The Quest For Sound Sleep

January 28, 2013


Drifting Off. John Everett Millais’ Ophelia

Oh to sleep like a teenager again! How I miss the capacity to fall asleep on cue, and more importantly, stay asleep until, well, lunch. If only my bladder would co-operate. It demands (and I mean a collection agent demand) that I empty it at 3.00 a.m. sharp. Then there is the problem of noise. Teenage me once slept in a Manhattan nightclub with my head against the speaker. Now any passing garbage (and garbage truck) is enough to break the ironically named sound sleep.

I wish there were a magic bullet. A simple one-size-fits-all solution. But alas, the reasons for poor quality sleep are as countless as the sheep.  What I did discover is a process whereby anyone can help himself.

I begin with the most urgent. When one or more of the body’s physiology is in disharmony, the first symptom is poor sleep. It is the body’s alarm for danger. Consult a reliable physician for any underlying health issues. But, good luck with that. I have found most physicians to be shamelessly dismissive about sleep apnea, pre-diabetes and other ill harbingers. (Perhaps because as interns they worked for months without any sleep). I had to train myself as my own GP (I even purchased a white lab coat). I researched. I quizzed family members (we have enough professionals to open our own hospital). I surfed the net. I read a book or two (okay, two dozen).

Next, I beautified my environment. It may seem like stating the obvious that a clean, tidy bedroom is conducive to good sleep, but in my experience (don’t ask me how I know) for some people the bedroom is the messiest room in the house. The other day I saw a homeless man fast asleep in the island of a highway, in the middle of morning rush hour yet! For about two seconds it made me question whether environment is at all important. I realized he was passed out from intoxication. For the rest of us, proper furniture placement, high end bedding, ambient lighting, pleasant scents and soothing sounds all contribute their little bit. More subtlety, it suggests to the mind that sleep is a luxurious pleasure to be enjoyed. Though I am thrifty in other ways, I do invest in high-thread count sheets and orthopedic pillows.

Thirdly, find yourself a nice temporary bed companion. The least expensive, and definitely the least clingy, is a diary. I used to keep mine on my bedside stand and each morning I recorded the quality and quantity of sleep. I stopped only once it improved significantly. In it I also used to note the main points of previous day. It is a basic but neglected fact that the quality of your sleep is a reflection of your waking hours. Try this simple test: spend the day at a rock concert, indulge in wild orgies, eat a dozen varieties of jalapeno, then observe the quality of your sleep. You get the idea. Sleep is so holistic that it is affected by every other aspect of your waking life, from your stress levels to your nutrition and leisure activities. In disciplining one’s sleep, one ends up disciplining every other aspect of one’s life. People seem to forget that waking and sleep are two sides of the same coin.

The other night I was at dinner party where we were eating till 11.00 p.m. It was a rich, starchy supper, topped off with coffee and a sugary dessert (the host threatened us with espresso). Needless to say sleep was difficult that night. I generally avoid nighttime snacking and also suppers such as pasta, rice and potatoes, which turn liquid a few hours after digestion. Breads on the other hand absorb liquids and are an aide in sleeping through the night. The nocturnal digestion of starch activates insulin, causing blood sugar levels to dip, which then prompts the adrenaline to fire up. Presto, you are wide awake at 4.00 a.m. for no good reason.

It is infuriating. The more annoyed I get, the harder it is to fall back asleep. Now I play a trick on my own mind. I discovered 3.00 a.m. is the perfect solitude for mediation. It beats being angry at the interruption of sleep. This change in attitude has helped me fall back asleep much more quickly. Failing that, it has led to some deep, deep meditative states. Win-win I say.

Not surprising really because sleep and meditation are not dissimilar. Sleep is also an altered state of consciousness. The same skills, the same dedication and the same vigilance cultivated in meditation come in handy in attaining better sleep.

And so I observe my bedtime rituals rather earnestly. It works because the human mind is highly habitual. I avoid violent TV just before bed, specially the news. I find reading before bed a better option, though never fiction. Fiction is designed to put images in your head. I prefer philosophical writings that blow my mind wonderfully out of day’s cares.

