Insomnia only makes sense if you believe that your discomfort can generate well-being. My worry is knitting together the faulty brakes on every school bus traveling the sleety roads of New England. My obsessive thought binds the rapidly fraying threads of our national psyche. My bone-weariness is the price of life for those I love. How about this, instead? My willingness to surrender deeply means that I will know what to do when death comes. My gratitude radiates satiety into a starving world, and means I hoard less. Having rested deeply means, when my car pulls magnetically for the concrete divider on the highway’s new snow, I don’t freak out. I surrender, and rest into a place of safety that is even more present than the place of disaster that opens up alongside it.
When insomnia comes, it is this bodymind, awake, laying down. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to bring attention back down into the body, from where it is nattering away, checked out, elsewhere. Come! You are welcome in the weight of the ribs on the mattress, the head on the pillow, the hips feeling wooden slats through this skinny pancake of a futon. The feet are here as home. The body is here as home. Come! Eventually, I come home. This works for me in part because I believe in sleep. My mother, on the other hand, is an insomniac who thinks sleep is a waste of time, robbing us of life even as death comes from the other end, gobbling. The enemy within: sleep. The enemy without: death. And us, bleary-eyed, wobbling out of bed mid-morning, after yet another night of oatmeal-eating and Kindle-reading.
Larissa said once, Dig deep enough and you’ll come up in someone else's basement. When I sleep, I find myself in a reservoir of confusion, pain, violence, wonder, and freedom far greater than any simple idea of this one life can contain. I find myself in many basements, understanding this life from an inter-being perspective. A few nights ago, I dreamed I burned my good tweed coat and cashmere-lined green leather gloves in a kind of alchemical fire, exorcising something from them that would otherwise have cramped my life. What is it? The distance of privilege. The witchcraft of separation. The belief that tweed or leather can keep a comfortable boundary between me and the basement-work of healing. In the dream, all was consumed, except for green fingertips sticking out perkily from the smoldering coals. It was a Tibetan juniper fire-offering – smoky, sacred, and greasy, all at once.
The next night, I dreamed of a female dog named Elvis, a puppy who grew before my eyes into her whole self. There was a long curving wound in her side, shaved down and sutured together with a meticulous line of staples. I knew this surgery had saved her life, and was the reason that she could now thrive. Show us how you put the pelvis back in Elvis! I coaxed, and she wiggled her tail in wild delight. This Elvis is the dream-descendent of another dog who came to me in dream years ago. Then, I saw a black dog laid out on the polished wood of a formal dining room table, a terrible gash in her side, a tag on a wire around her neck, marking her as a specimen, even though she was still alive. Who would do such a thing? Waking, I saw, We all would.
Sleep, when it does not come, is an invitation to learn the night. I've done a lot of walking around in the strange, quiet hours when most are asleep. In college, finishing up papers in the great Viking hall of the all-night law library, I’d pack up my books and luggable proto-laptop, and exit into the unknown. The streets were sticky with humidity and beer residue, humming with the orange light that brings out the stark unevenness of stone facades. Whatever thoughts I’d been knitting together about Dante or Ariosto, whatever revelations about who we are in the world and what keeps us searching, had time to settle into this walking body, these feet clopping and echoing, this sense of a private victory over doubt and inertia. I would climb down to the basement computer lab, print the night’s work, and collapse into bed.
In the monastery, full and new moons meant all-night meditation vigils. We sat, wired, in the shrine room, as the moon’s light penetrated our fresh-shaved skulls. Some eerie hours were for walking back and forth in the freezing field, sensing with the soles of my feet. Sometimes I would fall asleep prostrating in the nuns’ shrine room, and wake with the circulation cut off in both legs.
I remember walking home one summer dawn in Chithurst, as the birds and creatures woke, and knowing that something in me had pierced through by not giving in to sleep. Some mad vibrating exultation, some connection bridging the world of owls’ hunting and day-creatures stirring in their nests. I put out the nuns’ breakfasts, and then (can this really be true?) walked back up the hill, to start cooking the main meal in the big house kitchen. I can do this; it is done; I will rest later, falling deeply into sleep, earth, and home.
Nowadays I clench my teeth while I sleep, gnashing mercilessly on the hard plastic uppers and lowers my dentist made for me. I wake sometimes as though from a battle, a ferocious argument, or a slog over bitter mountains. During the day, that's not what I feel. At night, sometimes, it is. During the day, a father with a sick child in Venezuela bargains with militia thugs peddling the only medicine in town. At night, I hope he dreams he is swimming with orcas who raise him up out of the ocean, and set him down gently, reminding him of his belovedness. If my contribution is to dream off some of the world's suffering, then so be it. If by carrying someone’s hopeless misery in my sleep, I can take their insomnia, I am glad to.
The touch we feel through the tunnels we go down in sleep is a real contact. Now I feel practical recognition (and not some woo-woo thrill of specialness) when what I've seen in dreams turns out to be what I live in waking. One sets the stage for the other, and time loops on itself, unfolding in rings of meaning that we glimpse, or don’t. Insomnia and worry are ways of staving off this transparency, this cockeyed recognition that all around us, in us, and in between, mystery is dancing, flaming, and smoldering.
I want not to hoard. I want to sleep at ease, knowing that my life is devoted to waking up – mine, yours, and everyone’s.
Julie Püttgen is an artist and meditation teacher.
108 Names of now