It’s bedtime. Do you know where your brain is?
Up until about six months ago, if you had listened in on my pre-doze mental chatter, it would have sounded something like this: Man, am I tired. (Check clock). Wow, it’s really late. I am only going to get about five hours of sleep. Okay, what do I have to do tomorrow? Oh god, that huge project is due. I did most of it last week, but now I don’t even know where the file is. Did I leave it in the car? Which reminds me, I gotta do all those errands tomorrow. But I have to get gas first. Do I have enough money to pick up my dry cleaning? Better balance my checkbook first thing. Why am I so bad with money? I really should take a class on that. But I’ve been saying that for years. I never even read that money book my girlfriend lent me. I never returned that book, either. Where IS that book? I’m sure she thinks I am scatterbrained anyway. Does everybody think I’m flakey? I think I just need more sleep. Why can’t I fall asleep? I should try to fall asleep. (Check clock). Ugh, I’ve just got so much to do tomorrow. Better run through it all again.”
If the nights were bad, the mornings were worse. I’d just be coming into consciousness and wham! – my alarm clock’s shrill, repetitive beep would go off like a starting gun. Before my eyes were open, I’d be asking myself: What should I be stressing about today? In response, a fleet of thoughts, anxieties, fears, and lists of things to do would push their way into my mind, flooding my body with a cold, adrenaline-like rush.
This created a surge of heart-pounding anxiety strong enough to propel me out of bed. I’d lash out at the alarm to silence it, then stumble downstairs to the coffee machine. Bleary eyed and still reeling from the abrupt physical and mental shift, I’d brace myself for the noise of the grinder and then – with a growing sense of dread – start reading my emails while waiting for the coffee to brew.
Within four or five minutes of waking, I was already hip deep in new problems, projects, world affairs and random snippets of information. Before I’d taken a single deep breath or seen the sun, I’d accumulated several new action items, and created several mental addendums to my “list of things to worry about.” Running on a residual fuel of self-pity, stress and barely repressed resentment, I’d spend the rest of the day reacting to and rearranging all these to-do items in the order of the panic they instilled.
I’m not sure when I fell into this pattern, or how. The funny thing is, I never even realized that I was particularly stressed, much less that I was stressing myself out. I just felt – like everyone else I knew – that I had a busy, exciting life, a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and the pressures of modern life knocking at my door. I needed to get things done!
My answer to this challenge was constant multitasking and multi-thinking, trying to make the best possible use of every waking moment. I often did two or three things at once (brushing my teeth with one hand while transferring laundry from washer to dryer with the other, for example). And whenever I had a rare quiet or still moment, I ran through mental lists. This was particularly true first thing in the morning and last thing at night. There were lists of things to do, but also lists of things that had gone (or might go) wrong, lists of people who might not be happy with me, lists of things I was afraid of.
It was instinctual for me, as I went to bed, to start thinking about these things before my head hit the pillow, and in the morning, just as instinctual for me to begin thinking about them almost before my mind became conscious. It had occurred to me, several times, that I could have been spending these significant moments – the “bookends” of my days – in more constructive, positive, enjoyable ways, but I just never had the time or focus to do much of anything about it.
Then, last fall, in an effort to deal with my rising stress level, I went on a weeklong retreat for busy professionals who were feeling overwhelmed by responsibility (sound like anyone you know?). During the day we did a variety of interesting exercises and readings related to self-knowledge and spirituality, but for me, some of the most useful and insight-provoking things we did actually happened outside of class.
Rising Up Slowly
On the first night, we were given the instructions we were to follow for the rest of the retreat. Each morning we were to allow ourselves to come into our waking state gradually (the sun rose at 6 a.m. and class wasn’t ’til 9, which helped). More specifically, we weren’t supposed to pop out of bed and start doing things right away. Rather, as we woke, we were to lie there and slowly let ourselves become aware of our bodies, of the temperature, light, sounds and smells around us. We were encouraged to spend a few moments letting our minds “come to,” recalling any dreams we’d had, pondering any waking feelings or insights of which we were aware. We might begin noticing the sensations in our hands and feet, the instructors suggested, perhaps wriggling our fingers and toes, then slowly moving our arms and legs to bring our entire bodies into a waking state gradually.
Next, we could either journal about our dreams or observations while still in bed, or we could lie there for a moment or two just thinking kind thoughts about ourselves and others, perhaps mentally or verbally repeating some affirmations or considering some things for which we were grateful. The point was to focus on simple, positive thoughts or feelings that didn’t demand too much brain power.
Our instructors explained that as we come out of sleep, our brain waves are still in a “theta” state – the deeply relaxed but shallow sleep state that both precedes and follows deeper delta-wave sleep. In the theta state, our left brain (conscious mind) and right brain (subconscious mind) are in an exceptionally balanced, connected relationship. Shocking ourselves out this state, they emphasized, robbed us of the opportunity to benefit from the theta state’s potential insights as well as its calming and healing effects on the body and mind. Abrupt movement and mental or emotional stress upon waking, they noted, can also trigger the release of stress hormones that negatively impact our biochemistry and put unnecessary strain on our endocrine and sympathetic nervous systems.
Had I not been having daily, personal experience with this nasty phenomenon for several years running (turns out that “adrenaline rush” feeling really was an adrenaline/cortisol rush), I might have pooh-poohed all this stuff as New Age nonsense. As it stood, though, I was desperate enough for solutions to keep an open mind. I did, however, make a note-to-self: Do some research on this brain-wave/endocrine stuff when you get home. Reviewing several books, articles and Web sites related to the scientific study of sleep patterns and their impact on human health eventually reassured me: It all checked out.
