IT would seem that at least one might be perfectly free in sleep. But the habits of cleaving to mistaken ways of living cannot be thrown off at night and taken up again in the morning. They go to sleep with us and they wake with us.
If, however, we learn better habits of sleeping, that helps us in our life through the day. And learning better habits through the day helps us to get more rest from our sleep. At the end of a good day we can settle down more quickly to get ready for sleep, and, when we wake in the morning, find ourselves more ready to begin the day to come.
There are three things that prevent sleep, — overfatigue, material disturbances from the outside, and mental disturbances from, within.
It is not uncommon to hear people say, “I was too tired to sleep” — but it is not generally known how great a help it is at such times not to try to sleep, but to go to work deliberately to get I rested in preparation for it. In nine cases out of ten it is the unwillingness to lie awake that keeps us awake. We wonder why we do not sleep. We toss and turn and wish we could sleep. We fret, and fume, and worry, because we do not sleep. We think of all we have to do on the following day, and are oppressed with the thought that we cannot do it if we do not sleep. First, we try one experiment to see if it will not make us sleep, and when it fails, we try another, and perhaps another. In each experiment we, are watching to see if it will work. There are many things to do, any one of which might help us to sleep, but the watching to see if they will work keeps us awake.
When we are kept awake from our fatigue, the first thing to do is to say over and over to ourselves that we do not care whether we sleep or not, in order to imbue ourselves with a healthy indifference about it. It will help toward gaining this wholesome indifference to say “I am too tired to sleep, and therefore, the first thing for me to do is to get rested in order to prepare for sleep. When my brain is well rested, it will go to sleep; it cannot help it. When it is well rested, it will sleep just as naturally as my lungs breathe, or as my heart beats.”
In order to rest our brains we want to lie quietly, relaxing all our muscles, and taking even, quiet breaths. It is good when we can take long, full breaths, but sometimes that is too fatiguing; and then we must not only take moderately long, breaths, but be careful to have them gentle, quiet, and rhythmic. To make a plan of breathing and follow it keeps the mind steadily concentrated on the breathing, and gives the rest of the brain, which has been working on other things, a chance to relax and find its own freedom and rest. It is helpful to inhale while we count seven, exhale while we count seven, then rest and breathe naturally while we count seven, and to repeat the series of three for seven times; but to be strict with ourselves and see that we only do it seven times, not once more nor once less. Then we should wait a little and try it again, — and so keep on for a number of times, repeating the same series; and we should always be sure to have the air in our bedrooms as fresh as possible. If the breathing is steady and rhythmical it helps very much, and to inhale and exhale over and over for half an hour has a very pleasant, quieting effect — sometimes such exercises make us nervous at first, and, if we are very tired, that often happens; but, if we keep steadily at work, the nervousness disappears and restful quiet follows which very often brings restoring and refreshing sleep.
Another thing to remember — and it is very important — is that an overtired brain needs more than the usual nourishment. If you have been awake for an hour, and it is three hours after your last meal) take half a cup, or a cup of hot milk. If you are awake for another two hours take half a cup more, and so, at intervals of about two. hours, so long as you are awake throughout the night. Hot milk is nourishing and a sedative. It is not inconvenient to have milk by the side of one’s bed, and a little saucepan and spirit lamp, so that the milk can be heated without getting up, and the quiet simple occupation of heating it is sometimes restful in itself.
There are five things to remember to help rest an overtired brain: 1. A healthy indifference to wakefulness. 2. Concentration of the mind on simple things. 3. Relaxation of the body. 4. Gentle rhythmic breathing of fresh air. 5. Regular nourishment. If we do not lose courage, but keep on steadily night after night, with a healthy persistence in remembering and practising these five things, we shall often find that what might have been a very long period of sleeplessness may be materially shortened and that the sleep which follows the practice of the exercises is better, sounder, and more refreshing, than the sleep that came before. In many cases a long or short period of insomnia can be absolutely prevented by just these simple means.
Here is perhaps the place to say that all narcotics are in such cases, absolutely pernicious.
They may bring sleep at the time, but eventually they lose their effect, and leave the nervous system in a state of strain which cannot be helped by anything but time, through much suffering that might have been avoided.
