Sleep Is The Cousin Of Life

We’re often taught about how we spend a third of our lives asleep, and how that’s a negative.

In this capitalist culture built on the forced labor of people of color, it’s no surprise the brainwashing is so deep Black artists like rapper Nas decried sleep as “the cousin of death.” He possibly meant this metaphorically, that sleepin’, not being conscious and alert, puts one in danger in the streets. But the literal interpretation is an undercurrent in our society, and in grind culture.

I’ve been reading Tricia Hersey’s illuminating book Rest Is Resistance, which speaks to how sick, especially Black folks, have become in our egoic need to chase ambition and fulfill social expectations of perpetual business, often to the detriment of our health and wellbeing. Hersey makes the case that we must prioritize rest, and encourages it in a structured way with her Nap Ministry.

As someone who has struggled with mental health and addiction issues most of my life, I’ve had to learn the hard way about the detriment of being busy and overworking.

In 2014 I was fired from my job at The Denver Post for not meeting management’s expectations that partly stemmed from putting too much on my plate for too long. This eventually led to relapse on marijuana and alcohol and homelessness followed in 2016.

In the last seven years I’ve had a lot of time to rest, sleep and devote the majority of my time to self care and self revitalization, made possible in part by being the recipient of Social Security disability. This necessity to rest and focus on my health was further deepened through the course of being diagnosed with stage IV cancer and receiving treatment. No doubt this period was akin to a full time job in the time and energy it required to heal trauma and disease, including the active practice of sleeping.

Often my full time job of working on my health wasn’t recognized, especially by some white people, though they may not be explicit about it. In many ways though I didn’t realize up until a few months ago how much of my past overdoing stemmed from society’s expectation that as a Black man I must always be productive, rooted in the legacy of forcing Black people to fulfill the production needs of the white supremacist capitalist system.

I have had for a long time misplaced shame about sleeping and “doing nothing,” in part inherited from my parents who were often beset and driven by the societal expectations of busyness and making money. That being said, I can not blame them completely for my disease of guilt and shame about productivity as an adult. But understanding some of the root causes is useful.

Diving deeper into my spiritual life has revealed to me a dimension of rest and sleep not often discussed, which is the energy work and mental healing we often do in dream states. As a Reiki practitioner and teacher that is essential to my practice and development as an energy worker who helps others heal their life. And because of that energy work done in sleep, I can often wake up tired because I have been working in my sleep!

But I also know I don’t need to justify my need for rest and sleep. None of us should have to justify our need for rest. It is the essential fuel in my drive for life, rather than it’s deficit, and absolutely necessary, even in large doses, to heal my traumatized brain and body.

The majority of my year of homelessness in 2016-2017 I was without the use of my CPAP machine to treat my sleep apnea, and the compounding negative impacts on my mental and physical health nearly broke me and led me to multiple hospitalizations. I was told by a hospital psychiatrist that I suffered more from PTSD than generalized depression as I had been diagnosed with for most of my life, and that eventually I wouldn’t need psych meds I had been on since age 15 when I improved my physical health, most critically getting adequate sleep.

Considering how many people in our capitalist society struggle to get adequate sleep and rest, compounded by overuse of technology and a lack of supportive community and adequate health care, it’s no wonder depression and anxiety, and the addictive numbing behaviors that often accompany them, are so prevalent. By not truly prioritizing rest and sleep, and challenging the notion that we must justify not being constant producers of the capitalist machine, we are guaranteeing a broken future of a burned out, despondent citizenry unable to achieve our full potential and be truly available for life, especially our loved ones, which is the true essence of why we’re here, not just to be workers and producers. And we’ve already seen that played out and apparent through the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic that upended our lives and made us take a deeper look at the nature of work, productivity and self-care.

I have no doubt that without being on Social Security disability the past few years, I would be dead, either by suicide or cancer while trying to work and heal from two illnesses that had a terminal prognosis if untreated.

We must create a new society where rest and sleep are valued and not discarded as the “sin” of sloth or laziness, a society in which we truly value our inherent worth outside of productivity, and truly see rest as a form of liberation, and a celebration of life. If we don’t, we are headed for a certain spiritual death that could break humanity in a way from which it will never recover.


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