After tossing and turning through some sleepless nights, I discovered a few things about the discomfort at the root of my insomnia. Realizing that it’s always there on some level, it’s given me something real to work with, day and night.
I turn to look at my bedside clock. 3:18 am. Here I am again, wide awake, staring at the ceiling. Darn it.
This has been happening a lot lately. So I thought, how about trying something different? Why not use that time to meditate? You know, lie in bed, completely present with my body and mind, and being with how it all just IS? You’d think this would be ideal conditions. No distractions. The phone won’t ring. The computer’s turned off. It’s warm and comfy. There’s nothing I have to do. Just rest quietly.
Funny thing though. My mind doesn’t think so. Watching it, it’s so clear. The real problem isn’t that I’m awake in the middle of the night. It’s that I don’t want to be here, and I keep fighting it. I seem to think that somehow — maybe that NEXT shift of position, whatever it is, will be the perfect one that lulls me off to sleep. And of course it isn’t. I’m doing everything it can to avoid facing the fact that I’m awake. The bottom line, really, is that in this quiet comfy place, I’m uncomfortable being in my own skin.
As I lay there, I remembered a story about the Buddha. A king asked the Buddha which one of the two of them was happier. The king had magnificent palaces, a powerful army, beautiful women … everything he could possibly want. Surely he was the happier of the two. Then the Buddha asked him, “Could you sit perfectly still for an hour and be completely happy?” The king thought he could. Then the Buddha asked, “Could you sit for a whole day and be happy? Or seven days? The king had to admit he’d find that difficult. The Buddha then said, ‘Now, I — without moving my body, without uttering a word — can dwell sensitive to unalloyed pleasure for seven days and nights. So what do you think: That being the case, who dwells in greater pleasure: the King or me?’”
The kind of happiness the Buddha was speaking of doesn’t depend on having perfect conditions or feeling pleasure. And here I was, with great conditions and physical comfort, and STILL I was yammering to myself. Pretty pitiful, I thought.
I’m realizing now that this state of being “uncomfortable in my own skin” is something that’s there pretty much all the time. It’s what leads me to distract myself – run around being “busy”, surf the internet mindlessly, putter and waste time. When meditating, it’s that monkey mind that’s so fascinated by the next shiny thing over there. I resist going more deeply into being present, I think, because I don’t want to feel this underlying discomfort. I suppose I could call it anxiety, restlessness, craving for sense experience. Maybe it’s the existential fear that I’m told we all have – fear that if I stop doing things, I’ll somehow disappear. It’s a fear of death. In any case, there’s a real discomfort I feel — a very subtle but real bodily sensation. Especially on those quiet sleepless nights.
The Buddha’s remedy for any craving or aversion is, of course, mindfulness. So I’ve been shining the light of my awareness on this as much as I can.
When lying awake at night, I turn inward, and bring my awareness to that discomfort itself. I give it my loving attention. Like holding a child having a tantrum. It takes some effort, yes. I try to release my grip on it.
First, relax my body. I do a body scan and consciously let go of all the places I’m holding – a leg, a hip, a shoulder. I imagine sinking deeper into the mattress, giving my body weight over to it completely. I notice how entire areas of my body, like my hips and back, had been holding on tight. It feels good to let them go. I also do the same with my mind. Relaxing places where I feel it gripping tightly to a thought, an idea. Open up, soften, let go, surrender.
And as I do this, there are times when I slowly pass through that wall of discomfort and settle into something different. Where I sort of become my awareness itself. It’s like I’m at a deeper core of myself where I float, separate from my unhappiness and watch it from a distance. When I’m there I feel more anchored by my sensibilities, self-respect, and natural intelligence. I can watch those restless feelings pass through my experience as fleeting bursts of energy. And not take their bait so much. For brief moments, I feel more spacious, expansive, and at ease. Bigger than those tantrums that I was caught up in just a few moments earlier.
Being there doesn’t necessarily get to me sleep right away – I’ve had nights where I’d lie awake like this for two hours or more. But I’m at least keeping myself from indulging so much in the fretting and fighting with myself. And yes, eventually, I do fall asleep. And often the next day, I find I don’t feel so sleep-deprived because I actually rested, even though I didn’t sleep through the night.
I’m grateful for my insomnia for showing me this “uncomfortable in my skin” feeling. It’s given me something real to work with. I see it clearly. It’s sharpened my awareness of how it’s there all the time, throughout the day. It’s given me opportunities to practice staying mindful of it, while waiting in line at the grocery store, eating, driving, just about any time. And not letting it rule me. Working with it, I keep aspiring toward the kind of presence that could sit perfectly content through it all, maybe even for seven days and nights, just like the Buddha.