by Jane Tawel
How to Sleep Better and Maybe Live Your Days Better Too
By Jane Tawel
September 17, 2020
And God said: “Let all creatures on earth have a great need to rest, just as God needs to rest”. And so, God created humans with an overwhelming need each day to turn off their minds and to pause all bodily functions except for breathing and heart beating. And God said, “Let all women, men, and children need to sleep for at least eight hours a night”. And behold, it was so! As God commanded — all humans needed to sleep. And God saw that it was good, and very good. (And then God probably took a nap).
You may stop reading here if you have always had a good night’s sleep every night of your life. And I must make a disclaimer here: I apologize beforehand for this very first-world problem that I am going to address. I know there are far too many people in war-torn or impoverished countries who can’t imagine the luxury of thinking they were able to somehow sleep soundly at night. But it is a problem that has been on my mind recently as my adult children talk about their sleep-problems and I recognize in so much of what they say my own history with sleep issues. Also, let’s face it, many of us are having more sleepless nights lately as we see the onslaught of world-problems come to a head.
Not everyone has as much trouble sleeping as perhaps I have had through-out my life. But because most of us have had, there is a plethora of helpful tips and natural remedies we can all find to personalize our “doctoring” ourselves to get a good night’s sleep. There is of course Melatonin or Valerian supplements for jump-starting a better sleep pattern. Some of us have found we need to wear mouth-guards or retainers at night in order not to grind our teeth. Some of us have found we need white-noise machines necessary for tuning out sounds, or deep-breathing in a pleasant relaxing aroma as a necessity for relaxing and sleeping well. I am someone who has found I need to do all of the above. But I wanted to share a few things that are maybe outside some people’s wheel-house that have been complete game-changers to my sleeping better at night and waking more rested the following day.
There are five things I want to share with any fellow seekers about what is such an important part of our day — our nights! We tend to think of sleep as a negotiable part of being human. But of course, it isn’t. This is why sleeping poorly disproportionately effects living well. It is also why bad people figured out early in mankind’s history that depriving someone of sleep could make them do just about anything. Getting a good night’s sleep is actually an ethical matter.
We have all given up some amount of sleep, willingly at times, to care for a baby or sick family member; or to meet a deadline, or even to celebrate an occasion (think bachelorette party or travel to another time-zone). And we all know that even when we don’t get a good night’s sleep for good reasons, we will pay for it the next day (and often, the next, and the next, and the next — sometimes for weeks or months afterward).
I have put into practice, in some ways almost accidentally, some habits that have truly changed my sleeping restfully and fully through the night. We all know how important sleep is, for our physical and mental well-being, as well as our health in our own spirits or soul and in our relationships. We also all know how impossible it is sometimes to achieve a good sleep. I know there is a lot of information out there, and you should find anything that can help you sleep well — sleep is truly just that important. But here are five things I have personally found to be life-changing in terms of sleeping at night. They are however, also things that should you be one of the lucky ones who sleeps well each night, can be used to good and helpful benefit during your day as well. I use all of them in various ways throughout my day when I can; but at night, they are now a necessity for me, and thankfully, mostly habitual. They have been real gifts to me to discover, and I hope one or two of them will be gifts to you as well.
1.Create a ritual that ends your relationship(s) with your Day, and begins a new relationship with your Night. Think of “Sleep” as a friend just waiting for you to join him or her. Say good-bye to your work and your relationships. Literally — say it and mean it. What very often keeps us awake is “staying” at work, or “staying” in an argument or problem with someone we love or even someone we don’t; someone, we have encountered that day (or last year, or when we were ten, or that we are imagining an encounter with….. you get it).
First, recognize that nothing can be done about any problem, whether at work or with family or friends while you are sleeping. That is your friend, Sleep’s, great gift to you — the gift of doing nothing because you can do nothing but be there — sleeping. So before you think about going to your bedroom to sleep, think of sleeping as a “new job or task” or a “new time together in a real relationship”; and each night say “Hello, Sleep. Glad to see you again”.
