Sleep deprivation has been used as a torture method for 1000s of years. And it’s effective. Anyone who’s had a few sleepless nights in a row will testify to that.
When I worked as a lawyer I found it almost impossible to switch off. To leave work at work. My mind would buzz. For hours. Often I found it super difficult to drift off to sleep, my mind switching back and fourth between things that had gone on during the the day, and the endless list of things that needed to get done the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. And on it went. I’d wake up exhausted. Press snooze as many times as I could, before I’d finally get up and do it alllllllll over again. And my immune system was shot, meaning I’d pick up anything and everything going round.
I suspect I’m not alone in this experience.
Actually I know I’m not alone. One of the main reasons people come and learn to meditate with me is because they’re not sleeping. And they’re over it. They’re not functioning at their full capacity.
Neuroscience is suggesting that sleep is the single most important behavioural experience that we have. Without sleep we mentally, physically and emotionally deteriorate. It is important for brain restoration, processing and memory consolidation. When we sleep neural connections that are important are linked, while those that are less important fade away. When we are tired we have poor memory, less access to our creative brain, experience increased impulsiveness and overall poor judgement.
Sleep and rest are key to us performing at our optimum.
And there is a whole raft of other things associated with sleep loss that are more than just a mildly impaired brain. Mental illness and sleep are not only associated but they are physically linked within the brain. Tired people are also massively stressed. Sustained stress leads to suppressed immunity. There is also a link between tiredness and the metabolic predisposition for weight gain. All in all not a good report card for the sleep deprived. And we are a desperately sleep deprived society. So what’s the answer? How can we sleep better?
Poor sleep quality and poor sleeping patterns are often why people come in to learn to meditate. There are three main types of sleep disturbance. The first is that we are exhausted, we put our head on the pillow and the mind starts racing. The second is that we sit bolt upright around 2am, 3am, 4am and the mind is racing and we’re unable to get back to sleep. And the third is that we are talking and walking in our sleep.
Sound familiar? Well this is the way that stress prints out in the nervous system. The third law of thermodynamics says as we excite a system it naturally heads towards a state of disorder. And this is what we start to see, disordered sleeping. Stress, tension and fatigue need to be processed out of the nervous system on a daily basis and rather than sleeping and resting well the body has to do this work at night. So we wake in the morning absolutely.
And it becomes a vicious cycle. We then move into fight or flight mode. And get stuck there. When we are in that state our mind and body are frantically alert and looking for danger. So we’ve got zero chance of sleeping. Our body runs on a cocktail of stress hormones: norepinephrine; epinephrine; adrenaline; and cortisol.
When we meditate our biochemistry changes. We start to produce bliss biochemistry: serotonin and dopamine. The good stuff. We move out of stress mode. Our body gets the message that there is no bear to run away from. And that it’s safe to rest. Then the body can repair and recover.
Meditation allows the mind and body to access deep levels of rest on a daily basis, process accumulated stress, tension and fatigue and come out of a state of frantic alertness. This means that when we go to bed at night we can rest, and rest well, and bring more of our clear, creative, energetic and physically well self to the dynamics of life. We also need less sleep because we’re getting deep rest when we meditate and when we’re asleep we are accessing better quality sleep.
Most people want to tell me that they don’t have time to meditate. I’ll tell you right now, no one does. But we can keep on doing things the way that we’ve been doing them, we’re going to end up with the same result. Or, we can choose to do things differently. We’ll get a difference experience of life than what we’ve been having. What meditators start to find very quickly, is that when they spend that time meditating, they end up finding they have more time. That means more time to do the things you love doing. And that’s what life is really about. Isn’t it?
Image via Penny Farthing Design House