners, not just in this one episode, to get adequate sleep.  There is mounting evidence that many of us in America are sleep deprived and it is having health consequences including rising levels of anxiety and depression. 

During the podcast, Dr. Poe gives us a road map about what happens inside the brain and body when we get a full night sleep, and makes recommendations for how to improve sleep hygiene.  While I encourage those that are interested in learning more to watch the show, in what follows I’ll attempt to summarize some of the salient lessons.

A typical night of 7 – 9 hours of sleep consists of 4 or 5 “sleep cycles.”  Within each cycle, from what I could glean, there are roughly 4 stages – 3 that are non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement), and 1 that is REM.  Each cycle lasts somewhere around 90 minutes and is followed by REM.

The first stage is equated with gamma, or fast, brain waves.  It’s what happens when we have the feeling of dosing or when we first begin to fall asleep.  The second stage is somewhere between wakefulness and a deep state of sleep, but not yet dreaming.

The third stage is characterized by slow brain waves, is deep sleep and it has the function of “cleaning” the brain and restoring us.  When someone is in this third stage they typically are very hard to wake.  Consider how difficult it is to wake a small child out of a deep sleep.  It’s probably because they are in this stage.  Adults tend to spend less time in this third stage as we age.

Then there is REM sleep where our dreams are most active.  When someone wakes from REM sleep, they usually remember what they were dreaming about before being woken.

The first REM period usually takes place 110 minutes after falling asleep, lasts about 10 – 15 minutes, and then the cycle begins again.

In a perfect night’s sleep there are between 4-5 cycles like this.  During the first cycle there is a big boost of what’s known as growth hormone.  This first cycle is associated with integrating memory, and I got the sense from Dr. Poe that it is crucial for our overall wellbeing.  If we miss the first cycle we can’t make it up later because our bodies are on a circadian rhythm.  If we go to sleep later than our usual bedtime we miss the boost of growth hormone that works at integrating memory.

Dr. Poe suggests having consistent sleep and wake times.  A regular bedtime routine is the best marker for good sleep hygiene.

This conversation about the science of sleep made me delve a bit into affirmative teachings of sleep found in Zen literature.  As I mentioned, Zen is quite ambiguous about sleep.  Given our culture and time, drawing on those aspects of the Zen tradition that cast a positive light on sleep seems most appropriate.  I’ll briefly outline three teachings on sleep, the first being a story.

A student asked a Zen master how they should practice the Way.  The master replied, “When hungry eat, when tired sleep.” 

The student was surprised by this response and asked, “Doesn’t everyone do that?”

The master responded, “Most people entertain a thousand desires while they eat and untie a thousand knots while the sleep.”

In other words, most people are not really paying close attention to their body.  Their mind is on other things.  They are not eating nor resting properly.

Secondly, in the Soto tradition, Dogen regards sleep as a practice.  He tells his assembly to rise up and lay down at the same time.  When the monks get up, everyone gets up.  When the monks go to sleep, everyone goes to sleep.  In other words, pay attention to what people around you are doing.  Don’t try to stick out like a sore thumb.  Don’t stay awake meditating into the night when everyone else has fallen asleep.  Don’t think that you are better for not following the crowd.

This admonition goes against everything I was taught by family and society:  Be yourself.  Don’t follow the crowd.  Be independent. 

These ways of being – the way of individualism – is not wrong or bad, but it misses the mark when it comes to harmonizing one’s body with the bodies of others.  Thus, in the West, Zen practice often becomes a “personal” practice that excludes what the Japanese call “Daishu Ichi Nyo” or “Being one with the great assembly.”  There is benefit, in other words, to attempting not to stick out, to being a part of the group, to not creating waves.

Lastly, in the monastery where I trained, Shogoji, we were told to sleep on the right side of our body with legs slightly bent at the knees and our right hand under our pillow to support our head.  This is the Nirvana pose of the Buddha and is said to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, that part of us that initiates rest and relaxation.  One of my teachers knew how difficult it is to spend the entire night on your right side, so he suggested to at least begin the night on your right side and then move as needed.  I found this instruction helpful, as I could never sleep in one position the entire night, and it also helped me to find comfort as I entered Nirvana pose, knowing I was embraced by the Buddha both while awake, sitting zazen and in everyday activities, and while going to sleep.

There is also a gatha I recite while going to sleep in the Nirvana pose:

“As I go to sleep this evening may all beings calm all things making the mind clear and untainted.”

I’m not going to pretend to suggest that I sleep fine all the time now.  Indeed, there are times when I struggle to go to sleep or stay asleep.  But here are a few things that I do to help me get a good night’s rest:


    1. Avoid watching exciting videos less than an hour before sleep.

    1. Read something that catches my attention, but does not over stimulate my senses, roughly 30 minutes before bed.

    1. Drink a cup of hot tea and/or take a hot shower just before bed.

    1. Try to go to sleep at about the same time as all the members of my family.

    1. Take sleep as an extension of Zen practice.

    1. Practice Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) or sit in meditation when I’m unable to sleep.

Yoga Nidra, or the practice of deep relaxation, has been clinically proven, according to Dr. Huberman, to have beneficial effects on stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.  I’m happy to share that we practice Yoga Nidra as a part of the yoga classes that I teach at Zen Fields, and I strongly recommend learning this practice.

In conclusion, 以閑為楽 means, to find joy in leisure.  If I’m being totally honest, this is difficult for me for reasons mentioned above.  I take it as a challenge to my practice, and suggest that if we are serious about Zen, we find ways to not just increase our sleep time, but to find pleasure in so doing.

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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