Sleep

“Sleep sweet within this quiet room, O thou, whoe’er thou art, and let no mournful yesterdays disturb thy peaceful heart.” – Ellen M. Huntington Gates

“Sleep.”

Does the title of this post sound like a command to you? If so, that’s probably because it’s exactly what you want to be doing right now. Sleep–the word is so simple, the act so natural…yet, most of us don’t get nearly enough of it.

When we think of survival items–the things humans absolutely must have in order to keep living–what comes to mind first? Water. Food. Shelter. Clothing. But we need something else even more urgently than food. Deprived of this one thing–sleep–we would die long before starvation could kill us.

Yet, when a deadline approaches and our schedule needs trimming, what’s the first thing we choose to sacrifice? It sure isn’t eating. And for many people in the Western world, even TV-watching and internet-surfing are considered indispensable. We’d much rather trim our sleep time.

Yes, I said “we.” I’ve done it before, and chances are, I’ll do it again. But before you denounce me as a hypocrite, consider this: “Sleep time,” for me, often equals “lying awake in bed wishing I could be asleep” time. I’ve had insomnia for as long as I can remember, so even those famously sweet naps of early childhood sound like fiction to me–let alone a peaceful night’s rest as an adult. ‘If trying to sleep only causes frustration,’ my reasoning usually goes, ‘why waste more time on it than is absolutely necessary?’

And here is the answer, for me and everyone else (including my fellow insomniacs): Because it’s more necessary than you think. No matter how much time you must invest in getting a good night’s sleep, the rewards will be worth it. As my dad always says, “Time spent sleeping is never wasted.”

So, the question remains: How do we spend more time sleeping, instead of merely lying in bed? I’ve investigated this question thoroughly, found many logical explanations and helpful tips, and faced many setbacks in applying them. Now it’s my pleasure to share with you the strategies that have worked for me–and if they’ve worked for me, they can work for anybody.

Most of them can be summed up in one easy-to-remember principle:

Use light–the RIGHT way.

You’ve probably heard of what health experts call “circadian rhythms.” Basically, this is our body’s daily cycle of functions, including waking up and going to sleep. For most of us, those rhythms are naturally synced with the earth’s daily rotation–in other words, our body’s default setting is to rise with the sun and go down with it too. (For you night owls, I have no explanation.)

So why don’t we fall asleep as soon as it’s dark outside? Because, well, it isn’t dark inside. Ever since the invention of electric light, we’ve had a way to trick our brains into thinking it’s still daytime when in reality, it’s time to start getting ready for bed. The problem is simple, and so is the solution: control your usage of electric light.

Controlling, of course, doesn’t mean ceasing altogether. Rather, you can use your home’s lighting to your advantage, showing your brain how awake you want it to be at any given time of the day. Here’s what I try to do every day:

Start the day with sunlight.

As soon as I wake up, I open all the blinds and curtains in my house, letting in the sunshine. If I happen to wake up before dawn, I turn on electric lights, starting with the dimmest one and gradually moving toward the brightest, thereby simulating a sunrise. In effect, this tells my brain: It’s morning now. Awake is the appropriate state to be in.

And this really does work. I notice a marked increase in my grogginess level on the days when I wait too long to let the light in, probably because my brain is confused about being up when it’s still dark. Much better results come when you do it right away.

Avoid bright light after sunset.

You feel relaxed just looking at my perfectly-lit reading corner, don’t you?

As you’ve probably read before, this includes the blue light emitted by phones, tablets, computers, and TVs, which is proven to disrupt sleep patterns by overstimulating parts of our brain. But lightbulbs can have the same effect–we just might not notice it as much, because we aren’t staring directly at them. Be conscious of how this type of light affects you. Then adjust it in whatever ways you can.

I use the “night shift” settings on my devices to make the screen color warmer in the evening. And even at midday, I often decrease my screen brightness to a much lower setting than the default. If it hurts my eyes, it’s safe to assume it will hurt my sleep too. For that same reason, blue-light-blocking glasses are worth investing in. (I recently bought these SightRelax lenses from EyeBuyDirect, and I notice a huge difference in how strained my eyes feel after working on the computer all day.)

I also have certain lamps in my house that I don’t turn on after dark, because their light is too bright and cool. If you have dimmers, that’s probably ideal; I don’t, so I just switch to using lamps with warm, low levels of light.

Say good night to Edison.

