By Ken Trethewey, May 2023
Sleep is one of life’s most precious commodities. To some, it is as plentiful as oil to an Arab; to others it is as rare as a topaz to a tramp. In neither case can it be traded. Like a fine wine, sleep is most appreciated with age. Young people have a surfeit of sleep yet appreciate it least. To those of more senior years, sleep is unattainable. When you lose the ability to sleep you are a lost soul, a penniless vagrant, a homeless gypsy, a sick hospital patient, a mute.
Yet what could be more natural than sleep? Most people need to sleep for about a third of their lifetime. We are all experts in sleep. When I sleep my brain enters a new mode and my vital systems go into standby. My brain does not shutdown entirely, for it continues to function in a passive mode that keeps my heart pumping and my vital systems operating at a low level. Lungs, pancreas, kidneys, liver, intestines, bladder too! All procedures run like a TV news channel, 24/7 with regular repetition. However, my consciousness shuts down and takes on a new function. It’s a guest within me, an alter ego, a foreign presence that is both private and unpredictable. Sometimes it leaves without paying the bill. The laws of physics are suspended during sleep when anything is possible. To be wished “Sweet Dreams” is to confer Utopia on the beneficiary, to confound the likely state of a normal brain. For to be sweet a dream should conform to normality, yet most do not. The benefits of youth are manifest as ambitions, as ideals, as hopes. The young might dream of making it big - in business, in wealth, with the opposite sex. As we grow older, perspectives change like fashion and with irreversibility. It is the trials and tribulations of an ever-lengthening life experience that dominate dreams. Life’s frustrations and failures surface in dreams. What might I have done? What did I do wrong? How can I make this happen? These themes appear in dreams repeatedly, turning up like unwelcome relatives at Christmas.
Without sleep I am ruined. My brain becomes poisoned as inexorably as global warming. I need sleep as desperately as an orphan needs a home. Only sleep can dissipate the toxins and restore my humanity. For when sleep fails me, life becomes troublesome at first and Hell at last.
On a good night, the bed feels serenely calm, silky smooth sheets and the closing of eyes is a free ticket to a world of bliss and escape. But on a bad night, it is like trying to sleep in the house of Bedlam where the inmates are cacophonous, and their guardians are callous. On nights like this, to consider sleep is to desire the finest wine in the murkiest gutter.
I will try anything to help me sleep. Counting sheep takes many forms. It may become an exercise in set theory. US presidents, American states, football grounds I have visited, and many more groups of personal favourites. Family history, cars I have owned. Surely sheer boredom will shut my brain down and let me sleep? The finite may work, but what if it doesn’t? A full house of group members gives me momentary satisfaction but may yet still remain unconsummated with that vital function of sleep. Next, I must try an infinite set that is an altogether more desirable commodity. Integers in my life work well when coupled to visual images. They can never run out and must surely work soon!
In the end it is a fight to the death, a battle with my brain. I must trick it into submission. I must fight its cunning distraction tactics. My quest for sequences and sets becomes hi-jacked by my sense of duty in life. Just as I reach Theodore Roosevelt, my brain interjects involuntarily. What needs to be done tomorrow? What did I fail to do today? How can I set things right? What if it all goes wrong?
Often, I need to adopt new schemes and strategies. It is not enough for me to be horizontal, left side of the bed, optimally covered, itch free, good pillow shape, back supported, dent in mattress, fresh mouth, hydrated but empty bladdered, caffeine free, statin dosed, curtains closed, door shut, car garaged, gates locked, wood burner safe, gas stove off, house lights out, home secured, alarm clock set, burglar alarm triggered, gum protector shield in, quiet, well ventilated, pain free, cat out, wife kissed. Not to mention dark! I think it spiteful that I can’t sleep when it’s dark, yet I nod off with ease during the day. Light penetrates eyelids. At night, it is not even enough to close my eyes, to stop my brain from continued, unabated, unchallenged, problem-solving. It simply continues: anticipating difficulties, casting doubt on our decisions.
