Doesn’t it feel good to get a really good night’s sleep? You know, the kind of sleep where we wake up feeling warm, rested, and ready for a new day?
Researchers have spent decades studying sleep and they can tell us all kinds of things about it—from the speed of our brain waves during different stages of sleep to how many calories we use while we’re in a dream state. We know interesting facts about the sleeping habits of all kinds of organisms, small and large. I was fascinated to learn a few years ago that trees actually sleep as well, and I’m convinced I can see a slight slumbering droop to the branches of the trees behind my house when I take Gloria outside late at night.
But in spite of all we do know about sleep—including the very real fact that we truly need sleep in order to live—researchers still don’t know why we need it. But all living things—including networks of neurons grown in lab petri dishes—have been found to have periods of activity and inactivity, wakefulness and sleep. It seems to be a common trait among all living beings. And interestingly enough, some studies have indicated that the need to rest and reset may have something to do with the way we form relationships, or networks, with one another. It makes me wonder whether God is doing something subtle there with the code of life’s biology—gathering all life together in a peaceful state of rest, repairing the breaches our egos forge during the day.
But, mystical wonderings aside, researchers offer several theories about what our brains are doing when we sleep. Some offer that the brain is restoring its own energy, rebuilding its reserves, regenerating what it needs to launch us into another day. Others suggest that the brain may be ridding itself of toxins as we sleep, clearing away the detritus and cleansing itself for another day’s optimum processing. One article I read likened this function to running our brains through a dishwashing cycle as we sleep.
The most recent theory—one many scientists are currently exploring–has to do with the brain’s connectivity and plasticity—the way we learn and adapt and change all through our lives. This idea suggests that the brain finely processes the experiences and ideas of our day while we sleep, categorizing and filing away into their appropriate places the new things we learned and the experience we had. While we are awake, it seems, we are busy doing the living. So our time of sleep sorts and organizes what we gathered. Appropriate connections are made between these millions of bits of information, which helps us remember and later make use of what we learned in those lived moments.
Testing these theories against my own experience of sleep—and I’ve been sleeping quite regularly for a long time so I consider myself something of an expert–I can find some evidence of each approach. Plus I would add one of my own. In my life, after a busy and full day with lots of patient visits, meetings, charting, and dog antics, my brain can definitely feel weary and low on energy by the time bedtime rolls around. By contrast, when I wake in the morning, I typically feel refreshed, renewed, reset, as though my mental batteries have been recharged. That supports scientists’ first theory that sleep helps us restore our depleted energy.
I also sometimes have off days when things just haven’t gone well and I am out of sorts. In addition to prayer or meditation, or maybe yoga and a hot bath, one of my solutions for a crummy day is going to bed early. Why? Because I know when I wake up in the morning, whatever caused my iritability will be gone and I’ll be ready to start again. That supports theory two, that the brain gets washed clean during our sleep, letting go of toxins and things that aren’t helpful. It’s the dishwasher effect.
It also often happens that I’ve thinking about some question or issue during the day—like how to approach a particular project at work—and after I sleep on it, I wake up with a complete picture of how it all goes together in my mind. It reminds me of the Grimm’s fairy tale, “The Elves and the Shoemaker”—the poor, tired shoemaker gives up and goes to bed and during the night three elves come and make all the shoes he needs, and then some, solving his problem and restoring his hope. For us, it’s as though letting go of something we’re struggling with for a while makes way for the right answer to bubble up from a more restful state. Which supports theory three—that our brains are processing and categorizing and helping us learn and grow while we sleep.
This points toward the fourth theory I would suggest—that sleep enables me to take a break from the ego-based, personal “me” I’ve been all day, the one who has opinions about everything and makes plans and is motivated by hopes and fears. In sleep I get a chance to let it all go and return to the sweet peace of spirit after the cycle of an active day. I can let loose of the reins of my life for a while and trust that during that time of rest, I may float a bit closer to God, maybe reconnecting with the pure soul God knows and created me to be.
It would be a wonderful thing if we could preserve that kind of attuned connection with God all through our waking days. Life would surely feel different, characterized by ease and peace instead of worry and alarm and striving. This is what the psalmist was saying in the passage we heard. Maybe that was even his prayer, first thing upon waking: “Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.”
The psalmist wants to hold on throughout his day to what he knows to be the true reality of his life: God is his source, God is his guide, God is his companion.
In the early 1600s, Thomas Blake, an English clergyman and contemporary of George Fox wrote this simple but powerful poem:
Every morning lean your arms awhile
upon the windowsill of heaven
and gaze upon the Lord.
Then with the vision in your heart,
turn strong to meet your day.