Though it might sound crazy, electricity is not the only way to light our homes at night–fire also does the job quite well. And what sounds cozier than reading by the fireplace (if you have one), or more romantic than a candlelit dinner?

Personally, the quickest way for me to relax is to light some candles and just sit still. Something about the flickering orange light, the warmth of the room, and the smell of burning wicks tells my brain to slow down. If I do that about half an hour before I plan to go to bed, I’m usually ready to sleep right on time. Try it tonight! And if the idea of sitting for that long makes you jittery (as it does for me sometimes), you can use the time to stretch or to massage tense muscles. Whatever you do, just make sure you’re not putting your mind to work.

End the day with darkness.

Simple enough, right? The less light there is, the less stimulated our brain will be. So shut those curtains, turn off the hallway lamp, and make sure your body knows it’s night time!

So, there you have a step-by-step guide to resetting your circadian rhythm–and using these steps, you can set it to whatever time you want to go to sleep and wake up, like an alarm clock. Once you’re able to fall asleep on a more regular schedule, you’ll also awake more easily and be more alert throughout the day. In future posts, I’ll outline other strategies that have helped me to get, not just more, but higher quality sleep.

Truly, there are few things in life that bring greater health benefits–physically, mentally, and emotionally–than sleep. So close your eyes and sleep well tonight. Tomorrow, I think you’ll see life differently.

Water

“He washed each tiny blade of grass / And every trembling tree; He flung his showers against the hill, And swept the billowing sea.” – William L. Stidger

As the above-quoted poem describes, the work of water is to cleanse the earth–and the people living on it. Next to breathing, our body’s most constant need is to stay hydrated. And both are needed for similar reasons.

Why water?


Drinking water and breathing both supply us with essential elements, such as oxygen. But they also rid our bodies of wastes. Suppose you stopped taking out the trash, and let it pile up inside your home. How long would it take for you to notice the effects–the foul smell, the cockroach infestation–or to feel physically ill from exposure to all that bacteria? Likewise, when we aren’t drinking enough water to flush the waste products out of our bodies, they build up and eventually become harmful.

Water also serves as a medium for transportation. Imagine, for example, that you’re going river tubing. You’ve packed a lunch, inflated the tube, and hopped inside, but there’s one problem–the area’s in a drought. Instead of floating atop several feet of water, your tube is sitting in a foot of mud. And it likely will be for a while.

Similarly, you’re constantly equipping your body for action. When you inhale, you fill your lungs up with oxygen. When you eat a nutritious meal, you pack your stomach with healthy proteins, carbs, fats, and vitamins. But how does the oxygen get to your brain, or the nutrients to your bones and muscles? They’re carried through your bloodstream. And like a river, it transports things much more efficiently when it has enough water flowing through it.

For those who do mentally demanding work, hydration is vital for another, more recognizable reason. Water conducts electricity, and our brains are chiefly electric devices. Think of the USB cable you plug into your phone. Would it still work if the wires snapped? Could you use it to charge your battery, or transfer pictures onto your computer?

Dehydration, in effect, cuts the wires between your neurons. Without sufficient water, nerve impulses are “transferred” less efficiently, resulting in slower processing of information. (That’s bad news for us interpreters, who have to process in two languages simultaneously.) So if you ever feel brain-dead, bringing yourself back to life may be easier than you think. Wash away the fog with a tall glass of water!

Willful watering

It’s clear that water is essential in a big way. So in theory, we should be making it a big part of our lives, and noticing immediately when we’ve failed to do so. But in all the shine of our modern lifestyles, we often lose sight of the things that give us life. So how can we become more aware of staying properly hydrated?

Personally, I sense the effects of a drink of water within minutes. Reminding myself to drink enough of it, therefore, is just a matter of remembering how good it feels when I do. That requires mindfulness. No matter how thirsty I am, I try to sip slowly, noticing the sensation of thirst dissipating. Then I take note of how the rest of me feels. Stiff muscles tend to loosen up a bit; brain fog evaporates (at least partially). If I’m feeling heavy or bloated after a meal, water will generally solve that, as it gets the digestive processes moving. By paying attention to all these positive effects, I’ve learned to recognize the opposite: the negative sensations of being poorly hydrated.

If you’re not used to watching out for these things, it might be hard to tell whether you’re getting enough water. More obvious indicators, such as urine color, can help you gauge your hydration level. But in the spirit of opening our eyes and seeing life in 2020, I think most of us could benefit from simply tuning into the signals our bodies send at any given second. They do tell us what they need; we just have to listen.

