Last night, I fell asleep around 12:30 am and woke up about an hour later. It’s not unusual for me to wake up several times in the night due to pain and other reasons. Or to wish the hour was later and the night closer to being over. Or to hear myself wishing that for once, couldn’t I just sleep through the night. Then I tire of that.
I look outside the window at the night sky. The trees, stripped naked by winter, form a delicate lattice pattern made visible by a graying sky. The sight broadens my perspective. And I sit down and hold both the discomfort and pain that woke me up along with the sky that surrounded me and everything else. And I go back to bed and sleep.
I notice the quality of the night because I’ve learned from previous sleepless moments and writing about them how important it is to do so.
I learned that how I responded to waking up was crucial to getting back to sleep. And to be aware of my response required a specific sort of sensing, and monitoring, a mindful, open, non-judgmental one. One that allowed me to see the reality I was facing with more clarity.
Pain and sleeplessness can be so awful and disruptive. But maybe the worst part of it, and what deepens it into suffering, is feeling powerless before it or not knowing what caused it. If we think our chest pain is the beginning of a heart attack, we feel the pain more intensely than if we think we have stomach gas. If we’ve had the pain in the past and seen a doctor, received answers about what’s causing the symptom and how to treat it (and that it’s treatable), it’s often easier to face.
And when we are ready and can face what we feel, or expand our vision beyond it, we have the possibility of transforming it. In dreams and nightmares, when we run from the monster that chases us, it gets bigger. So far in my life, almost every time I turned towards the monster, it turned away from me or transformed into something either friendly or less fearsome.
So how we respond to what happens is as important as the fact we experienced it. Knowing this is powerful. It can take us out of our ideas of who we are and let us return to the broader reality of what we’re feeling right now.
I learned from being awake in the depths of night to notice and let go of any thoughts or expectations I had about what I’d see or hear. And to look specifically for beauty. To befriend the night as much as I could. To recognize darkness can be intriguing and can illuminate what was formerly hidden.
We can look outside and discover the black lattice of trees against the sky or hear the speech of rain in the silence. We can hear the whisper of snow falling or feel the pressure of wind moving all it touches. Instead of worrying about the sleep we’ve lost, we can notice what we’re gaining.
Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins, in their book Dissolving Pain: Simple Brain-training Exercises for Overcoming Chronic Pain, talk about the benefits of diffusing and opening our attention. And feeling, for example, the space in the room we’re in ⎼ the space our body occupies ⎼ the shape, length, width of the pain or discomfort we feel ⎼ the space between the center of the pain and the outside of our body. As we breathe, we can allow three-dimensional space to permeate all our sensations and perceptions, even of pain. And as we breathe through the pain, we allow it to diffuse in any direction. We expand the breadth of our experience and give ourselves space to be ourselves.
Of course, we can also take medication, eat comforting food, drink tea, read a book, and think kindly of ourselves and others. But once we go beyond the feel and worry of the pain and take in more of the reality that includes us, the pain no longer dominates our experience. It shares the world with so much else. And once we do that, we’re changed.
I learned that in the moment, or in the morning, I can write honestly about what I saw and felt, or the thoughts I heard in my head when awake at 1:30 or 3:00 am or now. What I feel as I write. This is an investment in future nights. It can’t change how I felt in the past but could change how I feel now and how I remember it. And thus, it might help change how I deal with disrupted sleep in the future.
Because I wrote about previous painful nights, each night now is less dominated by pain and more open to beauty. Like humans throughout history, we take some control over suffering by shaping it into art.
Recently, I wrote a blog about a practice of studying, shifting perspectives, from the details of a work of art to the whole. And because of this practice, and writing about it, every time I look at art I wrote about, it means more to me. It comes alive. I perceive something new in it, or in me.
One of my favorite artists is Kawase Hasui, who created an extensive collection of landscape woodblock prints. I love the details in his work. The night is one of Hasui’s favorite subjects. One work of his educated me in the beauty of the night. It’s called Bright Moon Over Matsuyama Castle.
The piece draws us into a romantic story. A full moon illuminates a walkway under a blossoming cherry tree. In the distance, between castle ramparts on the left and a castle wall on the right, a man and woman, dressed in kimonos, walk closely together. I look ⎼ and I feel moonlight on my face. I hear an intense quiet. My heart opens to the night and its beauty as I watch the two people walk away.
Not just the production of art but the viewing can be creative and healing. There is a mirroring effect here; by practicing becoming more aware of the effect of the art on ourselves, we become more aware of what’s occurring in each moment of our lives.
What will the moonlight, or absence of light, reveal to us tonight?
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock
That was a good time for me before i moved in with my girlfriend. I would sleep for an hour or two and get up and go for a walk or do photography