This sermon was given at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville on December 15, 2019.
Last year, for our Yule sermon, I talked about rest. Several people have mentioned to me that they really took that message to heart and have started to rethink how they spend their energy in the winter. But that’s not always easy. Our Christmas Carols talk about hustle and bustle, and that’s often what this time of year is like.
There’s a list of demands placed on us. I can’t not send Christmas cards, grandma gets upset when she doesn’t get an update about the kids. I can’t not wrap all of my presents, everyone loves tearing into the paper on Christmas morning. I can’t not bake, I always bake. I can’t not participate in the office gift exchange, what would people think? I can’t not put up a tree, what’s Christmas without a tree? And, unfortunately, it’s pretty common that a significant portion of the mental, emotional, and literal work of the holidays falls on the women in the family.
So, let’s back up and reevaluate. Instead of having Christmas photos taken for cards, maybe pick a few that are on your phone to email all at once instead of addressing dozens of cards. Maybe put your presents in pretty boxes that don’t need wrapping, or gift bags. Maybe let someone else bake this year. Maybe don’t worry about what you coworkers think. Maybe let the kids put up the tree. The point is to figure out what parts of the holidays bring you and your loved ones joy, focus on those, and let the other things go. And, instead of telling this story: “I just don’t have the energy this year,” which sounds like you failed somehow, tell this story: “I thought about what was important and what brings us joy, and I’m giving my energy to those activities.” Because why are you spending your energy on expectations of others that don’t enrich your life?
We talked last year about how we are, ultimately, human animals, and animals’ instinct drives them to reduce their activities and conserve their energy at this time of year. Yet, because of the fact that we have artificial light, we extend our working time way past what nature would dictate for us. Sometimes we feel guilty doing things that aren’t productive. If you go to sleep at 10, then there are five hours of darkness between sunset and when you allow yourself to rest. Think about that. Nature says, “go to sleep early,” and we decide to put in almost a full workday after that.
So let’s do a quick visualization. Feet on the floor, eyes closed or relaxed gaze. Take a nice slow breath. Another. Think of yourself as a human animal, and think of the coziest place in your den. The sun has gone down, it’s barely 5:00. What does rest look like? It doesn’t have to mean sleep, though it might. It might mean curling up with a novel, or snuggling on the couch with your pets, spouse, and/or kids to watch some TV, or sharing a homey meal with some special people, or spending some time alone, crafting, or making art, or journaling, or whatever activity fills your well. Imagine the coziest, homiest hibernation time you can think of indulging in, and picture yourself doing it ……… Also pay attention to how you are feeling when you think about this. Are you feeling guilty for not checking things off your to do list, or getting more stuff done? Are you enjoying yourself? Where in your body are you feeling what you’re feeling? …… And, gently come back to the room and open your eyes.
So, what does rest look like for you? What about “self care”? That’s a word that gets throw around a lot, often to promote some kind of product. The concept has been around a lot longer than the term, as a part of commercialism. Remember McDonald’s jingle, “You deserve a break today.” “Calgon, take me away?” Maybe I’m dating myself, I bet some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. The point is, companies know we’re tired, and use it for marketing.
But self-care isn’t really something you can’t buy. It’s the old advice from your stewardess about putting on your own respirator mask before trying to help someone else put on theirs. If your well is empty, you won’t have reserves to serve others. And a bubble bath or a special chocolate or a bottle of wine might be part of self care, but it’s not all of it. Let’s take a look at something most of you are really familiar with: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
So these are our needs, according to psychologist Abraham Maslow, and they’re structured in a pyramid like this because the ones toward the bottom are foundational. So we can’t meet our need for safety until our basic physiological needs are met, and we can’t meet our need for love and belonging until we feel safe, and we can’t build esteem until we feel we belong, and we can’t meet needs for self-actualization or personal growth until we’ve built our confidence, so each one builds on all the ones below it.
So how’s the bottom of your pyramid? I’m guessing your need for air is being met or you’d look a lot less calm. If you currently have a need for food or water you’re definitely Invited to partake of ours. But most of us have municipal water, and we’re not starving. Since you’re all currently clothed, I’ll assume that you have clothing, and probably also shelter. If you don’t, that’s a crisis, please ask for help. We’ll do whatever it takes to help you find resources.
That leaves sleep. Rest can be taking a break from activity, but friends, if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re harming yourself on all these levels above the base of this pyramid, and you don’t have enough to give anyone else, and you’re probably a lot less fun to be around than you are when you’re well rested. Whatever other stress you have in your life is compounded in exponents. How’s your sleep?
