Do you have any idea how amazing sleep is?
Every night when you close your eyes, this power beyond your control cleans your brain and body, heals you physically and emotionally, and makes you wiser and more creative. And, for much of it, it paralyzes you so it can get its job done
It is free, available to everyone, and it comes to us on our best and worst days. To me, it feels like grace.
I am absolutely falling in love with sleep. Not like I didn’t already know it was good for me. But something has changed since I started reading Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Walker is the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science. He has decades of experience researching sleep, and his book is a fascinating take on what sleep does to and for us and the disastrous effects that come from not getting enough. As the parent of two smalls kids, I share something with most Westerners. I don’t get as much sleep as I need (which means you probably don’t either).
I was talking with a friend this week who has the gift of being a good sleeper. She carves out the time necessary, gets her environment just right, and has an intentional and thoughtful relationship with sleep that provides her with comfort and insight each night. Her experience, and what Walker says about sleep, made me think of one word again and again in our conversation – grace. I’ll get to that in just a moment. For now, let’s talk about what sleep does.
Sleep heals you:
Physically: Every minute you are awake, your brain builds up debris, kinds of trash from the metabolic processes of the day. Some of them are serious, like the beta-amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. During the deep stages of sleep, chemicals bathe your brain and wash away the debris. That deep sleep also aids the “killer cells” in your body that fight off cancer. That same cleaning process each night helps your lungs, heart, liver, and basically every system in your body.
Emotionally: You’ve probably found through experience that many difficult moments feel better after a good night’s rest. That’s no coincidence. Quality sleep strengthens the relationship between the front of your brain (the pre-frontal cortex) and the amygdala, the part of your brain that helps you experience emotions. When you get enough sleep, the front of your brain helps regulate your emotional experience, putting things in perspective and giving you some sense of control. When you don’t sleep enough, it stops regulating well. Your emotional life stops being controllable, and things seem more extreme than they are.
Sleep makes you more creative and wiser:
Each night, during different phases of sleep, memories from your day are sifted through, and your brain makes decisions about what information to keep and what to throw away. With good sleep, you learn better and retain important memories longer. Sleep also helps you make connections between ideas and experiences you would never make when you were awake. You connect the dots, come up with new ideas and visions, and wake up wiser than you were the day before. In addition to being like free therapy, it is like a wonder drug or star consultant for your best ideas.
Sleep requires you to let go:
Literally: During your dreaming periods, the process of sleep literally paralyzes you. This is to keep you safe. It protects you by holding you in place, so you don’t act out physically what you experience in your dreams. (That’s why some sleep disorders are so dangerous). For it to work, you must be out of control, vulnerable, and locked in place.
Figuratively: Every night, sleep makes you to let go of the self you think you know. The ego in charge all day takes a rest, and a self you don’t get to control steps in. It is still you (at least part of you), just a less controllable, more abstract and mystical version of you.
So, sleep, at least good sleep, acts like a protector, a doctor, a teacher, a mentor, a consultant, therapist, and spiritual guide. And, this beautiful thing feels very much like grace to me. In traditional religious terms, grace is an unearned blessing or favor. Some people (in my experience mostly progressive, modern types) balk at the “unearned” part of that. It doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it; it just means you can’t do anything to deserve it more or less than anyone else.
From the science available, sleep and its blessings are built into the very fabric of what it means to be human. In fact, every animal observed so far sleeps, and even plants show a rhythm of life that is attuned to our 24-hour cycle of a spinning earth.
No wonder we humans have connected sleep with spirituality for centuries. Sleep puts us in touch with the rhythms of Creation itself. Like a child, it holds us, bathes us, teaches us, protects us, and sometimes must take charge. Like the stories of Jacob wrestling the Divine by a riverside in the Hebrew scriptures, sometimes sleep holds us still to offer us its blessing.
Every night, this beautiful thing that none of us created and cannot fully controls visits us (or arises from us). All of us get to (and must) have it. You don’t deserve it more or less than anyone else. You can do things to help it along, but you can’t really earn it. It will heal you, make you wiser, and bring into being a version of you that is still waiting to be born. Feels like grace to me.
Note: Almost everything said about sleep here, I learned in Walker’s book. Check it out here.