How To Wake Up Well (Pt. 1)

1 January, 2018 // in The Coffeehouse Cleric // by Alex Rowe.

Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist, writes in his recent book: ‘Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory, makes you more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?’

What is this revolutionary new treatment? It is sleep. One reviewer of Walker’s Why We Sleep (2017), however, laments his own predicament, and probably represents the way many of us feel: “Well, yes, I for one am keenly interested in this wonder drug; the problem, though, is getting your hands on the stuff.”

To wake up well, we need to have slept well. It is as simple as that. Some of us, including myself, are fortunate enough that we rarely struggle to get to sleep; but still, we must consider the quality of our sleep. Advice abounds on how to improve the quality of our sleep, but a good place to start might be with some more wisdom from Prof. Walker.

So we have slept for seven hours, the optimum recommended duration. Now the alarm goes off. Why is it so difficult to get up? Why is it so usual for us to hit snooze, and hit snooze again, until an hour or more has passed and now we are in a rush? If we have gotten enough sleep, and we have a good morning routine (to be discussed in another post), then surely there ought not to be any reason why we struggle so much getting out of bed. Actually, I think there might still be a reason, and its elucidation starts with considering the behaviour of children at Christmas.

It is commonly observed that the child who usually lies in until almost midday suddenly finds on Christmas morning that he has sufficient energy to wake up, much to the displeasure of his parents, at the crack of dawn. Jimmy! Go back to bed; it’s only five o’clock! What accounts for this strange phenomenon but that Santa Claus has come and delivered presents? After last night’s visitation, gifts under the tree have magically appeared.

A similar observation can be made of those families who go on holiday, and have to leave the house in the early hours of the morning to make the plane on time. Suddenly whole families, adults and children alike, who would much rather rise at a more leisurely hour, are up and out with smiles on their faces, a spring in their steps, and only the occasional yawn. Any complaint is softened by the excitement of going on vacation.

The point of the above two examples is clear: to wake up with ease, we need purpose and reason. We need the expectation of a young child on Christmas morning and the excitement of a family going on an adventure. The reason, I think, that so many of us struggle to get up every day is that somewhere along the way we have forgotten our sense of purpose. Or maybe we feel we have never had one.

When I wake up it is startling, not to say dangerous, how quickly my mind can descend into stress or panic. Lying in a silent room, my thoughts are noisy and frantic. I list the tasks, count the hours, visualise the day. I think of all the things that need to be done, and I begin the day in fear. Perhaps I am guilty of perfectionism, of setting my expectations unattainably high. I often find the writing of my daily to-do list in the morning to be a stabilising activity, yet come the evening that list becomes the reason for my own self-condemnation.

In our ever-busier lives, those morning moments in bed are the only time in the day we have for silence and stillness. Yet these moments are often interrupted. Interrupted by the rush of the impending day, like the early arrival of a guest who catches you off-guard before you have finished tidying the house. This has certainly been my experience, and sadly one all too frequent. But the reason I bring it up is because I wonder whether it is not so different than that of us all. As psychologists like Carl Rogers tell us, often the most personal is the most universal. In that vein, allow me to conclude this piece by continuing in the first person.

One morning, as I lay in bed looking up at the ceiling, my head spinning as usual, I began to ask myself Why? Why did I so often begin the day in fear? Or did I ask God? Sometimes I wonder whether my introspection is not really speech directed towards God, for whom I was destined and after whom my soul longs. Perhaps the cries of my conscience at times like these are really prayers of hope. Prayers that there is someone who hears me, who knows me and understands me. So I lay there. Thinking and praying. And some words came into my head: ‘Rise with joy, not in fear.’

That was all. Six simple words, and nothing more. But these words were so alien, so foreign to my stream of consciousness and so dissimilar to my present condition, that I felt these words to be divine. They were words of calm authority, silencing the storms that raged in my head. Stillness. I remembered my purpose. Remembered that I am beloved of God, irrespective of performance or productivity.

Whenever I wake up, I try to remember these words. Rise with joy, not in fear.

Thank you for reading. The Coffeehouse Cleric is a Medium publication dedicated to asking the big questions of life. It features writing on three main areas: minimalism, spirituality, and learning. If you enjoyed this piece, please do share it with friends and family on social media.