To sleep or not to sleep

I just don’t seem to want to go to sleep at night. So many evenings I say to myself that I am going to get a reasonably early night and I find myself later still up way after midnight. It doesn’t make any sense. I get really tired and still I don’t want to go to sleep. Sometimes I am so tired I can hardly walk and yet I still try and stay awake. It often seems like madness, a fever that won’t let me rest. I just don’t want to go to that dark place where dreams live (although it is quite rare that I remember my dreams). I am usually reading and researching, really wanting to finish something I’ve started (like a newspaper, a problem I’ve encountered with software on my computer or trying to find the best and cheapest this or that and doing an exhaustive search on the internet) and rarely do I let it go until I reached a conclusion (or even beyond the end). I so like to know how things work in order to get the computer (usually) to do what I want it to, even though I’m often flailing around at the beginning with no idea at all. I’m stubborn and persistent and the old saying my mother used to repeat often – ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’ – has gone into my personal folklore from an early age and when I think of that phrase an image of my infants’ school comes to mind, which dates it pretty early in my life.

So, I like to stay with what is, at that moment, whatever it is, and don’t really want to move on to the next thing. Although I am sure that not going to sleep sometimes has that view behind it it’s not the only view being expressed. Of course I never wanted to go to bed when I was a child when my parents told me to. So there’s rebellion in it, which isn’t really a surprise, and when I did go to bed as a teenager (with some resistance I might add) I would regularly listen to late night phone-ins on local radio under my bedcovers with the earpiece in my transistor radio – particuarly to discussions about the paranormal, ghosts, astral projection, astrology and suchlike. An old habit is there, however I think there is more. There is some fear attached to being alone and going to sleep (and I’ve definitely connected with something there because I am feeling an increase in adrenalin thinking about this) and at the same time I really like being asleep. It’s not that I sleep badly once I’ve gone to sleep. I extremely rarely wake up with nightmares and in fact my most disturbing recurring dream involves not being able to stay awake; I am in a fairly ordinary situation, say with some friends or walking down a street, and I find my eyes closing involuntarily and the uncomfortable part of the dream is that I really don’t want to go to sleep, not that anything terrible is going to happen if I do – it’s just that I must stay awake. I have such strong physical sensations that my eyes are closing I believe completely in my experience and eventually I do succumb to the compulsion. Now then what can happen is that I dream that I wake up in my bedroom, get up out of bed (in the dream), start my day, only to find that my eyelids are heavy again and won’t stay open. Sometimes at this stage I have a realisation that I am not awake after all and am still in a dream going again towards uncontrollable narcolepsy, although this lucid moment doesn’t seem to halt the process and I can even find myself ‘waking up’ again and discovering that my experience is still in a dream a number of times before I finally emerge from sleep. Again trying to be awake.

Of course it may or may not be a co-incidence that I have become a Buddhist, a follower of the Buddha’s way. The word ‘Buddha’ literally means ‘one who is awake’, although normally translated as ‘Enlightened One’, and Buddhists ideally are striving to be awake to the Truth, to Reality or the ‘Way Things Are’, but not running away from anything, not from any fear. I didn’t become a Buddhist because I wanted to be Enlightened, though, and I’ve never really striven for Awakening since I realised that I am a follower of the Buddhadharma (that’s a bit of a confession). It’s more that it seems so true to me that I can’t ignore it even though I’d be quite happy ‘dreaming my life away’ (as my parents occasionally warned me against and I’m sure I still do). I have found that meditation is something I can enjoy, but I believe it keeps me sane; it injects a positive experience of being in the moment (occasionally) and reminds me of my most ecstatic experiences (completely unrelated to drugs). Since a period of depression over ten years ago when I knew that meditation was an answer but couldn’t motivate myself to practise; as soon as I felt better I began a daily sit, which I almost never miss, bar illness.

