Sleep and Spring

Sunflower seedlings, just 3 days after being planted.

The popular image of spring is very different from the actual experience of the season, at least here in the Midwest. All winter long we look forward to the change of seasons, and what we imagine is a soft and welcoming time, full of birds chirping and gentle breezes and light coats. Sixty-five degrees every day, a sun that illuminates but doesn’t burn, flowers blooming everywhere.

Sometimes May looks like this; more often we have to wait until June, at least in these parts, to experience such bliss. Early spring is not gentle and rarely easy. Late March and April here are times of chilly rain alternating with wet snow, with just enough days of sun and breezes to remind us that things will keep changing. It’s not an easy time, climatically.

Despite all its good press, Spring is not an easy time emotionally for many people. One complaint that I hear over and over again this time of year is“I can’t sleep”. Now, insomnia is common at all times of the year, and could be said to be endemic in the artistic population. That’s why I’m dedicating a column to it, and we will look into many reasons for lack of sleep in the coming months.

But this month, we’ll address this global lack of sleep that comes upon us when the seasons shift. Let’s talk about sleep and spring.

In Chinese medicine, spring is seen as a season of great and restless energy—an energy that most of us would identify as irritation or anger. Think of the force of a seedling pushing up through the dirt to reach the sun. One of the gentlest, happiest images of spring, to be sure; but now imagine that you are inside that seed, buried under the soil, just as wet or dry as you need to be. And somewhere above you, the light is changing. Whether the temperature is cold or warm, the hours of daylight increase in the spring. Inside the seed, you sense this somehow, and you are compelled to force your way out of the shell, through the layers of packed dirt, towards the sun. It’s not easy. The mechanics of it are marvelous: cells dividing, stem and roots lengthening, water being pulled through the new tube of the stem towards the light. Seedlings always grow towards the light, no matter if they are planted upside down or sideways or under a rock. They will twist and turn, lengthen and expand, tie themselves in knots if they have to, to reach towards the sun. Not because the weather outside is nice and sweet and welcoming, but because if they don’t grow, they will die.

The Sleeping Gypsy, by Henri Rousseau. 1897

Not a peaceful thought, is it? The seedling has to be irritated enough—angry enough, if you will—to break through to the next stage of its life. The only possible stage of its life. In biology one of the defining characteristics of life is response to irritation. Have you ever seen those old science films where they poke microscopic creatures and watch them move? I am irritated, I respond, therefore I live.

As I write this, I am sitting on the back deck in a t-shirt, doing my best to soak up some sun and help my body produce Vitamin D (inspired by the writing of this column). I’m up on the third floor. The sun is bright, but at this time of day, the building is shading me somewhat, and the wind is blowing, as it always is on the third floor of a Chicago apartment. I’m absorbing sun, admiring the blue sky and the buds on the trees—and at the same time, I’m shivering. My muscles are shaking in an attempt to create more warmth so that I can spend more time in the sun. This shivery energy is the feeling I associate with Spring.

Not a peaceful feeling. Which brings us back to the question of sleep, and what effect the change of seasons has on us. The restless energy of spring is the energy of creation, isn’t it? It’s the feeling that things must change, or we will die. Things are shifting around us—if nothing else, even if the temperature didn’t change, the light would be changing. Our bodies respond, even if we spend most of our time indoors. (I hope you all have at least one window, or ten minutes waiting for a bus, or a walk to the post office to get you outdoors at least once a day.) The world tilts on its axis, things begin to awaken beneath the soil, and we begin to shiver with the possibility of something new.

Common sense tells us that we need to get “enough” sleep (and no one really knows how much is enough, but we have a lot of good guesses out there, which average around eight hours a night). If we want to be happy, healthy, productive, we need our sleep. Sleep is productive time for the body. We only understand a bit of what makes sleep physically necessary (the healing of wounds is a big one; that seems more likely to occur during sleep), but we know a lot about the harm that lack of sleep can do. It’s bad for your heart, your skin, your mind. And yet?

Sleep is productive for the body; sleep and dreams are vital to the health of the mind. Yet the mind seems to take control of the body at times, to bar the doors of sleep, to prod and shiver us awake to fight our way to a new possibility. Spring time is work time, fighting time, changing time.

Day and the Dawnstar. Herbert James Draper, 1906.

You know that old saying, “You can sleep when you’re dead”? In spring, the body—or something deep within, intrinsic to existence, but unable to be mapped with MRI or X-ray—says “there’s no time for sleeping, there is work to be done”. Usually we haven’t the faintest clue what that “work” is; we know that we have to be up at 6:00 a.m. to get dressed and out the door and make it to the office so we can pay the bills, but we don’t know what deeper work we are being called to do, in this time of irritated energy. And the more exhausted we get, the less we feel like thinking about it; the more we wonder what’s wrong with us.

Try this. Next time you can’t sleep, get up. Turn on a small light, or light a candle. Grab a notebook or a sketchpad, and ask your body to tell you what it’s working on. See what comes to you. Give yourself fifteen or twenty minutes with this. You may feel, the first time or two, as though there is nothing waiting to be worked on. Nothing but the irritation of being awake when you really need to be sleeping; but sit with it. Think of it as necessary to the time of year, just as you have to pull the weeds if you want your garden to thrive. Think about what needs to change, or grow, or be born. Sit with it, and when the time is up, try to sleep.

You may well find that the next morning brings you a new idea, a new plan. Maybe you’ll find yourself sleeping better, just knowing that the irritation is seasonal, and might be productive in and of itself. Let go of worrying about it, just for a week or two, and watch what arises, what pushes its way out of the soil of your spring sleeplessness.

If you have more questions about sleep and spring, please contact me.

©2009 Stephanie J. Draus

Picture credits:

  1. Sunflower seedlings: Created by Bluemoose {{GFDL}}{{cc-by-sa-2.0}}., accessed 5/28/2012.
  2. Sleeping Gypsy: Photo by Stephen Sandoval., accessed 5/28/2012.
  3. Day and the Dawnstar: sourced from Art Renewal., accessed 5/28/2012.

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