Sleep! One of the Most Important Ingredients to Getting Along Well With Others

Henry can doze sitting up.

This time of year is particularly stressful for everyone, even those folks who are not celebrating a holiday.  It’s hard to avoid the just general heightened stress that is in the air.  It becomes a little bit harder to muster up the patience needed to deal with difficult or extra needy people.

Sleep is probably the one thing you can do that will help you the most holistically.  It effects your physical and mental health.  Poor sleep whether from sleep disorders or just not getting enough sleep because you’re up reading too late (you know who you are!) effects us deeply into the far reaching corners of our health.  It effects our ability to think.  It effects our immune system.  It effects our mood.  It effects our ability to react quickly.  It effects our motor skills.  It effects our ability to remember.  We all know how much shaving a few hours of sleep here and there effects our ability to be patient and nice.  We joke about it actually.  But what about the non laughable effects it has on our mental health?

In doing the research for this post, I was actually astonished by the following quote in New Scientist (February 21, 2009):

Adults with depression, for instance, are five times as likely as the average person to have difficulty breathing when asleep, while between a quarter and a half of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suffer from sleep complaints, compared with just 7 per cent of other children.

They are now starting to rethink the “poor sleep as a symptom of mental illness” and flip it to a theory that just maybe, poor sleep causes mental illness.

Matt Walker, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkley and his colleagues conducted a study to find out just why people become irritable when they get a poor night’s sleep.  What they discovered is that the part of our brain that basically inhibits us from highly emotional reactions to encountering things we don’t like is not communicating properly.  According to Walker, when we are deprived of good sleep our “emotional brake” is not working.  He suggests if you are feeling emotional or irritable that you try to take a nap.  After taking a 90 minute nap where they reached REM sleep, his previously irritable study participants were not only less irritable; but, they also became more receptive to happy faces.

We know, innately, as living, breathing humans that if we don’t sleep well we become grouchier and short tempered.  We already know this.  But how do we change our poor sleep habits?  In stressful times, we probably need MORE sleep than normal.

It seems that the experts agree on the following.

1.  Set regular sleep hours.  Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day.

2.  Relax in the time leading up to your bedtime.  A warm bath, a glass of warm milk or sleepy tea can help you start to feel more relaxed and ready for bed.  There are a couple of things you probably shouldn’t be doing right before bed: exercise and talking on a cell phone.  While exercise is important to good sleep (see below), it takes time for your body to wind down after exercising and you should refrain in the 3 hours leading up to your bedtime.  Researchers in Switzerland have have linked  long phone conversations on cell phones to disturbed sleep.  While more research needs to be done in this area, if you have disturbed sleep and are yakking on your cell phone leading up to bed, you might want to try to avoid phone calls.  Minimize stressful conversations, reading, TV and projects.

3. Cut way back on caffeine.  You know if caffeine keeps you up at night.  Some people can fall asleep minutes after having a cup of coffee.  I need to stop drinking caffeine by mid afternoon.

4.  Exercise.  Getting into a regular routine of exercise in the morning or afternoon will not only help you fall asleep faster; but, researchers have discovered that regular exercise helps people reach deeper sleep for longer periods of time.

5.  Prepare your sleep environment.  Make sure you have a comfortable bed.  Reduce noise and light as much as possible.  Lower the temperature.  Sleep specialists also suggest that you only use your bed for sleeping and sex.  If you are watching television, working on projects, talking on the phone, typing on your laptop while your in bed, your body is not programmed to think “sleep” as soon as you climb in.

6.  Honor the need to sleep.  I love this one because it’s really about taking care of yourself and making sleep a priority.  I’m as guilty as the next person for shaving sleep here and there; but, I feel the consequences so immediately and so severely because of the brain injury I sustained in 2005 that it is always a “wake up call” no pun intended!  I have a brain that does not play along when I stay up late reading The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti (it’s sooo good!).  I am acutely aware of my deficits the next day.  Many of my friends exercise and eat really well; yet, they are quick to stay up late watching television or surfing the web and just compensate the next day with more caffeine.  But, if you take anything from this post, it should be that getting more sleep is probably one of the easiest and most impactful adjustments you can make for your health and mood.

If it seems that you are doing everything right and still need caffeine and still feel tired, go talk to your doctor.  Sleep disorders effect millions of Americans.

