September 28, 2013

The Dharma of Insomnia. ~ Dan Rubin


Good Morning!  In the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, we say “good morning” at any time of day.

“Good morning” expresses the cheerful confidence that wakefulness is always available. It is a reminder that we are basically good, and that it is good that we can wake up, and any time is a good time for spiritual awakening. I didn’t always believe this to be true, because I suffer from insomnia.

For a long time, I felt very strongly that being awake with insomnia at 3:00 a.m. was not a good time for spiritual awaking, or, really, awakening of any kind. It was not a good time for anything at all, except for going back to sleep as quickly as possible.

But something happened late one night that changed my mind, and insomnia has since become a beloved friend and an invaluable reminder of that any time truly is a good time to practice being awake.

My insomnia was most difficult for me about two years ago. Now, I know a lot about sleep hygiene, what to do and what to avoid to promote healthy sleep habits, since I often teach these skills to my patients who have sleep issues. To cope with my insomnia, I applied everything I knew about sleep hygiene and I made radical changes to my lifestyle, including completely giving up caffeine and never eating or drinking anything after 6pm.

This was no fun.

Preventing insomnia became a huge part of my life, and many of these changes helped, but even though I was doing everything I could, insomnia would still happen. I could not escape this unwanted and painful experience of being awake.

I would wake up in the middle of the night, wide awake, and instantly become upset that I was awake. My thoughts felt like a wild pack of cranky three year olds. I would worry about everything I could think of, including worrying that I wasn’t sleeping and worrying that I was worrying.

I was often angry, at first because I just felt cranky, but then I was angry about politics, angry with myself for being angry about politics, angry with myself for worrying that I wasn’t sleeping, and so on. Because I couldn’t fix insomnia I would try to fix something else, so I would often try to think about what was wrong in my life and how I could fix these things.

So there I was, exhausted, anxious and cranky trying to solve all my problems at 3 a.m.

As you can imagine, this never went well and I would only get more upset, and these negative and very painful patterns would continue.

Here’s a sample of my thoughts when I was stuck in insomnia’s iron grip.

“I need to sleep. If I don’t sleep I won’t do a good job at work, and people are depending on me. I’m letting them down. What’s wrong with me? I must be a lousy therapist. I must be a lousy person. Don’t think that way Dan, just relax, relax! Why can’t I relax? This sucks. I hate this. OK, stop trying to fall asleep and maybe then you’ll fall asleep…That didn’t work. Nothing is working.  I can’t sleep. I hate this.”

Sound familiar?

One night at three or four in the morning, I had a flash of insight. I realized that my situation was incredibly ironic, wonderfully ironic, like a cosmic joke.

I’m a Buddhist, my entire belief system is all about waking up, and here I am, wide awake, and instead of recognizing this as a chance to practice wakefulness, I’ve been trying to go back to sleep! This aha moment really transformed something in me, and I laughed about loud and began to cry. I was so happy!

While writing about this I began to cry again because I feel so lucky to have seen my insomnia as something I could learn from, an opportunity to really practice the dharma instead of something that I needed to fix or fight. Insomnia became a teacher, a blessing, and friend. It was an invitation disguised as a problem.

So when I first had this insight, I really wanted to wake up my wife and tell her all about this good news, but wisely decided that it could wait. But as I was looking at her, full of joy, I began to think about how much I love her and how lucky I am. Then I noticed that my insomnia wasn’t so painful.

I wasn’t stuck in thoughts about what was wrong and how to fix it. I wasn’t anxious or irritated at all. I was simply awake and happy, and very relaxed. It was actually really easy and fun to feel this joy and to smile at and appreciate what was good. I realized that I was practicing mindfulness of joy, and this became the root of my insomnia practice.

Are you familiar with the Four Immeasurables? If not, here’s a quick introduction:

The Four Immeasurable are compassion, loving kindness, equanimity, and joy. These are some of the qualities we are trying to develop through our Buddhist practice. Compassion is wanting all beings to be free of suffering. Loving kindness is wanting all beings to be happy. Equanimity is being open and even-minded  to all experiences. Joy, often called sympathetic joy or empathetic joy, is rejoicing in the happiness or good fortune of others.

Although there are elements of compassion, loving kindness, and equanimity in my insomnia practice, it is mostly a practice of rejoicing, celebrating joy.

Now, although the traditional description of sympathetic joy is to focus on the joy of others, I include myself in this category of others during this practice. I can’t think of any compassionate reason to not include myself. Although I have taken vows to free all beings from suffering, I have never seen a vow which said something like,

“May I free all beings from suffering, except for me because that would be selfish.”

Excluding myself actually feels selfish, like there’s something  special or different about me so I can’t be included. I am just the same as others, so this is why I include myself with others in my practice of joy.

