In the past few days and weeks, I have slowly been coming to terms with an unfortunate reality.
I just can’t function without sleep.
Welcome to the Blog of Blatantly Obvious Conclusions.
I really don’t want this to be true. Now that my girls are usually sleeping through the night (knock on wood!), I want to stay up late, writing, knitting, reading, or catching up on my favorite TV shows AND get up early to meditate and go for a walk AND be a productive writer and a mindful, patient, kind wife and mother during the day.
This may be possible for some of you over-achievers who seem to be able to function on just a few hours of sleep, but it’s not possible for me. When I get fewer than eight hours for more than a couple of nights in a row, I get foggy and grumpy, anxious and irritable. I’m totally unproductive with my work and snappy with my kids. I find myself becoming irrationally inpatient with them and then frustrated with myself, which makes me annoyed at them, and then I yell*, and then I feel terrible about all of it. Any ability I might have once had to STOP, take a breath, find my smile, and choose a different course of action just flies out the window.
If I neglect my sleep long enough, my body stages a protest. I get sick, and then everything falls apart. This is decidedly unhelpful. When I get to that point (and even long before), nothing will help but sleep.
The link between mindfulness and sleep shouldn’t be surprising to any of us, but for you skeptics out there, there is research on the topic. Interestingly enough, it seems to be a two-way street. In a 2012 study looking at the relationship between mindfulness, work/life balance, and sleep, Allen & Kiburz found that parents who were higher in trait mindfulness were more likely to sleep well (and subsequently, to enjoy better work/life balance). In addition, several mindfulness teachers have spoken about the importance of sleep to being able to stay present. In her amazing book on meditation, Real Happiness, Sharon Salzberg says:
“The primary approach of mindfulness is to pay attention to what’s happening and to develop a different relationship to our experience so that we’re not rejecting it or hating it, but we’re also not overwhelmed by it… But the reality is that there are times when mindfulness is not that easy. We may be exhausted, or we may not be able to find balance through coming back to the breath… or our mindfulness may be too intermittent. So there are a whole host of approaches to help us come back into balance and once again be mindful. It’s fine to explore these methods instead of following a traditional mindfulness practice. Sometimes people think, “Oh, I blew it, I can’t do the real thing.” But it’s not like that at all. Get up and take a walk, go out into nature, do some stretches, or whatever it might be, if it brings you enough calm or perspective to reenter a place where you can relate differently to what arises in your experience.” (Salzberg, 2011, p. 135)
I love this quote, as it is immensely helpful to me whenever an expert in mindfulness and meditation acknowledges how hard it can be. The only thing I would add to her list of ways to find balance again is sleep.
Learning to be mindful is an ongoing journey for me, part of which involves figuring out how to set up my life, whenever possible, so that I can be as present as possible with myself, my writing, and most importantly, my family. The other part of it involves self-compassion when I don’t make the best choices, because let’s be honest, sometimes I just want to stay up late and watch a TV show with my husband.
For now, though, I’m off to bed.
* I recently wrote about how my desire to stop yelling at my kids brought me to meditation over at The Orange Rhino Challenge. It’s a great blog and community for parents who want to yell less. Check it out!
(If you’re looking for some good guided sleep meditations, my favorite is available through the Headspace app (I downloaded the meditation on to my mp3 player; in my ongoing quest for sleep I no longer bring my phone into the bedroom). I also like the techniques in this article, and there are a number of free meditations through UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.)