After living in a Himalayan monastery and exploring ancient Eastern traditions, Pedram Shojai arrived in Los Angeles with more than a few secrets to share with the modern, urban patients at his Chinese medicine practice.
The first tip? Put sleep at the top of their priority list.
“[Sleep] is a passive process of allowing and being,” Shojai says. In other words? Sleep is not just something we do, it’s often the central balancing point of our lives.
Shojai — who is an ordained Taoist monk, Chinese medicine practitioner, and bestselling author of "The Urban Monk: Eastern Wisdom and Modern Hacks To Step Time And Find Success, Happiness and Peace" — offers a simple answer for why sleep deprivation has become such a rampant problem in our society: We’re completely out of sync.
More aptly, our urban, technology-saturated lives can seriously mess with our ability to live by the body’s natural rhythms. Americans spend less and less time in nature and more time interacting with screens as the years go by — it’s estimated that the average American spends more than 11 hours each day interacting with electronic media. But people don’t have to go live in the woods or join a monastery to get back to a natural state of being (and sleeping), says Shojai.
Here is some of the wisdom that Shojai shares with practitioners on becoming an “urban monk,” and finding better sleep every night, despite all the distractions.
1. Squeeze in short rest periods throughout the day and actively practice the “yin” of sleep.
The main challenge people face in getting a good night’s sleep, according to Shojai, is the relentless pace of urban life. They are so busy that sleep can feel like a waste of time.
“There’s no allowance for slowing down,” Shojai said.
In Taoist terminology, people’s everyday working lives are all yang — masculine, active, get-it-done energy. Sleep, on the other hand, is the complete opposite, and that’s a big reason why many struggle to switch gears when the day is over.
“Sleep is yin. [It’s] totally different from the ‘masculine’ go-go-go way of our world and daytime craziness,” Shojai says. “We fall asleep. We let go. We release and get out of the driver’s seat, and boy is that hard for lots of people.”
Practitioners can train themselves to more easily move into yin mode by building short periods of rest into the day.
“If you look at our ancestors, there was always time throughout the day when people took time to rest and unwind,” Shojai says.
He counsels clients to find several points during the day when they can slow down and disengage from the constant flow of information coming from their screens, allowing themselves to tap into a more mindful state. It could be as little as a 10-minute meditation in the morning or a break from work walk around the block. Doing so allows people to actively practice the transition from yang to yin. According to Shojai, such mindful pauses will make you more effective in your work and better able to fall asleep at night, too.
2. Build a "deceleration" process into the evening and practice "scanning".
Everyone needs a wind-down period before sleep — and unfortunately, bingeing Netflix doesn’t count.
“We go out and we accelerate all day — we don’t have any deceleration process,” Shojai says. “Then at night, after binge-watching six shows or whatever it is you want to do, you slam on the brakes and expect to sleep.”
Slowing down, turning off the devices, and engaging in low-stimulation activities like yoga, meditation, reading, or spending time with family members helps alert the brain to the fact that the day is almost over.
If people struggle to fall asleep, Shojai recommends that they try a progressive relaxation meditation in which the practitioner focuses on and relaxes each section of the body, one point at a time, from head to toe.
3. Turn down the lights.
Back in the pre-industrial days, people took time to rest and unwind in the evenings because there was no electricity to give us light. Research in evolutionary psychology has shown that we’re hardwired to enjoy sitting by a crackling fire, and that bathing in that natural glow lowers blood pressure and fosters social connection.
Now, however, we’re constantly bathing in the light emitted from our digital devices. One survey found that 71 percent of people sleep with or next to their smartphones, and more than a third said that their phone is the first thing they reach for when they wake up.
To combat insomnia and improve sleep quality, Shojai counsels people to turn off devices at least an hour before bed, and if possible, turn down the lighting in the home as well.
Shojai makes a practice of dimming the lights in his home after dinner, and sometimes keeps the house lit entirely with candles.
“That tells your body that it’s over — the day is done,” he says.
4. Let go of all the bullsh*t.
Finding ways to deal with life’s stresses and frustrations goes a long way in helping people sleep better.
“Take all the stuff you’ve been processing over all these years, don’t deal with it, and then lie down and try to sleep,” Shojai says. “That’s the problem…. Losing sleep highlights the sh*t we drag around all day.”
Shojai recommends a meditation practice to practitioners to help them identify and let go of all the things that are cluttering their minds throughout the day, which can keep them up at night if they remain unexamined.
“Face your demons and you’ll sleep better,” he says.
What Shojai advises from experience is also backed by science. Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation are highly effective in improving sleep quality and combatting insomnia.
By practicing the fast to slow transition during the day, decelerating in the evenings, creating an environment that says ‘sleep’, and finally, letting go of all the B.S. that’s a natural part of life, practitioners end up on a path to rebalancing their entire waking lives.