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Moderation, Obedience, and a Good Night’s Sleep

February 20, 2014

“Moderation in all things” was a guiding principle that the holy fathers would recommend in the life of the Christian (Saint John Chrysostom, On the Statues, 1). Virtue was a measured state, being neither too much, nor too little, but symmetrically situated right in the middle between two vices defined by extreme deficiency on the one hand and extreme excess on the other (Saint Gregory Nyssa, Homily on the Song of Songs, 15). From this patristic and Aristotelian vantage point, a good night sleep would be the golden mean, but too little sleep or too much sleep would represent the pernicious extremes that need to be shifted in one direction or the other. Interestingly, contemporary sleep scientists have defined the chief feature of insomnia in not so very different terms.

Insomnia, according to modern researchers, can be understood in terms of an excessively excited state known as hyper arousal. Alfonso Marino describes its relation to insomnia by noting that “Arousal regulates the balance between sleep and wakefulness. Therefore, when arousal is present, sleep may be inhibited. Different stimulus conditions can heighten emotional, physiological, and cognitive arousal of an individual above a critical threshold, causing it to interrupt the natural sequence of relaxation, drowsiness, and sleep onset (Morin, 1993). For example, after a few episodes of sleepless nights, a person may come to associate certain bedtime routines and bedroom surroundings as stimuli that cause worries, apprehension and fear of being unable to sleep. The amount of time that it takes for this conditioning process to develop varies from person to person.”

In other words, there are certain things we do and associate with certain places such as eating in a dining room, praying in a church, and sleeping in a bedroom. But we can make other associations or links that are much less healthy and can be just as powerful influences on our behavior. We might become used to snacking while watching TV and find it difficult not to reach out for potato chips after turning on the television; we might get used to having conversations during a worship service and find it difficult not to chat with our neighbor as soon as we arrive in church; and in the case of insomnia, we might get used to worrying at bedtime, and after a few sleepless nights find it difficult to go to sleep when we get in bed.

At the appointed time for sleep, thoughts, anxieties, worries, and physical restlessness can make it nearly impossible to relax into a gentle sleep, because they foster a state of hyper arousal that needs to be doubly calmed, passing through a state of moderate arousal, in order for someone to fall into a pleasant slumber. Marino describes this in his dissertation as follows: “Daily events or interpersonal conflicts that are frustrating or problematic may activate arousal for some individuals which is taken to the bedroom, and consequently prevents sleep. They may remain worked up at bedtime as they ruminate over the daily events, which then fuels arousal and amplifies the conditioning process (Morin, 1993).”

The fathers were aware of the conditioning process and its influence on the soul. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I mentioned Abba Dorotheos who observes that “‘The soul has one disposition when mounted on a horse, another when seated on an ass, yet another when installed on a throne, and another still when sitting on the ground” (Discourses, 2). Thus, one strategy in the battle for virtue involves learning to avoid situations conducive to sin and to seek out settings favorable to virtue.” Hence, making one’s surroundings conducive to sleep is important with respect to insomnia. That being said, it is also true that external factors that appear to burden us with cares and concerns are not the sole culprits for a sleepless night. We may also give our free assent to intrusive thoughts that in turn lead to hyper arousal. Elder Ephraim points out this fact in his book, My Elder Joseph the Hesychast, “But when a monk denies his own will and does the will of God through his elder, he lives happily. He becomes like a little child, like a spiritual infant, and he has no worries or cares, nor does he worry about his salvation. He feels so light that he feels a great peace within himself. He sleeps and wakes up calmly like a little child.” Childlike simplicity, cheerful humility, and a gentle acceptance of life provide the joyfully obedient servants of God with a measured calmness that makes falling asleep and waking up as easy as a small child’s smile.

Although few Christians live the carefree obedience to an Elder described by the Elder Ephraim, all Christians are called to live in obedience to the will of God as expressed in the gentle words of our Lord. And that obedience can also bear similar fruits of simplicity, humility, acceptance, and peace. As to concerns, worries, and problems of the day that can keep us up at night, the Lord calls out to us: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

Obedience to these words frees us from cares, frees us from trying to solve everything, and frees us to seek the one thing needful. These words can clothe us with humility and fill us with vitality. They cut us loose from the earth, so that we might spiritually soar towards the heavens during the day and physically rest in our Lord’s care at night. Many of the issues that lead to hyper arousal and inhibit sleep are beyond the scope of our control and rather belong to the providential love of our Father in heaven. Through obedience, through humility, and through the relinquishment of control over those things that in all actuality we can’t control anyway, we begin to cultivate peace and serenity. And in so doing, we will begin to set in place the necessary and natural preconditions for rest and restorative sleep.

From → Insomnia

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