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The Joy of Rest

January 10, 2010

Rest is the original transformative technology.  Through rest we rebuild, rewire and renew ourselves – literally.

The process is fast.

The skin on your face is replaced in two weeks.  Gut lining cells take two days.   And that’s complete replacement.

Partial rebuilding is even faster. A recent article in the New York Times looked at autophagy, how cells internally recycle.  Heart cells may last fifty years,  but their subcellular  innards are functionally replaced in three days. Those proteins pumping away may last thirty or sixty minutes before they’re dumped, cut up and made into something else. In the ways  that matter you’re getting a new heart in three days – a process that takes place during rest.

So why does rest get so little respect? Why do people  resist getting enough sleep? Is it because a Calvinist culture thinks rest is laziness? Or is it that we don’t really know what rest does?

When I ask people what rest is, they say sleep or sitting in front of a television set – passive rest.  They have no idea that rest can and should be active, goal directed and conscious, rebuilding your body and your mind as you require.  There’s physical rest, mental rest, social rest, and spiritual rest, all of which can provide pleasure and joy throughout the day and night.

And for passive rest, there’s the magic of sleep.

Sleep as Music

Humans are profoundly rhythmic.  It’s a main way we communicate, through both language and music. It’s also a major way our cells understand each other. DNA’s codiscoverer  Francis Crick thought human consciousness began when brain cells fired together in unison, forty times a second.

Sleep is a large part of life’s music, but because we generally don’t recall what we do in sleep, we don’t think much happens.  Plenty happens.  If we did remember them, we might consider the different phases of sleep as whole new sets of consciousness.

In light sleep, the boundaries between consciousness and rest blur.  Many an airline pilot or train driver falls asleep and never knows it, until there’s an accident of the kind that happened to Arianna.  In deep sleep, we redo the acts and motions of the day, replaying our brain circuity with these reenactments.   In REM sleep, we lose temperature control, in that way becoming like infants while our brains soar with the creativity and power of dreams.

In sleep, we grow new brain cells.  In sleep we lay down and rewire memories.  No sleep, no new brain cells.

And our reworked brains are literally different when we wake up, sort of like those science fiction stories where people awaken each day a whole new person.  Every night we have rewired, rebuilt, reset, reconstructed, and redone our brains.

The process is fully musical.  It starts and stops to the rhythm of our 24 hour cycles, which also help control the ups and downs of our days.  We’re not machines.  Our computers and cars don’t care if it’s 4 PM or 4 AM – we do. And our alertness and pleasure, our capacities and worries, cycle throughout those 24 hours.

Because it’s as the Romans said, time rules life.  And other musical rhythms, ninety and sixty minutes, help run the changes wrought by sleep.

So is sleep all that it’s cracked up to be?

It’s more.  As with other parts of rest, it’s the invisible stuff that keeps everything going.  It’s like the white space in a Chinese painting, which represents water and air, the sides of mountains and the infinite beyond.  We may pay it little mind, but rest makes us who we are.

So sleep is great stuff. As Dr. Breus ably points out, we need sleep to control weight, for good looking skin, to be alert and awake.  We also need it to fight off infections, prevent coronary disease, make informed, intelligent decisions plus dozens of other things we haven’t yet figured out.

So thanks for the sleep challenge, Arianna.  With a national sleep debt rivaling the Federal Budget deficit, we need all the help we can get.  But the real challenge will be getting people to see that while sleep is critical to our memories, health, and function, it’s just one part of rest. Rest is the process by which we rebuild and remake ourselves every day. In its active physical, mental, social, and spiritual forms, it provides much of the joy of life.

Matters of Sleep Practice

How Much Sleep Do You Need?  The comments make clear people don’t know how much sleep they need to feel fully rested and alert. As Dr. Breus points out and every sleep doc knows, the amount varies tremendously from person to person. The variation is big, and much of it genetic.  Friends of mine do well on three hours of sleep, while others don’t function with less than ten.

What’s Wrong with Coffee?

Nothing.  We don’t want people to get rid of this wondrously useful substance which provides half the antioxidants Americans ingest.  You just want to use it at the right times, particularly in the mornings, when we wake up with cold brains (use a thermometer and you’ll see what I mean), as compared with our hotter, much more alert evening brains.

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