how to sleep

It was only after moving to France that I realised what a hard town London was to live in, just because so many social events there revolve around alcohol. The decreased intake that occurred entirely naturally when I moved–from several beers just about any night I went out, to the very occasional glass of wine with some ritual dinner or other–was very welcome. Of course, France has its pissheads–I even know some of them now–but I guess I was lucky with the people I met at first, and now that I’ve cut down to practically zero, I don’t think I’d go back.

But this change did affect my sleep for a while–several months at least–and I felt like, after all the madness and damaged attitudes to sleep caused first by being a junior doctor, then a crazy marathon cyclist in Audax events, that it would be good to establish a healthier pattern for the future. Also, that feedback jag at a Selfish Cunt gig at Ye Olde Axe has left me with fairly heavy intermittent tinnitus, which I guess is not uncommon in people who’ve ever participated in the British live music scene, and it’s worse at night.

Enough throat clearing. What I actually do is this:

1) No coffee after 1200h, no black tea after 1700h. Caffeine is a strong stimulant, and its elimination half-life is of the order of a few hours. If you want to sleep at night, don’t take stimulants in the hours leading up to bedtime!

2) All the usual sleep hygiene stuff: make sure you get enough exercise (at least half an hour/day, most days), try for regular hours, dark, quiet room, calm activities (reading French novels does it for me) in the hour before you expect to sleep. Keep a notebook and pen at the side of the bed to note stuff down that you need to do in the morning, then tell yourself „I’ll do that in the morning:“ very relaxing.

3) Sometimes, mostly, increasingly, all this is enough. If it’s not, proceed as follows. The trick is to calm your mind into sleep by holding two streams of thought simultaneously to mind. Fortunately this is difficult verging on impossible (for me anyway), and practising it is very relaxing and tiring, which helps me fall asleep. It also feels very pleasant.

Gerhard Richter candle painting

Gerhard Richter candle painting

4) Visual meditation. Try (with your eyes closed) to picture a lit candle as vividly as possible. I find it very difficult. Maybe if you’re a visual artist or something it’d come more naturally. Can you see it? Does it flicker? Do other thoughts push it away? Hold on to that picture of the candle, that rich golden light, the guttering wax, all of it.

5) Have a little break from the candle visualisation, and focus on your developing infinite compassion for every living thing on the planet. This is a big target, so I like to follow Albert Camus‘ advice that ‚our first task is to forgive the pope.‘ I’m no Catholic, but I think the media image of this personification of Christian patriarchy is a helpful mental model for much that is wrong with the world. I add cultural breadth by giving the Dalai Lama (another ageing celibate male) the same treatment. I like to imagine the two men meeting and trying to work out what they might usefully do next, in their ignorance. The „good generous“ prayer of Reverend Sprague in Twain’s Tom Sawyer is also a useful model.

6) Hold your compassion and pity for these two ageing, sterile archetypes in your mind, the tradition and enslavement that each represents, and return to the candle meditation. It is hard! Now you’ve tackled two of the more difficult characters, it’s perfectly OK to radiate positive energy to people who you do care for, like friends, family, colleagues, and people suffering oppression around the world. Maybe you’ll make a couple of notes of concrete things you might do in the morning for any of them. You might, for example, resolve to respond–compassionately–to one of Pope Francis’s more misguided tweets. But just note your resolve: do not switch the machine on again!

7) Aim to hold the image of the flickering candle flame and your infinite compassion for all other living things in your mind simultaneously. If you can do it, you feel good. And as it is so difficult, it is tiring, and you will fall asleep easily.

8) If you wake up early: get up, take a piss, make a soft (herbal) tea. Go back to bed, read or meditate again. You’ll fall asleep again. If you don’t, keep resting (which is fine for every other part of the body but the brain), and remember that the worse thing about not sleeping is that it can make you feel tired. Being tired is not the end of the world.

9) Right, now I’m off to bed. Sweet dreams all!

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