Sleep

I've been very slack with blog postings lately. It's been all go at work, so not much spare time. But then this blog is really like a diary of ideas for me, so I don't try to meet any sort of publication schedule. I'd still write it if nobody read it, but thanks to those who do!

Sleep. I've had a difficult relationship with sleep for a lot of years. Good sleep can make the difference between a good or bad day, and I've noticed the quality of a day is profoundly affected by the quality of sleep you've had. My basic difficulty with sleep is that I get to sleep fine most nights, but then wake about 3am and struggle to fall asleep again. It's one of the classic types of insomnia. I get from 5-6 hours of sleep most nights.

But I don't feel tired the next day. Most days. It's possible that the bodywork ideas I've learned and worked on for the past few years have lessened the need for sleep, they drastically reduce the amount of effort I need to use every day. But during all those years of battling sleep I've had plenty of time to think about sleep, what it is and how it works. You can pick up any number of popular or more technical books on sleep that condense all of the latest research on it, and they're almost all useless in practical terms. You'll find out what brain waves look like, and about REM sleep, and body temperature, and any number of other experimentally-derived phenomena. Which won't help you much at all in improving your sleep, even when they do try and talk about the various techniques people have discovered over the years to aid with sleep (from warm milk through to brain chemicals in a jar).

Probably the most useful advice I ever received about sleep was also the most obviously simple advice, but it's not that prominent in all the self-help publications. The advice was basically to realise that sleep is an automatic process - it's not something we have to consciously do. It just happens. Often even if we try to stop it happening, it will happen anyway. I know this from the many times I've dozed off in front of a TV program I've really wanted to watch. Interestingly it's not just the moment of falling asleep that is automatic, have you noticed that your entire body will start the process of winding down some time before you actually get to bed? People (like me) will suddenly find themselves starting to get lower and lower in a chair, or even decide to lie on the floor or couch. Not consciously most of the time, your body is trying to get you to lie down and go to sleep.

Once you really accept that sleep is automatic, you realise straight away that you never need to do anything to try to sleep. Ignore all of the techniques people have developed, they're all missing the point. You need to take a very different mindset to bed to be a good sleeper than the mindset bad sleepers take to bed. Bad sleepers will lie awake, often for hours, trying one thing after another to get to sleep. It's exactly like the people who practice breathing exercises for years in an attempt to get good breathing. Like sleep, breathing works best when you completely ignore it.

So for me the changed mindset that makes a difference is to stop going to bed thinking I need to do some thing to fall asleep. I just need to be there, in bed, lying down, and my body will do the rest. What I do while I'm waiting for that is up to me, although some things will obviously keep me awake longer than others. But if I start turning that time into a struggle to do anything, including trying to sleep, I will tend to stay awake because my body is trying to respond to my intention to be awake and 'doing' something. (Bit different to watching TV, where you're not really trying to do anything except take in what's already given there to you in the images.)

I think good sleepers know this intuitively. They go to bed and enjoy the simple experience just of being in bed. They're not saying "OK, now I'm going to sleep, so I'll...". They're enjoying the feeling of sheets and other coverings, the darkness, the feeling of a tired body resting etc. In fact it's probably true to say that it's only really bad sleepers who think about something called 'sleep' much at all. Good sleepers just go to bed and enjoy being in bed, and they fall asleep during that enjoyment. They know they sleep, but it's not a separate thing to their enjoyment of being in bed.

Another trap insomniacs fall into in my experience is to covet the feeling of good sleep. They put the cart before the horse. We've all been in bed and known the real pleasure of having slept well or of enjoying how good it feels to be in bed. Insomniacs will try so hard to get that feeling, not realising that the feeling is the result of just being in bed and letting nature take its course. A bit like how some will try their whole life to be happy, not noticing that happiness is the outcome of the way a life is lived - the feeling itself is nothing on its own. (The same happens in depression, where the feeling of sadness or of depressed feelings in general starts to seem like an isolated thing to be dealt with. And the more the depressed person focuses only on the feeling and not on their wider life, the worse their depression will get.)

Having said all that it's not clear to me that the science of sleep is really on the right track. For example it's obvious to anybody skilled in bodywork, or in other words anybody who can inhabit their body like the tensegrity structure it is (see the post I did here about that), that most people in our part of the world at least create enormous, completely unnecessary forces on their bodies, all day every day. So if it turns out that the 'average' amount of sleep people get is 7 or 8 hours, or whatever, you have to wonder if it might be different if the average person stopped putting those forces on their bodies. They may need a lot less energy every day, and a lot less sleep at night.

That's what I've wondered about myself, because since learning the tensegrity stuff, I've had a lot less sleep but haven't felt tired.

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