Magical Cure-All Elixir
The most profound and intense version of relaxation possible, sleep really is your magical cure-all elixir. Clocking up around a third of your brief spell on this planet, it is probably the single-most important element of your health regimen – and what’s more, its free! I discuss the reasons for all this in Part 1 of this newsletter (and a little more below in terms of Brain Health). But for now lets focus on the how’s rather than the why’s.
Part 2 of this Newsletter sets out a basic blueprint for what not to do. But not-doing is a difficult ask in this day and age. So instead let’s consider things in terms of positive, tangible steps we can take and aim for.
Prior to taking part effectively in any kind of intense action, we need to prepare ourselves both physically and mentally. And lest you have forgotten, sleep is an intense (albeit, internal) activity! So intense is the focus internally that the exterior (and any conscious connection to it or awareness of it) is shut down. Such an important and intense activity in any other context would have us running through routines and systems to ready ourselves appropriately. Sleep should be no different.
When it comes to sleeping, your feet are your friends. They are anatomically the furthest part of you from your brain, making any stimulation effective in drawing attention back into your body.
In acupuncture theory, the Kidney and Liver meridians begin in the feet. Both of these have an inwards and downwards gathering effect on your Ki and your awareness. The Liver meridian works to draw the Blood inwards to the Liver. The Kidney meridian passes through the heart and can be effective in calming this organ if it is over-excited.
Both the Liver and Kidney meridians run right up to the brain. Stimulating them in the feet calms mental activity by drawing nervous stimulation into the entirety of the central nervous system, rather than allowing it to remain concentrated in the brain (for example after watching just one more episode of Breaking Bad whilst collapsed on the sofa!)
Considering all of this it should be no surprise to find an acupuncture point in the middle of your heel called “Shitsu Min” (失眠) which can be translated as “Lost Sleep”. Give it a try!
Stimulation of the feet can be achieved by massage – a partner or parent pressing on the feet, including the soles is perfect. Anther favourite of my teacher’s is to tread on a golf ball to massage the soles with ones own body weight (one foot at a time!). A few minutes of this on each foot feels great and can calm even the most excited of minds a little. There is actually a traditional way to do the same thing – it’s called “Take-Fumi” (竹踏み) literally meaning “Stepping on Bamboo”.
If it’s cold (or your feet are cold), or you are exhausted, a foot-bath for a few minutes could be a better approach. (See ZuKan SokuNetsu). This is generally a much better approach than a full-body bath before bed which can keep you awake for a while if a lot of heat is absorbed.
The Breath is unusual in being under both our conscious control and also under the control of our autonomic system (things we don’t consciously control like like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, blood pH, etc.). It is for this reason that the breath has been long known and used as a bridge between the conscious mind and the subconscious. As we sleep our breathing becomes very regular, far more so than when awake.
If we consciously mimic this regular breathing it can help to put the body into sleep mode more easily. Insomniacs often try couple this with deep breathing. Actually as we fall, asleep the breath becomes somewhat shallower, so the best strategy for sleep is to allow the body to naturally control this aspect.
One nice method to increase awareness of your breath is to place a folded towel (or, if it’s cold, a quarter filled hot water bottle) on your lower abdomen. The soft (warm) weight is quite pleasant and it’s location on the lower abdomen encourages the breath to be more abdominal, based on diaphragm movement rather than chest movement. If you watch a baby breathing you will see how it’s done. Perhaps this is part of what Christ was referring to when he advised us to be like children*.
Waking in the Night – Sitting
Some people wake in the night and find it difficult to sleep again. These people usually have some heat stuck in their chest (Heart or Lung systems). At night, the Yang Ki moves to the inside of the body and combines with this stuck heat. The combination of the two is too much for the body to retain internally. Instead, some of it moves up and out again to the head and eyes, thereby activating them again and preventing sleep. Such people often complain of waking up with sweating or a feeling of heat (especially in the chest) and/ or their minds are full and will not quieten.
The Sitting method can be very effective to reset the mind and get some of the Ki in the chest to descend. This allows for another period of sleep to ensue relatively quickly compared with what can otherwise often be hours of frustrating restlessness. (Actually it is a good method to use before bed too.)
Sit on a chair or surface which allows your feet to rest comfortably on the floor**, thighs roughly horizontal.
Sit closer to the edge of the seat than usual so your thighs are supported by your feet rather than the chair, and your back does not use the chair for support.
Back and neck should be straight but relaxed. We are actively sitting, not collapsing on a soft chair or sofa!
The eyes should look straight ahead (not be allowed to fall downwards) but through half closed lids. Many statues and images of Buddha demonstrate this – take a look! The upper portion of your usual field of vision will be dark. Instead you should have just a ‘slither’ of visual input in the lower portion of your usual field of view. This produces a sense of breadth. A sense of peripheral vision rather than focus. In fact, it helps to generate what is often called “soft focus” in the martial arts. A very low (night) light or a tea light can be used if you are sitting in an otherwise dark room.
The method should initially be carried out a number of times during waking to get a feel and familiarity with it. This will mean it is not an exciting new activity to an over active mind in the middle of the night.
These are the mechanics. I describe the sense and feeling of what we are doing here: Mona Lisa’s Secret.
This is effectively a very simple*** meditation method. Remember that our oriental medicine concepts show that sleep requires the accumulation of Yang Ki internally in the body and deeper in the brain (see Part 1). In this context, this Harvard study recently demonstrated that even short periods of meditation significantly increases gray-matter density in the hippocampus (a deep brain structure known to be important for learning and memory) and in other deep structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
Don’t Lose Sleep Over it! (Worry)
This common expression in English reminds us not to carry our daily concerns into our slumber (or be the cause of a lack thereof). The best way to resolve this is to make a quick note on a note-pad of any issues or ideas or concerns that pop into your mind. By writing it down, we are acknowledging the issue and recording it physically so that the consciousness can let go of it for a while, confident that it will not be forgotten.
Finally, please enjoy this fascinating short talk by neuroscientist Jeff Iliff discussing his latest research on sleep and the brain****. Food for thought and a compelling reason prepare properly for a great nights sleep.
But please, don’t watch it on your iPhone as you get into bed!
* “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:2-6
** Obviously if its cold, make sure you wrap up and put on slippers. You can also sit in bed with legs crossed (depending on your level of flexibility etc.) but I tend to find feet on the floor is the best approach.
*** We are using this to achieve sleep – simple and non-interesting/ non-stimulating is what we are after!
**** The clearing of accumulated metabolic by products from the brain during sleep that he describes can be understood in Acupuncture terms as the removal of accumulated (non-useful) Yang Ki from the head to be recycled in the internal organs.