In the latest edition of The Saturday Evening Post, there’s a story titled “Sleepless in America” by Todd Pitock. It’s about the deeply conflicted way Americans feel about sleep. He asks the question, “Why do so many consider sleep a waste of time?”
As Pitock points out, “sleep has become a minefield of moral judgement…with many people shamed for sleeping too long or taking naps.” It seems baked into our Western culture. We don’t believe people should sleep too long—the less the better, so we can be more productive. And naps? Also frowned up, with many believing they’re for “pre-school nurseries and nursing homes.”
The fact is we’re not getting enough sleep.
Pitock reports that the average American sleeps for 6 hours 31 minutes during the week. It’s the least of any country in the world except Japan which clocks in at 6 hours 22 minutes. Compare that to countries like France and India which come in at a little over 8 hours, Mexico at 9 hours, and Argentina at 10 hours a night.
According to the Mayo Clinic, we should be getting at least 7 hours of good sleep a night, ideally 8.What’s more, teenagers need 9 to 10 hours of sleep and school-aged children may need 10 hours or more.
The issue: Many of us find we can’t get the 7-8 hours we need. For some, it’s due to an overloaded work and life schedule. Others, yours included, have difficulty sleeping for 7-8 hours in a single stretch. But according to sleep expert Christopher Lindholst, sleeplessness is normal. It’s only a problem if we think it’s a problem. He informs us that:
There’s a misconception that waking in the middle of the night is a problem. We have a notion we should sleep for 8 hours. But it’s fine to split your sleep. That’s what humans typically did for thousands of years.
In fact, it was not until the Industrial Revolution that we broke the “thousands of years” habit of sleeping over two periods at night. There used to be an initial period of sleep that lasted from just past sundown to about 1 or 2am. We would then get up and take care of chores, pray, chat, have sex. Two hours later, we would then go back for a second sleep until sunrise. It was not until artificial light and factory working hours were introduced that people tried to sleep straight through the night.
That’s where naps come in.
Why is it that we in the US are embarrassed to admit we take naps? I’m a proud defender of naps, but even I find myself occasionally telling my family I’m going to meditate, when in fact I’m headed for a quick snooze. But in other parts of the world, it’s just not like that.
Spain, as well as other Mediterranean and Latin American countries are known for the midday nap periods called siestas. It’s a time for people to rest and recharge in the middle of their day. Though the time varies based on location, professionals usually take a break in their workday from about 2 pm to 4 pm, and local businesses close shop after lunchtime.
In China, it’s widely accepted that an afternoon nap is a healthy activity. It’s even common for entire companies to shut down for 30 minutes each day for naptime so that every employee, from white collar employees to those on the factory floor, can get in a little shut eye.
Any why not? Naps are good for you. Lindholst says that naps give you “a boost of productivity in the afternoon because it mitigates sleep pressure. It improves mood, learning, and memory.” And they don’t have to be long. Lindholst tells us “you’ll feel and do better if you just close your eyes and give in for a while—15 to 20 minutes is sufficient.”
A 2017 study showed a 37 percent lower rate of heart-related deaths for people who regularly took naps. A 2018 study published in the journal Heart shows that people who nap once or twice a week had a 95% lower incidence of cardiac events.
I’m combining meditation and naps: let’s call it a “medi-nap.”
I like naps. Check that, I love naps. For decades, during my time in a corporate office, when I’d hit a post-lunch lull, I’d go for a cup of caffeine. But now that I work from home, I try to find a 30- to 45-minute period on my schedule each day where I can take a lie-down. (Shhh, don’t tell my boss.)
I like to think of this time as a period when I can recharge my batteries and even sneak in a little meditation. And I have a specific routine I use that may work for you:
Step 1. I lie down on my back, not on my bed which is only for nighttime sleep, but on a sofa or cushy mat. I like to elevate my feet with an overstuffed pillow. I close my eyes.
Step 2. I want to take the focus out of my head and into my chest or heart area. A good way to do this is to focus on the breath, not in the nose, but in your chest, as you inhale and exhale through your lungs.
Step 3. I try to clear my head. The moment I feel work or life thoughts arising, I immediately put the focus back on my chest and my breath going in and out.
Step 4. While keeping the focus on my heart, I imagine myself sinking into the cushion I’m lying on. I sink deeper and deeper into it. I’m now in a place where my brain shuts down and sleep eases in.
Most days, I find I doze off for a very short time, what many people refer to as a “cat nap” (hence, the photo at the top of the page). It can be as short as 5 minutes or as long as 30. But even on days when I don’t fall to sleep, I find the effects to be revitalizing. I use this time to give my mind a break—and always seem to come out of it fresher than when I started.