I’ve always found it inspiring how masters of meditation seem to need a lot less sleep than the average person. The Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan slept four hours a night, and meditated for four hours each morning. There are stories of meditators who took even less sleep, an hour or two a night. Modern meditation masters like IAM co-founders Puran and Susanna Bair often wake at three in the morning and meditate for several hours before starting their day.
So for the past month, I’ve cut back on my own sleep. Why? Three reasons:
- As an exercise in mastery. (I’m constantly putting myself through such exercises).
- Since our baby boy was born in April, I haven’t been meditating as much as I’d like. My practice has been at different times of the day, or short, and I want to get back into longer meditations to keep me feeling connected to the One Being.
- I needed more time in the quiet hours of the early morning to write.
Here’s what I’ve learned, summarized into a few key directives, in case you want to try it.
Have a steady rhythm. For the last 30 days, I’ve gone to sleep at 10 pm and woken up at 3 am. I meditate for 1 hour, then do some Tai Chi (usually 15-20 min), then write until 7 or so, when my wife and our baby get up. (Sometimes our three year old girl, Xavi, wakes up earlier than that. Right now it’s 6:25, and she’s been up since 5:40. But she fell asleep in the chair next to me… Awww!) I don’t think it would be possible for me to do this if my rhythm wasn’t there.
Meditate. You have to be fairly good at meditating to be able to do this, but I’ve been sitting for a long time. Also, you need a good method, because not every kind of meditation works equally well for this. You need a method that has a rich, full breath (like Heart Rhythm Meditation), otherwise you have no hope of staying awake when you’re sleepy and still. (I’m definitely sleepy between 3 and 4 am. Are you?) There are also specific practices which can be used to change your energetic state, such as the 4 element breaths, and the sound practices we teach in Course #104. If you’d like to learn how to meditate, sign up for our list and read my daily email series.
Have a good reason for doing it. I tried to be clear with myself about why I was doing this, and I think that was helpful.
Eat well. About a month before I started getting up early, my wife and I started doing the The Warrior Diet, which is basically under-eating during the day (juices, fresh fruits, raw veggies), then over-eating at night (we start at 5 pm, and eat basically whatever we want). This diet has given me a lot more energy. (It took a few weeks to get used to not eating much all day; yesterday I had a small protein shake, some lettuce, an apple, and a pear during the day).
Manage your stress. It may seem that because I work for a school of meditation, there is never any stress at work. I wish that were true! Like at many small non-profit organizations, work can be stressful. We always seem to be juggling 25 projects at once. So I’ve had to really work at keeping it together.
Manage your attitude. Don’t admit to being tired. Don’t say you’re tired. Don’t think you’re tired. I created an affirmation to say to myself: “I thrive on five.”
Start exercising, if you’re not already. Do some kind of cardio, and some kind of progressive strength training. But start super slow and easy. Make it manageable.
Take it easy. If you already have an exercise routine, you may have to cut it back a bit. My routine was to run for 35 minutes each day, with strength training twice a week. I had to pare that back to just running 25 min a day, running slower, and cutting the strength training way back.
Appreciate the sleep you get. There’s nothing like cutting back on sleep to make you appreciate it more. Sleep is one of life’s great pleasures, and it should be savored. But that’s hard to do when you get too much of it. Sleep can be inefficient. Much of what we do while we sleep is mull over past events in our subconscious minds, and feel emotions in our hearts unconsciously. The same function can be filled by meditation, but it’s much, much more efficient. Before starting this, I went to sleep around 10 and got up between 5 and 7. (There’s a lot of variability with 2 small kids!) Meditation made it possible for me to cut 2 to 4 hours of sleep per day and still feel rested. I also feel better physically; I wake up with more energy and less stiffness.
Give yourself some advice. You are your own best coach. So when you set out, imagine you’ve already attained your goal, and then give some advice to a friend who is interested in doing the same thing. The advice you give is what you most need to hear, so write it down and read it as often as you need to.
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On the second day of my new routine, I read an article in Newsweek on the connection between sleep deprivation and health risks such as obesity and impaired cognitive function. Apparently, there is a strong inverse association between hours of sleep and obesity, especially among children. And in one study, volunteers who were limited to six hours a day performed as badly on a cognitive skills test as those who were up for 48 hours straight.
Ah, perfect! I’ve chosen to do something that will make me fat and stupid!
Well, here’s my thought on the study. First, on the connection between sleep deprivation and obesity: think about how people (especially children) tend to be sleep deprived in the USA: it’s by staying up late, watching TV, playing video games, browsing the internet, etc., then having to get up early to go to school or work. It’s not by going to sleep early and waking up early. (Trust me, there’s almost no one up at 3 am.) We like our down time, and by staying up late, it feels like you have more of it. I was the same way as a kid. But these are all sedentary activities where people tend to eat. And the later you stay up, the more binge-opps there are. So people who do this habitually tend to be fatter. Not surprising. I have to tell you, when you get up early, you have no desire to binge. The earlier you get up, the less you want to eat. I have one cup of black tea in the morning.
Second, on the cognitive skills test. My wife and I have a three-month old baby boy. Believe me, I know that your cognitive skills are less sharp when you are sleep-deprived. In the weeks after he was born, I could feel myself getting dumber. I couldn’t remember anything. I wish I could measure how much dumber I got, but I wasn’t smart enough for that. It was like Flowers for Algernon.
But you get used to that, and it passes.
In the study, the group of volunteers never got past the point where you get used to it. (They were sleep-deprived to 6 hours for 2 weeks. That’s well within the adaptation phase.) I also wonder about the effects of doing something to the group, rather than them choosing to get less sleep voluntarily.
If anyone is interested, I can do a follow up post where I talk about my experience day by day. (I kept a journal).
Meditation can also help you with a time honored problem: how to put your kids to bed. Sleep is very important for kids. I’m giving a talk on Friday, Nov 8th, called Go To Sleep, Little Darling: 7 Ways Meditation Can Help You Put Your Kids to Bed.
You might also like: 8 Ways to Fall Asleep Without Drugs
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This course is an excellent resource for those looking to explore sleeping, dreaming, and waking.