Urban human-nature resonance for sustainability transformation


Humbleness towards the Unverfügbarkeit of sleep –
About cycles, sleep rituals and Mother Earth


Introduction: Sleep as a resonating relationship with the world

Surely it happens not only to me again and again that I lie in bed in the evening and think "Wow, beds are definitely amongst the best inventions in the world". Built from raw materials, they represent for me at this moment Pachamama – Mother Earth – , who spreads her arms and accompanies us into the world of sleep. In terms of time, Pacha represents the past, the present and the coming. When we go to sleep, we let go of the past hours and recover for the coming day.



The memories of the day slowly fade out and the last thoughts pass through our mind. The body is carried, the head supported and a warm blanket helps to feel safe. Safe and secure. For humans physiologically, one of the factors behind the sleeping mechanism is a quantity of the happiness hormone serotonin, which in turn is converted into melatonin within the pineal gland. This relaxedness and a confidence that one may let go then cause...... yes, what does actually happen?

The act of falling asleep is a resonance act of the human-world relationship par excellence. In no other temporal phase the human body regenerates more than during sleep: We increase our defenses, our memories are processed and our nervous system is formed. But we are not a peculiarity of nature – all beings need phases and cycles of rest, regeneration and care. As a child (and even today), I was always delighted when a "Pssst... sleeps" was displayed on stationary trains. Even the technology designed by us is not an infinitely-usable machine that we should overuse. While it may seem easier for us to mechanically repair, maintain or give care to technical devices, the act of sleep by our human body and mind is subject to a special complexity (I am sure this is also true for other living creatures, however, research is mostly focusing on describing animal sleep behavior, while for humans it is often about diagnostics and therapeutic procedures).

In order to reach the highly regenerative phase of sleep, the logic of resonance applies which cannot be influenced or calculated. As sociologist Hartmut Rosa explains: Sleep is essentially not enforceable, only the conditions for it can be created. This special characteristic is described by Rosa with the term Unverfügbarkeit (English: Unavailability) about which he published a book in 2020. Applied to worldly phenomena this means, for example: We cannot conjure up snow. We cannot make an admired person like us. And we cannot sleep at the push of a button. The majority of people will probably know the latter in part, if they have longed for sleep urgently when it did not "work out". While this fortunately occurs only sporadically to some of us, humans with chronic sleep disturbances seem to have lost their rhythm – the rhythm from their dance with the life. Terms like dissonance come to mind, no longer finding peace at night, no longer trustingly surrendering to the flow of life. Scientists are increasingly pointing out that this is by no means an isolated case in this country: 6% of German adults suffer from serious sleep disorders and one of three Germans complains about problems falling asleep. The costs of these sleep disturbances amount to 0.7 to 1.6% of the GDP in Germany. The consequences of insomnia increasingly show up in cardiovascular diseases, overweight and also in a tendency to depression. However, at this point the question arises: What goes wrong? A very loving "sleep explanation" and assistance by the journalist Dieter Bednarz can be found in the magazine Moment by moment - Das Magazin für Achtsamkeit (issue 4/2021):

"Sleep is like a partner, and as in any partnership, it expects consideration. It doesn't want to be punched into some corset, but respected and accepted."

So, do we not treat sleep as a partner when it comes to sleep disorders? In addition to the physical-regenerative mechanisms of sleep described above, there are several other things that speak in favor for more consideration and care for this phase of the day: As a resonant response by our partner sleep, we are gifted when he is doing well. It promotes our creativity – quite a few of the greatest achievements found their origin in dreams. Einstein is said to have come up with the theory of relativity while dreaming of a sleigh ride. Larry Page of Google dreamed of his logarithm Page Rank, and Paul McCartney expressed a special appreciation to his sleep-relationship: The melody of the global hit Yesterday appeared to him in his sleep – hence, he claims not to had written it actually himself. This humbleness before the higher power of sleep may also be significant in the context of society's sustainability efforts. Thus, in an article published in 1992 in the journal GAIA, Prof. Dr. Theodor Abt discussed the extent to which, in addition to technical-economic processes of change, spiritual-emotional aspects and the unconscious world of sleep can actively contribute to the transformation of sustainability. Under the heading "Leitbilder aus der Innenwelt" (guiding principles from the inner world), he discusses ways in which visions and dreams – as expressions of nature – can be translated into day-to-day reality and how these can provide answers to the pressing questions of the socio-ecological crisis. Thus, he sees in dreams the possibility of creating a bridge towards new basic nature-related attitudes:

“Turning to dreams is, of course, quite a powerful thing for a scientist to do. It is humiliating that besides the sharp, clear intellect there should be something else that may also know something. But perhaps, as a result of today's environmental crisis, we realize that we can no longer equate mind with intellect in the Cartesian way and think that knowledge is the integral of all scientific publications.”

Who is responsible for healthy sleep?