It was many years before I realised that I was like a cat with inner eyelids. As an expert sleeper completing nearly seventy years of apprenticeship, I finally learned something new about sleep. At first, I close my eyes, but I still see light, as though peeping through net curtains. Then one day I found that I have a second pair of shutters inside the first. I consciously relax and pull down my complete blackouts. The world becomes truly dark and my brain senses a downshift of gears. Suddenly sleep becomes more possible. No longer need I wrestle it like some impossibly big sumo matched with me through the long hours of darkness. In my new-found condition I can anticipate sleep and look for that door at the end of a tunnel to another world. And beyond the door I shall surely find my regular subconscious world where I am back in naval uniform but without trousers, serving well past my due retirement date, whilst attempting to teach eager engineering students as I try to remember where I parked my TR6 and whether it still has wheels. In this alien home-from-home I am walking the longest route around Dartmouth harbour, and a never-ending University campus, and hoping the toilets are open.
How To Get To Sleep So, in case you missed it, here is my personal method for getting to sleep. I should say at this point that I have never studied yoga or meditation of any kind. These are my own personal observations and it may be that there is commonality with other well-known methods of thought control. I’m sorry but my method doesn’t work all of the time, but it’s the best I have found in more than 70 years. Like most things, it does need practice.
Get yourself into a perfectly relaxed position, on your back, preferably in or on a bed, or in your favourite chair. Don’t cross your legs or fold your arms. Pretend to be dead! (But don’t die!) The aim is to become unaware of your body. You must not twitch or move your limbs or scratch or in anyway have something going on with your body to distract you. It doesn't have to be a dark room - all that is necessary is that you desire to sleep.
When you are completely at ease, Simply close your eyes. Unless the room is entirely dark, you should notice that your world does not become completely black. You see nothing, of course, but you can move your eyes around in just the same way as if your eyelids were open. However, as your eyes continue to look forward, depending on the light levels of your surroundings, your world may be in twilight rather than total darkness, and your brain continues with its machinations.
This is how many people get to sleep ordinarily - they make themselves comfortable and close their eyes thinking that that is all that is necessary. Sure - it works much of the time, but when you are having trouble contacting Morpheus, I believe this is not a state that encourages sleep because your mind is still active, working through all the many things that concern you and that conspire to keep you awake. We need somehow to turn off our brains. Counting sheep is the same as counting anything else - we are relying on boredom to kick in. But many of us know how unreliable that is.
My model is to convince yourself that, like a cat, you have an inner pair of eyelids. You will need to practice this a little, but you should be able to close those inner eyelids. Concentrate on looking down, as if into a deep, dark valley.
It is a bit like being able to wiggle your ear. We all have the ability to do it, but many of us have not learned how to. It is the same with these inner eyelids. Some of us will learn it quickly and wonder why we didn’t notice it before. Others will take time to learn the technique. When you have closed them, your world becomes properly dark. If your brain is so active that you simply cannot stop it, then you may need to wait until you have calmed it down.
Once you have experienced closing your inner lids and entering a new dark world your brain stops functioning at its usual conscious level. You will be aware that your brain is still giving you thoughts and images, but now you have no control over them. Everything is random. If you begin to feel in control of your brain and that your are having conscious thoughts and ideas, then you will realise that your world is no longer black, and that your inner eyelids are open. You need to keep trying to close them again. Look down, into that dark abyss...
This is the entire secret.
By closing your inner eyelids, you can move your brain into a lower gear in which you are no longer in control of those thoughts, which will keep you awake. Even when you have learned how to close your inner eyelids, you may find that you keep returning to full consciousness again, so don’t give up – just keep relaxed and repeat the process, and perhaps after a few attempts, you will find that your brain quietens down; you can hold onto your low level mental state for longer and longer, and soon you are asleep. When you have learned this technique, you will find that you can go to sleep within 5 to 10 minutes.