Walking Trees

If you’re a Tolkien fan, Ents spring to mind when walking trees are mentioned.

Prior to 2018 I had no further mental reference than Ents myself. But then I had the opportunity to stand under the Banyan tree in Lahaina Maui. That was a magical treat.

For the landscape company that maintains the tree, the mere mention of it probably makes their backs ache. A Banyan tree in the wild is a dense and impenetrable life form. The one in the center of Lahaina has been carefully sculpted to make rooms for a brick paved party with seating under its protective branches.

This sloppy bit of scribbling is my mental picture of this…

Photo by PaulT (Gunther Tschuch) taken in September of 2018. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HI_Maui_Lahaina_Banyan_Tree_Park2.jpg

That is all one tree! The tree branches grow so far they send down support trunks.

We are the limit of our own experiences. I still look at the Banyan and feel amazement and wonder. Anyone from Lahaina would say, “it’s just a tree, what’s the big deal.”

The big deal is that even with all of our shared experience as humans— eating, drinking, and sleeping on this planet—there were Banyan trees in your life from day 1, and it took me more than 50 years to find out they exist.

I may have seen a picture of this tree at some point in those first 50 years, but my mind would have considered it a copse of several manicured trees instead of one large tree.

The big deal is that I know a lot of stuff, but I am still learning.

A slightly smaller deal is, with the stack of craft paper I got from just one package, I have plenty of opportunities to make a much better rendering of this beautiful tree.

The Monkey Mind in Repose

Handwritten and drawn title art for “The Monkey Mind in Repose”. Brain receiving sound input while asleep.

When I woke up angry this morning I repeated out loud “the anger must go” about five or six times. The great thing about a mantra is the distraction and focus it provides to your mind, and the repetitiveness is mesmerizing. Soon I was not feeling angry nor was I on the monkey mind loop any more.

I know the source of my anger because I’ve been here before. Watching streaming TV as I fall asleep is the culprit. Some time ago I’d begun streaming TV (usually reruns) to fall asleep because I needed to quiet my looping monkey mind. It worked, but if I happened to be watching a series, it played all night.

The Sleeping Mind is Vulnerable

When we are sleeping our brain is quite vulnerable to sound around us. I know this because there have been a few times I’ve awoken and truly noted how the sounds around me were woven into my dreams. It was not a perfect match up…I was not dreaming the plot of a show, but some bits of dialog from the show had interwoven in whatever my mind was working on.

This used to happen to me quite frequently when I woke to an alarm clock. The alarm would be sounding in my dream even as it pulled me to wakefulness.

The mind uses our dreaming time to work out problems from our waking hours. Don’t take my word for it, but allow me to direct you to the work of Ken A. Paller, Jessica D. Creery, and Eitan Schechtman Memory and Sleep: How Sleep Cognition Can Change the Waking Mind for the Better.”

Sound’s Effect on the Mind

Music has charms to soothe the savage breast.

This famous line was first uttered by a character in William Congreve’s 1697 play The Mourning Bride.

The statement has morphed over the years, but from the first time our mother sings us a lullaby to our dying day we know this to be true every time a favorite tune hits our ear. The catchy tunes cheer us up. Need I mention “ear worms”?

Should it be such a surprise, then, that our sleeping and dreaming mind could also be influenced by the quality of sound?

Programming Myself—A Small Fix

My first time through the streaming TV experience, I had discovered a monkey mind effect in the morning. My thoughts were all over the place, so was my mood, and I recalled waking in the middle of the night (usually when I rolled over), and being more easily drawn into a TV show before quickly falling asleep again.

I decided to change the way I was using streaming TV. I wanted to give my mind the distraction it needed to get to sleep, but then the sound needed to stop so I could sleep in silence. I switched to comedy shows. The comedians I selected were the ones who were a quieter in their presentation style. Their show would play but then the streaming program would go dormant and the device would go to sleep.

This worked for a while until I got really tired of listening to the same comedians over and over again.

Recently, therefore, I had switched back to watching reruns of Gray’s Anatomy. I enjoy rewatching this show during my waking hours because it is good background noise. I’m familiar enough with it to remember the details so I can work on other things like cooking and cleaning or doodling. Plus, there are about 3,000 seasons of the show…ha!

But now I’m waking up angry with my mind buzzing. I suspect the nature of the show I watch influences more levels of the brain than I can understand. Gray’s Anatomy was written to heighten our emotional response so that we will return for the next episode. This tension is will me in the morning, and any unresolved issue from the day or two before causes me frustration. Having inhabited this brain space before, I hereby assert my sleeping mind is delicate enough to pick up on the tension or ease of the streaming TV!

This may beg the question, “Nan, why don’t you fall asleep listening to whale song, white noise, or waves on the beach sounds?” I find them pleasant at first, but for me they quickly become an ear and brain irritant.

Falling asleep to conversation takes me to a particularly warm, comforting and happy time from my youth. Conversation just works for me. I just need some particularly dull and medium-long conversation to play as I fall asleep.

The bottom line is that it is fascinating programming my brain by changing its exposure to content. We spend hours sleeping and knowing there is an influence I can exert to control the quality of those hours is comforting.

What Good Is All of This?

There is a very obvious relationship we’ve always known about exposing our waking minds to a constant stream of violence and misery — it doesn’t work well for the health and happiness of the individual in the short or long term. How well do people guard their sleeping hours to give the brain it’s proper processing time?

How many people live in circumstances in which they can guard the quality of sound during their sleep? How many have, or don’t have, access to safe sleep?

Here’s an interesting side article regarding small sleeping shelters that were developed with the homeless in mind: Ulmer Nest on Designboom.com


We talk in general terms about the world going mad. How much of that madness is brought about by a near-constant exposure to information and sound? Shouldn’t we address the fundamental need of each person to have safe and calm sleep for their minds to rest and perhaps resolve issues?

How do negotiations between world leaders benefit from a good night’s sleep by the principles? Could principles agree to fall asleep to a sound track (personalized to their own tastes) the night before the negotiations so they awake in like frames of mind? They already agree to locations and protocols for creating a “safe” space for the negotiations.

Let’s Toss in a Little Maslow

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lists physiological needs at the base for our existence. They include air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing and reproduction. Personally, I’d chuck reproduction up in the middle of the pyramid amongst the love and belonging needs, but that’s just me.

Maslow’s Hierarchy has been gently “debunked” for a reason exemplified by the third sentence of the above paragraph. Not everyone agrees to the order and importance of some needs. There are certain hedonistic villages who would chuck clothing out of the base section, too. And I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that some homeless people prefer to be out from under a roof—though “shelter” can mean many things to many people so “shelter” is not always a roof over head.

Maslow is still handy, however, as a checklist of needs. It is in our nature to organize priorities, and it is handy to have a list so we don’t forget anything.

Air, water, food, and sleep, however, are critical to our health. Their quality is of critical importance too. We’ve seen the effects of bad air, water and food. Sleeping poorly can mean you are just in a bad mood when you wake. On the other hand, insomnia can lead to hallucinations, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack or heart failure, or stroke.

Seems like a pretty good reason to watch the quality of what I breathe, drink, eat and how I sleep.

Sources

“Music to Tickle a Savage Breast”, In the Muse Performing Arts Blog post by Pat Padua, November 17, 2020, The Library of Congress.


This article is also on Medium.com.