Once every few weeks, or so it seems, there’s another article in the newspaper about sleep. Each new article, based on the latest (scientific or otherwise) survey tells us whether we should be getting more sleep, or less sleep; offers advice on getting better sleep, or how to live with less sleep. Sleep is one of those subjects that, despite years of human progress, we’re not entirely comfortable with. We obviously understand on a rational level that there is a need for the body to refresh itself, that sleep is essential for memory processing; and we see the rest of the animal kingdom doing it; but somehow it doesn’t seem right that we spend so much of our time on this planet asleep. It’s almost as if we think that life is what happens to us when we’re awake and that sleeping, because we’re not conscious at the time, is not part of living. These newspaper articles often tell us that the average person spends thirty years of their life asleep; and when we mentally add up how much time we also spend waiting at red traffic lights, queuing at supermarket checkouts, and watching TV, it leaves precious little left. No wonder we feel the urge to spend as much time as possible at the office.
The always-on nature of today’s society adds another burden. Many people manage to exist just under the threshold of burnout. Life is one long treadmill of constant pressure: pressure to earn money, maintain a status, and answer emails, post blogs and tweet tweets. We have come to value output over outcome, to prioritise productivity over presence, and work over everything else. Superhero CEOs, it seems, never sleep, saying that there’s plenty of time for sleeping when you’re dead (clearly they haven’t read Dante’s Inferno as they’re likely to have to spend eternity pushing heavy weights around in circles). These non-sleeping work machines see themselves as highly productive and highly efficient. The truth is that, more than likely, they’re neither. Sleep is essential for recuperating. It’s needed to allow us re-evaluate and re-set our priorities. If we do sleep on things they invariably seem different in the morning.
But between sleep and awake there are many other different states. One of these half-way points is rest. It seems to me that not only are we in danger of losing sight of the importance of sleep but we’re doing the same to rest. Nowadays holidays are seen as being more of an opportunity for a change of scenery than of providing the chance to rest and refresh. And now that the whole of one’s life is managed through an electronic device there really is no respite. We may kid ourselves that we’re not “working” when we’re on holiday or at the weekend, but with so much of our time consumed answering emails, posting updates, and following social media we might as well stay in the office. The brain, after all, can’t distinguish between business and personal emails: as far as it’s concerned they’re both the same and they certainly require the same amount of energy to process information.
The need for rest was brought home starkly to me recently. I had a minor, unscheduled operation. Foolishly I thought that the operation was the end of the matter and that I’d be up and running within a day. Well it wasn’t quite like that. It seems that the operation actually marked the beginning of the process and what was now required was rest to allow the body to heal itself. Resting was far harder than I’d imagined. It’s not the same as sleep, obviously, nor relaxation. It’s not the same as meditation or mindfulness; and neither is it idleness or day-dreaming. It actually involves stopping. And that means not reading or watching TV. It’s not easy and takes a while to get the hang of. There is actually a moment between sleep and conscious attention where the mind can drift, allowing the body to do what’s necessary without interference from the ego. Free from distractions and left to its own devices, the body naturally uses rest to rejuvenate.
Too many of us live lives that are either on or off; we’re either awake or asleep. When awake we’re either working or not working but still bombarding our brains with information from our TVs, phones and computers that all needs to be codified and dealt with. Just as multi-tasking is a myth, so is relaxing through activity. Deep down we all know that, occasionally, we all need to switch off. To really switch off. Not just go and watch football or go on holiday. And we know that when we truly rest we emerge more productive, happier, and better able to face our challenges. As Ovid put it an awfully long time ago: “Take rest: a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop”.