I suggest a nap.  If in doubt, nap.  I may not post until after the New Year; so, if I don’t,  I wish you all a pleasant holiday season (whatever holidays you celebrate) and plenty of opportunities to catch some cat naps.  Sleep well.

UPDATE JAN 04, 2010:  I ran across this Huffington Post article and am going to take the challenge myself: 30 days of good rest.  I’m tempted to say I’ll start tomorrow (insert guilty laugh here); but, I will start tonight.  How about you?  Can you get 30 continuous days of good rest?


Rizzo, Terrie Heinrich. “Sleep matters: learn smart strategies to make sure your body gets the zzzzzs it needs.” IDEA Fitness Journal 4.5 (2007): 102+. General Reference Center Gold. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <;.

“10 keys to a great night’s sleep: sleeping better can increase your physical and mental performance, put you in a better mood, and perhaps even boost your immune system.” Women’s Health Advisor 11.6 (2007): 4+. General Reference Center Gold. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <;.

Young, Emma. “Sleep well, stay sane: could our bad sleeping habits be driving us mad?” New Scientist 201.2696 (2009): 34+. General Reference Center Gold. Web. 18 Dec. 2009. <;.

Possibility of Kindness: Tricycle and Sharon Salzberg

I receive Tricyle Magazine’s Daily Dharma in my e-mail every day.  They are almost always thought provoking or act as little reminders ; but, occasionally they resonate deeply with me.  Today was one of those days.

We must realize, if tomorrow is going to look any better than today, that the currency for compassion isn’t what someone else does, right or wrong—it is the very fact that that person exists. Commitment to the possibility of kindness cannot be discarded as foolish or irrelevant, even in troubling times when we often can’t find easy answers. If we abandon the force of kindness as we confront cruelty, we won’t learn anything to take into tomorrow—not from history, not from one another, not from life.

– Sharon Salzberg, The Force of Kindness

I urge you to read just one sentence and take time to think about it before moving on to the next.

We must realize, if tomorrow is going to look any better than today, that the currency for compassion isn’t what someone else does, right or wrong—it is the very fact that that person exists.

This line is so powerful because our first instinct is usually to parcel out our compassion based on another person’s actions.  I recently had a discussion about Rush Limbaugh, where I said that I didn’t like his rhetoric and I believed that he was an incredibly irresponsible and possibly dangerous person; but, that I had compassion for him and the person I was talking to asked me how I could have compassion for a man like him.  I thought “because he is suffering.”  He is a human being sharing our planet and as much as I disagree with his behaviors, I truly do not wish him any suffering.  It does not benefit me or anyone else for him to experience suffering.

Commitment to the possibility of kindness cannot be discarded as foolish or irrelevant, even in troubling times when we often can’t find easy answers.

Kindness and compassion can’t just be trotted out in good times with good and happy people.  Our greatest challenge is to remain committed to being kind and compassionate when it is most difficult to do so.  On a small level this might be extending kindness and compassion to a coworker who is particularly difficult or unpleasant and on a large scale it is maintaining these commitments during war or when under great emotional and/or physical siege.  I heard the Dalai Lama speak in Minneapolis several years ago and he told the audience that one of his dearest friends, a Buddhist monk was finally released from a Chinese prison and he went to India to join a community of Tibetan exiles.  While out gardening with him one day, The Dalai Lama asked him what his greatest fear had been and he said that his greatest fear had been that he would lose compassion for the Chinese.

If we abandon the force of kindness as we confront cruelty, we won’t learn anything to take into tomorrow—not from history, not from one another, not from life.

This is a beautiful reminder that it is in our hands to break the cycle of violence and suffering in the world.  Years ago I saw an episode of Oprah, yes…Oprah.  She had a Jewish couple on who had been harassed and harassed by a white supremacist.  Instead of using anger and hatred to fight this man, they used love and when they found out that he needed help, they helped him and the cycle of hate was broken.

I joined Tricycle as a sustaining member so that I can go back and read from the archives and now, participate in their “online retreats.”  As a sampler, right now, for free they have the first installment of Sharon Salzberg’s audio teachings on kindness.  You don’t have to be Buddhist or even a believer in any religion or spiritual practice to learn important lessons about cultivating compassion and kindness from this gifted teacher.   There is a new book out called, Good Without God that talks about how we as humans have potential for goodness and can lead lives of purpose and compassion without belief in God or a higher being.

