Long ago I studied at the Rochester Zen Center, where the founding teacher, Roshi Philip Kapleau, was famous (among many more heroic qualities) for his finicky digestive system. Most of us students were young adults at the time, and I can remember him telling us, “At your age, you think sex is the pinnacle of physical pleasure. But when you get older, you will understand that the pleasure of a good bowel movement is highly underrated.”
We all thought that was hilarious—and honestly, I still rather do—but when I was young, I never imagined how much I would come to treasure another bodily process that I once took completely for granted: sleep. When I remember the younger version of myself who could slip under the covers at night, close her eyes, and wake up eight hours later in morning light, it seems like a previous incarnation. Though I can still fall asleep easily, I often find myself wide awake in the middle of the night—for hours.
As I lie there like an exhausted fish, caught in a net of endlessly looping thoughts, I remember the words of the Tibetan teacher Anam Thubten: “The greatest sacrifice of all is to let go of thinking.” Over the years, I’ve learned how to surrender my thoughts in meditation, through a gentle ping that neither pushes away nor attaches to each thought as it comes. But for me, this practice fosters wakefulness, and so I find it hard to do in a way that leads me to sleep.
What would happen if I went a step further and actually approached my insomnia as a possible gateway to something deeper, a window opening to the whole of my life, past, present, and to come?
I’ve worked on my “sleep hygiene” (morning exercise, no caffeine after 2 p.m., a pitch-dark bedroom, etc.), and I’ve tried various forms of slow, deliberate breathing—which sometimes work, and sometimes don’t. But lately, I’ve been feeling a subtle shift, which actually began with a memory of my first meditation teacher, a young monk from Thailand named Dhiravamsa. For one month, he sat with a group of us students in a dormitory basement in Oberlin, Ohio. His voice was soft and rhythmic, like the sound of a stream flowing, and I noticed that at the end of each session of meditation and dharma talk, my fellow students were in one of two states: either raptly alert or sound asleep. As he made his way out of the room, there seemed to be no difference to him. Whether we were upright on our cushions or passed out on the floor, he stepped over and around us with equal care, even reverence.
Remembering this scene, I asked myself: what if I were to treat my own states of waking and sleeping with the same equanimity, not setting them into conflict with one another, or struggling to turn one into the other? Just asking this question helped shift my attitude toward my nightly ordeal. I’d been treating it as a kind of frustrating mechanical failure, an inability—largely through a host of garden-variety physiological factors associated with growing older—to turn OFF the wakefulness of my brain. And I had also been berating myself for being a long-term meditator who was so helplessly caught in the net of night thoughts.
But now I began to wonder: what would happen if I went a step further and actually approached my insomnia as a possible gateway to something deeper, a window opening to the whole of my life, past, present, and to come?
What first happened is that I discovered a kind of sangha, a lineage of people who have devoted themselves to the study of sleeping, dreaming, and the gifts to be found in the darkness of night. This sangha came to me mostly through reading, and one of the first things I learned is that many scholars believe that before the relatively recent invention of electric lighting, a two- to three-hour period of wakefulness in the middle of the night was the natural pattern for us humans. The period of wakefulness was apparently not considered abnormal or problematic—and for many people who lived in harsh and crowded conditions, rising to toil in the fields and tend to the needs of their children, elders, and animals, it seems to have served as a relatively peaceful and private oasis of time, a time to be savored for prayer, reflection, intimate connection. Having gone to bed at dusk and had a “first sleep” of some four hours, they would then slip into a “second sleep” for another four hours or so until dawn.
For me, this panoramic view of human sleep is deeply comforting. It lowers my expectations, and it resonates with the Buddhist teaching that there are two levels of suffering: the suffering itself and the suffering of suffering, which derives from the story we make about our suffering. Is there anyone who hasn’t lain awake at night and spiraled into ever-escalating distress, until “I can’t sleep” becomes “I’ll be exhausted at work. I’ll lose my job … my house … my spouse….” Until, before we know it, the sky has fallen down and the dish run away with the spoon.