 I actually think many people have a lot of difficulty celebrating or even noticing their own joy, which can create a lot of suffering including depression, self-criticism, and loneliness. People often have a lot of hesitation or discomfort with being friendly towards themselves.

It’s very common for people to think that if they feel good about or are friendly towards themselves, that’s somehow selfish and therefor bad, so they don’t really know how to feel joy. I think most of us are too good at feeling bad about ourselves and could use more practice feeling joy. So, if you want to, let’s practice.

First, close your eyes and simply be present for a few moments. Just relax. Now, think about someone you love and picture this person doing something that she or he loves to do. Imagine this person feeling full of joy. Now smile. Feel joy for this person. Feel the joy in your body. Good!

How did that go? Let’s try another practice. First, close your eyes and simply be present for a few moments. Just relax. Think about someone or something you love or enjoy. Now smile. Feel joy for yourself, feel your joy. Feel the joy in your body. Excellent.

So this is what my insomnia practice often looks like. When I can’t sleep, I relax my body and I think about things that brings gratitude and joy into my life.

Now, I don’t relax in order to sleep. I relax in order to practice joy.

When I used to relax in order to sleep, that rarely worked, and quickly I would just feel tense again because of the expectation that I had to sleep.

I was actually putting a lot of pressure on myself, so relaxing with the motivation to sleep would backfire. So now my only motivation is that relaxing helps me contemplate joy, and I don’t care if I fall asleep or not. I find that stretching, a hot shower, or just slowing my breathing and feeling present in my body goes a long way in relaxing me enough so I’m ready to practice joy and gratitude.

I often begin my practice with feeling gratitude and joy for this chance to do nothing other than feel gratitude and joy. Really, when do we have time when there are no demands on us? In the middle of the night, when everyone else is asleep!

Next, I like to think about my wife and kids. I think about what makes them happy and I smile. I think about people I love doing things they love, and I smile. I smile because the dharma is in my life. I think about science, because I really love science. I think about the courage and compassion of my patients.

Thinking about all these things is only the beginning, because the practice is to deeply feel joy and gratitude. I let myself weep because there is so much to rejoice in, so much good in our world.

This practice is not theoretical, its not a thought exercise, it’s a real opening of the heart. So this is also a practice of being brave, having the courage to let your heart break open because it is so full of joy.

Sometimes while practicing I have the thought, “Dan, if you don’t fall asleep, you’ll do lousy work tomorrow and that means you’re a bad therapist.” Those thoughts used to send me into a spiral of anxiety, but I’ve learned to focus instead of the basic value expressed by that thought: I want to be of service to my patients, and I want to give them my best. That’s good, that’s worth celebrating!

So I smile and think “It’s good that I want to honor my patients and do my best for them, way to go, Dan, “and I rejoice in what I value. Or maybe I have the thought,“If I don’t sleep I might get sick, and I’m too busy to get sick.”

Then I’ll recognize that it’s important to me to take care of myself so I can take care of others, and I think, “Hey, great! It’s good that I want to take care of myself and others. Nice!”

So my approach is not to get rid of anxiety or bad thoughts, but to notice the good news, the value embedded in each of these thoughts, and consciously feel gratitude and joy for having that value. I catch myself being good, and I smile, literally smile, at the goodness in myself and in the world. And I smile for this chance to celebrate goodness. I make my self-talk very warm and friendly, very relaxed.

I’m just hanging out with a nice guy who happens to be me, and this gift of insomnia gives me time to become better friends with myself.

I’ve learned that when I am friendly with myself, my thoughts, all aspects of my experience, I relax and I rest.

Often when I do insomnia practice I fall asleep fairly quickly, and when I don’t, I always feel better rested when I’ve spent my time feeling joy and making friends with my experience. I’m always more tired if I spent that time fighting insomnia and trying to fall asleep.

Practicing wakefulness and joy is restful. Being at war with insomnia is exhausting.

My insomnia teaches me that we can’t get away from the present moment.

We can’t get away from our own minds. But what we can choose to do is have a more awake, friendly, and joyful relationship with our minds and with the moment. We can choose joy and gratitude over habits of anxiety and irritation. Insomnia teaches me that being awake really is a great time to practice being awake.

I don’t get as much insomnia these days, mostly because I’m the dad of one year old twins so being  tired at night is really easy for me, but I still do get a chance to do my insomnia practice every few weeks. I miss it when it doesn’t happen enough, because its been such an invaluable practice for me.

It teaches me so much about compassion, relaxation, acceptance, joy, equanimity, loving kindness, impermanence, ego, and attachment.

It’s pretty much the entire dharma packaged in the perfect metaphor of being awake!

I hope you have a chance to recognize all obstacle as teachers and accept the gift of good morning in your own life, because waking up really is available in every moment.

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Assist. Ed: Jade Belzberg / Ed: Catherine Monkman

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