Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Conquering Insomnia, Oppressed by the Cure

I'm always working on something. There's always some something I'm grinding away at. I can't always list these things for people, because they're deep inside, like a burp not quite ready to express.

Grown-ass men don't usually work on stuff. At least not the sort of stuff I do. Maybe they work on their cars, or build a deck, or add to some collection. But they don't travel down unfamiliar streets, and, if they do, they don't go very far, much less to the end.

Kids are always eagerly exploring some new street, and I've been eleven ever since I was eleven (I saw no reason to swap in an adult persona, because "mature" people never much impressed me). We work on ear wiggling or hand shadows or dinosaur names or zillions of other things. Ask a kid what he's been working on, and he won't easily pipe up with a list (e.g. "Whistling, tying slip knots, and juggling oranges"). These pursuits are always on his mind, but not on the tip of his tongue. A grown-up will report lengthily on his progress with French lessons or wine tasting, but kids' pursuits don't make for snappy dinner party repartee. Hell, it's barely fit for a blog...but here we are.

So here's what I've been working on for the last while: falling asleep on command. It started with my quest for a full night's sleep despite a reflux problem that won't respond to medication.

I've written previously about this quest (e.g. here and here), but I've refined my technique. Here's where I'm currently at. I go down this checklist:

1. Un-smile your mouth
2. Yield your body fully to gravity (not just a corny "relaxing" gesture. Use muscle memory to recreate what you find your body doing when you wake up in the morning).
3. Let your benevolent pillow suck out all thoughts and mental narration.
4. At this point, all that's left is breathing. Observe the breathing, but don't interfere. Let the bellows pump.
Until I was 50, I felt that I couldn't breathe naturally while paying attention to it. Eventually I realized that my body wouldn't let me asphyxiate. I proved this to myself by paying attention, letting breath stop, and watching it return on its own. The issue was just a story I was telling myself, which had bloomed into needless anxiety. So I let go of this, very quickly learning to pay attention to my breath without touching it.

It's an accomplishment I'm proud of, but since it's not a grown-up achievement, it's not something I could put on my resumé or converse about, except with children, and I keep running out of kids to talk to because they all keep growing up.
5. Slide into whimsical irrationality. You can create an off-ramp you habitually go to. Here's one I've used since childhood: I exist in a lightbulb, reclining comfortably against the curve of the smooth glass.

6. You are now asleep, whether you know it or not. If self-consciousness intrudes - i.e. you notice yourself grumpily commenting on your sleep progress - don't assume it's all ruined. That's just another head fake! Rather, remind yourself that you ARE asleep, so the preoccupation is happening in a dream. You are dreaming of insomnia!
I believe this is actually what's happening! It's well-documented that insomniacs who report getting no sleep at all are often getting hours and hours of it. My theory is that they are dreaming of insomnia. The antidote is to simply remind yourself you're actually asleep whenever doubts arise. All is fine, you're just having an anxious dream about falling asleep. So return to whimsical irrationality - the lightbulb, or a raft in a peaceful lake, or a friendly tribe of magic giraffes, or some other dreamy/stretchy mental scenario (this is why counting sheep is popular!). And be prepared to repeat this self-reminder whenever in-dream insomnia anxiety returns. Like all reframings, it gets easier with practice. You become familiar with the flip of perspective.

Meditation helps with these shifts by lubricating your shifter, making it easier to relax your body, to pass thought processes off to your eagerly awaiting pillow, to slip into easy irrationality, and to reassure the interruptor that the interruption is happening inside a dream. FWIW, this is the stripped-down, non-dogmatic, non-religious meditation technique I use (skip the web site, and most of the other lessons, except this one).
I've learned to fall asleep in a snap. But there are downsides. We live in a zero sum world with (despite the legends) no clean upward trajectory in any realm. Every “advance” brings ironic deflations (I first discovered this as a small child with my very first attempt at an insomnia cure). So here's the downside with this one:

Having taught myself to fall asleep on command, I'm now always a fingersnap away from falling asleep. I can feel it, waiting for me. Dreamland no longer lies across a vast sea; a separate realm for darkness and p.j.s and quiet horizontality. Sleep feels clammily, disquietingly accessible while shopping at Trader Joe's or washing pots. And this sleep adjacency feels like sleepiness! I've cured my insomnia only to feel perennially sleepy!

Sleep has become an omnipresent choice. Much as an alcoholic chooses - moment by moment by moment - not to have a drink, I must choose not to nod off. Which is weird and takes getting used to and I'm not sure I like it.

If you sawed a hole in your floor - large enough for a body to pass through - you might live many years without falling through the hole. But you would never again walk freely in your house. You will always be proactively not falling in the hole. Everything would seem different.

Choices are good. We feel like we want as many as possible. But we don't live a cartoon life where choices are candy-colored power-ups we keep in our fun knapsacks. A choice means it can happen. A choice means it can happen, and that reframes everything. This is yet another reason we unconsciously fear/resist change, and try to lock down our natural reframing facility (i.e. our freedom). We sense the potential for holes to open up unless we shrink ourselves into tiny cells of banal familiarity.

This explains why I'll never carry a gun. First, I would surely kill many, many people. But even if I surprised myself with my self-control, I'd spend my days studiously not killing many, many people...which doesn't strike me as a productive use of my attention. So no gun for me. I don't want that choice.

No comments:

Blog Archive