A Ticket To Better Sleep
“Between every two pine trees, there is a door leading to a new way of life.” John Muir
In the midst of the stresses and demands of our lives, we have one last chance each evening to bring a peaceful closure to our day; one last chance to let go in order that our consciousness can drift free and untethered into sleep.
While browsing the magazine section of a Barnes and Noble bookstore the other day, and while waiting for a cappuccino I had ordered, I found two magazines to take to a table and browse once my coffee arrived – a practice I’ve observed that has a large following of gray-haired people my age who drink coffee and leaf through unpurchased books and magazines on the same dime.
One of the two magazines featured an article on the latest EPA findings that revealed that the average American “spends 93% of their life indoors, 87% of that life is in a dwelling or building of some sort, and the other 6% of their life in automobiles or another form of transportation.” That means that only 7% of one’s entire life (less than a half a day a week) is being spent outdoors, and that includes time walking between structures. 25% of Americans – apparently unashamed of their mole-like behavior – report across multiple studies – that they never go outside except to travel to another inside destination.
In a second magazine – one I had selected out of a sea periodicals on the subject of “Mindfulness,” (having found seven magazines devoted to the subject I must assume there is profitable niche found in a nation of people on the edge and who are looking for some kind of intervention that doesn’t involve a co-pay) – was an article about how ‘the majority of people who learn to meditate do not remain consistent with the practice.’ Nor does it seem – from my recollections of having been a therapist myself – are people consistent with almost any behavior that involves much time and a dedicated commitment to practices that are physically or psychologically restorative to the mind and body.
In that the science of the effects of being in nature and the value of mediation is very convincing as to their impacts on the brain in making us healthier, calmer, smarter, kinder, more creative, and have better sleep, it’s difficult to comprehend our inattentive and sometimes adversarial behaviors. In study after study people (including children) are found to be increasingly resistant to activities that quiet our thoughts and that involve much time out of doors and away from cellphones and computer screens.
Without tilling too deeply into the difficulties of ancient ground, I grew up in a stressful household, one that often led me to wish that I were somewhere else. Without leaving, I found that ‘somewhere else’ one particularly turbulent night while standing on a porch, looking at the stars, smelling what I now believe was honeysuckle, and listening to the distant sounds of courting frogs, a barking dog, and the B-flat song of an owl. I remember the moment so clearly – the moment of feeling safe and free – free of the concerns, fears, and anxiety I had felt moments earlier inside of my house.
Unaware of the potential of its impact or meaning at the time, I began a practice as a child that I later found as quieting and restorative in the busy demands and stresses of mid-life, as I did when I was 10 years old.
“If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they’d live a lot differently. When you look into infinity, you realize there are more important things than what people do all day.” — Calvin and Hobbes
Of the many things that we can do for ourselves and our souls, one of the simplest and least time-consuming rituals that can be performed is the act of connecting ourselves to the natural world just before sleep.
As your last activity before sleep tonight – and make a promise to yourself to try it several times more in the upcoming week – hook yourself back up to the natural world.
Adequately dressed for the weather – you don’t need much, just enough to keep you from being distracted by physical discomfort – and just before getting into bed, turn off the lights and to the greatest degree that your physical living circumstance and personal safety will allow, be outside (if only by leaning or looking out of an open window or a doorway, or on a porch if it would prevent you from getting wet). Nothing wrong with the sanctuary of an umbrella, the dryness of rubber boots, or the sensuality of bare feet. The Universe won’t care how you show up. Stand in your yard or garden if you can. Do this just – preferably by yourself – for a few minutes each night – your soul will know for how long.
Be outside and be aware of your breathing and your physical exposure to the air outside of your dwelling. As you inhale feel the air fill your lungs. Feel the air against your skin. Feel, perhaps the rain or snow as it lands on the skin of your one of your uplifted hands. Listen past the sounds of traffic and people and instead to the sounds of the night – listen for the sounds of the natural world – frogs, rain, wind, leaves, crickets. Listen for silence if you are so fortunate to live in a quiet place. If the sounds of traffic and people distress and distract you, a pair of earplugs can become a tool that will allow you to become aware of the rhythmic sound the night air as it passes through your nose.
Continue to breathe in deeply and as you slowly exhale, lift your eyes towards the sky. Look at the darkness, see the clouds, the moon– focus upon the stars if they can be seen, the limbs of trees, perhaps the veil of rain across a street lamp. And then breathe out – let go – let your shoulders relax and your face soften. Erase your mind – shake your head, your shoulders and arms – imagine your busy thoughts are like the lines on an Etch A Sketch – shaken loose and released. Become conscious only of the air around you and against your skin. Be aware only of yourself and a powerful feeling of release.
One last deep breath and let your lips form a smile as you breathe out and head towards bed – no last check of your phone, no computer or television screen. You are done thinking. You are done being called upon – done with reminding yourself of anything for the night.
With this last kindness to yourself, with this last gift to your spirit, this same gentle touch you would give to a child – you have done what you can do for today.