When we start to feel deprived and desperate, it may be that all we’re lacking is a slow, deep breath, or a glass of cool, clean water. Or we might try both of those, and still crave something more. In that case, it’s time to move down our checklist, using the process of elimination to find out what it is we truly need.

We’ll move one step closer to seeing ourselves in 2020.

Quarantine

“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage; minds innocent and quiet take that for an hermitage.” – Richard Lovelace

Welcome to the Quarantine Quarters.

There’s plenty to do here.

This was not the next subject I planned on writing about, but as we have all seen in the last few weeks, plans can change.

I and my comrades in the Swahili-speaking community here in Utah–50 of us–spent months preparing to attend a religious convention near Los Angeles on March 7th. We rented 15-seater vans so parents and children and friends could all ride together. Between our group and other Swahili speakers in the Western US, we booked hundreds of hotel rooms.

I apologize again to the owners of those hotels. On March 5th, the event was cancelled.

Well, I had already arranged a visit with some pals in the San Diego area, and as of that date, Coronavirus had not yet reached there. So on the 7th, I washed my hands and boarded a plane. Two hours later I got off the plane and washed my hands again.

Besides my flight and a brief trek through the airport, I hardly went in public at all during my visit. My buddies and I spent our days taking walks around the neighborhood, cooking our meals at home, and visiting a tiny bookshop in a remote town that had no customers except the three of us. In not a single place we went did I spot anyone who looked sick.

The day of my flight home, I woke up with a sore throat.

Southern California’s weather, uncharacteristically wet throughout the week, might have given me a simple cold. But this was not the time to hazard guesses. My own health was involved, and even more importantly, the health of others. I wore a mask onto the plane. The man sitting to my right got out a Lysol wipe and sanitized his armrests and tray table, and I did the same. Just before takeoff I accidentally glanced at the text he was composing, and he was reassuring someone back home that ‘the girl next to me has a mask, so it should be fine. :-)’

Whether a layer of cloth can really stop COVID-19 or not, at least my effort made a fellow human feel safer. We all have that option. Since most of us probably don’t have the virus–or if we did, it wouldn’t kill us–we’re within our rights to continue our normal activities, uninterrupted and unchanged. But with whom do those normal activities put us in contact? The elderly, or people with fragile health? Their caretakers?

When the possibility of harming another person exists, the things I would like to do seem unimportant. Or even if they are important, they’re still far less urgent than the protection of human life.

So I’m on self-imposed quarantine for a while. My introversion may bias me, but honestly, living in isolation’s not so bad. For you extroverts who crave human interaction, we still have cell phones and the internet. You might argue that these don’t satisfy the craving. And if you’re only using them for texting and social media, you’re probably right.

But phones can do more than text. Do you have a friend or family member whose voice you haven’t heard for a while? Try calling them. Or when did you last write a thank-you card, a letter, or even a friendly email? If you’re sick, or on precautionary quarantine, this is a rare opportunity to practice having real interactions, even using virtual means.

Let’s all start practicing now. When things settle down and we can see each other again, our company will be more meaningful and satisfying than ever before.

At long last, we’ll see each other in 2020.

Class One: Survival

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” – Henry David Thoreau

We all want to lead lives of purpose and fulfillment. Yet, most people’s lives more closely resemble what Thoreau described. I have noticed that “quiet desperation” lurking inside me at many points in my existence. I’d venture to say you’ve felt it yourself.

So the question we must each ask ourselves is this: What am I desperate for?

It might be quality relationships, job satisfaction, or a cure for a chronic illness. Or it could be as simple as a hearty laugh. We can’t know what it is until we take a long, close look inside ourselves. What we’re looking for is the empty space.

There’s a space like that inside all of us. But the thing which fills it will be different for everyone, and it can be hard to identify. It can also come as a surprise. Sometimes what we need is the exact opposite of what we’ve been seeking.

So how do we identify our needs, and beyond that, our true desires? The articles to follow are a sort of checklist of human pursuits, to be used in taking stock of what we already have and what we need more of. We’ll start with the basic resources required for survival.

Most of my readers already have access to all these things, likely in abundance. But, like me, most of you probably forget that you have them. That happens when we don’t take time to notice and appreciate what we have. And when we feel that our basic needs are somehow lacking, what happens?

We panic. We get desperate. And desperation leads to poor decisions, ones that don’t bring true fulfillment.

