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The Spiritual Practice of Sleeping

Sleep and I have a love-hate relationship.

I battled insomnia for most of my childhood and adolescence.  In grad school I slowly began to settle into a routine of sleeping 5-6 hours each night.  When I graduated and found myself sleeping 6-7 hours on a regular basis, I thought I had arrived at a normal sleeping pattern.

Then I discovered I actually need more like 10 hours of sleep per night, which means every night I sleep 7 hours, I wake up sleep-deprived.  So over the course of the Lenten season, I put real effort into sleeping 10 hours every night.

Here’s what I learned about the spiritual practice of sleeping over the past 40 days:

  1. New habits do not form overnight.
  2. I am allowed to be imperfect, fail, and fall short of my goals.
  3. Sleep is good for my body.
  4. I’ve never actually slept enough in my whole life.
  5. Listening to my body is hard work, and I often miss the first two or three messages.
  6. When I listen to my body and do what it says, I actually feel better, healthier, and more awake.
  7. When I don’t listen to my body, we both suffer.
  8. I’m not as young as I used to be.  Wow. That makes me feel old.
  9. Getting enough sleep improves my mental and physical energy, my digestion, my attitude, and my motivation to enjoy daily activities.
  10. Not getting enough sleep makes me grouchy and lethargic.
  11. I am allowed to prioritize my need for a good night’s sleep above being available for work opportunities or hanging out with my hubby.
  12. I am still way more likely to prioritize being available for work or hanging out with my hubby above getting a full 10 hours of sleep every night.
  13. How I treat my body, and what I do with it, affects my spiritual life.
  14. This spiritual practice of listening to my body is hard work.

Now that Lent is over, I’m tempted to fall back into my old habits of forcing my body to live and do as I say without regard for what is healthy.  Learning to listen is an ongoing lesson.  I’m slowly realizing that when I disregard what my body says, I suffer. But when I do listen, I am able to achieve more health, wholeness, and balance in my life.

I can’t expect to find healthy balance in work or relationships if I am unwilling to first achieve balance within myself–body, mind, and spirit.  It is up to me to choose my priorities, to choose self-care, to choose to listen to my body and follow through on what is necessary to be a healthy, whole person.

In this season of life, how is God calling you to find health, wholeness, and balance?

My Body Is Rebelling

I ignore my body.

This can be attributed in part to my nature as an introvert.  I spend a lot of my time alone, thinking and reading, journaling and praying.  I live in my head. I process internally.

In my 28 years, I have at various times deprived my body of food, sleep, human touch, rest, and exercise. I have pressed my body into service to accommodate my intellectual pursuits.  While I lived in my head, my body suffered and struggled and learned to carry on.

Now, my body is rebelling.

I’ve begun to feel like an old person with a worn-out, falling-apart body that won’t listen to me at all when I tell it to stop being silly and behave like it should.  After years of being ignored, my body has gotten fed up.  As I continued to ignore it, my body increased its volume until its (her?) cries have become deafening.

Here’s what my body is yelling:

  • I’m tired from the many, many years you would not let me sleep until I felt rested!
  • My shoulder hurts from that car accident we had in 8th grade that you never finished doing the physical therapy exercises for!
  • My back hurts from the scoliosis you never stopped to notice until it got so bad we ended up with a slipped disc and sciatica!
  • I’m tired from the many, many years you would not let me sleep until I felt rested!
  • Various portions of my digestive system hurt from all the times you forget to eat or don’t put the energy into preparing a properly balanced meal!
  • My wrists hurt from that pinched nerve we get in the neck every time you try to carry emotional burdens that aren’t yours to bear!
  • My jaw hurts from all that teeth-grinding you do at night when you stay up worrying and over-analyzing instead of letting me rest!
  • My eyes hurt in bright light from all the times you were too busy to stop and buy sunglasses to provide adequate protection!
  • I’m tired from the many, many years you would not let me sleep until I felt rested!

My body is angry at me, and it is rebelling.  It won’t let me get out of bed and do the things I want to do anymore.  My body is finally making itself heard, and it’s yelling so loudly that I can’t help but be the one to submit this time.

Over the last few months, I have begun to learn to listen to my body.  I sleep when I am tired.  I eat when I am hungry, and when I can’t tell if I’m hungry or not, I try to eat anyway.  I wear sunglasses pretty much all the time, even when I drive at night.  I wear a mouth guard to keep myself from grinding my teeth even though it makes me look ridiculous and hard to understand when I talk.  I stay in bed and rest instead of “being productive.” I do my prescribed stretches and ball exercises to help loosen up my back. I lie down or stand instead of sitting to ease the pressure on my sciatic nerve.

These may seem like little things, small changes that don’t matter much.  But the change isn’t small at all.  It’s huge. I have lived so much of my life in opposition to my body, or at least out of touch with it.  I have lived like a docetist or gnostic–more concerned with the life of the mind than the life of the body.  I have lived my life disconnected from myself, and that is not what Jesus had in mind when he came into the world to complete our joy and bring us the fullness of life.  I have talked about the incarnation of Jesus, but I haven’t lived like I value my body as much as I value my mind.

So I’m making a change.  I still have a long way to go, but slowly I am learning to pay attention to my body and adjust my lifestyle to fit its needs.

To give me a place to start, I’ve been reading Prayer and Our Bodies by Flora Slosson Wuellner.  This week, I’ll give you a little taste of what she has to say about the connection between our spiritual selves and our physical selves.

For today, I’ll leave you with some of Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  (2Cor 5:4)

What has your body been telling you lately? Share your answer in a comment below to join the conversation.

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