Restless, her mind shifting from one thought to another, Judith Simmer-Brown lets go, and sees through the nature of insomnia.Judith Simmer-Brown

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I'm awake again. Were those coyotes howling, or was that just a dream? It's four o'clock in the morning, and it is often difficult to tell what is a dream and what isn't. I lie here in bed, hearing my husband gently snoring next to me, my body warmly nestled, but my mind is moving, constantly moving.

Since childhood, I've always been an insomniac. Being awake in the middle of the night is part of my psychological and spiritual landscape, part of my wholeness. But it is often excruciating, full of edginess and disparagement. Insomnia keeps me close to my pulse. And it is always a practice.

What is the worst that can happen? My nightlife tells me in graphic detail. My dean is mad at me, wants to see me tomorrow. I can see every crease of his face, hear the strain in his voice expressing the awful truth he prepares to tell me. Under the tether of night, I cannot escape—my body aches and my mind churns. I cannot stir without waking my husband. But the dreaded scenario is not content for just one performance. Its sequels embellish the painful details, sometimes building to a crescendo of calamity after calamity. It is no wonder that most insomniacs pursue pills, relaxation exercises, natural remedies, and "white sound" machines to induce that precious uninterrupted slumber.

I remember a traditional Tibetan insomnia-cure visualization. Imagine it is night deep in the forest. A raging river rushes through a narrow gorge, roaring incessantly. At the top of the gorge there is a coarse rope ladder descending from the rim halfway down to a small and cozy cave in the canyon wall. Inside is a crackling campfire burning, illuminating and warming the rough stone walls of the cave. I am sitting before the fire wrapped in a sheepskin cloak, cuddling a baby goat nestled into my arms. Even as I hear the roaring river, I hold the kid close and feel content. I have always loved this visualization, and used to practice it nightly. But it really never put me to sleep. Though it holds no promise, it is nice to remember this practice tonight.

Yet, lying here I connect with something deeper about this jumpy wakefulness. There is something delicious about exposing myself to the deepest recesses of my mind, watching my mood careen into anxiety, depression, or excitement, and eventually returning to a sense of relief and rest. I used to apply mindfulness methods in the night, gently training my mind to retract from its extremes. Or I would get up and sit, settling myself into simplicity. But the discipline would often feed my anxiety when I returned to the pillow.

Now, after all these years, most of the time I just lie here. I'm lying here tonight, watching the movements of my mind, dispassionately expanding into scenarios and moods. Rinpoche used to call this the bardo, the in-between state. There is tremendous uncertainty and groundlessness, what he used to call a "highlight in the middle of nowhere." I'm in between wakefulness and sleep, in between fantasy and reality. I really have no idea what is real, and every movement of my mind has the potential to devastate me. But there is something powerful about just letting it all happen. Just watching my mind shift, letting it go. Allowing the unfabricated qualities to shine out.

Part of my practice is to give up trying to go back to sleep. No breathing exercises, no sleep-inducing imagery. Just lie here resting and very still, permitting my mind its various tendencies. Sometimes I drift into dream-like states, sometimes discursiveness and planning take over. Tremendous anxiety arises—am I prepared for my morning class' Have I arranged for my daughter's ride, or my son's volleyball game? Mounting anxiety about all the things left undone, and my body tenses up, my shoulders big round fists. And then everything releases and relaxes, back into the ambiguity. Within the intensity of my thoughts and emotions I discover the non-intensity of my mind, the vast and spacious qualities which pervade all my suffering. The anxiety dissipates. No amount of effort would have lessened the anxiety, and waiting for anxiety to wear out takes hours.

In this bardo, I feel the boundaries of my being become porous, permeable, dissolve. I lie here, expanding into the blackness, letting my body rest, my mind open. Oceanically, I feel waves of emotion—fear, joy, sadness—wash through me, and I feel connected with every living being. Somewhere this very moment, babies are born, fathers are dying, mothers are grieving. Yet, pervading all is a groundless awareness, delicate and strong at the same time. Everything becomes we, a beating heart with a transparent, radiant smile. And we are awake. ▼

Judith Simmer-Brown, professor at Naropa University and Shambhala Buddhist Acharya (master teacher), is the author of Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism (Shambhala, 2001), and a contributor to Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Comment on the Rule of St. Benedict (Riverhead, 2001).

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This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.'s picture

I can relate to the anxiety. In my recent parent hood I was raising my son and daughter as a single gay Father who was also a transvestite. I feel the need to be transparent and expose myself as a lady increased the animosity of what they had to expect in being with me again. I am comfortable now with my fostering and am no longer a transvestite. Yet it will always be one of those shades of grey, where I feel I may have lost on the battlefield and was trying to express my personality in a way that called to question heterosexism. I had a lot of those racy thoughts going through my mind at night, and finally had to ask myself what about my being a single gay Father was keeping me in hiding, and in the closet as a transvestite. I feel my fear of permanence and also of impermanence, was depriving me of the right to lay the ground work for a solid foundation. It is only now that I want to express myself objectively and subjectively about what being a transgender really meant to me, and what being a gay person can achieve with patience, tolerance, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and self forgiveness.

Mrzader's picture

"Groundless awareness, delicate and strong at the same time."
These are words that feed my soul, richly nutritious and delicious.
I will reflect on this description the next time a lie awake in the middle of the night.
Thank you Judith.