Of course we all know by now to make sure nothing work related is in the bedroom, if at all possible. That includes computers and phones, but it also should include thoughts. Make a ritual of entering your bedroom. Before you enter your bedroom, touch the door-frame and leave all your worries or concerns at the door. Say, “Goodbye, Day.” (This is one of the practices that can also be an excellent habit to form, if you are able, before you enter your home each day after a stressful day at work. Touch a tree in your front yard or your front door itself, and leave your Day worries and Day life, and Work relationships behind, and say, “Hello, Home. Hello, Family.” And then let your home as you enter it, be the special place it is meant to be, even if later on you have do a bit more work from some where in it.) Each Night — Think of your bedroom as a sanctuary and your good night’s sleep as a reward for all the things you have done that day. Enter your place of rest with a worshipful or spiritual attitude and let it assume the importance to your life that it is meant to have.
2. Before falling asleep, do something to relax that involves anything other than a machine. Something with paper and a pencil is very good. You might do a cross-word or Sudoku puzzle but not on a device, one on paper with a real pencil that you hold in your hand. You can read a real book, that involves turning pages. Instead of listening to music, you could sing or just hum. (I have written before about the great healing quality of humming, especially in terms of the vagus nerve. But humming is also a great “mindless” practice that can help turn off any thoughts keeping you from relaxing.)
We are discovering the toll devices take on our bodies, everything from our necks to our eyes to our skin are adversely affected. But devices also subconsciously represent the stresses of our day, or the worries of the world, even when we think we are doing something relaxing or fun on them, the subconscious reality takes a toll. Devices involve work and relationships for us, and you want to let those go so you can do the important thing you need to do at night — sleep. Things like relaxing with something that needs paper or pencils are also excellent because they involve a more natural tactile experience; something more in tune with our senses or nature if you will; and that makes our bodies more in tune with the natural rhythm of things. If you go to bed later than the person you share a bed with and can not turn on a light, you can do this step before entering your bedroom, but definitely after you have put all devices and work-related things (even things like doing dishes or laundry) to bed first.
3. Sleep on your back. Period. Doctors and chiropractors had told me for years to do this to help with shoulder and neck pain issues, and I just could not give up sleeping curled up on one side or another. After an illness, in which I literally could not sleep on my side due to the excruciating pain, I had to train myself to sleep on my back. It has made so much difference in my ability to sleep through the night that I have to say — it is the way every human being who is lucky enough to have a bed should sleep. It helps if you can afford a really good pillow; mine is a Tempur-Pedic one which does not elevate my neck but firmly supports it. I also put a pillow under my knees, a soft but king-sized one. This does two things. One, it gently supports my lower back by raising my knees slightly, thereby, “pushing” the lower back down into the bed, level with my upper back. Two, it prevents me during the night from easily turning over onto my side. Because the pillow extends out from both sides of my legs, I can’t quite as easily roll onto my side.
I could go on and on about what a huge difference sleeping all night on my back has made both to my sleep and to how my body feels when I wake up in the morning. My neck and shoulders really are much less adversely effected since I have been sleeping on my back, (although if I could quit bending over a computer or sink or pen all day, they would be even better.)
I will warn you — it was psychologically hard to get over that need to “protect” myself by sleeping on my side, curled up, and if you are sleeping with someone, it can be hard to get used to not “spooning” with them, but believe me, if I can recommend one thing to do to physically help yourself sleep better, and to make your muscles feel better in the morning it would be this — sleep on your back all night.
(NOTE: IF YOU ARE PREGNANT YOU SHOULD SLEEP ON YOUR SIDE PREFERABLY LEFT SIDE, AND NOT ON YOUR BACK.)
Here is one link for further information on best sleep positions: https://www.sleep.org/best-sleep-position/
4. Have several meditative or relaxing things memorized. There will always be times when it is hard to fall asleep because you can’t turn your brain-off, or when you wake up in the middle of the night and your brain is already munching on your problems from yesterday or trying to gobble up your problems waiting for you tomorrow. Rather than think about them or get up to do something else, I have found it incredibly helpful to have memorized things that I can easily bring to mind and mentally recite.
