In the fall, bears begin preparing for hibernation by increasing their food and water intake. As the season transitions to winter, the bears surrender to their bodies’ demands for rest, sleeping for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. That same call pulls on our own bodies and systems, demanding that, as the days grow shorter and colder and the darkness extends, we, too, surrender to the need to slow down and rest.
In our daily lives, answering that call looks like honoring our need for sleep. As the sun goes down, our pineal gland (located in the middle of our heads, directly behind what many wisdom traditions have identified as our “third eye”) releases melatonin, supporting us in settling down for our night’s rest. As an aside, the pineal gland also influences release of various female hormones, impacting the menstrual cycle and fertility. In the morning, our cortisol levels (which have been rising through the night), awaken us and help us get up and move each day.
There have been increasing conversations in recent years around the ways in which modern life’s dependence on artificial lighting in our homes and work environments (as well as the blue light from our televisions, cellphones and other devices) delays the release of melatonin and interferes with our bodies’ internal clocks and our rest. Taking melatonin as a supplement, which can be beneficial for many, can further tell our bodies that production is unnecessary and make resting more of a challenge.
We are a society of sleep and rest deprived people, often pushing through our days and seasons in contradiction with what our bodies are calling for us to do. All of this is often doubly true of Black people (and especially Black people from communities with additional stress challenges such as those who are disabled, those who are caregivers for children or other loved ones, those who are economically disadvantaged and those from targeted or oppressed communities).
Studies have shown that when most people return home at the end of the day, their systems, which have been revving and on “high alert” mode, tend to power down, allowing them to recover and recharge before the next day. Unfortunately, those same studies found that Black people’s systems did not ever power down or go into a rest and recovery mode. They remained in high alert state, leaving no space for the much-needed recharge.
So, here are some ways to navigate the holidays (Holy Days) and the darkest time of the year with a full and joyous spirit and a rested body and mind. Feel free to engage with any or all these as best you can:
Cultivate a sleep hygiene routine (if you haven’t already).
This means turning off screens and devices 2.5 hours before you intend to go to bed and taking the TV out of your bedroom if you are able. Take a shower or bath about 90 minutes before bed. Use scents like lavender to help your mind and body settle into a calmer, more peaceful space. Keep your bedroom cool when it’s time to sleep (about 60-65 degrees). Drink Golden Milk or another warm and soothing beverage to support your relaxation. Use guided meditations to wind down. Try sleeping with a weighted blanket. If you find that you are still struggling to sleep, spending time in meditation is better than spending time worrying about not sleeping.
Give yourself permission to slow down or stop during this season.
If completely stopping isn’t an option for you with all your agreements and obligations, spend some time moving along at a slower pace. If you constantly have a long and ongoing to do list, give yourself some days where you check fewer items off that list.
Schedule rest days for yourself.
For those who are chronic over doers, you may need to make some rules for yourself at first – no work, no answering emails or worrying about x, y, z items, no dealing with certain people. You know best who and what constantly pulls you back into doing mode in your life. On your rest days, say no to them and that.
Take naps (or learn to cat nap).
For years, I struggled to nap. I did not realize that, just as we had to learn how to sleep as babies, we need to learn to nap. This is especially true if we were raised by poor sleepers or people who did not know how to honor their own needs for rest. Taking naps teaches our bodies and minds that it’s okay for us to unplug and shut down for periods of time, that things will still be there when we awaken. Naps do not need to be long and, if you tend to awaken from naps feeling groggy. Set a timer for 20 – 40 minutes and let yourself be still. You may or may not fall asleep. Be at ease with whatever happens.
Make a list of what you’ve done this year.
This is a powerful practice for those who constantly feel like they aren’t doing enough. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive or include everything. In fact, if you miss some items, that will just prove the point – you have had a full year. There’s plenty for you to celebrate and honor. Do that while you give yourself permission to rest. In fact – celebrate by resting!
Part of what will start to happen, with these steps, is that you will begin to realize that you may not have the time to complete all the things you have on your list. You’ve been digging into your own energy reserves and down time to accomplish what you were doing. Begin to create your own ways of slowing down or recommit to those that you have already established. Your capacity for service to your mission, your vision, your communities and the world will increase, and you will be much the better for it. The wheel of the year continues turning and the next season will come.