How to Sleep Better and Rest Deeper
I read a chapter in a book once - maybe it was in Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet - about a community of people who put the highest emphasis on living a life intended to allow for dreamless-sleep. The concept is that with minimal stress during the day, a life of few worries, there would be no need for the dream-system to be activated at night. Although the modern collective-consciousness of culture has for the most part forgot what dreaming is all about, their was/is an intuitive understanding that dreams become stronger when we are challenged during the day. Of course, it's not really possible to completely eliminate threats to our health, to our relationships, to our financial and material resources, and to our various goals. Life is not easy. And to be honest, would you even want such a boring life that you were not challenged, at least a little bit? The land of the dreamless is a boring place, where people just do their same pre-arranged routines year after year, never striving to grow, never going in for the win with a good possibility of temporary defeat.
A stress-free day can lead to quicker sleep onset, and less awakenings throughout the night from disturbing dreams. But, we have just gone over the idea that a stress-free day is a boring day, and barely worth living for. Modern life is a maze of challenges, a kaleidoscopic, fractured, dizzying machine with a trillion pieces, and the pace of change accelerates geometrically. As machines get smarter, we get more confused about which way to go, what to do, and how to do it. Looking at the modern dilemma from another angle, we are also living in the most exciting time in history - we have access to more information than ever before and to tools of such incredible power that anyone can do almost anything they can imagine (with some creativity, effort, and help from experts). We value hard work and ambition, but it is trickier than ever to find a balance between work and rest. Our machines don't need to sleep, and we can forget that we are not our machines. In order to perform at our top level and constantly improve, we need to refresh our biological systems. We need sleep, we need to digest nutrients, we need to let mental material sift through various cognitive filters. We need to keep our physical bodies still at regular intervals so that our dreaming avatars can run and experiment and combine our new learnings with our ancient patterns. And as many of us know, as most of understand too well, a good night's sleep can be hard to find. Especially when we cannot stop the clock of work-work-work. When we can't stop thinking about deadlines, interpersonal struggles, even regrets. We know that we need deeper sleep so that we may dig deeper into the ground of accomplishment. What's a 21st century human to do?
There are some general concepts around sleep that we all probably know, and we are all guilty of ignoring. Sleep comes easiest in the dark, in the quiet, when we feel as if we are in a safe sleeping space. Sleep welcomes you most readily when you have exhausted the day by giving it your best, put in the right mix of quality and quantity of effort. Rest opens her arms to you when you have treated people fairly, including how you treat yourself. If you are too hard on yourself and others, held the world to unrealistic expectations, it can be difficult to let go of the inevitable disappointments. And if you suspect that you didn't give the day your best shot? Let it go. Tomorrow is another day. Every sunrise is a new chance to do your work. To do it a little better, a little more consciously. Those are the broad strokes, now more detail:
1. Sleep in the dark. This is easy to fix. Block out the windows better if they are letting in light from street lamps. Turn off the TV, maybe by way of a timer. Close the laptop. Unplug the nightlight. Maybe you even want to cover the flickering lights from modems and routers and all those electronic gadgets. The body rapidly switches to producing sleep hormones when light stops reaching special receptors in our eyes. Although this system is largely attuned to certain blue-wave-lengths mostly coming from the sun, an especially deep kind of rest is possible in complete blackness. Many people have never even been in the type of blackness I am talking about. But if you have ever slept, say, in a cabin in the woods where at night it gets so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of your face, then you know what I'm talking about. The DARK is a powerful first step in getting to a deeper level of rest, and quicker.
2. Sleep in the quiet. You may have limited control over how quiet you can make your external environment, outside of your bedroom. Earplugs can work wonders. Easy fix. Or, if earplugs are uncomfortable, you can play an ambient noise like ocean waves or white-noise on one of your digital devices. There are plenty of free apps that provide soothing sounds. These sounds will block-out the unwanted street chatter or commotion in other rooms, and cocoon you in a rhythmic and calming sea of sleep-friendly sound-waves.