Memorizing things has a host of benefits for the brain, whether your brain is young or old, and we have ignored doing it to the detriment of many things, but for this topic, I am merely recommending it as super helpful in terms of helping you have a restful sleep.
When your day has some down time, like you are in a waiting room, or manning a telephone at work that isn’t ringing, or on your break, or the kids are napping — memorize some thing that brings you peace, joy, or is just interesting. I am not that great at memorizing, but I have found that writing something out by hand on a piece of paper helps with memorization. Then I keep those papers in a binder or purse to pull out when I have some “free time”. This can be a quite relaxing practice during the day, too, since it is mostly far removed from what most of us do with our work days. Make sure it is something that either uplifts you or entertains you, though, if you plan on using it for night-time stress-reduction. It doesn’t have to be spiritual, but most of us find that at least something we consider good for our hearts and souls can be helpful. I like to have something sort of “mindless” or non-spiritual as well, though.
For instance, I decided I was interested in memorizing the actual NATO Phonetic Alphabet. This has been helpful when giving information on the phone during the days, because now instead of making up my own “M as in Mom” phonetic cues, I can use the correct universal ones, like “T as in Tango”; and I feel a sense of pride when I do that. BUT — it is also super relaxing to recite in the wee hours of the night, so rather than trying to count sheep at night, I simply go through the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. Sometimes I will think of my loved ones and use the NATO Alphabet to spell their names, and that is nice too, as it brings those loved ones to mind without really “thinking” or more importantly, worrying about them.
I also, of course, have some “serious” stuff I have memorized; things that not only relax me at night, but also feed my spirit and soul. I have about ten psalms and prayers memorized. These include ones like the Serenity Prayer in its entirety and Psalm 23. I also have memorized poems such as “Hope is the Thing With Feathers” by Emily Dickinson. I am now working on finally memorizing the poem I had read at my wedding, “Us Two” by AA Milne.
Poems and prayers that I can call to mind in the alone hours, help me especially when I am worried about someone I love, upset with God or someone I love or work with, scared about the news or a diagnosis or just reality in general, or just can’t let go of either something I need to forgive or something I need to forget. I think, also, that it is kinda cool to think that I can work on the most important parts of who I am and who I want to be, by NOT working, but by letting meditative words roll through my spirit like water and then to let sleep rock my spirit like a baby, ready to be reborn with the morning. Memorizing spiritual things helps me in that spiritual practice / belief.
5. Each morning, put an intentional and thoughtful end to your “work” of sleeping, just as you intentionally put an end to your work-day the night before. This doesn’t at first seem like something that would help you sleep, but I have found it helpful to make a ritual of waking, just as I do with going to sleep. So, whether rushed or not, I take at least a few moments each morning, no matter how early the alarm rings, or how often I have pushed the sleep button, to make a ritual of leaving behind what we might call, my “Night-Job” or my relational friend, Sleep, my “sleep partner” or my “lover, Miss Sleep” — letting go, giving leave to that part of Time — and making the new part of my day, the “not night/ sleeping part” something I am purposefully and mindfully transitioning to. This not only makes me feel that my waking again this morning is a bit of a lovely thing, but it has, strangely perhaps, helped me sleep better. It also just starts the day as being reckoned with as something different than the night. It becomes something I can look forward to, like I have trained myself to look forward to sleeping at night.
My own ritual in the morning, is to first, mentally greet my friend, the Morning, as I have greeted my friend, Sleep, the night before. “Good morning, Day. I am super glad I made it through another night without being eaten by wolves or forgetting to breathe. I am happy to be alive. Thank you, new Day, and Friend, Morning, for showing up with all your possibilities ready to work together with my own possibilities. We make a great team.”
