Suddenly, ‘sleep’ is gaining space on the airwaves and on the internet. The topic of sleep appeared in the Guardian yesterday and it was part of Radio 4’s Today programme this morning and- in a subsequent show. A book ‘Why we sleep?’ by Mathew Walker has just come out and this book took 4 years to write.

Are we over-egging it when we hear things like ‘if you don’t get enough sleep, you are more likely to have a shorter life’? Possibly- but I will probably leave this question for the sleep experts. Quite apart from the obvious benefit of allowing cells to regenerate, Helen Sanders cites no less than 21 different benefits of sleep.

For some of us, we know it is important to sleep but for many reasons, ‘a good night’sleep’ is a challenge. To enable us to sleep enough and/ or to sleep better, a few things from this morning’s interviews were particularly interesting to me- for instance, monitoring and generating data about sleep patterns so that a ‘bespoke’ sleep remedy can be given. As helpful as data can be, this approach flies in the face of typical patterns experienced by people who have difficulty sleeping. People who struggle to sleep ‘well’ typically describe the following:

  • Their mind racing
  • Being anxious and running ‘tapes’ over and over in her mind
  • Thinking too much about something- either in the past or in anticipation of future events
  • Not being able to sleep for long- even though they are physically tired
  • Easily woken up
  • Light and intermittent sleep

There are many other variations on the above list. And, other than what is listed, also present but not so often spoken about is how things should be- we should sleep for 6-8 hours; we should sleep during the night; we should experience stages of sleep for our sleep to qualify as ‘sleeping well’ etc. and these ‘shoulds’ often present the conflict dynamic of knowing that I should be better versus how I am- and this tends to add fuel to the frustration of my body not co-operating and sleeping as ‘it’ should- a sure way to enter into an ever-tightening vicious cycle.

What I want to contribute to anyone suffering from sleep issues is not to focus on sleep but on the process leading to sleep. Our clues and options for better sleep might require us to be more aware of what happens way before sleeptime. Are we getting enough exercise? Are we active enough? What is our natural rhythms- and- are we able to live according to our natural rhythms? Do we have enough of a ‘digest and rest’ period- enough of a gap between being active- in mind and body- and sleep? If we move our curiosity and data generation to activity and wind-down, we might begin to understand and be able to take action to prepare ourselves for better sleep.

Another interesting observation is a number of friends are turning to more ‘traditional’ wind-down activities- such as reading a paperback, switching off all electronic devices, not having electronic devices in the bedroom, playing board games, knitting, sewing, listening to the radio, listening to music…to allow themselves a short period of switch-off time before going to bed.

A final thought is a lesson offered by a meditation master (Very Venerable 7th Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche) about insomnia- a way to deal with not being able to sleep is not to fight it- because that would give it more energy. Instead of fighting with not being able to sleep is to accept things as they are, notice and acknowledge ‘ah, I am wakeful’ and, flowing with our wakeful energy to practice mindful relaxation- allowing ourselves to simply drift along, noticing thoughts as drifting clouds, noticing things as they appear and letting them go—drifting, floating, swimming, floating—along—away.