3. Sleep in safety. It is difficult to fall asleep if you do not feel safe. After-all, when asleep we are most vulnerable. Although we have done an incredible job of removing ourselves from the food-chain of the forest and jungle, we are not completely removed from the danger that other humans can pose to us. Some neighborhoods are statistically more dangerous than others, and some individuals just have a more fearful temperament. Either way, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate against the possibility of unwanted intrusion, resulting in an easier sleep-onset. If you have a dog or are considering getting one, you can rest assured knowing that canines have been our friends and sentient patrols for millennia. I suspect that our survival was much aided through our relationship to dogs and their wolf ancestors, giving humans an upper hand against both human and animal intruders who did not have our best interests in mind. If a dog is not possible, or you want more notice in the unfortunate event of an intrusion, you can install an alarm system. You can even buy sensors that emit a high-pitched scream at dollar-stores, and protect ever window and door in your house for a very affordable price. And if some one does make it into your fortress? You can have pepper spray on your nightstand, a bat, or dare I say it - a pistol or shotgun. Weapons deserve respect and are not toys. And they can kill, and should not be left available for curious children to get hold of. But I always prefer to be prepared for worst case scenarios. Not because I am trying to invite their occurrence, rather, I don't want to be left "naked" when with a little planning I can be armored. If you do decide to take it upon yourself to maintain a last line of defense, mentally rehearse exactly what you would do in the unwanted should occur. I know where my tools are and what I will do with them. I don't want to kill or paralyze another human. I just want to feel the illusion of safety, and I have a plan. The point of all this is to rehearse a scenario until you are comfortable enough to not place extra-worry on yourself when it is time to rest. Once a plan is ingrained, you can move on and not fret over unlikely, but serious possibilities.
4. Animals sleep after they eat. Like it or not, humans are primarily carnivores. We can be called omnivores, but when was the last time you ate some raw grass or leaves and felt satiated. We cannot process most raw vegetable foods well (fire and agriculture allowed for the invention of modern societies, but the long-term effects on health from eating "modern" foods are becoming increasingly better understood). Sure, we can eat fruits easily enough, but we cannot live off of fruit as a substantial source of our calories - just look at what happened to Steve Jobs (rest in peace). A vegetarian or even vegan diet can be useful for periods of time as a means to cut back on calories and allow the body to catabolize diseased cells and organs, but the anabolic growth needed for long-term abundant health is achieved through eating nutrients supportive to these ends - and these are found in animal protein and fat. Even if you don't agree with eating animals for whatever reason, the point I want to bring up here is that after a hunt, or a forage, animals gorge on food and THEN sleep. We were told that "breakfast is the most important meal of the day!" Why? Is it really a good idea to eat a lot and then go out and do our work? Maybe it should be the other way around. Maybe we should eat easy-to-digest foods early on and save the big feast for before bed-time. When we have worked and played to our fullest, and then ate to our fullest, then we can more easily sleep to our fullest. The day time is your hunting time. Modern hunting in the work-world is more about social networking and creative computer-problem solving than it is about tracking and spearing prey, but it is still all about securing the means to our survival. When the work is complete, then we can eat big, and then the body is triggered into knowing it is OK to rest, re-group and re-build internally, so that we can do it all over tomorrow. Some people sleep best right after eating, some people need to digest a bit before they can lay down. Also, it can take time to re-set your metabolism, so although I highly recommend eating most of your food before bed, it can take time to get accustomed to this naturalistic approach if you have spent years going in another direction.
5. How to let go of your worries. Making your sleeping environment darker, quieter, safer, and eating at the right times, these are easily doable. The real reason you are having trouble sleeping is because your waking mind won't let go of your fears. Dreams deal with our fears, both from an ancient and a contemporary perspective, and this can double your troubles because a part of you is afraid to fall asleep knowing that it is by no means an escape from the worries of the day. What to do? Well, we need to put our worries somewhere, symbolically, reassure ourselves that they will be waiting vigorously for us when we wake up, so that we can move on to the important business of falling asleep and acquiring the fresh energy needed to battle our dragons anew. You can do this "worry displacement" a couple of ways. For one, you can write down on paper or on a computer screen all of your most pressing and mind-inhabiting threats. Pen to paper/fingers to keys: "Confront manager about his stupid new policy; Tell Jimmy that I don't want to go to Suzie's party; call my school's loan officer and work out a payment plan I can live with," and whatever else. Your worries aren't going to disappear, but they want a place to rest while you rest. And in your conscious mind is no place for them while you are trying to let go of consciousness. Similarly, you can do all of this mentally: Take each concern and place it on a chair, or in a bin, or write it on a white-board, all in your mind's eye, and put that chair under a table, close the bin drawers, put the pen down at the base of the white-board, and close the door to that room in your head, and know that every challenge will be waiting for you tomorrow and it is safe to forget about them for the time-being.
