The Nirvana of Sleep

Nine natural conditions for letting yourself fall and stay asleep

Posted Mar 30, 2018

There is no waking up to the light if we cannot give ourselves to the dark. Magic happens when night falls. Most of us find inner peace at night when the analytical mind relaxes, giving way to silence, fantastic dreams, nonsense, and unrestrained possibility. Creative solutions might pop out of the uncensored mind, especially when we pose a meaningful question before we go to sleep and turn it over to the unconscious. Sleep restores us, detoxes neurons and sorts out memories.

Severe sleep-deprivation leads to hallucinations. Nature will plunge anybody into pictures. Resistance is futile. Awake, we often use our differentiating senses and pin-pointing language. Asleep, we drop into the paint and role with it. Not getting ample sleep increases the stress hormone cortisol, which not only correlates with weight gain, but with an inefficient immune system. Analysis is tiring. It is essential to stop clutching to the tool of linear thinking. If we cannot stop it, it might be necessary to seek out a psychotherapist. Most people, however, can remove their sleep-related obstacles themselves. Modern habits need to be replaced with ancient habits that used to help our ancestors stumble right into nirvana.1 Sleeping is not nirvana, even though a sleep-deprived person might argue otherwise… But waking from deep, rejuvenating and drug-free sleep, which is what I refer to as sacred sleep, may grant us oceanic experiences.

At night, there is no taking of control. We might whisper a “thank you” to the universe or utter a last question for which we yearn the answer, but after blissful gratitude or an addendum ritual, we must surrender to the night. Our body must go limp and vulnerable. Nothing can be done and this must be accepted; we are all too easily seduced by the idea of control, do “one more thing” or fall in line with our sleep-deprived culture.

Don’t steal from, sabotage or obstruct your bedtime. Instead, allocate approximately eight hours; create natural conditions; relax and give yourself to the night. You are about to become a creative painter and then, suddenly, the paint. Dreams are magical and might reveal meaning. Often you get to be a rule-breaker. Your horrific, lustful, gravity-defying adventures might awaken you, but they won’t ever be your responsibility. Solutions fall from the sky as leaves from far away gardens. A “ghost” might remind you of past abandonment or unbearable loneliness. It is unclear if you befriend what you create; the night does what she wants. All you can do is accept with humility her reign and appreciate her diligence as she cleanses your insides. Enjoy the pleasures and deal with the turmoil. As you affirm the unruly mess, you are found by harmony.2

Before looking at the right conditions, let’s clarify what sleep does. Firstly, our hard-working body slows down and cools off. Mere alertness takes tremendous energy, which we provide with an open mind and, of course, nutritious food. But energy must not only come in. It must be allowed to ebb and flow in alternating action and non-action, with pause and rest. Sleep itself is dynamic, as we move through different phases, from light to deep sleep and from 75% non-rapid-eye movement sleep (NREM) to 25% rapid-eye movement sleep (REM). Deep and REM sleep are considered most restorative. Contrary to popular belief, our brain does not shut itself off during sleep, which would be quite deadly. Some parts of the brain are even more active at night while communication between some of them may lessen. There is also movement occurring in our memory centers during sleep: some memories become stable; others fall away. While this consolidation process is not fully understood, it is likely that the stress hormone cortisol interrupts the transfer from temporary storage (hippocampus) to long-term storage (neocortex). Our cortisol level must therefore drop low before we go to sleep and increase towards mornings to literally wake us up.

Lastly, researchers have detected a drainage system in our brain that we create during sleep. During the day, we build up harmful proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid between our neurons. These toxins need to be flushed out. Our eighty-six billion brain cells need to shrink to make room for this fluid to flow, which can only occur when we are asleep. In other words, we cannot simultaneously reach out the house and clean the house. Not allowing this naturally occurring cleansing causes grogginess, lack of concentration, moodiness and maybe even Alzheimer disease.

So, finally, what are the nine conditions that help us fall and stay asleep?

1. Temperature:

Because our body cools down two to three degrees Fahrenheit during sleep, turn down the heat when it is above 68 degrees in the bedroom.


2. Light Exposure:

Make sure you do not subject yourself to the blue light of screens before bedtime. Keep it as dark as possible or use dim red light. This will assure that you do not suppress the hormone melatonin and protect your natural circadian rhythm.


3. Silence or Natural Sounds:

Keep it quiet. Remember to lower your own voice before bedtime. Whisper in bed. If you have no control over your surrounding noise, use earplugs. Natural sounds have a positive effect on many people. Many feel safer with another person or pet breathing close by. Studies show that listening unconsciously to ocean waves or similar sounds can deepen the restorative REM-sleep.


4. Regular Bedtime, Sex, and Stimulation:

Your brain likes routine when it comes to sleep, so try to stick with a designated time. Any big change of your routine in the evening is stimulation. Feed your brain new information when it craves and can digest it. The news might keep you up when watched late at night. Sex, of course, is always a good idea, no matter the time. Exciting at first, it plunges all into relaxation and, for loving couples, into the cuddle hormone oxytocin. Hugs and kisses do the trick too, but it’s less of a plunge and more of a slide into slumber land.


5. No drugs:

You cannot anesthetize or stimulate yourself to nirvana. Alcohol knocks you unconscious, which is also an altered state of mind, but different from sleep. Not only does alcohol interrupt sleep, it blocks the restorative REM sleep. Caffeine, on the other hand, does not prevent REM sleep, but the restorative deep sleep. Resist coffee from late afternoon on.


6. Reduce stress:

Telephones and other devices are alarm systems, so switch them off before you enter the bedroom. As tough as it may be, work needs to stop and kids need to go to bed on time too.


7. Gratitude:

Instead of focusing on what went wrong, think of the one thing that went right. Express your gratitude to the universe or God. It’s good to know what one has been given.


8. Ritual:

Repeat a similar sequence of behaviors as you ready yourself for bed. Do not negotiate anything. Just do what you know is right for you.


9. Be with the Night:

You might wake up during the night. Do not panic. All people before the 1800s enjoyed a two-part night, waking up after 3-4 hours, staying up for 2-3 hours and resuming sleep thereafter.3 While few have the time for such a night, fill your waking moments with acceptance, appreciation and quiet contemplation. Meditate or pray. Be open with the night as you are (hopefully) with the day. Engage your being. Not clinging to what should be, you might just touch ultimate happiness, that is nirvana.

If you you’d like to read other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today, click here. Feel free to join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter.

© 2018 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

References

1. John J. Ratey & Richard Manning (2014). Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Fellow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-Being. 

2. Harmony here is synonymous with happiness. It can only be experienced when we do not resist the "flow" of life, however wild and difficult. See Part III in A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life, Andrea F. Polard, 2012.

3."Your Ancestors Didn't Sleep Like You" in Slumberwise.com/Science