If that sounds suspiciously like an endorsement for a life of awareness, that’s because it is. Of course the quest for good sleep (just like the quest for love or happiness) is never-ending. It has to be fine tuned daily according to life’s changing demands.

Sweet dreams.

The Power Of Listening

January 21, 2013

Listening is the best ear ornament.

Listening is the prettiest ear ornament.

This is a true story. After my friend died I telephoned her credit card company to cancel her card. The Customer Service Rep who was mechanically sticking to his script replied, “I’m sorry sir, but only the cardholder can make changes to that account.”  Isn’t this what we find most frustrating about public service personnel: they don’t listen!

There is a reason why I patronize this one barber shop instead of a dozen others in my neighborhood: my barber Pat knows the art of listening. While I am waiting for him to finish with his present client, I enjoy watching his effortless way of prompting the gentleman in his chair to speak. Pat is chameleon-like in his ability to become all things to all people.

It’s a trick that served me well this week. I was visiting with one of my geriatric patients when she revealed to me that she was feeling rather depressed. Earlier that day her oncologist had advised her that her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and because she was eight-four, there was not much that could be done. I did not know what to say to make her feel better. I remembered Pat and decided to just be a blank page. I gave her loving attention but allowed her to be comfortable with her silences. Slowly, haltingly, she opened up about her fears and anxieties. By the time her niece arrived for a visit, she was back to her smiling, stoic self. As I was leaving she sincerely thanked me for “our little chat”. I had hardly said a word.

I see around me young people voluntarily tuning out the world on the sidewalks of downtown with their ubiquitous Ipod. There are people crossing busy streets while texting on their cellphones. Does anyone listen anymore?

As a writer I appreciate that the truth of good fiction resides in the inferences and the nuances between the words. Perhaps people read less literature nowadays because we have forgotten this benefit of skillful listening. I was reminded of this fact this week at the homeless shelter. A long-haired, bearded man sat in my chair requesting a haircut. He had a slight Indian accent and as he spoke I was impressed by his vocabulary and clarity of thought. He was obviously an intelligent and educated man. Inbetween my small talk I gently cued him to speak about how he had ended up living on  the streets. He was cagey. Usually the men I barber are eager to unburden their story. He said he had inadvertently thrown away all of his I.D. and that was the reason he was homeless. I asked no more. I understood he was in Canada illegally. He was playing the system. As much as his words tried to conceal this fact, the silence inbetween had told the truth.

The pay offs are plenty in relationships but the real prize is in solitude. These days everyone is interested in ‘meditation’ without being clear about what that entails. Meditation is nothing but the skill of listening to yourself. The real reason your mind keeps chattering is because you do not listen, hence it keeps repeating the same verbiage over and over again. When we learn to listen to ourselves, our sleep is more restful, with less crazy dreams.

Many years ago I met a master of silence during a retreat in Northern California. Though his height was modest, he seemed to tower higher than the sequoias around us. It was his gaze. Intense, penetrating and personal. I felt naked in his presence. His ability to answer my questions the instant they arose in my mind astounded me. I was sitting in the front row of the tent, waiting, along with a hundred others, for him to begin speaking when I silently wondered to myself if he really could read my mind. He abruptly turned his head in my direction, looked me in the eyes and said, “I am not interested in reading the confusion in your mind.”

His name was Swami Chinamayanda, and he went on to say that people often marvel that he reads minds but really, he just knows how to listen. He gives attention to the pauses, the silences, and we supply him the rest. I understood what he meant because at that time I had the privilege of living with a cat. The only way I could anticipate her moods and her needs was by slowing down, learning to give silent attention. Just watch any mother with a newborn and it is a skill she soon acquires.

Excuse me while I plug in my Ipod before I cross the street and text at the same time. And thanks for listening.

How to measure human worth?

How to measure human worth?

At a dinner party over Christmas the conversation turned to the subject of the monarchy. One man, a renowned snob, stated he was a firm believer in the superiority of the aristocracy over the peasantry (all of us). I was appalled by his unashamed elitism. It offended every egalitarian cell in my body. But even as I was quenching my horror a part of me was questioning my core belief. Is it really true that all people are of equal worth?

