I sometimes find myself unable to sleep at night. Not right when I go to bed, but long after, at 2 or 3 a.m., those hours during which “alone” has a kind of sharp resonance banished by daylight. I may be completely comfortable. There may be a cool breeze blowing in my bedroom windows, carrying the soft singing of crickets; every natural lullaby may be playing for me.
But still, I am awake.
Often, there isn’t anything particularly wrong. And there’s nothing strange about the experience, not after a lifetime of fitful sleep. I know the sensations: a flash of something that feels like fear in the half-awakened heart and, not far behind, the mind’s involuntary churning: A rehashing of the concerns of the day — or days — past. Anxiety about the day — or days — to come: the premortem postmortem. A dissecting of this relationship or that. What came together; what fell apart.
A dozen narratives; a hundred inferences. Distraction. Anywhere but now and here; anything but the presence that allows that flash to become a sinkhole the mind can’t fill. In its depths, the reminder: How alone I am — how alone we all are — and often, how afraid. How unpredictable and unprotected life is. How little I know — actually know — compared to the gazillion “truths” I’ve told myself since my mind became fully human, and thus a teller of tales.
Some people reach for a book to quiet the midnight clamor, but I like the dark. So I reach toward the CD player on my bed stand, hit “play” and listen for the soothing voice of Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron. She makes “alone” feel a little less so; she reminds me that, all around this big blue world, other humans are lying awake in the middle of their nights.
Many of them are telling themselves stories, too. Like me, they are spinning a kind of fool’s gold — though it feels real enough, and precious — from the delicate and mysterious straw of their lives. They are making meaning, ceaselessly making meaning, of what has gone before and what may yet come. Like me, they prefer the predictability of their mind’s creations — even the painful ones — to the uncertainty of the moment.
Pema Chodron came to understand this when she struggled to develop a meditation practice:
Stepping into the unknown. We could be that brave; we could want an unembellished life of the moment more than we do our fabrications. Yet I have never been any good at meditation. After decades as a runner, I know how to work fruitfully with my body, but my mind is a wilder and more powerful thing. We seem often to be on opposite teams. Still: I can be that brave.
But I am a little whiny. My summer has been stressful; I am ready for it to be done. I am looking forward to the cooler, quieter days of fall, when the brightness and bustle recede, when the world slows and shutters.
In the meantime, I often find myself in a mildly vegetative state at day’s end, parked in the cool dark of my basement, in front of the TV. It’s a relief: I don’t even have to tell my own stories. The screenwriters do that for me, along with managing the unpredictability of existence — which, from that safe distance, makes for good entertainment.
Not so much in our own lives. There, we long for certainty — for security and safety — though we know full well that change is the coin of our realm. The full force of that knowledge visits us most powerfully in times of crisis and loss, and also in the middle of our longest nights: That flash of fear. The leap of the heart, and then the rushing in of the mind.
The stories we tell until daybreak.