My Secret Sleep
The best place I’ve ever not-slept was a Zen temple in central France. Not-sleeping was an infrequent occurrence there, as the schedule was full and designed to keep your mind focused and your body busy. Nevertheless, humans being humans, stuff happened at the Zen temple: coffee (among other things) was consumed, love was made, fights were fought, nightmares surfaced, crises arose. So that in spite of the early wake-up, the hours of meditation, the physical work for the community, and the three square meals at regular times, sleeping through the night was not a given.
When I couldn’t sleep at the Zen temple I would get up quietly, quietly, so as not to disturb the other women with whom I usually shared a room. Often the floor creaked, or the door; I maneuvered like a spy in the shadows, putting all that mindfulness to good use. Once out of the room, I had the choice of being alone on the inky edge of the forest, listening to invisible animals while watching the stars overhead; or letting myself wander into the presence of someone else who was not-sleeping. Maybe the cook, in the tiny office in the heart of the dark kitchen, poring over his menus in a pool of lamplight. Maybe some nonconformist with too much energy at the wrong time, smoking a cigarette by the pond, eager to chat. We would pay for it in the next day’s meditation, an endless loop of heads pitching forward and jerking back. In my time at the Zen temple I learned that both situations – the hours of not-sleep and the uncomfortable meditation – were moments to be lived and welcomed with an open mind, without resistance or judgement.
But that was another time. Nowadays, my (happily infrequent) bouts of insomnia have an entirely different shape. In my current habitat there are few stars, and the only invisible animals making noise are the upstairs neighbors. Maybe it’s age. But there is no feeling of something wide and wonderful to walk out into as an alternative to sleep. All I want is to go back in, dammit, back down to those delicious delta waves.
Reclaiming sleep when it has been snatched or broken is an art akin to tracking a wild animal. There is skill involved; but apply just a hair too much effort and the thing escapes you. Much advice exists on how to do it. There are scores of scientists and therapists who will lead you on your quest for the sleep beast, supplying rules and statistics and helpful suggestions. If you frequently have a hard time sleeping, it’s not a bad idea to know these basics. The difficulty with all this info is that not-sleeping is an individual affair. What provokes or soothes my insomnia will be very different from what affects yours.
Arguably more important than the existing body of research is your capacity for self-awareness: the ability to feel, describe, and build upon your personal experience. This means taking the time to pay attention to and process what’s happening to you mentally and physically. If this is hard for you, sessions with a somatic practitioner (like me) or other therapists can help you re-acquire the skill. It’s a good one to have.
Writing is also a very effective way to build the muscle of attention. You can keep a record of your sleep patterns and note what might be affecting them, or write down the sensations, emotions, and thoughts you experience during your sleepless periods. When does your insomnia occur? What awakens you? How does your body feel? What’s going through your mind? How does it affect you the next day?
The time you spend not-sleeping is usually just the tip of the iceberg. Anything you do during your waking life can have an impact on your sleep. Paying attention will enable you to apply possible solutions intelligently and adjust them according to your needs: change your mattress, stop drinking coffee, exercise more, stay off the screens. Self-awareness will also help you pinpoint the deeper causes of your sleep disturbance and do what’s necessary to work through them. Is there unfinished business in your life? What needs your attention?
The lungs’ lullabye
Now this is all fairly rational. The actual experience of not-sleeping is anything but. Yes, sometimes it’s interesting, almost exciting, like at the Zen temple; sometimes it’s just boring. But then there are the dark hours filled with dread, when the shiny, reasonable prefrontal cortex is out of commission and the older, reptilian brain crawls out like a fat lizard, black eyes alert with ancestral nighttime wariness, perceiving everything as worse than it is. This is the wasteland of pounding hearts, catastrophic regrets, and monotone tunnel-vision views of the future.
Conventional wisdom says if you’ve been lying awake in that wasteland for more than 20 minutes, you should get out of bed and do something…uninteresting. (Seriously, one medical site recommends “reading something uninteresting.” The idea alone is enough to wake me up completely and irrevocably.) No, these days, I rarely get out of bed once I’m in it. I try to stay as close to somnolence as I can, and either accept that I’m awake and float there, or try various things – quietly, quietly – to run with the sleep beast again. I may cover my eyes or put in earplugs. I may send my awareness to a pain or discomfort, and hang out with it for a bit. I may do something crafty with my breathing: square breathing, or 4-7-8 (ask me, I’ll tell you about it), or simply feel my lungs do their little pumps without my controlling anything at all.
When dread is present I let the lizard perception run wild, marvelling at its darkness, its urgency, its persistence, without resisting. Living it like getting soaked in a cold rain. This, I suppose, is the wide mind of acceptance from the Zen temple. It’s a good one to have. Exciting insomnia? A dread-ful night? Yes. So?
One of the best sleeps I’ve ever had was in a hotel room in Warsaw at the end of a long stay in Poland. The trip had been quite an adventure. After several weeks of a narrow dorm bed in Krakow, I found myself in a private room with a mattress fit for a princess and a huge goose-down pillow straight out of a fairytale. My head hit that pillow and I took the express train to la-la land and stayed there for more than 12 hours, fully dressed, oblivious to the worried tour guide banging on the door and the front desk calling on the phone. I was gone, gone, oh so gone, riding perfectly and effortlessly on the back of the beast.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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