For the past five years or so, I have been on a quest to sleep better. I have been sleeping poorly since my thirties, and it has only gotten worse as the years have passed. My three sons all followed suit. When they got into their thirties, they also began to sleep poorly.
The internet is full of advice for us poor sleepers. Exercise, but not too late in the day. Avoid caffeine. Don’t eat within three hours of bedtime. Practice mindfulness. Use breathing techniques like “box breathing.” Increase intake of certain vitamins and minerals. Turn off the TV or computer at least an hour before bedtime. The suggestions go on and on.
I saw my doctor recently for an annual wellness checkup. I reminded him of my quest, and he raised the issue of sleep apnea. That is not what I wanted to hear. Everyone I know who has been diagnosed with sleep apnea has ended up with a CPAP machine. I can’t imagine sleeping with a mask over my face and air being forced into my lungs.
The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that 22 million people in the U.S. suffer from some form of sleep apnea. That is not good news. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious disorder. Its long-term effects include high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack. It is now considered a risk factor for dementia.
The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax and the soft tissue they support – the tongue, soft palate, and uvula – close, momentarily sealing the airway. This can happen repeatedly during the night, waking the sleeper enough to reopen his or her airway.
The most widely used device for treating obstructive sleep apnea is a CPAP machine. It pumps a continuous stream of oxygenated air through a plastic tube and face mask into the sleeper’s nose and mouth. The increased pressure of the forced air keeps the soft tissue from closing and allows airways to remain open.
Every adult I’ve known or heard about who was diagnosed with sleep apnea has been supplied with a CPAP machine. Many have benefitted greatly, but some hated it. They experienced claustrophobia and felt as if the pressure of the forced air would suffocate them. They were told that they would get used to it in time, but they did not, and gave up. They reasoned that apnea interfered less with their sleep than that suffocating mask.
There is an interesting parallel to this in the spiritual life. The biblical words most commonly translated as “spirit” in both Hebrew and Greek are also translated, when context demands, as “air” or “breath.” Just as the long-term health of the body requires the regular reception of air, and lack of air causes long-term negative effects, so the long-term health of the soul requires the regular reception of spirit.
Writing to first century disciples in what is now Western Turkey, the Apostle Paul instructed Christians to “be filled with the Spirit.” He had in mind the Spirit that is from God and is God. The regular reception of this Spirit is required for the kind of spiritual stamina that manifests itself, as Paul goes on to say, in healthy relationships with God, each other, and with one’s family.
The unusual choice of a present passive imperative verb for “be filled” makes clear the need of Christians to be continuously filled with God’s Spirit. If this regular, normative reception of the Spirit is interrupted, spiritual disability may ensue and relationships with God and others will be negatively affected.
It is possible that some of us suffer a kind of spiritual apnea. Our reception of the life-giving Spirit is repeatedly interrupted, which impacts our lives and relationships negatively. We may benefit from a spiritual version of the CPAP machine – the daily practice of spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, meditation, and worship – through which God’s Spirit can refresh our souls.
The practice is but a means, as the CPAP machine is a means. More important is what it facilitates: a regular reception of the Spirit that, as St. Paul wrote, “gives life.”