Once we were comfortably awake, we were to go outside, breathe some fresh air and then either sit in meditation, do yoga, or journal for 10 minutes (longer if we liked) before starting any of our other daily activities. Only then would we have some herbal tea and a light breakfast (spirulina-protein-raspberry smoothies – strangely green, but not bad). Our instructors explained that a breakfast heavy on starches or refined sugars would send our metabolism into a glucose frenzy, robbing us of mental clarity, setting us up for an energy crash and encouraging us to overeat at lunch.
Amid all this clean living, there was a little part of me that missed my weird, early-morning coffee-and-email fix. But there was a bigger part of me that couldn’t deny that this more gradual, contemplative approach to morning was a lot more humane. In truth, while none of these initiatives was totally new to me in concept, the net impact of actually applying this whole series of calming, introspective, slow-start exercises was nothing short of revolutionary. I felt better from the first day. By the second, I was in a good mood! My energy levels were remarkably stable. My cravings for carbs and sweets all but disappeared. I felt kinder and more generous toward everyone, especially myself.
Even in periods of emotional turmoil (the retreat format was designed to push a lot of buttons), I found I possessed an inner sense of calm, self-compassion and perspective that was exceptional for me. Okay, true, I was on vacation, but even factoring that in, this was a personal-discovery watershed: Starting my day in a sane fashion worked! I wanted to take it home with me. On the third day of the retreat, I wrote another note-to-self in my journal: Quit with compulsive a.m. list-running; start day with 10 minutes of silent meditation.
Going Down Easy
In the evenings, there was a slightly different, but similar protocol. We were again encouraged to make the transition gradually, easing ourselves toward bedtime with quiet, calming activities of our choice. Then, after we had gotten into bed, we were supposed to breathe calmly and deeply while we considered an area of our life where we’d like some insight or assistance.
The next step was for us to issue a request for that assistance from our “Higher Self.” At first, I wasn’t entirely clear on what this Higher Self was (God, my conscience, me without all my flaws?) or what it was supposed to do. After some Q-and-A with my instructors, I concluded that it was a sort of super-conscious, all-knowing aspect of my own mind and spirit – one that had access to awareness and knowledge far beyond my conscious reach during waking hours. More importantly, it was an eager, active and very helpful aspect of self, available to serve me by request!
After some further inquiry, I deduced that not having a separate physical body of its own, my Higher Self (HS) wasn’t available for errands like picking up dry cleaning, but it was available for things like helping me stay focused, paving the way for specific things to go smoothly, providing answers to quandaries and so forth – which turned out to be even better!
According to my instructors, my HS could also navigate the astral plane, connecting with the Higher Selves of other individuals, resolving differences, requesting information, even predisposing them toward being helpful to me and receptive to my ideas. (Handy for the night before business meetings!)
On a purely pragmatic level, issuing specific requests to my HS seemed like a great way to get clear about my own best intents and purposes, and to pre-program myself for success the next day. My instructors soon confirmed that what we were doing was in fact known as “sleep-state programming.” Whether a spiritual phenomenon, a neurological methodology or a nifty trick of consciousness-raising, sleep-state programming proved very useful for me (within a week, I got two clear answers, one surprising daytime “assist” and one very intriguing dream out of the deal). Sleep-state programming also served to put me in a calm, restful state that predisposed me toward peaceful slumber – a great tool for the occasional insomniac.
Anyway, among the many strange and valuable lessons I took home from my weeklong retreat experience, some of the most immediately applicable and far-reaching ones had to do with simply respecting the sanctity of the first and last 10 minutes of the day. And although while on retreat I spent anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes a day completing a wide variety of suggested a.m. and p.m. activities, upon arriving home I discovered that I could get similar and very worthwhile results from spending as little as five minutes in the morning and 10 at night.
In an overscheduled, overstressed and anxiety-ridden world, it is tempting to forego such simple “indulgences,” and it’s sometimes challenging to convince your body and mind to slow down long enough to enjoy them. Given what I’ve learned about the unique significance of our waking and drifting-off moments, however, I’ve concluded that it may be helpful to regard these slivers of time at the beginning and end of each day as distinct from other moments.
I now prefer to think of them not just as two more books on my shelf of things to do, but rather as two solid and dependable bookends that support the order, uprightness and stability of all that lies between.
Tips for Waking Up
- Waking gradually
- Slow, gentle movements
- A few calm, deep breaths
- Waiting until fully awake to rise
- Positive affirmations
- Affirming gratitude for body and health
- Yoga or other gentle exercise
- Looking or going outside
- Reflecting on intent for day
- Reading a passage from an inspiring book or card deck
- Reflecting on compassionate commitments for self-care and self-discipline
- Light, healthy breakfast (easy on sugar, caffeine and refined starches)
- Jolting awake to invasive alarm sound or jarring music
- Running lists (things to do, worry about, etc.)
- Jumping out of bed before body is primed to move
- Reading email or watching news
Tips for Going to Sleep
- Quiet “wind-down” activities like inspirational reading, journaling or listening to relaxing music
- Warm baths or foot soaks
- Reflecting on sources of love, gratitude, appreciation, objects of affection
- Journaling about the day’s experience, thoughts, feelings, hopes, etc. (see article on Naikan)
- Visualizing best outcomes (no worst outcomes or what-ifs allowed!)
- Meditation, breathing, stretching or relaxation exercises
- Prayer and/or sleep-state programming exercises
- Working or socializing right up to the moment you retire
- Falling into bed overexhausted
- TV watching
- Drinking and eating (in bed or just before bed)
- Talking on the phone
- Reading stimulating, dramatic or disturbing material
- Arguing or holding resentments (make peace or agree to disagree before you retire)
- Running lists (things to do, worry about, etc.)
This article has been updated. It was originally published in the May/June 2003 issue of Experience Life.