Then I stretch. Since I am waking-up on my back, like I slept all night on my back, this is easy to do. If you end up not on your back, take a moment to really relax your whole back-side into your bed. Since I sleep with my husband, I stretch quietly and calmly and gently so as not to wake him. But gentle stretching is key to get the benefits, and it is one of those things we should be doing throughout our days for better health, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Starting the day connecting to the miracle of my body’s accomplished feat in keeping itself going through the night without any help at all from me, and caring for the body that will now get me through the day is an act both of productive care for my body as well as productive care for my soul.
This is what I do, and it can take as long or as short a time as I have without stressing about how long I “should stretch” on that particular day. It is also a great thing to do, when you turn out the light at night and prepare your body to care for you during the night.
Starting the stretches for my own body’s needs, I gently stretch my neck to one side and elongate my shoulder and arm on the opposite side by gently pulling down with my fingertips, and then do the other side. I stretch my chest gently up and down all the while taking deep breaths in and out. I stretch each one of my legs by elongating from the hip to my toes, reaching them long, down towards the end of the bed. I flex and stretch each foot and maybe circle it and then I do the same for each hand. It takes all of a few minutes on a busy day and can be a bit longer on days I am not “rarin’ to go”.
Then, to bid farewell to my friend, Night-time Sleep, and to get on better with the tasks I plan to do with my friend, Day-time Work, because of my own worldview, I greet God, and say a quick thank-you for another day and for protecting me through the night; and a quick “help me today” prayer. I mentally pray for my day, my family members, and any thing else that I might want some God-help with and I end with a word of gratitude for another chance at life and perhaps a chance to do a bit better at being a human being.
If prayer is not your thing, then any kind of spiritual meditation on Otherness, or some kind of affirmation, something that makes you feel that you are not all alone as you are going into your day, would be helpful.
I recently read a lovely idea in an essay on Grace Paley that she in turn learned from her father. In Paley’s essay, “Upstaging Time”, she writes about each morning “taking your heart in your hands” — literally taking it in your hands by cupping under your chest where your heart might sit. Then, Paley’s father told her to each morning do something like: “Then you must talk to your heart. Say anything, but be respectful. Say — maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.” I have recently started trying to incorporate this in my mornings, and you can read this beautiful essay in Paley’s collection of essays, Just As I Thought, especially recommended if you are growing older and not sure how to deal with all the feelings, both body and soul, that that involves.
Because that is the Big Idea, the thing I want to end with here– no matter who we are, what we do, what we believe, or where we find ourselves in place, time, and life — we can feel awfully alone and lonely on the best of days. And when we can’t sleep at night, we can start to think we really are alone. Because each of us, no matter how many may be snuggling next to you in your family bed, is in some ways, truly going it alone. The nights that are sleepless can make us feel that that is the only reality. And after a sleepless, lonesome night, we can feel awfully alone and lonely when we charge out to fight the dragons waiting for us on the other side of the dark nights. Some of us even give up the fight.
It isn’t the only answer, but I have found it is a very important answer to fixing the problems of the day — to treat getting good, restful, all night-long sleep as the critical health issue that it is — for physical and more importantly, emotional, mental, and if you will, spiritual health. If we can see sleep as a friend, we can greet it each night as someone we want to be with. If we can see a new day, as better, filled with possibility and hope, because we had a good night with our good friend, Sleep, then we can find the strength to, as the Serenity prayer reminds us, “live one day at a time; and enjoy one moment at a time.”.
And maybe we can also learn, with some good habits formed and renewed love with our relationship to rest, to “sleep one night at a time; and enjoy one restful moment after another.”
And God saw that the creature needed a friend, and God caused the human being to sleep, and took from him a rib, and God created woman so that each human-being might always know, that they would never have to feel alone. And it was good.
And the storms rose with a frightening vengeance, and the followers awoke as if in a nightmare, and they screamed in fright, and The Good Man slept soundly, waking only to calm the storms with a word, knowing that even in sleep, he was safe and that all would be well, because by sleeping, He was doing what he was born to do, just as with the morning dawning, he would rise to do what he was born to do. And it was good.
Sleep, and find hope that all will be well.
Rise, knowing that you are ready, and you are not alone.
© Jane Tawel, 2020