But now, instead of heading straight down this spiral, I’ve begun to cultivate more curiosity about the night. I get up, open the curtains, look for the moon, and when it’s not too cold, I sometimes go outside to listen to the crickets in the trees and search for stars. Already, these very small behaviors have helped me to feel more friendly toward the night, less daunted by its long hours ticking away in the green glow of my bedside clock.
And if, after communing for a bit with the moon and the stars, I find that I still can’t sleep, then I can move to another room in the house and commune with my sangha of night owls. In a memoir called Wide Awake, the writer Patricia Morrisroe chronicled her quest for a good night’s sleep—from medications to hypnosis and various remedies and quackeries—until, at last, she found relief through mindfulness meditation. Around that same time, she also recovered the memory of an early trauma. When she was 2 years old, she shared a room with her grandfather. One night, she woke him up to ask for a glass of water, and as he was carrying her downstairs, he slipped and they tumbled down an entire flight. He was unconscious for a time, and she was terrified that he was dead. Though he was ultimately all right, her mother was furious with her over the incident, and she says of herself that “I carried the guilt with me for my entire life.” No wonder that when waking in the middle of the night, she was prone to an intense anxiety that something terrible would happen.
It had never occurred to me that there might be any connection at all between my own insomnia and my early life. But now I began to reconsider a very formative childhood experience that occurred when I was 3. It was a summer day in Provincetown, and I found myself riding in a taxi with my parents on what I likely imagined was a happy family outing to the beach. Before I knew it, the car pulled up at the airport, and suddenly my mother and I were waving goodbye to my father—whom I adored and who disappeared for a year.
I’ve long suspected that this moment is the key to my rather vigilant personality. I’m not fond of surprises, and I tend to anticipate every possible worst-case scenario, so as to not be caught off-guard. I navigate my days with elaborate “To Do” lists and keep careful track of the money I spend. Once, when I was in my 20s, I was wading in a rock pool with my boyfriend at the time, underneath a waterfall in New Hampshire. I no longer remember the context, but I remember him suddenly throwing his arms around me and shouting over the water’s roar: “You want to contain the universe, and you’re a cheapskate bastard!”
Upon hearing those words, I laughed as hard as I’ve ever laughed. I felt an immense sense of release, as if he had freed me from a powerful spell. Throughout my life, I’ve loved those moments when my iron grip lets go, my list of goals dissolves in thin air, and I am just standing there, laughing at the folly of my pathetic attempts at control. I especially love it when I lose track of time, because this is rare for me. Normally, my internal clock tells me precisely what time of day it is, and—unless I need to catch an early morning flight somewhere—I rarely set an alarm. When I do, I usually wake up and turn it off a moment before it rings.
As the ant to several grasshopper friends, I know there are practical advantages to maintaining a keen sense of time, tasks, and possible negative outcomes. But it turns out that these traits, with their link to anxiety and perfectionism, actually do make one more susceptible to insomnia over the course of a lifetime. And I’ve long been aware of their shadow side: the inability to trust that life goes on, clouds form, windmills turn, babies are born, and my own heart beats without my conscious intervention. “I’m not responsible for making the birds sing!” a friend told me once, describing one of the most joyful epiphanies of his entire life, which occurred during the course of a Zen retreat.
In meditation practice, we are usually encouraged to resist sleepiness, to keep sloth at bay. After all, the very meaning of “Buddha” is awakened one, and to be a Buddhist means that one’s central aspiration is to awaken—through the darkness and delusion of our habitual ways of thinking—to the light of our own true nature. Along the way, all manner of methods have evolved to help keep us awake and alert. In Theravada Buddhism, there are long lists of precise instructions for resisting the hindrance of drowsiness. During Zen retreats, a slumping meditator might get thwacked on the shoulders with the kyosaku, a long wooden stick designed to bring a jolt of energy. And in Vajrayana Buddhism, there are elaborate practices for maintaining awareness even when sleeping.
Recently, I listened to a lecture on “Dream Yoga” by the Tibetan teacher Lama Lakshey. He began by evoking the bodhisattva vow and by emphasizing the potential benefits—to ourselves and to all beings—of devoting ourselves to this sacred Vajrayana practice. When we are asleep, our consciousness is more detached from the perceptions and sensations that come to us through the senses. Through devoted practice, we can discover the “clear light” of consciousness that is not bound to the physical body, and that is not extinguished when we die.
