The spirituality of sleep

It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early,

and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety.

For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.

(from Night Prayer, NZ Prayer Book)

Once, during my senior year of college, I pulled a double all-nighter. I was up for something like 56 hours without so much as a power nap, going to classes and writing final papers and putting in my time in the school newspaper office before finally crawling into bed at three in the afternoon on a Friday and waking up the next morning, surprised that I’d missed dinner.

Double all-nighters are a bad idea.

As an academic and a chronic procrastinator, I’m all too familiar with all-nighters. Even more frequent are too-short nights, over-caffeinated mornings, and work-halting afternoon slumps.

I’m tired a lot.

And when I’m running on sleep-fumes, I prioritize as a survival instinct. I stop exercising, I’m less conscious about what I’m eating, and almost without fail, my spiritual life suffers. Morning prayer or breakfast? Silent meditation or a nap? (If the former turns into the latter, does it still count?) Read my Bible or my 500 pages of homework? You get the idea.

When I’m exhausted, the world starts looking dreary. Even little problems (I at all the bread? I can’t find the shirt I wanted to wear today?) seem overwhelming. I’m irritable. I’m unenthusiastic. I’m really ungrateful. Like: “What, God? You love me more than I can imagine? You blessed me with this beautiful morning and all the incredible opportunities I’m experiencing in it? But I spilled my coffee and didn’t have time to finish my reading and the pants I wanted to wear are in the laundry! Ugh!” See what I mean? Being exhausted makes focusing on the big picture really, really hard.

Jennifer Fulwiler at Conversion Diary has some great posts on spiritual dry spells and spiritual nourishment, and writes about how important sleep and physical self-care are for a healthy spiritual lifestyle (and she’s raising small children, so it should be easier for me, right?). It’s so true, and so easy to forget.

When I was writing my senior honors project in undergrad (the same semester as the double-all-nighter, but I don’t think it was the cause), I told one of my advising professors something like, “I meant to make a lot more progress on this piece, but I ended up sleeping instead”—excuses, excuses. She responded, “Well, sleep is part of the creative process, too.” Which makes total sense, but had never occurred to me. I was used to creating under pressure, scant days or hours before whatever deadline happened to be approaching (hence the all-nighters).

Sleep wasn’t part of any process. In fact it seemed pretty useless sometimes. I still think of the sort of person I could be if I just slept less—reading and re-reading and taking brilliant notes on every assignment, returning paper grades to students before they even have a chance to ask when I’m going to do it, carefully planning my healthful and well-budgeted meals, finishing all my papers early, with unhurried time to proofread and revise, running eight miles every morning and engaging in a variety of prayer, contemplation, and study. In these daydreams I’m also bursting with energy and extraverted and dressed like a J. Crew model.

It’s not gonna happen. I could start sleeping three hours a night with all these intentions toward some twisted ideas of perfection, but it wouldn’t turn me into a model citizen, it would turn me into a zombie.

That’s why I really like the lines I pulled from the New Zealand prayer book for my epigraph. I’m always falling into the rhythm of staying up late, setting an alarm as early as I can bear, and running around sleepy and anxious. But those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.

It’s more than okay to take time to sleep. It’s important—and productive. Sleep has a purpose, and a place. It’s part of being a creative, grounded, healthy, fully alive person, and as such getting enough sleep becomes a priority.

As I roar into the second half of the academic semester, the busy and anxiety-inducing half, I’m trying to think of how I can do more to prioritize sleep. I’m not much less of a procrastinator now than I was before grad school, and I have night-owlish tendencies that sometimes crimp my attempts at having a regular sleep schedule. I mean it when I say I see the value of prioritizing sleep, but that doesn’t mean it diminishes the feeling that I have to do more, do better. This is a work-in-progress for me, and I’m looking for input.


Do you prioritize sleep? Do you get enough sleep? Do you notice any relationship between the amount of sleep you’ve had and your mood? Your spiritual growth? Do you have any advice for me on how to fit sleep into a busy schedule?


4 thoughts on “The spirituality of sleep

  1. I’m glad Facebook showed me this post. I’ve been meaning to blog about my experience as a grad student for awhile. I have a couple posts but I rarely make the time. Anyway, the sleep topic is, indeed, a major point of frustration and I’m glad I’m not the only one who obsesses over how much I could get done if only I could skip sleeping…and eating. What really hit the nail on the head for me was your point about prioritizing as a survival instinct. I was just thinking this morning about how achy and unhealthy I feel, yet I wonder when I could possibly find the time to incorporate exercise. I’ve tried so many times but eventually things get too busy. I definitely think the biggest learning curve we have in grad school is learning how to figure out how to entertain all aspects of the person we want to be when we’re so short on time for anything not related to academia. Hopefully we conquer just a little more every day (on a little more sleep than the day before).

      • As someone near the end of my grad school experience, I really can’t say enough about getting sleep. I can do so much better work more efficiently if my brain is running full-speed because I’ve gotten enough sleep. As you both said, you are never as prepared as you want to be in grad school (and as I understand it faculty life is worse) but keeping yourself awake until you can’t think straight isn’t doing you any favors.

  2. Pingback: Stories from the Yoga Mat: Sleep as Spiritual Necessity by Marie Cartier | Feminism and Religion

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