6. Read a book in bed. If you are low on daily challenges/threats, it may be easy for you to fall asleep with Netflix playing your favorite show. If you are overwhelmed by work and social events, watching TV may not be the answer. It is well known that reading a book can knock you out at the end of the day. Find something you enjoy, but know that if the material is too serious, or too engaging, the reading may not foster the sleep you seek. Choose a story that you enjoy that will allow you to fade-out.
7. Chemical Supplementation. All of the above can bring you a long way from sleep deprivation to deep rest, but if you still can't solve your rest issue from covering these important primary steps, you may want to try sipping herbal teas or taking nutritional supplements. Chamomile, Valerian, and herbal blends are an inexpensive way to gently tempt the monkey brain into shutting down. Most Sleepy-Time teas have similar ingredients, your taste preference is the final deciding factor. As for pills, capsules, and tablets, many people swear by melatonin. Something called 5-HTP is also a popular and effective supplement for relaxation, and the chemical GABA helps many people get the rest they desire. In my opinion, these are secondary and supportive means to achieving rest, and should not be used INSTEAD OF the above approaches
for any length of time.
8. Focus on your breathing. Our breathing, it's rhythm and depth and how well it is synchronized to whatever activity the body and mind are engaged in, is EVERYTHING. I mean this symbolically, and I mean this literally. The breath is the spirit. The air, as it moves in to you, through you, and out of you, is our most intimate connection to the world. Every breath you take contains some of the same molecules that were exhaled by your favorite characters from history. When you breathe in, some of that oxygen was inside the body of Lincoln, Gandhi, all of the Caesars, every king, queen, farmer, warrior, poet, and artist. Our breath is a continuation that links us to every other breathing creature, and to every moment of our own history. Classical meditation is essentially learning how to watch and control the breath. Breathing changes as a result of our activity, and conscious manipulation of the breath can enhance our ability to engage in various activities. When nervous, we can slow and deepen our breathing. And we want to increase our excitement, we can breathe more rapidly. You may have noticed the sleep pattern change when watching a pet or a person sleep. In Non-REM sleep, breathing is slow and even. In REM-Sleep (especially phasic REM), the breath is usually erratic, fast at times and then being held for a few moments, often in shallow spasms - this is much like a person breathing under stressful situations while awake. During lucid dreaming, you can consciously alter your breathing pattern to remain calm and centered. But in order to fall asleep in the first place, your breathing should slow down, become more even. You can "watch" your breath as you lay with closed eyes, and slowly, gradually, guide your breathing pattern to an even, relaxed keel. Fake it until you make it (copy a relaxed and sleepy breathing rhythm until your body responds in suit by falling asleep).
9. Have an orgasm. There is some dispute as to whether an orgasm is more energizing or relaxing for females, but for men, this is an almost sure-fire activity for leading to DEEP relaxation. Passing-out may be almost inevitable afterwards. Either with a partner or auto-style, a bit of master-blasting might work better for you than any sleeping pill.
10. If all else fails, you may want to talk to your health care practitioner about pharmaceutical intervention. Most prescription drugs are mere patches for deeper underlying issues, and come with their own unwanted side-effects. But we all have different physiologies, and some people were just born with an unlucky roll of the dice when it comes to this or that. Maybe your body isn't able to provide you with enough natural something-or-other. There is a place for prescription drugs, as an option to deal with our human conditions. Be vigilant against abuse of chemicals, but don't suppose that the option of chemical aid is off the table.