I love to sleep. I especially love being gradually less aware as I am moving toward sleep. As melatonin seeps into my system and my brain waves dial toward the theta rhythm, I enjoy a feeling that is like no other. I love to sleep.
It’s the attachment to this pleasurable experience that used to make me anxious about sleep. What if I don’t get enough sleep and I can’t perform at my best tomorrow? What if I fail and have to face the judgment of others? Anxiety over failing and losing connection with others pervaded my night time ritual. The prospect of facing the next day mentally unprepared terrorized me.
Then I started practicing mindful self-compassion. And I started experimenting with embarking on a day, here and there, without the benefit of a good night’s sleep. When I started doing a lot of travel for my work, I also started experimenting with jet lag and being prepared to let go of needing to know what timezone my body thought it was inhabiting.
My friend who frequents Buddhist monasteries in the UK, when asked what it’s like to make the pilgrimage to these centers of Dharma once a year, answers, “I get to be with coldness and lack of sleep.” The nuns and monks are encouraged to loosen their attachment to physical warmth or sleep: it’s part of their practice.
If I can let go of my dependence on the illusion of safety that comes with being fully awake and at the top of my game with each new day, something else unfolds. It has to. Feeling groggy and nauseous, knowing that my brain is swimming in the slow lane, I become acutely aware that I do not have control, that I must simply be with my experience. And the only way to be with my experience that does not create a sense of unease about being unprepared is to be kind to myself; to be self-compassionate.
First I bring mindfulness: “Oh, there’s grogginess and nausea.” Then I bring self-compassion: “My dear, it’s OK to feel groggy and nauseous. There’s where you’re at right now, and that’s where you should be. There’s no other way it should be right now.” And I use the opportunity to expect less of myself. I use the opportunity to let myself off the hook: “Of course you’re struggling to function. No need to push. It will be OK.” To help, I often share how I’m feeling with others around me. And we have a laugh about the shared human experience of the sleep-deprived.
It’s no wonder those nuns and monks seem so serene – they’re being with the experience of sleeplessness: mindfully, kindly.
As I give myself permission to be sleep-deprived, ironically, the ease I allow myself to go about the day with lends itself to a degree of focus and poise. The effort to just stay on track, without the burden of anxiety and expectations, moves me into a rather mindful way of being. It’s no wonder those nuns and monks seem so serene – they’re being with the experience of sleeplessness: mindfully, kindly.
Mindfulness and self-compassion aren’t only useful when I’m sleep-deprived; they’re useful when I’m in the grip of insomnia. When I find myself sleepless in the middle of the night, I know how unproductive it is to be angry with my experience. The angrier I am, the less likely I am to fall asleep. The more charged my emotions, the more cortisol and adrenaline courses through my system, guaranteeing wakefulness. Melatonin doesn’t stand a chance in that environment.
Using mindfulness and self-compassion tools, instead of resisting my experience, I acknowledge my disappointment and any fear of facing the new day unprepared. I acknowledge my sleeplessness, resist looking for ways to blame myself for being in that predicament and I take care of myself in my discomfort. Just like a mother taking care of her child who is sick with the flu, knowing that her caregiving will not make the flu go away, I take care of myself knowing that I might still not sleep. Sometimes sleep comes easily after that, and sometimes it does not, but at least I am soothing myself with oxytocin and opiates rather than jump starting myself with cortisol and adrenaline. If I can’t sleep, at least I can get closer to some kind of restful state, which will offer something of the rejuvenation of actual sleep. I can give myself permission to not sleep.
Mindfulness and self-compassion: as Kristin Neff once said, “It’s the new black; it goes with everything!”
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