The lights went on in my mind, waking me from my slumber.
I glanced at the battery-operated clock: it was only 3:14 a.m.
This had become a 998-night habit. But who’s counting? I am. I’ve been counting for what seems like forever, whether it be counting sheep, seconds or nights. I once counted backwards from 500 to zero without falling into a state of boredom or deep sleep.
I’m a lightweight when it comes to sleeping; I have always been and don’t need much of anything to disrupt it. On a good night, I put in a solid three hours, on a bad night, 90 minutes and then, the lights switch on, and it’s game over!
The night starts off well with lots of good intentions and rituals. I’ve quit my once-in-a-blue-moon coffee and traded it in for chamomile tea and try to have dinner at 5 p.m. like the old folks back home who catch the early bird dinner special. I have ingested the Ayurvedic potion of warmed almond milk with cardamom, ghee, coconut flakes, dates…so, am I missing something? The specialists swear this sweet drink will take you to dreamland.
I have tried oiling my feet, intoxicating my bedroom with essential oil sprays and smearing organic lavender balm on my pillow—and yet, I still wake up in the middle of the night.
I have splurged on satin sheets with an off-the-chart thread count and hot water bottles that don’t leak. I have practised Chandra Bhedana, a breathing technique by inhaling through the left nostril and out through the right. I’ve placed tennis balls under my hips to release pent up energy because they say we hold a lot of stuff in our hips. Sometimes I even try to fall back to sleep in some relaxing yoga posture like balasana (child’s pose).
I stripped my bedroom of every painting, electrical wire and decorative ornament that might disrupt my sleep. Admittedly, I have had an insane number of conversations in my head, negotiating with my insomnia to leave me alone. I have equally tried to invite it in to stay and make friends with it like the Buddhists suggest.
When none of the hundreds of remedies from my save-my-sanity toolbox don’t work, I get out of bed, practice some yoga, meditate, journal, surf the daily tabloids on FaceBook, Skype my friends across the ocean, read boring books, listen to soft music or drop into a hot bath. I might experience a state of deep relaxation, but not enough to climb back into bed.
Homoeopathic beads and natural sleep aids felt like placebos and the hardcore-once-in-a-while-sleep-aids upset my stomach. When I just couldn’t handle another night, I would cry myself into a frenzy knowing that tomorrow was another big day to tackle, and I might not have what it takes to make it through—but somehow I always did.
I had invented an entire story around insomnia. I’m a light sleeper and don’t need much to function—and besides, my mother and uncle are also light sleepers, so it must be hereditary. These stories have been with me for so long that they have become my reality, and I have found myself righteously defending them to others. The truth is, I do need sleep like everybody else.
You may be asking what goes on in my mind when I wake up in the middle of the night? To be honest, not much of anything but wanting desperately to fall back to sleep. I used to be envious of those that once they hit the pillow are out for the count till morning.
I reached a point where I feared the inevitable, not being able to sleep, so I pushed my bedtime hour so late that I formed a new habit, and habits become set in stone in as little as 41 days. Nevertheless, I still continued to wake up after a few short hours and toss and turn.
One night I hit rock bottom. I just couldn’t do it anymore. After hours of frustration, I resorted to the Serenity Prayer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
While reciting these words one sleepless night, I had an epiphany: Sleep is a metaphor for meditation, and meditation is a metaphor for sleep.
As a meditation student and teacher, the art of meditation can’t be taught but must be experienced by the practitioner. We can guide the students to a better caliber of concentration while teaching them tools to reduce their scope of vision and harness the monkey mind but to enter the kingdom of meditation they are ultimately alone.
In my “doing” to sleep, (like “doing” to meditate), I came to realise that all this micro-managing the unmanageable was, in fact, keeping me from what I most wanted: to sleep. The more I wanted this, the more I tried to control the outcome—and the more I created resistance. This resistance contracted my mind and my body while taxing my nervous system and making sleep impossible.
We can mindfully prepare for sleep by turning off all digital devices, putting on our pajamas, washing up and turning out the lights, and finally, surrendering to sleep. A close friend of mine thinks of sleep as the spiritual practice of trusting and letting go into the hands of grace. Surrendering and leaning into the moment, not wishing it to go away was the act of being. It is an invitation to accept and surrender to something much larger than ourselves and our reality.
When I finally accepted that I could no longer micro-manage the unmanageable, I dropped the sleep aids, the yogic techniques and my stories. I would climb into bed open to whatever the night would bring—then, more often than not, six to eight hours would grace my sleep. Don’t get me wrong, there are still bouts of sleepless tossing and turning, but because I no longer buy into this story, six to eight hours is now my norm.
Tonight, as you prepare for sleep and finally slip between the sheets, take 10 deep breaths, each time relaxing deeper and deeper. With each exhale, allow your body to surrender and trust that you are gently held in the hands of grace.
Author: Jessica Magnin
Image: turningofthetide at Instagram
Editor: Renée Picard