Sleep. . .
Your body’s natural daily rhythms are regulated by structures in the brain that help determine when you fall asleep and wake up. People progress through a series of distinct physiological stages during sleep.
Each stage of sleep serves an important purpose in keeping your brain and body healthy. During the night, these stages of quiet sleep alternate with periods of REM (dreaming) sleep. Quiet sleep is important because it helps restore the body, while REM sleep restores the mind and is important for both learning and memory. Sleep specialists have called quiet or non-REM sleep “an idling brain in a movable body.” During this phase, thinking and most bodily functions slow down, but movement can still occur, and a person often shifts position while sinking into deeper stages of sleep.
To an extent, the idea of “dropping” into sleep parallels changes in brain-wave patterns at the onset of non-REM sleep. When you are awake, billions of brain cells receive and analyze sensory information and coordinate behavior by sending electrical impulses to one another. If you’re fully awake, an EEG records a messy, irregular scribble of activity. Once your eyes are closed and your brain no longer receives visual input, brain waves settle into a steady and rhythmic pattern of about 10 cycles per second. This is the alpha-wave pattern, characteristic of calm, relaxed wakefulness (see Figure 1).
The transition to quiet sleep is a quick one that might be likened to flipping a switch—that is, you are either awake (switch on) or asleep (switch off), according to research. Unless something disturbs the process, you will proceed smoothly through the three stages of quiet sleep. The Buddha taught that rest of both the mind and body are important. It is said that he slept the same amount at the same times each day and planned (like many of us) his days around rest and sleep. The Buddha taught not to sleep too much. But said that much like our awaked life we need to be present to the needs of rest.
Since all human beings spend a lot of time asleep, it is no surprise that this aspect of life also constitutes an essential part of the daily concerns of Buddhist monks (bhiksu) and nuns (bhiksun). This is also the case in first-millennium China, where prominent
masters such as Daoxuan Itir (596-667) and Yijing (635-713) advised members of the monastic community on the importance of a well rested mind and body.
We all have moments (mine come with changing seasons) where we struggle to sleep. Most of the time, we can’t fall asleep because our minds are wandering. You start thinking about the past or the future and before you know it, it’s 2 in the morning and you have to get up in less than 5 hours. Before you go on spending a month’s rent on magic devices and all sorts of supplements, as I did, try this simple but effective technique.
Whenever you have trouble sleeping, start scanning your body from head to toe. Instead of stopping your mind from thinking, give it something specific to do. Here’s a step-by-step guide:
- With your eyes closed, take a few breaths, and try to feel the air coming in and going out. Don’t label it in any way. Just observe the sensations around your nostrils and on the area above your upper lip.
- Then, move your attention from your breath to the top of your head, and observe any sensations that arise there. It can be anything — itching, pressure, numbness, pain, or tingling, to name a few.
- As soon as you feel anything at the top of your head, pick another patch on your scalp to examine.
- This way, progress down your entire body, one small patch at a time. From your scalp to your face (eyes, nose, cheekbones, etc.), and then down to your neck.
- Next, start with one arm, and observe the sensations in your shoulder, upper arm, elbow, lower arm, wrist, palm, and finally, your fingers. After you’re done with one arm, move on to the other one, and so on until you have scanned your entire body. Unless you fall asleep before you even get to your neck, like I do.
“If a viper lives in your room and you wish to have a peaceful sleep, you must first chase it out.”- Buddha
Peace and Love, Jim
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