JKH's picture

Years ago I would give up on trying to get back to sleep and go for a long run in the middle of the night. I am extremely grateful for my meditation practice and the "body scan" meditation in moments like these. This article is a pleasant reminder that we all suffer, similarly. Thanks.

ynia's picture

I just found this very insightful, tender article. Thank you so much Judith. Having "struggled" for many years with anxiety and the "night frights" surrounding my performance in court as a lawyer and judge, my family, their health, husband and friends, I join the previous commenter in realizing that these experiences also brought me closer to Buddhism. I appreciate your reminder that I have the option of
watching the night time parade of fears and thoughts just as I do in wakeful meditation. With Gratitude. Ynia

boiester's picture

Let me join in thanking you for this piece on insomnia. My mother certainly had it, and later in life I inherited the same night time wakeful anxiety. Now our son has it. I think of it often as the television station of my youth, where there was no focused picture; just a jumble of visual electric impulses and an ever changing almost auditory buzz.

Over the years I have taken meds to "put me down" so that I can work during the day. I thought of them as the temporary measure I could take to "get me over" the situation. I have followed the get-up guidelines, I have worked on the computer, I have made lists as some suggest, drunk chamomile tea, hot milk, and so forth.

Now I have a less stressful life. My dreams have reappeared and are surprising and often delightful. My sleeplessness is less, but sometimes these nights return. When they do I write in my journal, or lie next to my husband, letting my mind go. Sometimes hours pass and sometimes only minutes. Giving myself the freedom to let it pass, without fretting or obsessing, is similar to meditation.

boiester's picture

This is also my inheritance; when I was young and carefree I could sleep and my sleeping was heavy and delicious. Now I crave that "sleep like a baby". I too am older and no longer have the stress that brought me to medication so I could work productively. Sometimes now I lay in bed too, but my husband snores so loudly with his sleep apea that I have to get up and go sleep on the couch or in my study!!

My brain too conjures a million threats that I must address, and I've had the "jumble of visual electric impulses" like the author. She says it well, "sometimes hours pass and sometimes only minutes." For me I believe it is a manifestation also of a very primitive fear, and so my meditation practice has a focus to become more comfortable with the fear and shame feelings that spark my anxiety.

Thank you for reminding us that we are all suffering in many different ways.

pathgirl's picture

Hi all,
I am awake for different reasons. Having experienced depression and loss of my childhood memory I started seeing a counselor and meditation. Now I realize what happened when I was a young girl...I really just wanted to sleep but was prevented. For the first time I am practicing meditation at night before I go to sleep. It is a difficult practice. Quite vivid and quite painful. I know the fears that I have before I fall asleep are in my mind and are not real. I am also listening to my husband snore. He read an article recently that suggested going to bed one hour later. I will try this tonight.

hsseeker's picture

Thank you, thank you, for a beautiful sharing.

foggedin's picture

I've come to see insomnia as a friend as when I do fall asleep, the night terrors often begin. I've often wondered why Buddhism has so very little to say about dreams - I assume it's because they're given no more importance than waking thought and best left to (which also doesn't have much to say about them). My dreams are magical and cruel. They're extremely detailed and include majestic panoramas and the very tiniest details. The very worst thing about them is the extended period of awakening as I struggle to determine what is fantasy and what is real. Where am I? If I let go, into what will I slide? Yup, I've pretty much come to prefer the wakefulness of insomnia to the "peace" of sleep.

4ravens's picture

Oh the long and frequent nights of staring at the ceiling. I no longer resist...while watching, listening, twitching, tightening, surrendering. The ceiling fan above my bed has become my teacher. It is connected to an energy source, and is absolutely still in the middle, while the blades whirl round and around. I choose the speed.

I too thank you for being so forthcoming about this state called insomnia.

Bagdad's picture

Ahhhh, it is so good to meet my brothers and sisters on this nighttime path. Be well in sleep and wakefulness. Namaste. T

By the way, well written article - I will ponder it at 3:30 and join you on the groundless path of no where, no time....wakeful to the not knowing of my life.

gaelmaclean's picture

I giving much credit to insomnia for pushing me onto the Buddhist path. As a child there was nothing to do but lie there or watch the stillness outside the window. As a young adult sleeping medicines were harsh, leaving residue hangovers of depression and cloudiness.Just not an option. Laying there awake at night, sometimes all night, watching the stream of fears, fantasies, emotions filling my mind and the world around me was a great motivator to search for some stability and truth in existence. The Dharma hasn't cured my insomnia but it continually helps me to truly wake up. Insomnia is the great equalizer, it strips away the barriers between my mind and the pulse of life everywhere on the planet. I often have images of people in strange lands lying there awake at night with their fears running rampant as well. With perhaps good reason to feel so unsafe and sad in their world. Insomnia has been a teacher and it can be so exhausting. Thank you for discussing it Judith.

jackelope65's picture

I,too, am an insomniac since childhood. My brother, two sons, and wife , all sleep like logs. My daughter shred the insomniac trait. Metta practice often helps me fall asleep and return to sleep because I am not thinking about myself or insomnia after my initial focus. Sometimes, nothing works. Sleep guidelines often suggest you get up, take care of any physical needs, and read something not overly exciting, such as educational materials; for example, your lest favorite study, but something that needs to be done. As you stated, sometimes nothing works and it is best to relax and just accept whatever comes forth and simply let it pass as you suggested. Sometimes, the sounds of my wife sleeping deeply, rain pattering on the roof, frogs croaking, wind blowing become satisfying, relaxing, and eventually return me to sleep. Just do not complain as that is a sure bet you will remain awake, stressed, and exhausted in the morning. Just like meditation, mindful wakefulness may be very refreshing. Thank you for discussing insomnia.