What Works: Get some sleep!

It's hard to be spiritually fit when you're running on fumes


I was up late but had agreed to an early brunch with friends, so after about five hours of sleep I’m on my way to meet people I love and I am feeling decidedly unloving. In the bustle of the train, I can feel myself getting irritated by every little thing. I don’t love the world right now. Which is another way of saying I’m not in conscious contact with God.

Once, in a discussion group, a minister asked the Dalai Lama how he could be more effective spiritually; the Dalai Lama smiled and said, “Get more sleep.” (He reportedly gets eight to nine hours each night.)

Though few people go to bed early, most agree it’s a good idea. But when it comes to getting enough sleep, it seems like our nation’s ingrained Puritan work ethic kicks in. Cheating sleep translates into more time to do stuff. And productivity is sacred. The fact that any gains are fleeting if not false, we wash away with another quadruple-shot latté.

Americans don’t sleep enough

While the amount of sleep an individual needs depends on many factors, the National Sleep Foundation offers a “rule-of-thumb” range for adults of 7 – 9 hours. In their brand new survey, the average American gets 6 hours 40 minutes of sleep. But the story is much worse than that single stat. Seventy percent get less than eight hours. And the percentage of people getting less than six hours per night has risen from 12 percent to 20 percent in the last decade. A Gallop poll with data going back much further shows that Americans today typically get an hour less sleep per night than they did in 1942. And, while in the 40s the results were clustered around the eight hour average, now there are almost as many who get six hours as seven, and plenty who get five and even four hours per night. America is running on fumes. (And caffeine.)

Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., is a leader in integrative medicine and author of numerous books including Inner Peace for Busy People. She wrote in an essay titled “Sleepless in America”: “I have friends who actually boast about how little they sleep. It gives them a perverse kind of pride. ‘See how busy I am? I must really be important.’ Maybe. But I know that both their work and their families suffer when sleep is sacrificed to the god of commerce.”

Personally, I wish I could even point to commerce. More often, my productivity is channeled into Facebook or catching up on my DVR. I’m afraid my impulse to stay up is summed up best by Virginia Woolf: “Sleep, that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life.” If you are the kind of person who likes instant gratification, then it can be awfully hard to stop what you’re doing and go to bed.

Spiritual fitness

There are plenty of reports about how tired workers are bad for productivity and potentially dangerous. But I want to talk about something else: being sleep-deprived is bad for your soul.

Sleep deprivation leads directly to irritability and depressive tendencies. Charles is an aspiring actor; in other words, he’s a waiter, which means his schedule is inconsistent, depending on his work shifts each week. He says, “When I get a good night’s sleep, I’m happy around friends and I’m pleasant at work; when I don’t, you could tell me I’d won the lottery and I’d find the downside.”

Generally, when I walk down the crowded streets of New York, my attitude is totally in tune with Shakespeare’s, “What is the city but its people?” Every person is an opportunity to see the glorious, crazy, abundant diversity of humanity while embracing our fundamental connectedness. I’m often the person strangers approach for help because I’m smiling and open. But when I’m tired and irritable, this same river of people flowing toward me is a collection of selfish clods threatening to bump into me or demand something. This expectation is on my face, and becomes self-fulfilling.

But these themselves are symptoms. Behind the irritability or good spirits is the more fundamental issue: When we are not rested, when our body aches and our mind is clouded, we disconnect from God; and when we’re not connected with God, we lose touch with our connectedness with everything. We become centered in fear; more specifically, in the illusions of separateness and scarcity. Everything and everyone else becomes a potential threat to our security and comfort. That same stranger on the street turns from someone who I can help into someone who wants something from me.

Still struggling

Which seems a good time to throw in a little disclaimer here: With each of the topics I’ve covered so far in What Works, I can say that I have a fair amount of successful experience; but when it comes to sleep, I still struggle. Ever since I was a kid, I have gravitated toward staying up late. In my teens and early twenties, this dovetailed nicely with working in clubs, where I literally clocked 9-5 reversed, 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. That was then. Today I try to sleep in a pattern that is at least compatible with the rest of the world, and that means bucking my natural tendency.

And sometimes, like today on my way to brunch, it just doesn’t come together. The difference these days is that it doesn’t happen often, and I have some awareness of it, which keeps it in check — I may not be at my best but at least I do no harm.

What about you? Do you struggle with lack of sleep? If you are a spiritual seeker — if you take all sorts of actions to try to improve your conscious contact with God and with the divinity of the world around you — but you aren’t getting enough sleep, get some sleep! You might be amazed how much easier it makes the rest of it. I offer some useful tools in the sidebar on the right. Try them out. And share your experiences. How does getting enough sleep affect you? Not getting enough? Do you have other tools to suggest that others might find useful? Comment below or email me at phil at bustedhalo.com.