I tend to lean on Buddhist teaching because they speak to me; but, cultivating kindness and compassion is not exclusive to Buddhism or any other religion, or religion at all.  Find a way to cultivate kindness in yourself in the way that feels right to you.

Empty Boat and the Key to Less Suffering

photo: shutterbabe510 on Flickr Creative Commons

Suppose we are out on a lake and it’s a bit foggy – not too foggy, but a bit foggy- and we’re rowing along in our little boat having a good time.  And then, all of a sudden, coming out of the fog, there’s this other rowboat and it’s heading right at us.  And… crash!  Well, for a second we’re really angry – what is that fool doing?  I just painted my boat!  And here he comes – crash! – right into it.  An then suddenly we notice that the rowboat is empty.  What happens to our anger?  Well, the anger collapses. . . I’ll just have to paint my boat again, that’s all.  But if that rowboat that hit ours had another person it it how would we react?  You know what would happen!  Now our encounters with life, with other people, with events are like being bumped by an empty rowboat.  But we don’t experience life that way.  We experience it as though there are people in that other rowboat and we’re really getting clobbered by them.  What am I talking about when I say that all of life is an encounter, a collision with an empty rowboat?  What’s that all about?

from Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck (pg. 57 of the 1989 trade paper edition).

I like to say that this is the story that changed my life.  It is one paragraph long in a book that is 212 pages.  I never even finished the whole book.  I read, maybe 50 pages beyond what I now call “the empty boat” story.  I’m sure the second half of the book is just as wonderful as the first half; but, the empty boat story so resonated with me that I basically just stopped reading.

Rereading the empty boat story now after so many years is odd because it’s just such a small story and since then I have read many other profound passages in numerous other books, including The Dhammapada which quickly became one of my favorites.  But it is the this story, in Joko Beck’s book that flipped a switch in me and I never looked back.

This story shone a very bright light onto my life and I realized that I had absolutely been living my life as if there was a person in the other boat.  In fact, I may have been living it as if there were a few people in the other boat.  All this anger and worrying about what other folks were doing in their boat caused me a mountain of suffering.  This was especially true on the road while I was driving.  I would frequently get angry at other drivers.  In my teens and early twenties, I was known to end an argument with a door slam.  Looking back, I can see that most of this suffering was caused by my lack of compassion for others.

I don’t know why it was the empty boat story that struck a nerve in me.  Right place right time?  I don’t want to mislead you.  I didn’t change over night.  And I’m far from perfect now.  But, I started using the empty boat story to alter my reactions to things.  Get cut off on the highway, instead of yelling and stewing over it, I would literally say “empty boat, empty boat, empty boat, empty boat.”  It became my mantra.  I got my partner at the time, Kate, to start saying it.  We would say it to each other.  One of us would come home from work and tell a story about an annoying person and we would be getting all worked up and the other person would just say: empty boat.  We helped train each other to change our thinking.

After some time passed, and by time I mean a couple of years, I started to notice that it was becoming automatic and that I was developing empathy without even realizing that was what I was doing.  All of this happened about 14 years ago and I still sometimes use the empty boat mantra; but, I don’t need it as much as I used to.  I let things go more quickly now.

I sometimes wonder what life would be like today had I not discovered the empty boat.  In 2005/2006, I experienced a crazy, life altering accident and my partnership with Kate ended after 18 years together.  That is kind of a lot to process in a such a short time span and throw in a brain injury and sometimes I’m amazed I’m here: healed, forgiving, experiencing compassion for Kate and her experiences and for the man that hit me.   The empty boat sparked a practice and a lifestyle change that has served me well, helped me be resilient during and after traumatic events and just generally made it easier for me to have fun and find joy in life.

What does any of this have to do with libraries?  Well, everything of course.  I’m my best at my job and in my life, when I am kind, empathetic, patient, compassionate and generous.   And the icing is that all of this also brings a deeper happiness to me.  There have been numerous studies showing that people who are altruistic are happier, people who have more compassion for others are happier and that people find happiness in being kind and helpful.

I don’t know that the empty boat story is for everyone; but, if it doesn’t resonate with you, go find your own empty boat story.  Figure out the best way for you to reduce the stress, anger and suffering in your life.  You will be happier and your impact on those around you will be more positive.  And that is clearly:  win/win.