Or put the question another way, if the the planet were doomed and you were in charge of the sole spaceship, whom would you rescue to save mankind? Of course all people are not created equal. We each have our own abilities and disabilities. Some of us can write, others are clever with science or business. Some are born with privilege which they harness to the full, while others flounder, or are prohibited from making use of their talents. Despite these obvious differences, I was raised to believe that each person, though different, has equal value. Their apparent differences are something like the differences within parts of the body. The eyes cannot do what the heart does, and the liver cannot do what the fingers do. Yet if we were compelled to surrender any part of our body (perhaps by a terrorist) we would be hard pressed to pick a part we would deem valueless.  Each organ is different but each plays its part, contributing to the whole. And so it is with humanity. But is it? 

At one end of the spectrum, we have the high-achievers who have changed human history, and affected the quality of our lives: Gandhi, Einstein, Teslar, Shakespeare, Mozart,  to name a few. Obviously they cannot compare to the drug addict sleeping on the sidewalk. Jeffery Dahmer was a man who stalked, kidnapped, tortured, murdered then ate his victims; did his life have equal value to that of Steve Jobs? Obviously, not everyone contributes to the whole equally, so then are some lives worth more than others?

Not an easy dilemma to solve, however it is an important one. Because what we believe in our hearts (not our heads) affects how we treat others around us. That unashamed snob I began with is well known for mistreating those whom he considers his inferiors (pretty much everyone).

One thing I have learned from my volunteer work is that it is next to impossible to judge a person. We know nothing of their circumstances nor of their history. Many of my geriatric patients look frail and helpless, but I am always astounded by what they have done in their youth. One meek eighty-four year old lady in a wheelchair had been a Playboy bunny in 1960. Another sickly and weak old man had fought at Dunkirk during a pivotal battle of World War Two. The other day I was cutting the hair of a disheveled man at the homeless shelter  when I remarked innocently, “By the time I am finished, you will look like an investment banker.” To my surprise he responded, “I am an investment banker. At least that is what I used to be.” It seems he had been highly successful but a cocaine habit was his downfall. He has never quiet recovered to the same heights. And he is not the only successful man with an achilles heel, all the great and famous have a nasty side to them we do not always know about. Charles Dickens championed against oppression and bondage of the poor in the UK, however he was a racist in his views about the Empire. He spoke against the abuse of women, but he mistreated his own wife.

So even if our ignorance renders our judgements flawed, aren’t some people still so much more worthwhile rescuing in that spaceship than others?  Say, Mandela over Hitler? Well, that depends on who is compiling the list. My list will not be the same as yours. (I know I would want my cardiologist with me in that spaceship). That is because we judge others according to how much value they bring to our own lives. I mean, the real reason we value each and every part of our body regardless of function is because each part is of benefit to us personally. Similarly, any person we value, whether famous or not–we don’t really value them for their own sake. If we are honest, we value our mother mostly because of what she can do for us personally. Utterly selfish but utterly human. This is just how we are. Newton, Fleming, Jenner are valued highly because their discoveries have increased our lifespans. Conversely, the bum on the street has lesser value because we perceive no benefit from his existence to us at all. But that does not mean that his life has not been of benefit for someone else in the past. Nor does it mean his life cannot be of benefit to others in the future. For all we know his life is of benefit today to someone on earth.

Assigning worth to others is an expression of self-interest. And we are all inherently selfish therefore there is some snobbery in each of us. But, and it is a huge but, we are not all selfish to the same degree.  It is my observation that the greater the habit of snobbery, the more insensitive is the individual. Conversely, the lesser the snobbery, the greater the compassion. When we  accept this fact of human nature, only then do we begin to abandon the habit of assigning greater and lesser value to others.

Finding Your Bliss

January 7, 2013

Noted beauty Audrey Hepburn never looked lovelier than in her charity work.

Noted beauty Audrey Hepburn never looked lovelier than in her charity work.

