Sleep is fascinating. How the most energetic, loud-voiced beings, regardless of age, gender or social standing just have to crumple down and recharge through cycles of REM and non-REM sleep is rather amazing. Just think about it. No matter who you wish to be seen as when awake, when you have to go, you have to go – without a care for snores, drools, restless legs, sleep-talking, or throwing your arms over whatever or whoever is next to you. The most aggressive or nasty of adults become childlike and angelic when they curl up and enter deep sleep. Like food, love, life, Buddha, and jazz, it is a universal secret code, one that nobody fully comprehends yet everyone is familiar with.
What happens during sleep? Science has its complex answers as do the mystic traditions. Myths abound across cultures about the significance of and relation between sleep, dreams, creation, and death. Each individual body and mind (and spirit) needs sleep at different levels at different times of life and under different circumstances. The human body and mind are so amazing that even if this need is not met, it is still able to function at a certain level, drawing on reserves and turning off functions very much like a laptop computer low on power. But deprive it sufficiently and the results are disastrous. In addition to the obvious social abrasion that kicks in, you and I start displaying poor judgement, take wrong decisions, and put the welfare of self and others at risk without realizing it.
Studies show that one 18-hour stretch of sustained wakefulness can lead to a drop in cognitive skills equivalent to that of a person who has had two drinks. This is the equivalent of a long day in the modern business world with overlapping time-zones and projects. Sleep is a need just like food and water. Sadly, we have come to empower the cult of “achievement” to a point where sleeping is viewed as non-productive, where people are encouraged (if not compelled) to work longer hours, and where getting more things done is equated with being a better social being. One of my favorite poems by Blake is his To The Evening Star, which obliquely refers to sleep in an unforgettable way.
"Thou fair-hair'd angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And then the lion glares through the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover'd with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence!"
Historically, though, we were not this stuck up about sleep. Almost all traditions speak of rising and retiring with the sun, spending time in reflection and resting a while after your main meal, though the custom of siesta across countries in the tropical belt has more to do with climate and heat than with culture or body rhythm. Earliest records of sleep patterns dating back to our hunter-gatherer stages show that we slept in two phases, once in the late afternoon and then again late at night, with 4-6 hours of awake time between these two phases. The needs of commerce have turned us into monophasic sleepers, with one large sleeping phase squeezed between prime time television and the morning rush hour. Once again, for time zone and shift workers, even that is not always possible.
One solution is to supplement our impaired sleeping hours by “regressing” to some amount of daytime sleeping. The average human (the only animal that does not by default sleep during the day) need for sleep is about 6-8 hours. Research indicates that health and longevity might be directly proportional to the amount of sleep you get. Sleep requirements differ from individual to individual and even in the same individual, it can change depending on life stage, illness, depression, diet, pregnancy, etc. Thumb-rules really don’t work here. Moreover, daytime sleeping is often associated with being lazy and non-productive. There is even a tendency to club several sleeping disorders with the generic daytime sleepiness. Fortunately, the law of cause and effect has ensured that the rabid General Motors kind of over-achievement evangelism is balanced by a new productivity philosophy that embraces the true significance of sleep.
Recent developments in sleep sciences have been restoring the daytime nap to some respectability, with one variant being christened power nap by James Maas, the godfather of modern sleep research, positioning it as something that big achievers should do. From Edison to Dali, the daytime nap has been glorified to the point of it becoming an art form. Steve Pavlina has done extensive work on this, and anybody exploring sleep from a lay perspective should take a look at his journey into (and out of) polyphasic sleep. Modern trends have also restored rising with the sun to its proper place with present day personal effectiveness and peak performance gurus extolling its virtues. There are several groups on Facebook and Twitter of early rising professionals, including one made up of writers who start their writing clock early in the morning and encourage each other to meet daily word-count targets. Of course, this can sometimes detract from the real purpose of early rising, to keep in rhythm with the universe.
I live in Hyderabad, and most new settlers come and complain about the absent nightlife. What they mean is that after 11 at night, there is nothing to do. Perhaps they might want to consider sleeping. Perhaps one of the areas where progress has robbed us of wisdom is in the area of sleep. Perhaps if everyone slept as much and whenever they needed to, we might become a more loving people. Yeah, sure, progress might be delayed by as much as 24 days every year, but we might end problems like war, hunger, inequity and isolation.
Finally, here are some of my daytime nap best practices.
1. Darkness. If you can darken the room, do so. If not, consider using an eye mask sleep goggle, which you can cut easily from a piece of thick cloth or felt and some elastic to keep it in place.
2. Sleep in multiples of 90 minutes. The average complete sleep cycle is about 90 minutes. For some people it is less, for some it is more. One easy way of knowing your sleep cycle is to measure your breath dominance. You will find that at any point in time, one of your nostrils is dominant while the other feels kind of blocked. This pattern continuously alternates and the duration corresponds with our sleep cycle requirement. So on an average day (average since extremes of emotional or physical activity can cause this duration to change), measure how long it takes for you to switch from one nostril to the other. Take this as your minimum sleeping time. You will want to add about 15 minutes to it, since that is the time it takes to “fall asleep.”
3. If you cannot sleep for 90 minutes, sleep for 20 minutes. This lets you rest your mind to the point of beginning deep sleep, and it has been showed to have great restorative effect. This effect is lost if you sleep beyond 20 minutes but less than 90 minutes.
4. Music. Some people do not sleep well with music. I do. Try it out. Choose music that is under 60 bpm. On iTunes and other iThings, you can create a smart playlist by using the BPM filter and setting it to less than 60.
5. Binaural beats. This is controversial, but it works for me. This is an audio technology that sets up a “beat” in your “brain” by having a slight difference in frequency in the right and left channels. For daytime naps, Alpha and Theta waves are good, while for longer, deeper sleep, Theta and Delta waves are good. These are commonly available for downloads and on youtube. However, it does have some bad press, and some people report negative effects, so do proceed with caution.
6. When you get up, ease into it. Stretch, reflect, smile. We are not automatons to be told to jump out of bed and get productive. As a matter of fact, getting out of bed is a whole different science, and a post by itself. Take your time, feel good about the rest you got, stretch (it helps warm up muscles that can otherwise “catch” as a result of abrupt activity) and ease into wakefulness.
7. Empty your bladder. Visit the loo before you sleep, since this can actually prevent you from transitioning smoothly across the different phases of sleep.
8. If you have important things to do, but still feel like sleeping some more, listen to the message. It indicates a sleep debt, and the sooner you catch up on it, the better. Sleep debt does not follow arithmetic logic. A few late nights cannot be made up for by a sleepathon on the weekend.
9. Read up on sleep hygiene. Apply what you learn. There are many related areas that you might want to explore – caffeine naps, dream control and lucid dreaming, dream interpretation, prana yoga, rolfing, etc., etc.
Now it is 10.45 a.m., time for my mid-morning nap, but don’t worry, I will be back in a couple of hours to see what you think of this post.