by Tom Bunzel |
As I review posts on Facebook I am amazed by how many of my friends express their dissatisfaction with not being able to sleep at night, and then being tired during the day.
This is such a common complaint that an entire industry has grown out of it—not just in pharmaceuticals but also in the self-help area and in gadgets like audio or music sleep aids.
I am therefore moved to write about my own personal struggles in this area and to discuss what has helped me.
Before I continue I will caution you that as you read this you may react negatively to some of what I suggest. If possible just notice this reaction; try as much as you can not to “feed” it. It’s fine.
My Experience With Anxiety & Insomnia
So about me. Seven years ago I had panic attacks although I didn’t really know what they were. I sought and got some medication but I had continuous fatigue and spent many nights lying in bed wide awake, only to find myself exhausted the next day.
Since I didn’t want to depend on drugs, I tried other things, almost frantically. I used audio “beats” which did relax me and were probably the best of the external remedies. I also bought an expensive “light box” to alleviate my diagnosed “SAD” or seasonal affective disorder. None of this really worked, however, and I spent my days looking for more answers.
Of course I also saw my doctor, who was a no non-sense ex-marine still practicing into his 70’s who eschewed vitamins and any sort of faddish or pop medicine. He gave me some sleep aids but advised me, “Don’t worry, when your body needs to sleep, you’ll sleep, believe me.” This provided little solace, however, as I spent my days in perpetual fog and (take note of this) agitation about my condition.
Finally I had a few sessions with my friend Michael Jeffreys and I told him that my agitation was the worst in the morning, after I got up from a sleepless night and felt particularly awful. He asked me a very important question. He said, “What would happen if you knew that this would continue for the rest of your life?”
At first of course I was appalled by the prospect and I recoiled. But as I took it in I realized that I could either kill myself or just accept the situation for what it was. I would need to surrender.
I’m not going to tell you that I slept like a baby that night and my problem was solved. Far from it—my symptoms continued and I even went to acupuncture at one point. But Michael’s words sunk in and I remembered my doctor’s response and I began to consider the possibility of just accepting sleeplessness at night as part and parcel of my existence.
Michael also sort of “gave me permission” to take naps or lie down and rest when I felt tired. Up until then I tried to power through. At that time I also read Ram Dass’ book “Still Here” about aging, because I attributed a lot of my problems to reaching the age of 60 and Ram Dass talked about clients of his who spent a lot of time “lying around” and when they complained about it he told them that was normal and to just enjoy it.
Applying This To You
Okay, so now I know some of you are saying “but I have to go to work and when I get tired I’m at a desk and can’t take a nap.” That is unfortunate and it makes it difficult but you can take a break, watch your breath, pull back and just accept the fact that you’ll have to finish the day tired.
You need to surrender to the reality of the situation. If this sounds familiar it is the essence of the teaching of Eckhart Tolle. And now here comes the “ah ha” moment – are you ready?
As you actually begin to pull back and accept the circumstances you may discover that it is not the fatigue that is the “problem.” The fatigue is there. It is what it is.
IT IS YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THE FATIGUE THAT ARE THE PROBLEM.
Here Byron Katie’s work can be helpful when she asks, “Who would you be without that thought?” So right now your mind is screaming, “You’re damn right, I can’t stop thinking about how tired I am.” And of course this is what is happening at night when you are worried about not sleeping and the consequences that await you the next day.
There is only one possible solution. Let the mind scream. Love it for warning you about the consequences. But try to relax and watch it scream, like a baby that wants attention. It won’t be easy but begin to recognize that you have hit the wall. You are out of options.
In my case it would continue screaming at me about how unproductive I was in the morning. My work had slowed down and I wasn’t doing much of anything. This was exacerbating my unease. I was judging myself as a deadbeat and a failure. Slowly I began to recognize this pattern—my mind had a thought, I noticed it and believed it, I tried to “solve” what the thought suggested, and it led to a series of more and more frantic thoughts.
To get a brief glimpse about how wrong your word-based mind can be, consider this:
And it may finally become clear that the thoughts are simply not “true.” They’re just thoughts.
As Eckhart Tolle suggests, when you begin to notice this you can talk back to the thoughts or just ignore them, and eventually laugh at them.
I have come to believe that the condition of actual insomnia is your body rebelling against the tyranny of the mind and reality itself trying to teach you a valuable lesson: you are not and cannot be in control of everything—and possibly you have no real influence on anything (but that’s another story).
Suffice it to say that this relaxation in the face of a mind that has taken control through years of conditioning is a revelation. In fact, I believe as Eckhart Tolle suggests that it is precisely what Jesus meant by the “Kingdom of Heaven.”
The Power In Rebellion
A big step in this direction can be outright rebellion. When the phone rings don’t answer it. When a text comes in don’t look at it. When an email arrives don’t respond until some time passes. Again, do not expect results “overnight.” In fact, try not to expect anything. Try to just accept the circumstances as they arise. “Oh shit, I’m tired again” is sufficient. Try to rest. When you sleep, be grateful. If you lie awake next to a loved one be grateful.
If you lie awake next to someone annoying, try to change the circumstance. If you lie awake alone, don’t get into an inner dialog about being lonely and if only you had George Clooney or Kate Upton lying next to you. In fact, reflect upon how annoying the most attractive person you ever had there became when you were really tired.
And if possible, try to begin a daily meditation practice. The essence of meditation is noticing what is, and noticing that thoughts are just thoughts. And noticing the breath. And the space between thoughts. But this is key—don’t see any of these steps as a “solution” to a problem. The real problem is not the circumstances but your thoughts about them.
The circumstances are reality. Period.
You might also begin to see your thoughts as the rolling text in Times Square or the “crawl” under CNN or ESPN on TV. Just let it continue to crawl and do the best you can. You may become surprised at how sweet it feels to discover that it’s just a bunch of pixels going across a screen.
And lastly, be kind to yourself and remember to breathe. But DON’T try to “learn how to breathe.” Just notice your breath as evidence that Life is going to do its thing, miraculously, with your nasty thoughts or without them. It doesn’t give a shit.
by Tom Bunzel
Tom Bunzel is multi-published in the technology field. He has appeared on Tech TV’s Call for Help and has been a speaker at InfoComm and PowerPoint LIVE, as well as working as a “technology coach” for corporations.
Bunzel’s most recent business-related book for Wiley/Jossey Bass is Tools of Engagement: Presenting and Training in a World of Social Media. More recently his focus has shifted to his studies at Tufts University—philosophy and English—and has covered spiritual as well as technical topics on his blog: lifeisintelligent.wordpress.com.