The other day I had occasion to hear a barroom musician named Jordon. Dressed in faded jeans and a baggy Ramones t-shirt he looked for all the world like a carefree rocker. His face shone content, he was so in his element. Jordon is a policeman by day, about as far removed from the artsy, bohemian he appeared to be. I asked him why he had chosen a profession that demanded conformity, and strict adherence to the status quo, when his fundamental nature was rebelliousness. He replied his father had been a policeman, and he enjoyed the status and respect that policing gave him. “But the music, man, it’s where it’s at. When I perform, I am following my bliss,” he said.

His conflict struck sympathy. I too had comprised myself for the sake of family, security, and respectability. Had I known what I know now about myself, I am certain I would have made different choices. I see nearly all of my nephews and nieces having this same struggle. Being middle-class and immigrant families, we are driven by our parent’s need for a better life lived through their children. Our lives are suppose to justify their enormous sacrifices. All fine and noble but the problem is their sacrifices were for economic betterment. Their idea of success is defined by bourgeois  standards of respectability: nice house, luxury car, a sizable bank balance, all paid for with a high-status occupation. The health of the spirit, a deep contentment, the quest for meaning and purpose in life, these are all things for which they made no allowance. For many of us these are our primary motivators. For some of us suppressing these is akin to selling our souls.

I wonder if this conflict would be avoided if we were not asked to decide upon a career at age eighteen? We choose the subject we will study at university at an age when we do not understand who we are and what we want out of life. So many of us get it wrong. As we mature we feel deprived, despite material comforts. We might even have a mid-life crisis where, like Jordon, we change course and “follow our bliss.”

That phrase has entered the vernacular and people use the term without knowing its source. It was coined by the eminent professor Joseph Campbell as a summary of Vedanta, the foundation of Hindu thought which states that the Self, our true nature, the electricity of our body-mind machinery, is of the nature of being–awareness–bliss (sat-chit-ananda). He thought beingness and awareness were relatively abstract concepts for the average person to grasp, but everyone understands bliss. He advised his students that if they desired a life of fulfillment and purpose, then they had better find their bliss and pursue it without compromise.

Easier said than done. Mainly because bliss is also abstract to most people. It is usually mistaken for happiness, or for pleasure. Hence follow you bliss has come to mean do whatever makes you happy. In other words, a hedonistic, selfish way of life. That is not what Joseph Campbell meant, nor is that the essence of Vedanta.

Joesph Campbell gave that advice to students who were trying to choose careers. The phrase was very important to me when I was young because I too struggled to find an occupation that was fulfilling and productive. Part of discovering who you are in the human sense is discovering where you fit in, what is it that you do with ease. It requires finding activities which inspire you to perform is ways far exceeding your imagination. When I sculpt or paint or write, for example, time ceases. I forget myself. There is a grace pouring through my work. I find taking care of animals gives me this same feeling, as does taking care of the elderly and the homeless.

It took some trial and error but I believe I have found a group of activities where I shine without really trying. I believe that is what Joseph Campbell had meant. He stated to his students that if they discovered that inspiration, success would naturally follow.

This is counter-intuitive. We normally think if you work ‘hard’, put in efforts and perseverance, we will achieve success. But the more we try, the we sweat and plan, the further away is the success. The very act of ‘trying’ interferes with the natural flow and grace of the work. Rather than thinking about what I will get at the end of this activity or that work, I give attention only to the perfection in the moment. If the activity is done with a loving heart, an alert mind and attentive fingers, then the outpouring work itself is a thing of beauty. It is bound to be noticed. It is destined to be appreciated. Whereas hankering after that appreciation, that raise, that promotion, will hinder the beauty of the work.

Recently someone who knows me said to me that when I talked about the work I do with the homeless my face glows. He said I had a different light about me, almost as if I were a different person. It reminded me of a photograph I had seen of the movie star Audrey Hepburn taken near the end of her life. In her day she was renowned as a glamour icon, but in that picture she is more radiant than she was with all that movie make up and Hollywood lighting.

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