When we are not necessarily overtired but perhaps only a little tired from the day’s work, it is not uncommon to be kept awake by a flapping curtain or a swinging door, by unusual noises in the streets, or by people talking. How often we hear it said, “It did seem hard when I went to bed tired last night that I should have been kept awake by a noise like that — and now this morning, I am more tired than when I went to bed.”
The head nurse in a large hospital said once in distress: “I wish the nurses could be taught to step lightly over my head, so that they would not keep me awake at night.” It would have been a surprise to her if she had been told that her head could be taught to yield to the steps of the nurses, so that their walking would not keep her awake.
It is resistance that keeps us awake in all such cases. The curtain flaps, and we resist it; the door swings to over and over again, and we resist it, and keep ourselves awake by wondering why it does not stop; we hear noises in the street that we am unused to, especially if we are accustomed to sleeping in the stillness of the country, and we toss and turn and wish we were in a quiet place. All the trouble comes from our own resistance to the noise, and resistance is nothing but unwillingness to submit to our conditions.
If we are willing that the curtain should go on flapping, the door go on slamming, or the noise in the street continue steadily on, our brains yield to the conditions and so sleep naturally, because the noise goes through us, so to speak, and does not run hard against our unwillingness to hear it.
There are three facts which may help to remove the resistance which naturally arises at any unusual sound when we are tired and want to get rest.
One is that in almost every sound there is a certain rhythm. If we yield to the sound enough to become sensitive to its rhythm, that, in itself, is soothing. and what before was keeping us awake now helps us to go to sleep. This pleasant effect of finding the rhythm in sound is especially helpful if one is inclined to lie awake while travelling in sleeping cars. The rhythm of sound and motion in sleeping cars and steamers is, in itself, soothing. If you have the habit of feeling as if you could never get refreshing sleep in a sleeping car, first be sure that you have as much fresh air as possible, and then make up your mind that you will spend the whole night, if necessary, in noticing the rhythm of the motion and sound of the cars. If you keep your mind steadily on it, you will probably be asleep in less than an hour, and, when the car stops, you will wake only enough to settle comfortably into the sense of motion when it starts again. It is pleasant to notice the gentleness with which a good engineer starts his train at night. Of course there is a difference in engineers, and some are much more gentle in starting their engines than others, but the delicacy with which the engine is started by the most expert is delightful to feel, and gives us many a lesson on the use of gentle beginnings, with other things besides locomotive engines, and especially in our dealings with each other.
The second fact with regard to yielding, instead of resisting, in order to get to sleep is that listening alone, apart from rhythm, tends to make one sleepy, and this leads us at once to the third fact, that getting to sleep is nothing but a healthy form of concentration.
If true concentration is dropping everything that interferes with fixing our attention upon some wholesome object, it means merely bringing the brain into a normal state which induces sleep when sleep is needed. First we drop everything that interferes with the one simple subject, and then we drop that, and are unconscious.
Of course it may take some time to make ourselves willing to submit to an unusual noise if we have the habit of feeling that we must necessarily be disturbed by it, and, if we can stop the noise, it is better to stop it than to give ourselves unnecessary tasks in non-resistance.
Then again, if we are overtired, our brains are sometimes so sensitive that the effect of any noise is like that of being struck in a sore spot, and then it is much more difficult to bear it, and we can only make the suffering a little less by yielding and being willing that it should go on. I cannot go to sleep while some one is knocking my lame arm, nor can I go to sleep while a noise is hitting my tired brain; but in such cases we can give up expecting to go to sleep, and get a great deal of rest by using our wills steadily not to resist; and sometimes, even then, sleep will come upon us unexpectedly.
With regard to the use of the will, perhaps the most dangerous pitfall to be avoided is the use of drugs. It is not too much to say that they never should be used at all for cases of pure sleeplessness, for with time their power to bring sleep gradually becomes exhausted, and then the patient finds himself worse off than before, for the reactionary effect of the drugs leaves him with exhausted nerves and a weakened will. All the strengthening, moral effect which can be gained from overcoming sleeplessness in wholesome ways is lost by a recourse to drugs, and character is weakened instead of strengthened.