For me, his teaching on dream yoga—along with other texts that I’ve been studying—is compelling. Given that sleep represents a unique opportunity to “rehearse” for the great journey of moving from life to death, why waste this opportunity? Given the infinitely precious and fleeting gift of a human life, why not do everything within our power to extend the light of awareness into the many hours that we spend asleep each night?
And yet, fairly recent scientific evidence has made us aware of how much is actually going on when we sleep. As in those childhood stories where dolls and toys spring to life at night, our various systems take advantage of our resting state to sift through memories, flush out waste, ward off antigens, repair tissues, deliver nutrients, and reset the body’s various rhythms. For me, this long list of vital functions helps to counter the temptation to think of sleep as a blank stretch or wasteland of time. But even more significantly, I’ve come to think that for some of us, there might actually be no greater form of spiritual surrender than to fully allow ourselves to sink into sleep.
Years ago, a Zen teacher told me that with his more advanced students, he had to discern where they leaned in relation to the grand equation of form is emptiness, emptiness is form. If they were strongly magnetized by emptiness, then he would nudge them in the direction of the vivid yellow of a lemon or the piercing cry of a bird. And if they were utterly dazzled by form, then he would nudge them in the direction of no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, toward the soundless, colorless realm from which all forms spring.
And so, with a deep bow of reverence to those who have vowed to bring the light of awareness into the dark night of their sleep, I’m going to evoke the principle of “different strokes for different folks” and prescribe the practice that may be more appropriate for those of us who identify as highly vigilant. Eat when hungry, sleep when tired. In the past, I mostly took this famous Zen phrase to mean: Reduce your life to the bare essentials. Don’t complicate it with unnecessary mental and emotional loops and tangles. But now I see it also as an acknowledgment of the sheer perfection of our most fundamental and life-sustaining activities, when wholly experienced. Which is to say: I’ve begun to feel that if I could indeed simply sleep when tired, this might well be, for one such as I, a genuine spiritual breakthrough.
Only recently, I learned about an ancient meditative practice known as nirodha-samapatti, or “cessation of thought and feeling.” In Theravada Buddhism, it is considered the highest meditative state possible, the last of eight jhanas, or levels, each of which involves progressive freedom of consciousness from any object of consciousness. It is a state in which not only sensation but awareness itself, is suspended—sometimes for as long as six days, and to the point where there are stories of monks remaining in this state even as fires burned around them. It is most definitely not a state that is equated with sleep, but somehow just to know that such a practice exists changes the landscape for me, in the way it exalts the aspiration to consciously let go of consciousness.
And then again, it’s not hard for me to imagine an old Zen monk coming upon a practitioner of nirodha-samapatti, surrounded by flames, and blasting them with a fire hose! What I aspire to is a middle way: neither to maintain consciousness while I sleep nor to completely drop out of consciousness for days and nights on end. When I wake up at two or three in the morning, I just want to be able to greet the night without dread, to surrender my mind’s habitual vigilance and let myself fall back to sleep. Yet, as all insomniacs know, it’s very hard to use effort and will to let oneself fall.
In Zen, there are stories of monks trying too hard to break through “the small self,” and finally giving up in despair. At last, leaping up from their mats, throwing one leg over the monastery wall, they hear the sound of a branch breaking or a bucket bursting: and Voilá! Something lets go. If there’s a magic or sacred secret in simply giving up to the realm of sleep, I haven’t found it yet. But somehow I trust that I am on the right path. It’s a path that requires an open-minded curiosity and a willingness to make friends with the night, rather than clenching with dread when I find myself in the natural interval between the first and second stages of sleep. And for myself, I am quite sure that it leads back to the place where a small girl is standing on the pavement at an airport, stunned that her father is flying away into the sky. And simultaneously, it leads to the place where a young woman, now old, has brought this little girl to a rock pool where they are both laughing their heads off over the roar of a waterfall because a man from long ago is still shouting to them, with love in his voice: “Don’t be a cheapskate bastard! Throw yourself overboard! Let go! Let go!”
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