Now it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone that the issue of sleep has surfaced in my meditation. Not always by any means but there do seem to be a few conditions that promote it. Of course the obvious one is not getting enough sleep, which given what I’ve said already is not uncommon, but unexpectedly it is not a major factor unless I am completely exhausted. I can have had only four hours sleep and be as bright as a button when I sit on a cushion to meditate – although that brightness can contribute to ideas proliferating around my mind. The main circumstance that seems to contribute to me falling asleep while I am meditating is group meditation, especiallly in a quiet place (although not exclusively). Ironically I didn’t really discover this until I started living with other Buddhists and was meditating regularly (every day) in a group of six or seven. I had moved to a residential Community in Manchester from my own flat in London, where I had been getting into my meditation every morning, with a bit of yoga and other exercises and I don’t remember falling asleep. I wasn’t working full-time at that juncture and so I wasn’t rushing to get up in the morning and could meditate when I’d had time to adjust to the day. In the community, however, we had a ‘sit’ at 7am every morning, and I usually rolled out of bed into the shrine room a few minutes late. So I wasn’t at all shocked that I was, nine times out of ten, nodding off, often coming to only if I felt so embarrassed that I had dribbled down my front! It was also a new situation, meeting lots of new people, working full-time for the first time in over 10 years and, of course, not going to bed early enough for a good 8 hours sleep.

I was confused though when the same thing happened a number of months later when I was on a retreat, because I was getting to bed early, there was plenty of time to rest and loads of time to meditate. Now I reflected on the curiosity of this and I remembered that when I first started to meditate I had always found it difficult – and I was usually on retreat or in a Buddhist Centre shrine room at a class. It was only later that I had gone to live on my own and started to meditate at home and found that it wasn’t so difficult after all. Of course I had assumed that meditation was getting easier because I had got better at it, because I had more experience and knew more what I was supposed to be doing. But now I was confronted with the same difficulties, the same sleepiness that had plagued my sits in the Community and on my early retreats. Recalling that I had never normally found myself in a sleepy state on my stool at home in London I decided to do an experiment; I would leave the group and go and find a place to meditate on my own. Luckily enough the retreat community had their own shrine room, but they weren’t using it during this retreat because they went into the main shrine room with everyone else. So I snuck off there on my own, feeling a little bit guilty because I wasn’t joining in with the group (and actually a bit wary of being discovered – like I was doing something naughty – don’t ask me it’s bizarre to me as well that this kind of thinking goes on in me). I didn’t fall asleep! Hurray. I could meditate after all! I continued the experiment when I got back home and found that, given other right conditions, I didn’t usually fall asleep on my own, but as soon as I went back in with the others I was noddy again.

It’s been several years since then and the issue hasn’t gone away. I now normally meditate on my own and even come to dread situations where I might be ‘forced’ to meditate with others ie if there is nowhere else to go and I’m sharing a room on a retreat with someone who doesn’t always get up in the morning and there’s no spare shrine room for me to in habit. I’ve not really worked out what is going on in all this time, except for one thing – that I have realised that I am quite an introvert and enjoy time on my own more than I ever thought I did. I’m sure this is not the whole answer by any means and I have had discussions with numerous meditators about this phenomenon and come to a few theories, but none of them really complete the picture any more than being a dyed in the wool introvert. It could of course be that there is no one answer but it might also be that all of the issues around sleep and being awake I have discussed (and more) are linked and if I have an insight about it all the old habits will drop away. In my dreams maybe. I would guess that reflecting about it all like this may have an effect especially if it is released in the wild, which is the point of a blog after all. So I am putting it out into the universe and will see what comes back.

1 thought on “To sleep or not to sleep”

  1. Reading this made me remember when I was part of a Catholic (celibate) religious community in the late 1980’s, and I was sleeping on my own I thought, ‘I don’t want to spend my life sleeping alone’ and it contributed to me leaving the community. I still sleep alone…
    I also remembered that a friend had a recurring nightmare where she would wake up and get ready for work and go out to get the bus and then realise that she was still asleep and it upset her that she had to get up. I find waking up in the morning very difficult and often find myself very anxious in the morning. Maybe because I am an extrovert but also because I still feel like I don’t know about Buddhism I want to meditate with others and find it much harder to meditate when alone. I admit it feels slightly parasitic as if I am bathing in the positive meditative experience of others but I felt like meditating with others is better for me.

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