When the news of the sleep challenge hit my Women's Mysteries List (for Women who Want to go Deeper) with a buzz this week, all I could hear was: Eat Sleep Peaceful. The mantra of my dear teacher, De Ying Huang, famous in China for her potent energy healing in the cancer wards of Shanghai. I would travel three hours each way every week for several years to learn from her, and to personally experience her legendary acupuncture treatments. Often when taking my pulses, she would shake her head in a scolding yet motherly fashion indicating, "You not sleep, you not peaceful." Okay, Dr Huang, but this week, I did eat breakfast!
During the period of my apprenticeships, I was also to learn from my Taoist master, Dr Jeffrey C. Yuen, that sleep--along with appropriate nourishment and the balance of stillness/movement (meditation and exercise)--was among the three fundamental pillars of energy which support the vital force to flourish. If a patient was sleep compromised, the healing would be difficult to achieve, regardless of good nutrition, regardless of proper exercise.
For twenty years I have tried to bring this fundamental wisdom to my patients. Here in New York, New York (remember Sinatra? I want to wake up/ in the city/ that doesn't sleep), the concept of sleep is usually met with instantaneous resistance. "How are you sleeping?" I ask the many astonishing women I see weekly, women in every stage of female development, from puberty through child conceiving, from childbearing, rearing, careering, to menopause and beyond. It is always the same refrain. Can you give me some herbs? I need more energy.
"It is so obvious," my very tired and very pregnant patient said just this evening, when I suggested she needed more sleep. "I know I feel so much better when I get rest, and I see it in my husband, and in my daughter too." So what is the obstacle? What keeps us from that blissful elixir of sleep? Oriental Medicine calls it "Empty Fire," a kind of manic energy that arises from a lack of Yin, or restive flow. How can we promote the Yin energies? And how can we let go of the manic, and return to our enlightened Fire energies which are meant to be experienced through creativity, laughter, and joy?
Here is one simple piece of advice, something deep in the wisdom of Oriental Medicine. When one pillar is shaky, strengthen the others until it comes back to balance. Therefore, when sleep deprived, work on diet and the balance of movement/stillness. This has been beautifully written about by endocrinologist Dr. Diana Schwarzbein. The proper diet for burn out and sleep deprivation is to eat every two to three hours, a simple balance of protein, complex carbohydrate, and healthy (non trans) fat. For example, an apple and goat cheese. A whole grain cracker with nut butter. A cup of lentil soup and a few olives. When we skip meals throughout the day we promote cortisol to rise at night, exactly when it should be at its lowest ebb. When we master these blood sugar drops, Empty Fire, the chronic "fight or flight" response, will cease to haunt us with restless energy, harassing us just when we want to get to bed. The practice of bringing our Earth energies into balance throughout our busy days allows us to build and to bank real, reliable energy and to contain it in our source.
What did my teacher, an awesome martial artist as well as a beloved physician, mean when he said harmonize movement and stillness? Well, an example would be, don't over-aerobicize until you have your balance back (Dr Schwarzbein would agree). Practice cultivation exercise, like Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Qi or Pilates. And meditate. Impossible? Not with your schedule? I am loving my "Stillness Buddy," a great new download that allows your screen to be interrupted by meditative messages for short moments that you can set up at any interval during the day. I have set mine to 90 seconds, every 90 minutes, and I feel a great sense of relief and solace whenever it hits my screen.
Eat Sleep Peaceful ... such a beautiful mantra. Thank you De Ying. We are finally listening ...