How to Sleep Better in 15 Minutes
A Sacred Norse Practice
Try this 15-minute Norse-inspired ritual before bed for blissful sleep.
I swore I would not buy another book. And I meant it. But here I am, gleeful about my latest acquisition―the Hávamál. This new treasure currently rests between the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Jedi Path—the three together representing over 3,000 years of mythic musings about mysterious forces.
First appearing in consolidated form in the 13th century, the Hávamál contains collected wisdom sayings attributed to the Norse god Odin. (So perhaps I should have shelved it with the Dhammapada, sayings of the Buddha; and Gospel of Thomas, sayings of Jesus. But I digress…)
My favorite of the 164 stanzas goes like this: “The unwise man is awake all night, / and ponders everything over; /when morning comes he is weary in mind, / and all is a burden as ever.”
Yes, friends, we’re talking insomnia.
Sleep Hygiene Invaders
Those of us who struggle to sleep likely have heard sleep experts’ advice: Avoid caffeine after 4 pm. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Shut off blue-light emitting TVs, phones, and computer screens at least an hour before bed (that hour may seem like an auspicious time to tackle bedside book piles, but, often, reading stimulates the brain, preventing us from melting into much-needed z's.
The Norse practice of útiseta might be able to help us. Edward Sellner, professor emeritus of theology and spirituality at Saint Catherine University, describes útiseta as “the practice of sitting out under the moon and the stars to listen attentively to the voices of nature, to singing water and rustling leaves.”
Traditionally, the practice took place on sacred gravemounds or where roads crossed. This signified sitting at the crossroads between worlds. One would sit alone―sometimes wrapped “under a cloak”―hoping to receive a vision, wisdom, or inspiration. The sitting could last many hours or span overnight.
For our modern version, we’ll just start with 15 minutes at the crossroads between awake and sleepy.
A 10-Step Practice for Better Sleep
- Start by turning off your devices and preparing your bedroom for sleep mode, including dimming all lights.
- Next, find somewhere outside where you can sit safely and quietly. (If you are building-bound, you can place a chair near an open window that has a view of the sky.)
- Tune into the flow of life force within yourself.
- Notice your breath. Follow it for a few cycles. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Now tune into your surroundings. Connect through your senses one by one. Ask yourself: What do you notice around you? What appears in the sky above you? What do you smell? Hear? How does the ground feel? How does the air taste?
- Consider any beings around you. It’s said the Norse often sang along with the birds or nature spirits they felt were present. Try humming or vocalizing along gently to what you hear: The woot of a country barn owl, the chirping of city crickets, or the croaking of suburban frogs.
- Observe, but do not absorb. Let your thoughts roll by as if playing on a screen. Try not to attach to any opinions or judgments. For example, let’s say you hear a noise. An observation is: “I heard a car door slam.” Let go of any opinions (“I hate noise!”) or judgments (“My neighbor is an insensitive jerk.”) Learning the difference between observing and judging takes practice. Quick tip: If the thought qualifies for an emoji, just let it pass right by.
- If your mind wanders to thoughts of the past or future, gently pull it back to your surroundings. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
- When you feel your practice is complete, transition slowly from sitting to standing. Carefully journey to your bed (without checking any of your modern devices!).
- Once in your bed, softly close your eyes. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
Try repeating this practice each night for a week, or perhaps every Wednesday this month. Why Wednesday? That’s Odin’s day! Our English word evolved from Wōdnesdæg, literally Wōdnes (Odin’s) dæg (day). Through intention and practice, you might just end up with a sacred habit. In that spirit, I’m considering revising my copy of the Hávamál:
“The wise earthlings watch the stars at night, / letting thoughts pass by like clouds; / when morning comes, they are refreshed, / waking with inspiration for the new day.”
Read about five cures for insomnia you haven't tried yet.
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