HOW do we misuse our nervous force? First, let us consider, When should the body be completely at rest? The longest and most perfect rest should be during sleep at night. In sleep we can accomplish nothing in the way of voluntary activity either of mind or body. Any nervous or muscular effort during sleep is not only useless but worse,–it is pure waste of fuel, and results in direct and irreparable harm. Realizing fully that sleep is meant for rest, that the only gain is rest, and that new power for use comes as a consequence,–how absurd it seems that we do not abandon ourselves completely to gaining all that Nature would give us through sleep.
Suppose, instead of eating our dinner, we should throw the food out of the window, give it to the dogs, do anything with it but what Nature meant we should, and then wonder why we were not nourished, and why we suffered from faintness and want of strength. It would be no more senseless than the way in which most of us try to sleep now, and then wonder why we are not better rested from eight hours in bed. Only this matter of fatiguing sleep has crept upon us so slowly that we are blind to it. We disobey mechanically all the laws of Nature in sleep, simple as they are, and are so blinded by our own immediate and personal interests, that the habit of not resting when we sleep has grown to such an extent that to return to natural sleep, we must think, study, and practise.
Few who pretend to rest give up entirely to the bed, a dead weight,–letting the bed hold them, instead of trying to hold themselves on the bed. Watch, and unless you are an exceptional case (of which happily there are a few), you will be surprised to see how you are holding yourself on the bed, with tense muscles, if not all over, so nearly all over that a little more tension would hardly increase the fatigue with which you are working yourself to sleep.
The spine seems to be the central point of tension–it does not give to the bed and rest there easily from end to end; it touches at each end and just so far along from each end as the man or woman who is holding it will permit. The knees are drawn up, the muscles of the legs tense, the hands and arms contracted, and the fingers clinched, either holding the pillow or themselves.
The head, instead of letting the pillow have its full weight, holds itself onto the pillow. The tongue cleaves to the roof of the mouth, the throat muscles are contracted, and the muscles of the face drawn up in one way or another.
This seems like a list of horrors, somewhat exaggerated when we realize that it is of sleep, “Tired Nature’s sweet restorer,” that we are speaking; but indeed it is only too true.
Of course cases are not in the majority where the being supposed to enjoy repose is using all these numerous possibilities of contraction. But there are very few who have not, unconsciously, some one or two or half-dozen nervous and muscular strains; and even after they become conscious of the useless contractions, it takes time and watchfulness and patience to relax out of them, the habit so grows upon us. One would think that even though we go to sleep in a tense way, after being once soundly off Nature could gain the advantage over us, and relax the muscles in spite of ourselves; but the habits of inheritance and of years are too much for her. Although she is so constantly gracious and kind, she cannot go out of her way, and we cannot ask her to do so.
How simple it seems to sleep in the right way; and how wholesome it is even to think about it, in contrast to the wrong way into which so many of us have fallen. If we once see clearly the great compensation in getting back to the only way of gaining restful sleep, the process is very simple, although because we were so far out of the right path it often seems slow. But once gained, or even partially gained, one great enemy to healthful, natural nerves is conquered, and has no possibility of power.
Of course the mind and its rapid and misdirected working is a strong preventive of free nerves, relaxed muscles, and natural sleep. “If I could only stop myself from thinking” is a complaint often heard, and reason or philosophy does not seem to touch it. Even the certain knowledge that nothing is gained by this rapid thought at the wrong time, that very much is lost, makes no impression on the overwrought mind,–often even excites it more, which proves that the trouble, if originally mental, has now gained such a hold upon the physique that it must be attacked there first. The nerves should be trained to enable the body to be an obedient servant to a healthy mind, and the mind in giving its attention to such training gains in normal power of direction.
If you cannot stop thinking, do not try; let your thoughts steam ahead if they will. Only relax your muscles, and as the attention is more and more fixed on the interesting process of letting-go of the muscles (interesting, simply because the end is so well worth gaining), the imps of thought find less and less to take hold of, and the machinery in the head must stop its senseless working, because the mind which allowed it to work has applied itself to something worth accomplishing.
The body should also be at rest in necessary reclining in the day, where of course all the laws of sleep apply. Five minutes of complete rest in that way means greater gain than an hour or three hours taken in the usual manner. I remember watching a woman ” resting ” on a lounge, propped up with the downiest of pillows, holding her head perfectly erect and in a strained position, when it not only would have been easier to let it fall back on the pillow, but it seemed impossible that she should not let it go; and yet there it was, held erect with an evident strain. Hers is not an unusual case, on the contrary quite a common one. Can we wonder that the German doctor thought he had discovered a new disease? And must he not be already surprised and shocked at the precocious growth of the infant monster which he found and named? “So prone are mortals to their own damnation, it seems as though a devil’s use were gone.”
There is no better way of learning to overcome these perversions in sleep and similar forms of rest, than to study with careful thought the sleep of a wholesome little child. Having gained the physical freedom necessary to give perfect repose to the body, the quiet, simple dropping of all thought and care can be made more easily possible. So we can approach again the natural sleep and enjoy consciously the refreshment which through our own babyhood was the unconscious means of giving us daily strength and power for growth.
To take the regular process, first let go of the muscles,–that will enable us more easily to drop disturbing thoughts; and as we refuse, without resistance, admittance to the thoughts, the freedom from care for the time will follow, and the rest gained will enable us to awaken with new life for cares to come. This, however, is a habit to be established and thoughtfully cultivated; it cannot be acquired at once. More will be said in future chapters as to the process of gaining the habit.