In the last eight days, since forgoing all sleep aids, I’ve had (not in this particular order):

        1 night of no sleep

 

        3 nights of 3 – 4 hours of sleep

 

        2 nights of 5 – 6 hours of sleep

 

      1 night of 9 hours of sleep

It’s an effort to report this without judgment. Originally I wrote, 1 horrible night, 3 so-so nights, one fabulous night, etc. but then I went back and removed the adjectives. I’m trying to treat insomnia as a neutral situation.

This I can say: a sleepless night has a lot in common with a meditation retreat. There’s very little stimulation, nothing much to do in the quiet hours around 3 a.m. It’s just you and your mind. And without the demands and distractions of daytime, the machinations of your mind are much easier to see and work with.

During a sleepless night, all the “afflictions” known to meditators come up: restlessness, boredom, aversion, and anxiety. (Unfortunately, not the one that would be really useful: sleepiness, otherwise known in The Buddhist trade as sloth and torpor.)

When the mind goes off into the future and starts worrying, you can come back to the present. When it falls into self-pity – I’m going to be a basket case tomorrow! It’s probably damaging my health to get so little sleep! – you bring it back. Just you, lying there, awake. No problem.

Let me be clear – none of this meditation stuff may actually make you sleep better! You have to let go of that agenda. If you’re following the rising and falling of your breath as a way of tricking your mind into falling asleep, it doesn’t work. At least not for me. After a few minutes, I’ll be thinking, Damn! Still awake! And off I go. This isn’t about changing the situation (being awake), it’s about cultivating acceptance.

For instance, I had a huge rebound of anxiety for the first few days after stopping the medication that was helping me sleep. I’d lie awake, hour after hour, with a volcano of anxiety burning in my solar plexus. Nothing I could do about the state of my body, but I could at least work with my mind. I’d think of the words of Pema Chodron, “Feel the feeling, drop the storyline.” I’d try to hold the feeling in my solar plexus with kindly attention. When it got too wearing, I’d think of all the other people who were awake at that hour, feeling anxious about their lives, and wish us all well. I can testify, it’s possible to have an anxious body without an anxious mind!

My sleep schedule may be getting back to normal, or maybe it’s not. Maybe I’ll even miss my insomnia a little when it’s gone.