If you’re anything like a typical American, frankly, it sucks. We are bombarded with this message that we have to be constantly more productive, that if we’re not pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps 24/7, we deserve what we get. We have popular phrases like “You snooze, you lose,” and “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” When we feel like there aren’t enough hours In a day, and who of us doesn’t, the first place we cut is those precious rejuvenating hours of sleep that fuel our days. The Protestant Work Ethic, which I intend to give an entire sermon on at some point in the future, is alive and kicking. And it’s not serving us.
If you type “Why am I” into a Google search bar, the top result is “so tired” and the second one is “always tired,” which means that’s the most common thing typed into that bar after those three words. If you type Sleep into a search bar on your iPhone App Store or Google play, you’ll come up with FIVE THOUSAND apps that are meant to help you sleep. If we were to type a relationship status with sleep Into our Facebook profiles, most of us would say, “It’s Complicated.” We have a love-hate relationship with sleep. It feels so good sometimes, and at other times, like SUCH a waste of time, when time is so precious. Hardworking students study until late hours. Struggling working parents squeeze in a few precious moments of alone time after their little ones have gone to bed. Housewives remember one more thing they have to do before they finally sleep. We get home late, and find that it’s really hard to wind down enough to sleep after a day full of activity pushes almost up to bedtime. Then when we finally collapse into bed, exhausted, some of us find we’re staring at the ceiling unable to silence the whir of our thoughts or the to do list for tomorrow already tapping on our shoulders. Sometimes the problem with sleep isn’t that we are forsaking it for the sake of some work or much-needed me-time, but that we literally cannot fall asleep. It’s not something you can force, and a large percentage of us struggle with it.
So, I want to spend some time talking about healthy sleep habits and what we can do to improve the quality of the sleep we get. Most of us need around seven hours, and few of us are getting that much. So, a couple of tips to help us get more and better zz’s, some of which you probably already know, but some others maybe not:
1. Reserve your bed for sleep and snuggles. Don’t read in bed, don’t look at your phone in bed, don’t watch TV in bed, especially If you struggle at all with insomnia. If you can’t sleep, get up, do something that is relaxing, and try again. I know this Is really difficult advice because I don’t listen to it myself.
2. Turn the temp down in your room to around 65 degrees. This is another Instance of imitating nature… the temperature drops at night, our bodies think it’s time to sleep.
3. A couple of hours before bed, turn off your overhead lights and turn on bedside lamps and table lamps, preferably with warm hued bulbs, not cool white or daylight bulbs. Excessive light suppresses melatonin secretion and can make it hard to get to sleep. And, when you’re ready to actually go to sleep, have It as dark as you can comfortably stand it in your bedroom. Related,
4. Also limit blue light a few hours before bed. This, I’m afraid, includes almost anything with a screen. TV, computer screens, phone and tablet screens. If you’re having trouble sleeping, this is ground zero in the battle for sleep. If you must use your phone or tablet before bed, most of them have a nighttime mode that limits the harmful blue light, so check your settings or Google how to set that up on your particular device. A 2015 survey showed that 71 percent of Americans sleep with or next to their smartphones. Blue light Is a stimulant. Best case scenario: buy a regular old-fashioned alarm clock and ban your phone from the bedroom entirely. Definitely put it on Do Not Disturb if you choose to keep it in the bedroom.
5. Exercise. There’s a direct relationship between exercise and the ability to sleep.
6. Skip caffeine and limit sugar. We’re often dragging ourselves through the day caffeinated and sugared, but studies link both to inability to sleep. It disrupts our circadian rhythms. On the other hand, some kinds of herbal tea can be a great part of a bedtime routine.
6. Speaking of routine, it’s good to have one. Turn off the phone, read for half an hour, meditate, take a hot bath, sleep. Or whatever works for you. But having a routine where you do the same series of things before bed each night can signal your brain that It’s time to wind down.
7. Avoid sleeping pills, drugs like Benadryl that are meant for other things but have side effects of drowsiness, and alcohol to help you sleep. All three can actually help you fall asleep, but they affect the quality of your sleep and some of them have other serious side effects. One thing that my doctor recommends for difficulty sleeping is supplemental melatonin, but I suggest you talk to yours about what’s good to take and what’s not, if you struggle with insomnia.
8. You knew I was going to say this… meditation is great for sleep. Since I talked pretty extensively last week about how meditation is good brain training for when you’re overthinking at night, I’ll leave it at that. If you use an app for meditation, all of them have tons of sleep tracks, both guided meditations and just music, meant to help you drift off. But, of course, that means keeping your phone in your room, so use with discretion.
9. This Is something that helps me but might not help everyone, and that’s a planner. If I know I have everything written down that needs to be done, I don’t have to mentally rehearse everything on my list when I’m ready to drift off to sleep. And, I’ve added “7 hours of sleep” to my habit tracker in my planner so I can pretty readily see where I’m short-changing myself.
