Are you sleeping as well as you could? Do you fall asleep easily and stay asleep? Is your sleep providing you with a deep and sound foundation for your waking day? Read on to understand the essential mistakes we are all making and instantly improve the quality and depth of your sleep.
…Falling… The secret is in the words. The action of sleeping is not an action. It is a non-action. It is literally like falling. It can’t be “difficult” or “hard” because there is nothing to do. You just fall. In fact you don’t even fall… You just do nothing whilst gravity takes care of it all for you. It is as simple as that. And as easy.
The difficult part is letting go. Letting go of the “on” of consciousness. Allowing yourself to fall. We need to be careful not to confuse the letting go with the sleeping. Sleeping will happen to you if and when you allow it to. And if your body is set up in a configuration which allows it to happen to you.
What (Not) to Do
Since the problem really lies in the act of letting go (and because we have absolutely zero control over the sleep part anyay!), lets expand our concepts beyond simply the actual period of glorious slumber to include (at the very least) the transition from waking to sleeping.
Remembering the concepts we discussed in Part 1 of this Newsletter, the over-arching fundamental we are trying to achieve is to get our Ki to somehow go downwards and inwards. And then to stay there.
This is the most important issue of all. Ki tends to go to where it is stimulated. So the most obvious thing to do is to reduce external and especially mental stimulation.
The trouble is, external activity – and stimulation which excites us – is exactly that… Exciting! It’s fun, interesting, and actually addictive. Add to this the tools of modern technology not just catering to this addiction, but in many cases actively designed to exploit it – and we have set ourselves up nicely for a life stuck in “always on”.
Log-Off Before You Nod-Off
The first, and most important one these days is screens. The telly. The laptop. The pad. The phone. ( The watch?!). All of them. These devices are fantastic. They are truly amazing.
But… they are absolutely no good for sleep. We will talk later about the light they emit but for now let’s consider simply the idea of connection.
These devices keep us connected. Or do they? They keep us connected to our chosen (and imposed) groups, feeds, links etc. This is extremely useful.
But human conciousness is remarkably focused. Far more focused than we are usually aware. When we are connected to something far away (through whatever medium) that’s where we are. “I was miles away…” We say. And it’s true. We have literally projected our consciousness to another place or time.
In fact it doesn’t have to be far away…. Generations of ‘magicians’, conjurers, tricksters, martial artists and pickpockets have made use of this very narrow focus of consciousness that we posess. Sometimes to phenomenal effect.
The point is, the more connected we are to elsewhere, the less connected we are to the present here and now… …which is where our physicality is.
But Aren’t we Trying to Dis-Connect?
Yes, when we sleep, we are indeed trying to dis-connect and let go. But rather than disconnecting from our physicality by inhabiting only our consciousness, we need to let go of our consciousness literally by falling into and connecting more deeply with our physical selves. Actually inhabiting what many increasingly perceive to be our ‘inconvenient’ physicality.
We began by considering Screens, but the principle applies more generally to anything which stimulates, excites or engages our minds. Less of it before bed generally, and basically none for at least 10-15 minutes before actually turning in will have a huge impact in improving the quality of your sleep and helping you get to sleep in the first place.
Sleep is in the Eye of the Beholder
The Japanese word for sleep is written 睡眠.
The first character 睡 means something like “drowsy” and is made up of the character for eye 目 and the character for droopy 垂. The second character 眠 in itself means sleep. It is also contains the character for eye 目. The second part is the character for people 民.
We could interpret this very simply as the idea of the people getting some “shut-eye”. However, as usual, the old Chinese characters usually have a bit more to them. Without going too deeply into the etymology, it is clear that the ancients considered the eyes 目 to be of importance in relation to sleep as this is repeated in both characters.
Instead let us return to Acupuncture theory: sleep quality and the ability to sleep are heavily influenced by the Blood of the Liver (this is explained in Part 1 of this newsletter). Over-use of the eyes (especially into the evening and night which, in an evolutionary scale, we were designed for darkness) exhausts (uses up) this Liver Blood and thus has a highly detrimental effect on sleep quality and the ability to sleep.
Western medicine concurs. Relatively recent research has demonstrated that night-time light exposure suppresses the production of melatonin. Melatonin is the major hormone secreted by the pineal gland that controls our sleep and wake cycles. Therefore, a reduction in melatonin at night is associated with subjective levels of sleeplessness. Melatonin suppression actually has far worse consequences than simply poor sleep outcomes (see the notes* below for more). (Another way to see view this research is that melatonin suppression is simply an indicator of poor sleep which is the main effect leading to these consequences.)
Blue & Red
Actually all light is not equal. It turns out that the blue end of the spectrum is particularly effective in inhibiting the production of melatonin and thus sleep.
Screens predominantly use strong blue light frequencies projected directly at the eyes. Reducing exposure to them in the evenings (and at least for as long as possible before sleep) is therefore highly recommended. If you can’t turn your devices off, their effect can at least be reduced by installing (usually free) software to block the blue frequencies. [Try f.lux for your laptop or Eye Protection for Android. Unfortunately iOS devices are not so easy as Apple doesn’t allow developers access to such controls. At the very least you can reduce screen brightness in the evening time].
Depending on how far you want to go (or how intense your insomnia), there is also good evidence in support of wearing amber tinted glasses in the evenings to filter the short wavelengths (blue light) which are emitted by all other artificial light sources (albeit Lett intensely than by screens). From an evolutionary perspective we could think of moonlight and fire light as the most stimulating light sources – both pretty low on the blue-light frequencies. This can also be useful as a strategy when planning journeys which usually result in jet-lag, but be prepared to be mistaken for Bono at the airport!
Wide Asleep, Fast Awake (Sleeping Pills & Zombies)
Sleeping pills and Alcohol have the effect of dulling the brain in a sedative action. This can be useful in acute situations of turmoil when someone really needs to shut down and is not calm enough to get there by themselves.
However, there is a trade-off in sleep quality. Really the person becomes un-conscious instead of entering naturally into healthy sub-consciousness.
From an oriental perspective we can say that the Yang Ki remains in the head rather than moving inwards. In addition there is even more heat generated by the Liver as it processes the alcohol or sleeping drug. This prevents the process of natural sleep described in Part 1 as (once again) the Liver Blood is affected. Also, this heat adds to the Yang Ki already trying to move inwards, and once the sedative action of the drug wears off, the unfortunate person often wakes in the middle of the night feeling “hot and bothered”.
In Western terms, what results is an imitation of true sleep. Conscious activity is curtailed but either the REM cycle or deep sleep phase does not take place in the natural way and the genes and processes usually activated during healthy sleep do not switch in. The usually restorative internal work in the body and in the deep brain therefore does not take place properly.
Long term use of such drugs means no true sleep and as a result, one must question whether when awake one is truly awake! This can then lead to a cycle of dependency on stimulants like caffeine and sugar to emerge from the resulting zombie like state.
How to Sleep
So, we have a basic blueprint here for what not to do. But since not-doing is a difficult ask in this day and age, in the final (Part 3) of this Sleep series, I will frame things in terms of positive steps we can take to reclaim our natural slumber.
Of course, one of these is to receive good acupuncture treatment to ensure that your body has a good healthy supply of Liver Blood and that your systems are well configured to allow for your Yang Ki and consciousness to fall inwards.
*Melatonin suppression has been shown to be strongly linked to increased risk of cancer, impaired immune system function, and possibly lead to cardiometabolic consequences such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and heart disease. With serious consequences like these, preventing melatonin suppression should be a top priority in anyone’s healthy lifestyle.