Given all the concern about insomnia and sleep deprivation, it's too easy to overlook the fact that there are exceptionally good sleepers among us. They tend not to get much media attention. In fact, I've found they are rather reticent to boast about their joyous relationship with sleep. Frequently, one of these great sleepers will approach me after I've done a presentation and actually whisper, "I love sleep."
It's too easy, even seductive to become preoccupied with the treatment of sleep problems -- with sleep techniques and sleep aides and sleep paraphernalia. It's not that these aren't necessary; it's just that they are rarely sufficient.
As a sleep specialist, I've learned as much about healing sleep from superb sleepers as I have from those struggling with sleep. Improving our sleep health is not just about avoiding dysfunctional sleep patterns and habits; it's also about re-envisioning ourselves as superb sleepers. My observations have taught me that truly great sleepers share a number of important sleep enhancing attitudes and characteristics:
1. Superb sleepers welcome their dreams, even the challenging ones. Because they know that dreaming is natural, healthy, and supportive of their emotional well-being, they are open and receptive to the mystery of their dream lives. Most insomnia occurs during the latter part of sleep, a time when we do most of our REM sleep and dreaming. Being on good terms with our dreams can help us stay in the game throughout the entire night.
2. Superb sleepers typically awaken without an alarm. Because they know how much sleep they need, they get to bed in time to allow for that. And, they know when they will awaken naturally. Routinely awakening with an alarm clock snips off the end of our sleep. Would we ever consider setting an alarm to limit other natural and enjoyable activities like dinner or lovemaking? Does our sleep really need to be restricted or restrained in this way?
3. Superb sleepers have an intuitive regard for routines and rhythms. Rhythms are the infrastructure of sleep. And routines are our personal way of dancing to those rhythms -- of balancing activity and rest. Unfortunately, modern life is dysrhythmic and staccato. We hear little about the "rat race" anymore, but this is because we are inured to its overarching presence in our lives. It's fine to accelerate when necessary, but too many of us have lost our breaks.
4. Superb sleepers are accepting of periodic nighttime wakefulness. They know that waking up occasionally from sleep is not a sign of a sleep disorder and won't affect the overall quality of their night. They don't fret and get back to sleep easily. In fact, they might get up for a few minutes and enjoy the exquisite stillness of night. Historical evidence suggests that prior to the industrial revolution people commonly awakened for a stretch in the middle of the night. This is probably a more natural pattern of sleep that we now misconstrue as insomnia.
5. Superb sleepers have good "sleep self-efficacy," that is, faith in their own ability to sleep. Because they hold it in high regard, they are on good terms with sleep and live with confidence that it is accessible whenever needed. This is not to suggest that someone with a history of poor sleep can just throw a switch and improve their sleep self-efficacy. But this can be achieved over time through sleep-hygiene practices.
6. Superb sleepers know how to truly let go. They are adept at forgiving the loose ends of the day and trust that things which remain unresolved today can be addressed even more effectively after a good night's sleep. Letting go is not just a psychological maneuver; it's also a deeply personal and rewarding spiritual practice.
7. Superb sleepers have a direct sense of sleep. They don't think of it as the absence of waking, but as the palpable presence of another kind of experience. They understand that sleep speaks in a whisper that can only be heard with a quiet mind. They know that sleep is like the night sky and easily obscured by light. And they can sense the subtle touch of sleep as they submit to the grace of gravity.
8. Superb sleepers are on good terms with themselves. They don't need to actively distract themselves with endless pre-sleep activities or entertainment. Because they are comfortable spending a few minutes alone with themselves in the dark, they go willingly into the night. Understanding that natural sleep comes gradually, they are content to surrender and patiently await its certain arrival.
9. Superb sleepers don't fight occasional daytime sleepiness. They know that sleepiness by day is actually a visit from something dear to them at night. They don't argue with it or try to shoo it away because doing so could damage their positive relationship with it. Instead, they rest when they are able or negotiate a later time to do so when they are not. Superb sleepers can be superb nappers if they choose.
10. Superb sleepers love sleep! They really do love and look forward to sleep as much as they do to waking life. They delight in slipping into bed, surrendering to gravity and letting their waking mind disperse. They don't view sleep as an escape from waking nor as time subtracted from it, but as an experience that absolutely enhances life. Consider courting and flirting with sleep not just because it's good for you and the right thing to do, but also as a potentially joyous experience.