“Peace is within oneself to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering. Trying to run away from suffering is actually to run toward it.” ― Ajahn Chah
Sleep is Magical
It is dark. I wake and awareness trickles into the warm spaces in my mind. The white noise machine on the cluttered bedside table hums. I feel the warm weight of the cat sleeping on my right foot. Sleep is a magical thing and I want more of it. Yet the core of my body is heating up like the flare of hot blue heat when a bunsen burner is first fired up. A single click and we have a roaring sharp tipped blue flame. I roll over and disturb the cat, who settles back leaning on my ankles. A prick of familiar panic forms in my belly as I lay there hoping to fall back to sleep. Hoping my mind will not turn on like my body has and the heat from the blue flame at my core will not disturbed my mind so I can fall back asleep and dream of things that don’t make sense but then do while they are happening in my sleep.
Yet, I begin to feel it, the tightening. My thoughts are winding tighter and tighter. Looping around and around each other like a thin copper wire coiling around a small lead tube, small constricting no room to breath. So much swirls around my mind in the middle night keeping me awake. President-elect Donald Trump and what will happen, fears for my son, things I forgot to do at work, ideas for writing, thoughts of getting older, worry about the approaching winter, even parking and rush hour traffic. Everything I have no control over or can’t do anything about at 2 am. So how do I find peace from the looping intrusive thoughts that keep my mind and body awake in the middle of the night?
Many experts speak of the basics of good sleep hygiene such as keep regular bedtimes, don’t drink caffeine after 3 pm, keep a cool, dark room used only for sleep. But what if I already do all of those and I still wake up? These experts also say let things go, let thoughts go or don’t fight them. Yet how? What do you literally do to let things go so you can sleep in the middle of the night?
After years of struggle here is how I find more magical sleep.
- Limit Media Input- I soak up media deep into my bones and psyche. Not only do I think about it, I feel it too. I remember during the Kosovo war in the late 90s listening to a news report on NPR and crying hard for all those suffering. It hurt so much and yet there I was thousands of miles away on a freeway in Detroit. I thought I was being too sensitive. I know accept that is just the way I am, so I have to be super careful about what and how much input I take in. Too much news or really anything and it invades my mind to replay in the middle of the night. Limiting my media includes, news (radio, tv and written), social media, movies and tv shows. I must be careful.
- Journal Daily- Sitting at my writing desk pen in hand with my first cup of coffee of the day helps to clear the clutter in my brain. I have crates full of journals (over 25 years worth of daily words) and let me tell you for the most part they are boring. I ramble, search and allow myself to let loose on the page. I release the worry and anxiety that accumulates inside. It is a safe space to be 100% me. If I don’t journal regularly all that stuff stays in my mind and starts to invade my dreams. I get cranky and short fused. My brain does not turn off. Repetitive thoughts loop around and around, usually at 2 am.
- Meditate Daily- Like writing in my journal sitting on my black mediation cushion while my honey sleeps and the cats play with each other out in the living room while I follow my breath is magic for quieting my mind and sleep. It calms the mind and trains it for space and stillness, it gets me into my body. If I don’t sit and meditate for three days, I notice a marked difference in my moods and reactivity. I will be up at 2 am if I don’t take the half hour to follow my breath and note when I am thinking or I have a pain in my right knee.
- Move My Body- I need to get those feel good chemicals flowing through my body. I need to get outside and breathe the fresh air, no matter the season. I need to release the anxiety by getting into my body through movement. Again, if I go too long without movement I notice I am stuck in a loop of anxious repetitive thoughts in the middle of the night.
- Honor Segmented Sleep- What is segmented sleep? It when you naturally sleep in two distinct chunks of time and are awake in the middle of the night. So you have first sleep, wake sleep and second sleep. Before the advent of artificial light from the lightbulb, our ancestors slept this way. Now whether I truly experience segmented sleep, I don’t know. I do wake most nights between 2 am and 3 am. Some nights I am able to fall back to sleep with ease, others not so much. Since learning about segmented sleep I no longer fight being awake in the middle of the night. I honor my wake sleep time to develop more mindfulness in my body and mind. If my mind is out of control and my belly is clenched tight with anxiety, I practice self-compassion by treating myself as I would a fussy colicky baby in the middle of the night. I treat myself with gentle kindness by not yelling at myself for being awake, which only creates more tension in my body. I lay in the darkness, go back to my breath and focus on how the softness of the bed is cradling me, how warm and cozy the quilts are, how soft the pillow is under my head. I practice progressive body relaxation. I use my wake sleep time to deepen my mindfulness practice. Since I have started doing this I have notice how much deeper my mindfulness is during the day. How much more I notice the movement of my thoughts. It is interesting how a shift in how I utilize that time in the middle of the night can have such a huge impact on my life. I am calmer and feel more rested. I think I am nicer too.
So none of these approaches are a quick easy fix. They all take time and dedication but I can tell you for me it worth it. Sleep is magical. It is a balm for my soul when I get enough. Plus every single one of these practices provides me with other benefits aside from a better night sleep. They enhance the quality of my life. I might even say they make my life possible. They allow me to function, be kind and present, not just in the middle of the night, but throughout the day too.