When one has been in the habit of sleeping in the city, where the noise of the street is incessant, a change to the perfect silence of the country will often keep sleep off quite as persistently as noise. So with a man who has been in the habit of sleeping under other abnormal conditions, the change to normal conditions will sometimes keep him awake until he has adjusted himself to them, and it is not uncommon for people to be so abnormal that they resist rhythm itself, such as is heard in the rolling of the sea, or the rushing of a river.
The re-adjustment from abnormal to normal conditions of sleeping may be made surely if we set about it with a will, for we have all nature on our side. Silence is orderly for the night’s rest, and rhythm only emphasizes and enhances the silence, when it is the rhythm of nature.
The habit of resistance cannot be changed in a single day — it must take time; but if the meaning, the help, and the normal power of non-resistance is clearly understood, and the effort to gain it is persistent, not only the power to sleep, but a new sense of freedom may be acquired which is quite beyond the conception of those who are in the daily habit of resistance.
When we lie down at night and become conscious that our arms and our legs and our whole bodies are resting heavily upon the bed, we are letting go all the resistance which has been left stored in our muscles from the activities of the day.
A cat, when she lies down, lets go all resistance at once, because she moves with the least possible effort; but there are very few men who do that, and so men go to their rest with more or less resistance stored in their bodies, and they must go through a conscious process of dropping it before they can settle to sleep as a normal child does, without having to think about how it is done. The conscious process, however, brings a quiet, conscious joy in the rest, which opens the mind to soothing influences, and brings a more profound refreshment than is given even to the child — and with the refreshment new power for work.
One word more about outside disturbances before we turn to those interior ones which are by far the most common preventatives of refreshing sleep. The reader will say: “How can I be willing that the noise should go on when I am not willing?” The answer is, “If you can see clearly that if you were willing, the noises would not interfere with your sleep, then you can find the ability within you to make yourself willing.”
It is wonderful to realize the power we gain by compelling and controlling our desires or aversions through the intelligent use of the will, and it is easier to compel ourselves to do right against temptation than to force ourselves to do wrong against a true conviction. Indeed it is most difficult, if not impossible, to force ourselves to do wrong against a strong sense of right. Behind an our desires, aversions, and inclinations each one of us possesses a capacity for a higher will, the exercise of which, on the side of order and righteousness, brings into being the greatest power in human life. The power of character is always in harmony with the laws of truth and order, and although we must sometimes make a great effort of the will to do right against our inclinations the ease of such effort increases as the power of character increases, and strength of will grows steadily by use, because it receives its life from the eternal will and is finding its way to harmony with that.
It is the lower, selfish will that often keeps us awake by causing interior disturbances.
An actor may have a difficult part to play, and feel that a great deal depends upon his success. He stays awake with anxiety, and this anxiety is nothing but resistance to the possibility of failure. The first thing for him to do is to teach himself to be willing to fail. If he becomes willing to fail, then all his anxiety will go, and he will be able to sleep and get the rest and new life which he needs in order to play the part well. If he is willing to fail, then all the nervous force which before was being wasted in anxiety is set free for use in the exercise of his art.
Looking forward to what is going to happen on the next day, or within a few days, may cause so much anxiety as to keep us awake; but if we have a good, clear sense of the futility of resistance, whether our expected success or failure depends on ourselves or on others, we can compel ourselves to a quiet willingness which will make our brains quiet and receptive to restful sleep, and so enable us to wake with new power for whatever task or pleasure may lie before us.
Of course we are often kept awake by the sense of having done wrong. In such cases the first thing to do is to make a free acknowledgment to ourselves of the wrong we have done, and then to make up our minds to do the right thing at once. That, if the wrong done is not too serious, will put us to sleep; and if the next day we go about our work remembering the lesson we have learned, we probably will have little trouble in sleeping.
If Macbeth had had the truth and courage to tell Lady Macbeth that both he and she were wicked plotters and murderers, and that he intended, for his part, to stop being a scoundrel, and, if he had persisted in carrying out his good intentions, he would never have “murdered sleep.”