“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Your brain must be clearer, your skull floor well swept and the tiny monsters at the feet of the bed closed in a steamer trunk.” ~David Benioff
It is like the night has turned into day. Before flying into the night, hooting Owls hand the baton to chirping bird before passing it on. As the night turns to darkness, low-grade panic takes over. I am aware that my chances of getting some sleep are slim.
These words, which I wrote during one of my first face-offs with insomnia back in college, aren’t reflective of my life-long sleeping patterns. Sleep and I hadn’t always had such a complicated relationship. As a child, I’d nod off without any struggle, pretty much as soon as I entered my bed. It wasn’t until I reached early adulthood that it started playing hard to get with me.
Sometimes sleep’s elusiveness could be attributed to my surroundings. Like many young adults, I’ve resided in a fair share of environments that weren’t the most conducive to restful sleep—whether it was the house in Montevideo, Uruguay with twelve housemates who liked to blast reggatone music at 3 AM, or the apartment in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district where garbage trucks, drunk people peeing (or puking) outside my window, and music blasting from nearby parked cars constituted the typical nighttime cacophony.
External factors weren’t the sole cause of my sleeplessness, though. Even though my bedroom or street were relatively quiet, I was still woken up by a clamorous mind.
Even though I have difficulty sleeping at night, mindfulness practice has helped me to sleep better. For anyone else who’s at times plagued by a revved-up night-time mind, here’s some of what has helped me.
Do not go to sleep without reading.
Ideally material that won’t over-activate your mind. It is possible to over-activate your mind by overloading it with data or driving the analytical wheels. You may have a harder time getting into sleep..A newspaper may be better for you (to get your mind awake) than fiction.
I’ve found fictional stories provide a smooth transition into dreaming. Reading a short story or novel, all cozied up in your blanket, takes your mind off of the day’s stress and helps you relax, physically and mentally. If reading the newspaper is like climbing a hill, immersion into fiction is like slowly submerging one’s self into a jacuzzi.
Recent books I’ve read that have helped guide me into sleep were The Island of Missing TreesThe story is narrated in sensitive, attentive fig trees (I felt my thoughts slow down as I was pulled into the story); H Mart – CryingIt is poignant, poetic, and powerful in exploring a loving, but deep-rooted mother/daughter relationship.
Enjoy a free association.
As I lay awake certain nights, the thoughts trundling through my mind tended to be: “Don’t think these things. Do not worry. Go to sleep.”
It is far more effective to tell yourself that you won’t do it than provide a substitute for or stand-in for the behavior or habit. This was something I discovered repeatedly. How can you find a substitute?
After reaching an impasse, we writers often engage in free-association to unearth new ideas—the only rule being that we keep typing, documenting any thought that comes our way without forecasting ahead to the possible outcome.It allows the mind to unwind, allowing for fresh ideas to come in.
Similar techniques can have a similar impact on your night-time brain. Instead of abolishing my thoughts, I’ve shifted now to giving up my attachment to any one of them, focusing more on letting them flow in and then out.
Don’t judge, obsess or be a slave to nonsensical and unrelated thoughts. Perhaps a bad experience from yesterday brings back a painful memory from seventh grade. Perhaps a fear about the future triggers an unfounded fear that you will get sick at work. Allow your mind to wander wherever it pleases.
You can think of it as a night club, yourself as the bouncer and your thoughts as the guests. Instead of making your place exclusive and strict, make it all inclusive. At the same time, don’t provide the guests with any compelling reason to stay. While it’s natural to feel uneasy about letting in certain characters, you can rest assured that they won’t stay for very long if you don’t engage with them.
When I start to be more flexible, my friends and family find the night club boring. They’re used to VIP service, so my negligence simply doesn’t appeal to them. Barred from free food, drinks, and preferential treatment, they vacate soon enough—leaving my mind quiet, pristine, and more welcoming of sleep.
In short, the monkey mind wherein thoughts run rampant is not what’s to be feared. It’s the lingering on any one of these thoughts that we could benefit from shifting away from. Because it’s when we’re trying too hard to control our minds that it often remains awake, vigilant, and filled with tension.
In some cases, deeper exploration and more individualized analysis is necessary to address the underlying issues, as insomnia can at times be only one symptom of a deeper-rooted health problem.
Other times, though, as Alain de Botton wrote (even while acknowledging that insomnia that lasts for weeks “can be hell”): “In smaller doses—a night here and there—it doesn’t always need a cure. Sometimes it can be a blessing, an aid to some major problems of the soul. Crucial insights that we need to convey to ourselves can often only be received at night, like city church bells that have to wait until dark to be heard.”
While these aren’t full-proof remedies by any means, the primary nugget I hope you’ll take from them is that similar to many things in life,The more you adopt the drill sergeant mindset, the harder it is to fall asleep. You are more likely to fall asleep if you’re more gentle and open-minded about your thoughts before we go to sleep. As Ronald Riggio put it, “My expectation that eight uninterrupted hours of sleep is required was a big part of the problem.”
I once wrote in my diary, “My body tenses up—the opposite of what it needs to do in order to achieve sleep. <— You can achieve sleep. Your misguided mindset is evident in the word choice. You must SURRENDER from sleep. Leave the achieving for your job or future marathons.”
So the next time you’re tossing and turning, try surrendering yourself to free-association. Maybe the next place it takes you to—amidst all the random corners the mind inevitably traverses—will be the [restorative]Kingdom of Sleep
Eleni is a queer bilingual writer. She was born and raised here. Since elementary school, Eleni has been writing. She used to hand out magazines and stories to her classmates. Her writing has appeared in The Mighty Thought Catalogue. Elephant Journal. Uncomfortable Revolution. You can follow her on IG eleni_steph421 and read stories from her time as a rideshare driver at lyfttales.com
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What’s keeping your mind busy? Tiny Buddha shared How to Mindfully and Peacefully drift Off to Sleep.