Now, on the one hand one could say here, ok, it is an individual responsibility to strive for healthy sleep. However, on the other hand, insomnia also has societal causes which are to be found in our economic system among other things. This system sets relatively standardized life rhythms for the population, which can then lead to social jetlags. Their effects then do not remain individual. Thus, costs and risks arise for society as a whole that have so far tended to be underreported or socially underestimated. For example, in the area of mobility, the proportion of accidents caused by lack of sleep is higher than that caused by the frequently referred to hazardous alcohol. Even in simple interpersonal interactions, we are far from being aware of or addressing the influence of good sleep: For example, scientists have found that sleep-deprived people are more socially withdrawn and less helpful and empathetic than those who were sufficiently rested. Certainly, this is not only related to the human environment but also to the more-than-human nature, who consequently might experience less empathy and care – relational qualities that are essential to foster human-nature resonance for sustainability transformations. In terms of responsive human-nature relationships, Pachamama can support us in a healthy sleep. For example, there is a number of relaxation music that works with sounds from nature, such as rain or the sound of the sea, and which are intended to lull us humans into sleep. In my opinion, it is impossible to estimate the effects that a lack of sleep has on our lives to date, but they may be tremendous. The topic of sleep and rest must therefore definitely be addressed socially in order to sound out beneficial conditions – for people but ultimately also for a loving, sustainable coexistence with nature. Accordingly, there would be a need for research, in the sense of Professor Abt, on the interplay between dreams and the development of solutions and visions for sustainability transformation. A second area of tension, which has not been investigated so far, ties in with the study on declining helplessness towards fellow human beings in the case of sleep deprivation: What role does insomnia play in active care for nature?


Social oases of rest and relaxation (here in Karlsruhe)

Strengthening sleep relationships – but how?

If we want to work on healthy sleep conditions in order to strengthen people in their self-care and thereby also in their social skills, certain trends in modern societies quickly become clear: We often want to treat problems mechanistically trough the push of a button, to make them controllable to us. And we would like to have them go away, for example by taking medication (as wonderfully parodied here in this song). But mostly this only makes things more present and more difficult to solve. At this point, a Buddhist perspective can be very healing: Turning to the subject – here the "sleep problem" – accepting it, perhaps mourning and understanding it more deeply. And ultimately, it may then become apparent that the problem is not, in fact, a "sleep problem" (we tend in our society to give problems false, misleading, and responsibility-diffusing names such as "problem child" or "wave of refugees" in order to avoid seeing the root of the problem and push it away). It is not a child's fault if he or she is different or more difficult than others. Nor is it a crisis of refugees if their living conditions in their countries of origin are being destroyed by, among other things, global climate change. In the end, it is also not the fault of sleep that it once again refuses to visit us in the evening. Rather, it is a lack of awareness and care on our part as individuals and society to preserve sleep as something more precious. As a phase of the day in which Mother Earth welcomes us with open arms and we (can) trustingly place ourselves in her care. While in society, school and work schedules should be much better adapted to sleep rhythms, it is also necessary to identify the negative influencing factors. Massive acceleration of living conditions, more pressure to perform and burn-out symptoms affect sleep patterns and should definitely be socially understood and acknowledged. Another indication that these disruptive factors are not infrequently related to our modern way of life is provided by a study published in the scientific journal "Current Biology": The researchers visited three Indigenous peoples and examined their sleep patterns. Interestingly, none of the three peoples had a word for sleep disorders.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that disturbed sleep patterns also mostly conceal a veil of social injustice, since, for example, individual groups such as women, the unemployed, poorer and/or partnerless people seem to suffer more frequently from sleep problems.

Ideas for individual sleep rituals

In addition to the social perspective, however, I can also listen closely as an individual and learn what my body needs in the evening. With the help of a mindful observer's perspective, I can find out what is good for me and what is more conducive to a restful night's sleep. According to sociologist Hartmut Rosa, rituals are a way to actively promote resonant relationships. Scientists increasingly see potential in their application also in the field of sustainability to strengthen the relationship with nature. And the relationship with our sleep in particular can also be cultivated through rituals. In sleep hygiene, psychologists advocate going to bed always at a similar time; this allows the body to adjust. Bedtime can also be introduced with a recurring activity, a ritual. Some people read before going to bed to wind down, others write in a diary, and many listen to soft music (such as the beautiful album Moon Safari by Air). A cup of tea, a good-smelling oil, or heat are also recommended, as they appeal to the basal, instinctual level of the body and evoke feelings of comfort and safeness. Certain diets in the evening can be individually supportive or rather hindering. I guess that some of the readers will be reminded of customs that play a role in the everyday life of children, because especially for the smaller earthlings such structured frameworks are of great importance. But these forgotten sleep rituals are also good for the larger earthlings: They cultivate the relationship to sleep, they promote trust in life cycles as well as our relationship to nature and Pachamama. And finally, they strengthen the individuals to enter into resonance with other earth comrades with openness and empathy.


Example: A hot drink as a sleep ritual

Author: Susanne Müller

If you have any comments or question on the essay, feel warmly invited to contact the author  (s.muellerioer@ioer.de).





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