But as Americans, we are getting this mixed message: science shows that we desperately need rest, and our bodies are telling us the same thing. Even religion gives us mixed messages. That Protestant Work Ethic again. And, as Unitarian Universalists, the roots of our theology are Calvinist. We rejected strict Calvinist theology a long time ago, but its message lingers. Our first principle — the inherent worth and dignity of every person — that principle tells you more than just ‘welcome every person and treat them as worthy.’ It tells you than you, I, and everyone else, are inherently worthy. That means, by implication, that we don’t need to EARN that worthiness by doing anything at all. Some of us are still struggling to earn that worthiness through right works and through working. Are we doing enough for social justice? Are we working at self improvement often enough? What “shoulds” are you flogging yourself with in this regard? What guilt are you Inflicting on yourself because you are not doing enough in one respect or another? We have this narrative about our heroes, “He worked tirelessly for the cause,” but no one works tirelessly. My friends, do what you can, and then rest.
We don’t observe a Sabbath as UUs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider rest as sacred. We are built for rest, and honoring the way we are made is sacred attention. For me as a Pagan, honoring this portion of the wheel of the year as a time of rest is sacred time. Honor the call of your physiology. Working counter to it, forcing yourself to work past your capacity, actually decreases your productivity.
Author Saundra Dalton-Smith wrote a book called Sacred Rest. In It, she focuses on 7 areas of rest: spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, sensory, and social. Rest isn’t one-sided, It doesn’t mean only sleep, and it doesn’t mean just stopping. It’s many faceted. Her book is Christian-focused, but I thought I’d adapt those seven kinds of rest a bit so that we can figure out exactly what kind of rest we need.
1. Spiritual rest. This includes practices like prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and worship.
2. Physical rest. This means sleep, eating what your body needs and stopping when your body doesn’t need any more, and keeping our bodies active so that when the time comes for rest, we’re ready for it.
3. Mental rest. The practice of unloading my to-do list on paper is mental rest. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to stop striving for self-improvement, and Indulge in activities that we call “mindless.” There’s nothing wrong with watching or reading or listening to things purely for entertainment. Give yourself a break, but don’t get stuck there. Mindless activities can be addicting when we’re not fulfilling our other rest needs.
4. Emotional rest. A gratitude practice is a good way to give ourselves some emotional rest. Journaling, or therapy, or confiding In a friend, are good ways to find some emotional rest. Knowing what activities fill your well, and making time for those things, can be emotionally restful.
5. Sensory rest. We’re so bombarded with sensory overload. I remember when my local Wal-Mart started putting little screens all over the store with ads talking at me from nearly every aisle. I felt deeply resentful. The practices I mentioned earlier about turning off devices before bedtime can give us some sensory rest. Some experts recommend doing regular device-fasts In which we turn off and tune out for a day or a weekend. Another way to get some sensory rest is to try to do more monotasking. We’re a multitasking addicted society. We eat while we watch TV or read, we text while we drive, we juggle three things at once. Pay attention to how often you are doing more than one thing at a time, and try dialing it back. Try just listening to the birds when you go for your morning run instead of listening to a productivity podcast, try tasting your food, try listening completely to the person you’re having a conversation with. Try ONLY watching TV. You don’t always have to fold laundry at the same time. And finally, my favorite mode of sensory rest, go outside. Nature is the 100% antidote to sensory overload. Go for a walk, watch a sunset, hug a tree. You’ll feel better.
6. Social rest. This one is tricky because typically, extroverts thrive on social interaction and introverts recharge their batteries best alone. So, know yourself. I know when my fuse is short, it’s time for Introvert Hibernation Time. I need alone, and I need quiet. If that’s you, that’s a basic need, and learning to honor it is the way to sanity. If you’re an extrovert, know the kind of social that energizes you, maybe coffee with a close friend or a movie night at church, or family time. Maybe combine another kind of rest — like your nature time, or your spiritual fellowship — with time other people who get you.
My blessing for you today is a poem by my favorite blessor, John O’Donohue, titled, maybe al title ironically, For Work:
May the light of your soul bless your work
with love and warmth of heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring light and renewal
To those who work with you
And to those who see and receive your work.
May your work never exhaust you.
May it release wellsprings of refreshment,
Inspiration, and excitement.
May you never become lost in bland absences.
May the day never burden.
May dawn find hope in your heart,
Approaching your new day with dreams,
Possibilities, and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into night blessed,
sheltered, and protected.
May your soul calm, console, and renew you.
To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue
Sacred Rest by Saundra Dalton-Smith
The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Video)