The Recovering Meditator, part 2: Sleep and Time
July 2013
illustration

(unattributed)

Sleep is a wonderfully restorative activity — for the body, mind, attitude, health, and spirit. I have, however, spent a lifetime building the habit of feeling bad about sleep. When I was a child, my mother would shout every morning to get my sisters and I out of bed; at university, I regularly stayed up until the early hours either working or partying; and as an adult, I make lists and lists of things that ‘have’ to be done before I go to bed each day. Living in a city as vast as London, the world keeps moving 24 hours a day, and there is no time for stopping to rest.

Since being made redundant from my job a few years ago, I've thought a lot about how we measure happiness, wealth and success — the number of ‘friends’ on Facebook, and contrarily, being more independent; the next sale, promotion, or salary raise; the next house, a better neighbourhood, a bigger space to fill with more things that are waiting to be bought. I am part of a society where, increasingly, the norm is to get ‘busy, busy, busy’ accumulating, and where wealth and success is measured on a personal, individual level.

The truth is there are many more people involved in ‘our’ success than we ever want to think about or acknowledge… the parents and teachers who raise and educate us, the people who grow and transport the food we eat, who design and sew our clothes, who build our houses, cars, cookers and fridges, every other person in our company who does their job so that we can do our job, and so on…

I recently bumped into a friend who I had not seen for a few months. He was busy at work (which included a lot of heavy lifting), had recently been on a walking holiday and competed in a triathlon. So I was not surprised when he said that his body felt tired. I also noticed that his face looked much older than I remembered from our previous meeting, and I wondered how many of my peers, as we get older, really engage with the reality of our mortality. Our body manifests the state of our mind on many levels — through emotions, expressions, moods, posture, energy, illness. When do we really make the time to stop and take care of ourselves with kindness and awareness? Our modern tendency to live life to the ‘extreme’ is just that, an extreme! We leave no space in our heads, our minds, and the consequence, I feel, is that at some point, both the body and mind will move to rebalance the equation, aim towards ‘health’ and being whole!

The busier it gets, the slower you should cook Michael Symon, chef, restaurateur, TV personality and author

Running around like a crazy person is when things go wrong. Slowing the body and mind down slows the ‘crazy’ feeling of overwhelm. It slows the pace of life. This is one of the techniques used in meditation to bring the mind to the present, to experience the here and now for ‘longer.’ And, in reality, increases our sense of time.

As I believe in being an example of practising what I preach, I too go for regular massage with a lovely therapist in Covent Garden. The last time I went, unusually, I stayed awake throughout, listening to the sounds around me and allowing my body to be still and restful. And I had an insight about a habit I've had for many years, which is to feel tired and sleepy (no matter how many hours of sleep I have at night) when I am overwhelmed with the weight and amount of work I have to get done. I realised that by being willing to be immersed in the moment, instead of stressing about the list of things I had to do after my massage, my mind didn't need to ‘shut down,’ i.e. fall asleep.

The solidity we feel about stress is not real; only a hook into the future (or past, depending on your habit). In the present, there is only attention and alertness. Everything else is a story that we formulate in the mind. Whether it be for ‘individualism’ or for ‘inter-dependence,’ no one theory or extreme is ever the whole picture. Because not everything that happens to us is connected or has meaning. We are the ones who choose to connect the reasons and meanings together.

There is only paying attention to the present moment.

In my experience, ‘sleep’ and ‘rest’ are two very different modes. Rest is stillness and patience, required for as long as it takes for my body to recuperate, rather than how many hours I think I need to sleep. Much of the quality and duration of our sleep is connected with stress. Sleep is the unconscious state, required for our minds to process the stresses of daily life, and whether we sleep many hours or few, this does not necessarily alleviate our levels of stress. Perhaps why we find it so difficult to relax and properly rest, to allow our body and mind to recuperate, is precisely because it means we have to stop and be still and look within ourselves… look at our uncertainties and tell the truth that ‘we do not know!’

And yet how much easier it is to feel compassion for another person when I accept my own uncertainties about life? I can begin to observe in others the nervousness and constant watching out for threats, just the way birds do when they land in the garden to pick at the food on the ground. I can relate to the uncertainty. And as I listen, I can begin to hear how much softer my own voice sounds when I am having a conversation with someone. I can feel the gentleness of my intention.