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7 Keys to Finally Getting Restorative Sleep

Trust the night, and fall awake.

Key points

  • Some practices that we can borrow from monks may help improve sleep.
  • Start by removing anything from your bedroom that distracts you from sleeping and minimize cognitive load before bed.
  • Rather than ruminate over mistakes, resentments, or missed goals, review what you did out of your natural goodness today.
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Have you tried everything to sleep better, but nothing works? The effort itself can become oppressive. No single thing will likely ever help all of the time, but there may be some practices we can borrow from our neighborhood monks that improve sleep. You may notice that some of the practices overlap with recommendations from cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and offer a bit more.1

1. Simplify.

Create a restorative sleep sanctuary by removing things from your bedroom. Consciously declutter this space where you spend a third of your life. Even though you are unconscious (or hope to be) most of the time, you are in there. The stuff around you matters. No need to sleep on a cot with only a folded robe like a pillow, but our brains can relax better surrounded by just the basics.

Remove anything from your bedroom that distracts you from sleeping and minimize cognitive load before bed. Imagine your bedroom is the cockpit. How much non-essential stuff would you like your pilot surrounded with while flying a plane? If possible, keep each room or corner of a room for a single use. Eat in the kitchen, be awake in the living room, and sleep, as a general rule, in your bedroom.

2. Quality over quantity.

Many people do not need convincing that sleep is important. They are willing to commit the time, often spending nine hours or more in bed, if only they could sleep. Their commitment is strong, but too much time in bed awake and too much sleep on a single night can lead to poor quality sleep on future nights.

No need to wake at 4:00 am or only sleep five hours (as some monk routines follow), but quality sleep versus tossing and turning will help you feel more rested. Fewer hours of quality sleep, including Stage 4 (deep) sleep, are more restorative than eight hours of shallow (Stages 1 and 2) sleep. So, if you generally sleep well for seven hours but not eight, don’t attempt to get eight hours. (If you can consistently sleep eight, get eight!) But, if you are only adding shallow sleep to your overall night (from dozing), it may just leave you feeling more groggy and out of sorts.

3. Reflect on your goodness.

Science and ancient wisdom repeatedly teach us that punishment and degradation do not change hearts and do no favors for sleep. Rather than ruminating over mistakes, resentments, or missed goals, review what you did out of your natural goodness today. Humbly reflect on your merit. What did you do today to help another or show loving-kindness?

Review these things and decide now that your only job is relaxing and sleeping. When your mind shifts into working, solving, planning, reviewing, regretting, berating, or worrying, remind yourself that now is the time for positive reflection before you let go of the day.

4. Trust the night.

The term fall asleep depicts letting go and trusting that it is safe enough to go unconscious for quite a few consecutive hours. Now that you have reviewed your goodness and reflected on your inherent worth, it is time to trust that whatever is left undone is okay.

Your regrets are amendable, the harm done to you is healable, and whatever you wish was different just is the way it is, for the time being, however unresolved. Your only job now is to sleep. Make it clear to your brain that this is its sole purpose at this moment. Now, exhale slowly and deeply relax.

5. Humbly get up.

When you remain awake against your will, humbly get up and sit with yourself. Use this time to breathe loving-kindness toward yourself and others, to your pillow, blanket, and the sky, and just be awake with the gentle calmness of acceptance.

Acknowledge your preference for sacred slumber and that the current reality is wakefulness. Trust that whyever you are awake is also a sacred experience.

6. Fall awake.

When you wake up for the day, allow yourself to slowly fall awake. Take a few minutes to get up, but do not snooze. Simply pause before jumping into your next thought. Wait 60 more seconds before you launch into the list of things to do. What do you intend for all beings this day?

If you feel victimized by a horrible night’s awake, set this aside for a moment. Return to one single breath and decide you will enjoy this moment even if you are feeling tired. This mindset can help you embrace fatigue and fogginess rather than fight it, making room for any unexpected clarity that may become available.

7. Forgive the world.

Finally, forgive the world (and your sleep) for being so very imperfect. Forgive the night for not allowing you restful slumber. Forgive all of it. Then, preemptively forgive the day for any suffering it has yet to bring. Release your expectations for the day and move forward one task at a time. Now get up. Slowly.

These seven practices, when used over time can create new habits that help your brain and body allow restorative sleep. A combination of these practices may improve your sleep, but feel free to start with just one.

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Del Pozo, J. Restorative Sleep Workshop: The Art, Science, and Spiritual Practice of Sleep, August 26-28, 2022. Mercy Center Auburn.

More from Jessica Del Pozo, Ph.D.
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