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Hayden Ramsay: Sleep – far more than oblivion

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Nothing’s better than a good night’s sleep but that’s sometimes easier said than done. Seeking true peace of spirit can pave the way for sleep to work its wonder in our lives. PHOTO:

Yes, sleep can be hard. But actively seeking tranquility and peace can help it work its power in us

I had some excellent advice recently on better sleeping. I’ve never been a great sleeper and have benefited from sleep research and a superb sleep app. As most spend a third of their life asleep, I thought I’d write something wise and philosophical about it.

Unfortunately, far greater minds than mine have done this topic to death already.
Whereas scientists probe the biology and evolutionary psychology of sleep, philosophers look at what it means for us that we are not conscious and active agents for a huge chunk of each day.

And what it means is this: you do not have to be actively, consciously, choosing and thinking all the time in order to be a rational being, a person, a subject of absolute respect and dignity.

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This of course is the root answer to why the unborn, infants, comatose and brain dead remain full members of the human family, not subjects for euthanising, aborting, experimenting upon or discarding.

Yet there must be deeper meaning for each individual in the nightly surrender to sleep. Sleep is the letting go, the ‘little death’ in which we give up, albeit temporarily, on our decisions, responsibilities, relationships for—who knows how long.

For many of us, nothing is harder than this willingness to accept and to cease. In contemporary societies anxiety is prevalent, stress is seen as a badge of pride and success, and a tension-free person often judged disengaged or lazy. Stress, tension and anxiety make sleep seem harder, perhaps a burden, even a threat.

Of course that’s nonsense. The great thinkers understood that real life is the life of the soul: eternal questions and moral reflection, not the busy and over-stimulated worlds of business, public profile or—the worse!—communication. Valuing your inner life, your own sources of meaning and tranquility, can bring real happiness and does make sleep seem a more natural occurrence, the obvious end to a day you yourself have valued.

And yet who can find such inner peace in this frenetic city? Well, this city is fringed with beaches, often empty and quiet except for the endless tides. In many places people are in sight of nature, and some councils have done really well in bringing nature back. Even today, I sometimes see people lost in a book on a bus or in a café.

And in our churches outside mass hours there is the opportunity of placing ourselves, as Newman said, in the presence of Him in whose incarnate presence we are before we place ourselves there.

Parish churches as places to visit outside mass are a gift of Catholic and indeed some other Christian traditions. I knew of a woman in Melbourne many years ago who in terrible illness slept with permission inside the church, close to the altar, as the Emperor Charles V did centuries ago in Spain.

‘Study to be quiet’ St Paul writes in Thessalonians, a text I first saw in the window commemorating Izaak Walton, author of The Complete Angler. Whether through fishing, visiting churches, reading, or beach-walking we all need tranquility in the soul, and with it the nightly achievement of letting go.

For many of us, sleep is hard but it is an opportunity to shape our waking life as something more tranquil, closer to the truth of things, confident in the God who was himself happy to rest on the seventh day.


Hayden Ramsay: What was not on the agenda

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