It’s either 11pm or 3:30 in the morning, or five, or five minutes before my alarm goes off. I can never tell. I’m awake and my brain wants to do only one of two things. It wants me to get up, pee, walk around, get something to eat or it wants to run an inventory of all the things that I could possibly forget before morning. On rare occasions it will go through every hurtful, painful experience in my life. I will rewrite what I would have done differently had I found my way down that path. None of this is helpful.
Sleep is the most useful thing you can do for your mind, your spirit and your body. Without sleep, you spend your days sluggish, lackluster and cranky. You suffer an increased chance of disease and all sorts of physical maladies. I am not a doctor or zen master or expert of any kind. I only know, as someone who does not consistently sleep through the night, what I have done to deal with this.
First, here are some things I have tried that failed. Warm milk, tea, a book by the bedside, giving in and getting up, sleeping on the couch, sleeping upside down, and my personal favorite, a blank notebook and pen by the bedside. The idea on the last one was that I would write down the things my brain was worried about forgetting and with nothing left to worry about I would fall back into a peaceful sleep. What happened instead was that once my brain got past the bills that needed paying, the envelopes that needed mailing, the rooms needing painted, the projects for work, and the ideas for writing; is that I started worrying about how to make a viable business plan for the publishing industry as a whole, and how long the pope would live. Take away the small things and my brain will find big things to consider.
What I have found that did work was a form of meditation. I was recently listening to an episode of On-Being where the host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Arthur Zajonc. Among other characteristics of this scientist and contemplative, Zajonc has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. In the interview he talked about the fact that Parkinson’s patients don’t have tremors when they sleep. His next effort is to understand what it is about sleep that allows this calming of the body and how to bring those benefits into a wakeful sleeping life. I have tried to do the same work for myself with insomnia, bring the benefits of sleep into my forced mid-night waking.
Meditation offers many of the same benefits as sleep, including lowered heart rate and blood pressure, freed visualization and imagination, a reduction in stress and an increase in healing. When I can’t sleep the two things my own brain wants to do is get up and move, and worry about yesterday or tomorrow. So my meditation in place of sleep has two goals. First, I want to still my body. Second I want to stay, mentally, in the here and now.
That first goal, stilling the body, involves controlling the location of my consciousness. I have used many techniques to meditate towards this goal. The most effective has been a two part body scan. I start at my forehead and focus on any muscles or feelings I can sense in my forehead. I then move to my face, my neck and down my body. I lie my arms along side my body, touching my torso, because I get confused by having to consider the left to right halves of my body while moving up and down. If my arms are touching my torso I don’t have to consider them separately and split my focus.
Once I have scanned all the way down to my toes I reverse the process. The only difference is that I drop off the part of my body I’ve left behind. When I get to my ankles, I forget my feet. I have no feet. When I get to my hips I have no legs. By the time I get to my face I have no body. I sometimes even imagine an off switch in my spine below my neck or that someone has taken a pair a magic scissors and snipped my spine temporarily. In this state I have no body to move and my consciousness is contained entirely in my head. Sometimes it fills my whole head and sometimes it sits in a small spot behind one eye or just inside an ear. In this state I have often found that a shifting bedmate or sudden sound, which would normally jolt me, becomes a distant, impactless noise. I am unable to move the body I do not have.
The second goal is to be here and now. In this bodiless state, my brain is still free to worry. From this there are really two directions to go. One is to focus, like a microscope, on one thing. The other is to focus, like a telescope, on all things. Zajonc says the tremors increase when he focuses on one thing and subside when he focuses more widely. For me, it depends on the night.
When I am focusing on one thing I have a mantra that I repeat over and over or I have a visualization, drowning out any other thoughts or worries. If it is a mantra night, I will choose something about my goal. “I am here and nothing need worry me.” “If not sleep, deep rest.” “This, until my sweet sweet dreams.”
If am visualizing I will imagine a small perch on which my consciousness sits or a small jar in which the ball of light of my mind glows. I will consider the feel and touch and smoothness of this container. I will consider the size of it compared to the mountains, to the galaxy, to the whole universe and all of time. I will sense how small and vital I am in this large, wonderful, endless thing. Whenever I feel myself drift or catch myself worrying I will go back to my mantra, or my visualization, back to my here and now.
I do not claim these techniques will work for you. What I do encourage is that you use the time when you are awake, in the middle of the night, as time to find your own peace, time to experiment and find techniques that works for you. How can you get to the point where your body, which you slough off when you fall asleep, is disconnected from your rumblings? How can you bring your consciousness, which is obsessed with wild imaginative dreams while sleeping, into some directed calm. More often than not, focusing on these things will result, not surprisingly, in falling into a deep and healing sleep. I wish you these.