Sunday, February 19, 2012

Zen and the art of sleep maintenance (a.k.a. 30 days to better sleep)

I've said this before. *Lots* of people have said this before: fix your sleep and *then* your nutrition, and *then* exercise. In that order.

That's because sleep loss, or bad sleep, causes stress and raises your cortisol levels. And then your other hormones, like insulin, get all out of whack.

And once your hormones are out of balance, you are not going to get anything else in order. You cannot eat or exercise your way out of bad sleep.

As a matter of fact, it turns into an exponential death spiral in no time. You know the deal: you're stressed, so you sleep poorly, which causes more stress, and your sleep gets even worse, and around and around it goes. Meanwhile your cortisol levels and insulin resistance are raging, causing, eventually, metabolic derangement along with the pretty substantial mental derangement that you are already feeling from the stress and bad sleep.

I have been there. "Life" rears its ugly head and you either have trouble falling asleep, or you pass out easily but then wake up a lot over the course of the night. Sometimes you lie there thinking about whatever flavor of crapwich "life" has handed you lately. In any of its many variations, it sucks. And you end up exhausted.

How do you make it right?

Alcohol! Drugs!

Errrr, no. Sadly, neither of those things helps you get good sleep. They might help you pass out, but the quality of the resulting sleep is awful.

I have only ever found one successful strategy. I'm sure there are more, but only the one has worked for me: meditation.

Frankly, it sort of freaks me out because I can't say that I truly "understand" it, but it is as simple as this: if I spend 15-20 minutes meditating at any point in the day, but particularly right before bed, I sleep like an effing rock. I could have had the drummer's day from hell (or, more likely, the lawyer's, but we don't talk about that here), but if I meditate I won't wake up -- not even once.

And it even works if I am already exhausted. I have finally learned that the meditation time is worth it even if my ass is dragging and all I want to do is go to sleep -- because the few minutes of staring at a wall will guarantee me a *substantially* better night's sleep than if I just passed out and spent that extra few minutes sleeping (or trying to). The lesson: all "sleep" is not equal.

Yes, staring at a wall.

I am sure there are lots of different ways to meditate. But, as far as I can tell, there are, generally speaking, two schools: (1) the spacy/traveling-to-another-place-in-your-mind kind, and (2) the staying-focused-in-the-here-and-now kind. I don't know anything about that first one. I tried it a long time ago, and it just felt like daydreaming, and it didn't do anything for me. If you like it, cool; go for it, but it went nowhere for me. But the second one is like emptying and then flossing your brain. It also, at first, is undoubtedly a lot more difficult, because you can lapse into daydreaming pretty easily. It goes something like this:

Sit down, on the floor, in front of a wall. Cross-legged is cool. If you can pull off a lotus position, that's even better in terms of helping you focus, but I can't get beyond a half lotus myself (without a trip to the ER, anyway). Whatever. Just sit down. And shut up.

Stare at the wall.

Think about the wall. No, not anything else. Just. The. Wall. It is the only thing you are dealing with in that moment. Everything else is in the past or future, and you aren't concerned with that. Here and now, and that's just that wall in front of you.

When your thoughts go elsewhere -- and, let's be really freaking clear about this, this will occur in about 0.000000013 seconds when you are first starting -- think about the wall again.

Repeat (over and over and over again) for 20 minutes.

That's it.

Now you're thinking: "You freak. You effing freak. How in the world is that going to work? I have had the day/week/life from hell. I can't stop thinking about that to think about a *wall* instead."

But you can. The first time you do it, you will, nearly invariably, think that it was the stupidest thing you have ever done. Actually, I have never ever heard of anyone who had a better reaction that first time. In fact, if, during that first 20 minutes, you amass a grand total of more than *one* minute of thought about the wall rather than about all the other shit that's bringing you down, you will be a one-percenter headed for the Meditation Hall of Fame. That probably won't be you. It doesn't matter. Just do it. Your head may feel, as one friend described it, "like a hornets' nest, buzzing incessantly" with every thought in the world but that wall. But just do it. Think about the wall. When you stop thinking about the wall, think about the damn wall. Keep doing that. No matter how often you have to re-orient back to the wall. It can be *very* hard work. Just do it.

And the next day/night, do it again. Every day. Once a day for 15-20 minutes. Think of it as a 30-day challenge for your brain (and your body, actually).

I can't tell you precisely when the "holy shit" moment will occur, but it *will* occur. And it will be within that first 30 days. And, honestly, it may take you all 30 days just to get that pristine, clear, empty single *minute* (or even ten seconds) of thought about that stupid wall that is front of you.

But that's the thing: if you have (eventually) emptied your mind of everything else but that wall, you have (duh) achieved an enormous amount in terms of stress reduction. Think about it: when is the last time your head was totally empty of thought except a single thought about what is going on right *now*, even for ten seconds?

I repeat: it's like flossing your brain.

It's funny.... I have almost written this post four or five times over the last year, but every time I back off, 'cause the topic of meditation seems to freak some people out. But the farther and deeper I get into this whole paleo/primal lifestyle, the more I realize that if your sleep isn't right, nothing else will fall in line. And if your stress levels are high, your sleep will not be right. This is the only way I know to get it all going in the right direction. Particularly if you are a paleo/primal eater who is open to 30-day eating challenges, you should consider the idea of a 30-day meditation challenge. As Robb Wolf always says about the food angle: "Try it for 30 days and see how it makes you look, feel and perform."

And sleep.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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