If you’re a morning person—or even if you’re not—you no doubt have an image of beauty in your head when you think about what you might see when you lean your arms awhile on the windowsill of heaven and gaze out upon the Lord. We probably each have our own images. Maybe it is a sunrise of gold and crimson. Or stars shining brightly in a clear, cold sky. Perhaps the paradise you see is a scene of perfect peace, where the truth of God’s eternal, all-encompassing goodness shines away any residue of doubts or concerns that once troubled your mind.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a transcendentalist author and philosopher who wrote essays and poems that often were about freedom, growth, and the life of the soul. In one essay, he wrote, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” And in a letter to his daughter Ellen in 1854, he shared this fatherly advice about the value of living a good day:
“He (or she) is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety. Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This new day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on yesterdays.”
In his book, Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, author, psychologist, and mindfulness teacher Dr. Mark Epstein suggests that the part of us that gets worried, tied in knots, upset, and creates drama in our day isn’t an enemy to be defeated but a helper that simply needs direction. Epstein offers that many approaches to psychology and faith suggest that the ego is bad and must be overcome or somehow dissolved. He offers a different way, inviting us to understand our egos so we can help them do what they do well and keep them in balance so they won’t overtake our lives—thus robbing us of peace and joy, and creating all kinds of anxiety and conflict.
Our egos are the parts of us that get triggered and send us into fight or flight mode when we perceive some kind of threat in our lives or in our world. Our egos get inflated and hurt, feel entitled and upset. Our egos—James might call it “earthly wisdom”—are all about our survival and success during our waking hours. Dr. Epstein says our egos do four very important things for us:
- They help us navigate the world, getting from here to there
- They regulate our instincts, so we have some way to manage our desires and interests
- They meditate conflicting demands of self and others, helping us learn how to set boundaries, and
- They exercise our brain’s executive function, helping us make good decisions, short- and long-term
In other words, the ego creates this container of self that does what it does all day long, carrying the story of our lives, interacting with others, making plans and carrying them out. But those of us who have learned to wait in the silence, who are open to the mystery of God’s presence, know that’s not all there is to us. The silent, inner life—the sweet soul at the center of our being that is always in contact with God—that is where the true source of our life arises and leads. That eternal aspect of “us” isn’t constrained or controlled by the ego of our waking life. This is what the Psalmist knew. And this is what we try to hold on to and share—again and again—through our days. And it is—perhaps–what we return to when we sleep.
James talked about these two different perspectives in the New Testament passage we heard today. He described bitter envy and selfish ambition, boastfulness and dishonesty as kind of “earthly, unspiritual” wisdom. That type of presence in the world is the work of the ego alone, the ego telling us we’re the center of the universe, entitled to security and success by whatever means we can get it. Trapped in the ego without the balance and truth of our spiritual lives, this approach shows no concern for others, no awareness of needs beyond one’s own. In contrast, though, the higher wisdom from God is, James says, “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” This is the part of us that is transcendent—the pure soul God knows that takes the time each morning to rest a while on the windowsill of heaven. A true vision of life—life beyond the worries and stresses of the day—awaits us there and will guide our steps in our waking life if we let it.
Interesting research done recently on the nature of awe reveals that it is a feeling we have regularly that lifts us above our everyday, burdened, ego-based selves and reconnects us with something. I think of it as a kind of escalator that can carry us up and out of the realm of what James might call, “earthly thinking.” We have each felt a sense of awe at one time or another—perhaps looking over a stunning landscape, or standing in a holy place, or feeling moved by a beautiful piece of music. Our hearts open, our breathing slows, our bodies relax a bit. In a ground-breaking study on the nature of awe, participants used common phrases to describe what they were feeling when they felt awe. The phrases included:
- “Feeling small, insignificant…”
- “The presence of something greater than myself…”
- “I was unaware of day-to-day concerns…”
- “Felt connected with the world around me…”
- “Didn’t want the experience to end.”
Over time, researchers found that people who experience awe regularly change in significant and positive ways. They become less self-focused, less greedy. They aren’t as interested in material things. They become more aware of the needs of others, more humble.
In a 2015 New York Times article, the researchers offered a summary of what they’d learned after many years of studying awe:
“Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.”
James might refer to this as making sure we are tuning our lives to the pure, peaceable, merciful wisdom of God rather than the “earthly wisdom” of our confused and often conflicted egos. Perhaps—whether we get a good night’s sleep or not—our first priority each new day could be to remember to welcome God into it, to lean on the windowsill of heaven awhile as the sun of possibility begins to shine. Our hearts will respond with awe—awe to see God’s work of love and beauty unfolding in our world, and awe in realizing that we are cared for so tenderly, we never take a step alone.
- OT Psalm 143: 8
- NT James 3: 13-18
- Ralph Waldo Emerson: [https://quoteinvestigator.com/2018/12/19/finish-day/]
- Epstein, Mark. Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself: https://www.amazon.com/Advice-Not-Given-Getting-Yourself/dp/0399564322
- New York Times. Why Do We Experience Awe? https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/opinion/sunday/why-do-we-experience-awe.html