Are You Awake?
We have just passed through the Spring equinox, one of two times in the year when we have the opportunity to notice balance – the equal balance of light and dark, night and day. But how much balance do we have between our times of activity and rest? As the days grow longer, warmer and lighter we naturally gravitate towards more activity and our focus becomes more outwards looking than inwards, this is usually welcomed and celebrated, especially with the Easter holiday to look forward to. However, it is worth pausing and just considering how to make sure that we make time for rest as well as activity, this is after all central to our self-care and well-being. If we are not well rested we cannot enjoy the extra daylight hours to their fullest!
In mindfulness practice we often talk about the idea of ‘falling awake’ (Jon Kabat-Zinn) or awakening to consciousness (Eckhart Tolle) – being consciously aware rather than unconscious and unaware as we go through our day – but all too often meditators find that they are often falling asleep during their practices, especially in the early days of meditating.
Why is this?
There are several reasons, but one common and very simple answer is probably lack of sleep. Few people sleep well, it is a generational and cultural phenomenon which led the World Health Organisation to declare several years ago that we have a world sleep loss epidemic.
We all know of people who seem to manage well on very little sleep, however all the science shows that regularly depriving ourselves of enough good quality sleep is simply storing up problems for our future self. It amazes me how the very same people who dismiss meditation practices as being ‘airy fairy’ (when there are literally thousands of scientific studies which demonstrate not just that meditation is beneficial to us, but also how and why it works) will happily cross their fingers and trust to luck when it comes to their health.
Lack of sleep has been linked to a variety of health conditions including demolishing the immune system leaving us open to more viruses and less able to fight off infections; it doubles the risk of some cancers; you are more likely to develop Alzeimer’s, depression & mental health disorders; moderate sleep deprivation for just one week has been shown to produce a pre-diabetic state; our ability to digest food and release satiation hormones is disrupted along with our ability to lose weight even during exercise.
We are more likely to have an accident (one person crashes every hour in the US – sleep deprivation is a bigger cause of death whilst driving than drink and drugs together). We are less able to function well and make decisions, we are less creative, and less able to manage emotional experiences (therefore affecting relationships). Because we are not getting enough good quality deep sleep the brain function known as the ‘night manager’ is unable to complete its job of sifting through the events of the day and filing them correctly, meaning that we take all the stress and unresolved emotions from one day straight into the next.
During sleep the brain and body perform functions that cannot be performed whilst we are awake, including maintaining the immune system, resetting our metabolism, regulating our appetite, maintaining the microbiome and cardiovascular systems, and recalibrating our emotional brain circuits for our mental health. Sleep facilitates the processes which allow us to learn, memorise & make logical decisions, make sense of both past and present knowledge, soothe anxieties, and release our creativity.
And this is just for starters!
See Matthew Walker Matt Walker: Sleep is your superpower | TED Talk or his book Why We Sleep, for more detailed information on what sleep does and why it is so important, but in a nutshell for personal survival we need:
Regaining some balance
Over the last couple of years people have generally become more aware of the need for self-care and the importance of a healthy balance of rest and exercise, however we are literally sleep-walking into an even bigger pandemic if we continue to ignore the importance of sleep and practice habits which actively worsen our sleep quality (such as using our phones in bed, potentially one of the most destructive habits we could find outside of severely health threatening use of drugs or alcohol).
How can mindfulness help?
Intention: if we want to make positive impacts on our lives, we have to set an intention to make the changes necessary. Studies have shown that mindfulness practice helps us to become clearer about how we want to live and how to go about achieving this. The parts of the brain (in the pre-frontal cortex) which help us focus and concentrate are strengthened with mindfulness practice, so we are more likely to remember to stick to a new routine and notice when we have wandered away from it through distraction or tiredness.
Kindness: being gentle with ourselves and remembering that every step is a step in the right direction as well as an opportunity for learning and growth is central to mindfulness training. Studies show that harsh self-motivation is not supportive in developing new habits but has the opposite effect, in contrast a growth mindset which allows mistakes and learns from these is more effective for long term change.
Checking in: regular mindful breathing spaces throughout the day allow us to check in with how we are feeling in any given moment. If we regularly notice tiredness this can help focus the mind on making the necessary changes, as well as helping us to remember that we may be more reactive due to tiredness and to take this into account when interacting with others or making decisions. When we make poor decisions due to tiredness we are more likely to feel negatively towards ourselves with thoughts of blame or guilt, and these thoughts and feelings will then keep us awake as we ruminate on them, feeding the difficulty and setting us up for another difficult day.
Using meditation to unwind at night: studies show that just five minutes of a breathing focused practice can calm the mind as we move from sympathetic nervous state to parasympathetic nervous state (‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest & digest’). We can also use meditation to relax the body and release tension in the muscles, and to let go of unwanted thoughts or thinking that is best left to the daytime when we are fully awake and better able to think clearly.
Aligning ourselves with our values: whether one of our values is to be healthier, happier, calmer, kinder, more focused, more active, or whatever is important to us, chances are we need good quality sleep to achieve this. Mindfulness helps us to identify our values and make a commitment to living a life which is aligned to these, which, all psychologists agree, is the key to contentment and good mental health. Once we have identified and prioritised our values and made a commitment to live in accordance with these, we can then start to change any habits which are getting in the way.
Where to find help
As well as sleep therapists, most mindfulness teachers can help with improved sleep and there are regular sleep workshops available throughout the year with Stillworks as well as one-to-one coaching.
There are also some great online resources and below are links to sleep meditations on Insight Timer, including a link to one of my favourite teachers, Tomek, who teaches a range of meditations as well as those for restful sleep.
Whatever you choose as your tool / motivation I wish you a very good night and sweet dreams!