Sleep and Stillness

If you’ve seen Arrival, you’ll probably remember the beautiful, haunting song featured at the beginning and end of the movie. That song is “On the Nature of Daylight,” by British composer Max Richter. Minor spoilers follow.

The use of Richter’s song in the movie is both powerful and thematically on point. Arrival is about, in part, the geography of time, about how we internalize our experiences and fit them into the story of our life. By making the song the first and last thing we hear, the opening and closing of the movie get stitched together in a way that fuzzes the boundaries between the two and asks us to reconsider the relationship between them.

Here it is. Maybe listen to it as you read this post.

When I saw Arrival in theaters, my dad leaned over as the first notes started playing and remarked: “Why does this movie feel like it’s starting at the end?” Long, melancholy notes. Reflection. Stillness. That sense of how beginning and endings should feel is so powerful that when confronted with the suggestion to view them as the same, we’re momentarily jarred. Which is the point, of course. “On the Nature of Daylight” unsticks us from chronology and ushers us into a world of dream logic.

This is territory that seems to be very comfortable for Richter. In 2015, he released an eight-hour album called Sleep, written with input from neuroscientist David Eagleman to map the brain’s voyage through the night. As in “On the Nature of Daylight,” Sleep is meant to pull you from your preconceived notions of the world and send your brain somewhere else, in this case…to sleep. Though it’s been available for a while, the album was just recently made available to stream, and I’ve been listening to it as I work. It is very chill.

What I appreciate about the album is the respect it hangs on sleep. A respect I don’t often give it, but would like to be able to. My sleep schedule is, to be frank, a mess, and while I usually point the finger at the back end of the issue—at waking up and my morning routine—I’ve recently begun to suspect that the real problem is located on the front end. With how I go to sleep.

I’ve already mentioned in The Quiet Post that I put a lot of stock in rituals (and in throwing those rituals out when they aren’t working). Making my bed in the morning keeps me steady, helps me cross the threshold into the day. But for all I’ve tweaked my morning rituals, they never actually help me wake up.

So a much more difficult proposal presents itself: going to bed at the same time every night. I’ve been attempting this for a while, and let me tell you it is a whole lot harder. There’s a saying, and I can’t remember where I heard it, that the easiest thing to do is what you’re already doing. It takes a certain amount of escape velocity to switch modes. To go to bed when you’re already awake. To wake up when you’re already asleep. To do much of anything different, really, when you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time.

Helping us change our thoughts and behaviors seems to be the business Richter is in with his music, though. A movie bookended by a song that forces us to reconsider how we view our lives. An eight-hour album that paves the way into sleep. Both of these offer two things: the ability to externalize our inner lives as music, and through this process:


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Stillness from anxiety. Stillness from work. Stillness from existential dread. Some people arrive there through music. Some through meditation. Some, like Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, arrive through exercise (“I run very fast because I desperately want to stand very still,” he says). The need for stillness is part of what lies behind the clamor about social media and the breakneck pace of the Internet. It is very difficult to find stillness online. We don’t seem to value it as much as we should.

I came across this guide to Japan by Cards Against Humanity co-creator Max Temkin last week. He describes his visit to a rock garden in Kyoto:

The biggest surprise of our sightseeing was the Ryōan-ji rock garden, which was stunning and nearly free of tourists. The rock garden, moss garden, and surrounding park are all incredible. Something I learned at Ryōan-ji is that the American saying “a rolling stone gathers no moss” has the exact opposite meaning in Japan; Japanese culture values moss because it signifies longevity and sophistication. If you’re always agitating and moving around trying to find the best ramen, you’ll never become a shokunin — an artisan with the expertise necessary to work for the welfare of your people.

We sometimes avoid stillness because there can be scary things in there. We want to move fast and break things. To not fall behind. To not be bored or sad. But in practice this results in a kind of frantic behavior—manifesting as avoidance and distraction—that hinders our ability to work and be in relationship with others. The most valuable things we have to offer the world are the small works and kindnesses we’re only capable of when we make room for them to arrive. When we’ve gathered moss like quiet, sleeping stones.

Stillness is a threshold. “One of the doors / into the temple,” Mary Oliver calls it. Like sleep, or like the use of “On the Nature of Daylight” in Arrival, stillness unsticks us from chronology and asks us to consider our lives in a different light.

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You’re not meant to listen to the entire eight hours of Richter’s Sleep. You’re meant to be dozing within the first half hour. The rest plays, unnoticed, throughout the night, tracking with your dreams. I’ve always found the thought of myself lying still and unaware in the darkness for hours on end to be fairly unsettling. What Richter’s composition does, by its mere existence, is make us conscious of that time, of the things that happen when we sleep. Of the hours spent in bed while our thoughts weave through each other in time with the music.

Moments of stillness, for me, feel a lot like what Richter wants us to feel about sleep. Which is just, in a sense, to notice it. To pay attention. These moments are crucial for creativity and problem solving. My best ideas, my most healthy thoughts, arrive through sleep, stillness, and boredom, through the esemplastic hours when the brain has time to refract everything through everything else. Sleep and stillness are the simmer-settings of the body.

And just like Richter’s music, they make space for our brains to transform.

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“If I truly believe that things can change, will I wake up to something different?”

Cloud Cult, “Breakfast With My Shadow”