Sleeplessness can be a truly hellish thing. When is our existential predicament felt more profoundly than when we’re alone in the darkness, ensnared by our rumination, unable to escape into the glorious embrace of unconsciousness or even a pleasant thought or two? And, yet, just as an athlete trains under the worst conditions that they expect to encounter during a race or on game day, we might also come to appreciate our sleeplessness as a time of fruitful spiritual practice. For if we can learn to find peace in the depths of our darkest hours, then it is likely that we will be okay as soon as the first rays of morning light creep over the horizon.
Now, despite what I just said about athletes training under adverse conditions, we needn’t go out of our way to make things harder on ourselves. In that regard, we’re well-served by knowing at least the basics of good sleep hygiene: Make your bedroom a place for sleeping – not reading or television watching or internet surfing. Be knowledgeable of how your body responds to caffeine consumed later in the day, heavy foods eaten later in the evening, and strenuous exercise engaged in right before bedtime. Keep in mind that that glass of wine that is so conducive to slumber late in the evening might actually have you waking up just a few hours later. Something to keep in mind, as well, is that difficulty falling asleep can be a sign of anxiety, whereas waking in the middle of the night and being unable to return to slumber can accompany depression. It’s worth examining our sleeplessness in a holistic way that takes into consideration our diet, lifestyle, physical and mental health, and our general happiness and contentedness. Much good information is available on the internet. I won’t pretend that this post can serve as substitute for some good research by a motivated individual. Thus, I will focus on some ways to approach sleeplessness that are not so much discussed.
Allow me to set the stage: You’re tired – perhaps even exhausted. You went to bed and fell asleep with no problem whatsoever. Then, just four hours into your allotted eight hour slumber your eyes blink open and you know…, you just KNOW that you’re not going to be falling asleep again anytime soon. A sense of dread fills your mind. Work is going to be challenging tomorrow and you have simply got to be on top of your game. But that’s not all. Work has not been going well at all these days and you’re feeling as though you’re being scrutinized in a way that does not bode well for your future with the company. And what if you get let go? The economy is pretty lousy these days; it’s definitely not a good time to be looking for work. You’d probably have to put your house up for sale. But you’ve kind of gotten behind on the maintenance, and between that and the downturn in the real estate market you’ll be lucky just to pay off the mortgage and walk away without still owing on it. Forget the idea of living off of the equity for a little bit. What a mess! You’re forty years old and you’ll have nothing to show for a lifetime of work. Oh, the mistakes you’ve made…
Sound familiar? Indeed, some might even recognize their daytime thought processes in the above scenario. Isn’t it the case, though, that the darkness and our aloneness in the wee hours of the morning combine to make everything seem so much worse? So, what can we do about it? I’ll assume that you’ve done the research alluded to above and have made whatever dietary and lifestyle changes need to be made. But even if you haven’t, here are some things you can do:
Notice the negative effects of rumination. We tend to be productivity-minded and inclined to think that we should make good use of our nighttime wakefulness by thinking through our problems. Bad idea! Forget the stories of creative solutions visiting people in the middle of the night. Stress is not conducive to the creative process. Rumination at this point will merely maintain or even exacerbate your level of physical tension and mental duress.
Notice the negative nature of your automatic thoughts. What arises within you the very instant your eyes pop open? Is it not a full-body response to the notion that “it’s happening again”? By “full-body response” I mean the immediate physical tension and attribution of negativity to the circumstances of your awakening. Recognize the importance of your response to this first moment of wakefulness. An “it’s happening again” reaction positions you on the battlefield that you already know so well – with an end result that you already know so well. Make the decision at this point that you’re only going to pay attention to what you’re experiencing in the present moment – without burdening that experience with unnecessary baggage. The barest nature of your experience in that moment when your eyes first pop open is defined by just two components: 1) it’s the middle of the night, and 2) you’re awake.
Conduct a body scan. A body scan is an important component of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. With practice you can find areas of tension in your body and invite them to relax rather quickly. National Public Radio has an audio guide to conducting a body scan that you may want to access. If this seems like too much work, then simply incorporate such attention to the body into the following step.
Give the moment your unadorned awareness. So often we make a situation into a negative one by adorning it with labels, attributing meaning to it, and conceptualizing about it. With unadorned awareness we simply notice that which is: You’re awake; it’s dark outside. Let awareness take in your experience as it happens – without adding anything onto it. Notice that creaking sound that the settling of the house just made. Hear the wind as it pushes against the window. Notice the tension in your back and how it feels as you gradually relax. Feel your spine settling deeper and deeper into the mattress. An owl hoots. Feel your abdomen rise and fall as you breathe. The thought arises in your mind that you wish you could simply fall asleep. Notice it and let it pass away. The furnace turns off and the ductwork reverberates. A truck engine whines as it makes its way down the highway... There is nothing inherently negative about anything that you are experiencing; it simply is. And while you’re attending to your experience with unadorned awareness you are NOT engaging in the rumination that turns your experience of sleeplessness into such a hellish one.
Be aware of the interconnectedness of the eyes and the brain. Yes, you already know this, but do you realize the true nature of this interconnectedness? It is not merely the case that brain activity prompts eye movement; the causal relationship works in the other direction also. So, if we determine to fix our gaze behind our closed eyelids, we will also minimize the ruminative thinking that habit prompts us to engage in. Thus, upon settling back down into stillness after your initial reaction to your awakening, settle also into a still gaze – remaining mindful of any wandering about that your eyes might be doing. This wandering of the gaze often accompanies the reactivation of the mind.
Follow this protocol and you might just settle into deep samadhi. On the other hand, you might just end up going back to sleep, but that’s probably the preferable scenario under the circumstances, anyway, right? Good luck, and sweet dreams!
Sleepless image by Yulonda Rios via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank