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 tell tales 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.
You like the dark. And Pema Chodron has been your companion for many years now, Rafiki. When I experience what you do, and many nights I do, I turn on the lamp and read. That invariably relaxes my mind back to sleep. Thank you for sharing the journey which many of us on, right with you
I used to do that and sometimes still will as a way to fall asleep. But I try to avoid light in the middle of the night, having learned that it signals the body to awaken. We are diurnal mammals, organically inclined to be awake in response to light — even the corrosive manmade light that now pollutes every corner of the night (and our bedrooms). Along those lines, audiobooks are a good choice. Thank you, as always, for reading and commenting.
How did you know my recent anxiety moment at 3am? yes I wake like you often and most times can make it back into restful slumber. I say.;.. tomorrow I will wear yada yada yada…. and that decision erases the stories that go for eternity.
Then there are the nights of a story in my head that you speak of. It is a fantasy but my mind is alive still and sleep is elusive. Those fears of past failures become restless and need to be over rode by something of another world.
I so understand and each day try to remember to not drink too much coffee of tea.. to be mindful of my food intake… to drink water and not too much wine or mary jane. I balance it all for a full nights sleep…. but then when the soul wants to ponder.. how do you stop her… she has been with me for many lives and yes.. has a mind of her own.
Thanx for validating how my nights can be.
I’m glad you could relate to the post, and thank you for commenting. I think many of us experience some form of this.
Oh, Cate. This resonates! Stepping into the unknown, indeed. Always.
Thanks, Bob! Always so lovely to know you are out there, reading….
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