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Free-Running Versus Polyphasic Sleep

November 25, 2013

A student once asked his teacher, “Master, what is enlightenment?”

The master replied, “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.”

— Old Zen Story

I thought I was a polyphasic sleeper and was going to write about the subject, but after doing some research I discovered that what I do is actually called free-running sleep. While polyphasic sleeping is defined as “sleeping multiple times in a 24-hour period, rather than just once”, it is often restricted to a strict schedule and, in practice, regulated by an alarm clock. Free-running sleep, on the other hand, is sleeping according to your body’s natural inclinations, with no interference. The only rule for free-running sleep is this: Sleep when you’re tired, wake up naturally.

Many people live life according to a fixed or forced sleep schedule. However, the only way you can regulate the sleep cycle is by deprivation; you can force yourself to stay awake when you are sleepy, or to wake up when you still need sleep, but you cannot force yourself to sleep more than you need to, or to go to sleep when you are not sleepy. If you wake up with an alarm clock, or use stimulants to become alert or to stay awake, you are depriving your body of sleep, plain and simple.

My primary principle of sleep is “not forcing”. I don’t force myself to come awake, to stay awake, or to stay in bed if I’m not sleeping. My experience has thus been that my sleep patterns are not fixed and rigid, but instead they vary according to my activities and needs. Overall I tend to sleep for shorter periods, more frequently, that are not strictly correllated with the day/night cycle. In the absence of major irregularities, they are somewhat periodic but tend to precess on the month scale.

Basically the only thing you can do wrong with sleeping is to not get enough of it; there is no danger of getting too much. So the best thing you can do to ensure you are meeting your need for sleep is to ensure that you get as much as you need, and that it is of sufficient quality: comfortable, relaxed, undisturbed.

In other words, be like a Zen master.

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