By living mindfully, we can stop that desperate, directionless running. Instead, we can take deliberate steps toward what we truly want. And we can savor the beauty of the path we’ve chosen, smelling the flowers that grow along its edge.

Are you ready to breathe it all in? Come on a stroll with me, and I’ll show you how.

Breathing

“You are not thrown to the winds, you gather certainly and safely around yourself.” – Walt Whitman

Breathing. It’s something everyone does, and to stop doing it is the quickest way to die. Yet, herein lies one of the greatest ironies of modern life: we forget to breathe.

Has that happened to you? If your answer is no, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention. I had that experience recently. My sister and I went to see the new version of Little Women (if you haven’t watched it yet, stop reading and do so now). Somewhere in the middle of the film, she nudged me with her elbow and asked, “Are you okay?”

When I asked why, she explained: “You keep gasping for air every couple of minutes.”

I wasn’t having a panic attack, nor was the movie so thrilling that it took my breath away. I had simply forgotten to breathe. Until my sister pointed it out to me, I hadn’t noticed that my body was periodically screaming at me for more oxygen, forcing huge intakes of air to make up for all the little ones I’d missed. It took the help of another human to make me listen.

You might not be in the habit of skipping several breaths in a row, as I am. But are your breaths of high quality? Many people breathe too shallowly, too quickly, through their mouth, or simply without thinking about it. These habits block the nourishing effects of quality breathing.

The good news is, changing these habits takes no money and very little time, and you can do it without getting up from your chair. Yet, the benefits appear instantly and last a lifetime. Sound worthwhile?

It does to me too, so let’s begin. As with every other subject on this blog, making a change in our breathing starts with paying attention to it. Here’s what to keep an eye on:

Breathe deeply

By that, I don’t just mean to take in a lot of air. You can do that and still fail to fill your lungs. Instead, focus on filling them from the bottom to the top, letting your diaphragm move downward to open up the maximum amount of space. Your ribs should expand sideways, and your belly to the front.

TIP: When you inhale, imagine you’re filling up a water balloon. The water will hit the bottom of the balloon first, and once that part has stretched to full capacity, the level will start to rise toward the top.

Breathe slowly

Since oxygen gives us energy, our bodies naturally take in more of it when we’re under stress. ‘Something dangerous is about to happen,’ the brain says to the lungs, ‘so we’d better get ready to run.’ And we thank the brain for trying to protect us.

The problem is, stress doesn’t always mean danger. More often, it just means a demanding job, a tight schedule, or a dwindling bank account. Because our brain doesn’t know the difference, we often breathe like we’re running even when we’re not. The longer we do it, the longer we stay stressed.

It’s an automatic response, but we can drive it like a stick shift. Our breathing is the shifter. The next time you feel overtaken by stress, take over the process by slowing down your breathing. That’s a cue to your brain that no one is trying to kill you, and come payday, everything will be just fine.

TIP: When you’re about to take a deep breath, start with the exhale, not the inhale. Inhaling activates your sympathetic nervous system, the power behind the fight-or-flight response. Exhaling activates your parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the one that lowers your heart rate again once you’ve climbed to higher ground or killed the hungry lion. (As a bonus, emptying your lungs also makes room for fresh oxygen.)

Breathe through your nose

…at least when you’re inhaling. There are many reasons why people recommend this, but here’s the simplest one I’ve found: your nose is a built-in air filter. If you want the air in your lungs to be clean, you’ve got to use the filter.

Another benefit is that it forces you to breathe slower. Obviously the airways in your nose are narrower than those in your mouth, so you can’t move as much air at one time. Need to slow down? That’s a great place to start.

Breathe mindfully

As funny as it is, proper breathing takes effort and focus. If we tried to make every breath as deep and slow as we’d like it to be, we’d all just be sitting around breathing all the time. And in the words of Sherlock Holmes (via Benedict Cumberbatch), “Breathing is boring.”

Still, we have to do it, and do it constantly. So take a moment periodically to notice how you’re doing it. Little by little, you will recognize patterns in the frequency and quality of your breaths, and then you’ll be in a position to change them. But even more importantly, you’ll be aware.

Breathing keeps us alive. It fills our lungs with oxygen, that oxygen is exchanged with waste gases, and that waste is expelled from our bodies to make room for more of the stuff we need. It’s really a wondrous process. When we consciously acknowledge that it’s happening, we assure ourselves that our most basic human need is being met.

Then we have the power not just to survive, but to live.