Don’t listen to thoughts you have when you’re tired

I am a life-long insomniac, and please believe me when I say I have tried everything. I do all the right things, and avoid all the wrong things, to encourage good sleep, but it just seems to be my fate that sometimes I lose the knack, and long periods go by when sleep eludes me, night after night. I just forget how to do it, and the only thing to do is wait until I get the hang of it again. Staying asleep is like trying to stay underwater while clutching a giant beach ball: You can go under for a bit, but pretty soon you’re bobbing around on the surface again, blinking and frustrated, high and dry.

But nighttime is still different from daytime. The thoughts you have when you’re awake, and shouldn’t be, are very different from the thoughts you have when it’s just regular daytime. Nighttime thoughts can take on a certain urgency, even a certain spiritual compulsion.

Not long ago, Catholics on social media were talking about liminality: of “threshold” experiences when we are passing, or trying to pass, from one state or stage to another. We feel a sensation of peculiar and unsettling ambiguity, when we are neither this nor that, here nor there, but maybe we paradoxically feel a sharpened awareness of our in-betweenness.

There are some places on the planet that tend to make people feel this way – mountaintops, caves, very open spaces, heavy fog — and also some experiences: sitting with the dying, having sex, giving birth.

Sometimes insomnia puts us in this state. Eyes wide open in the darkness, body looking for all the world like it’s fully at rest when it’s actually tense and alert. The harder you try to push through from consciousness to unconsciousness, the more stuck you become in this liminal state.

Many people say that, if they can’t sleep, they pray. They say that, if they’re going to be awake anyway, they might as well be sure they’re passing the time well. Someone even told me once that God wouldn’t let her sleep until she said a whole Rosary for me (and I was very grateful when I found out, because I had been in labor, and struggling). And some people freely admit that they just keep on saying Hail Marys until they drop off to sleep. Call it boredom, call it tapping into some kind of mind/body magic, or call it faithfully letting your guardian angel finish the set, but it works for some people.

What I find, more often, is a different kind of spiritual experience…..Read the rest of my latest for Our Sunday Visitor.

“Insomnia” photo by Alyssa L. Miller via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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3 thoughts on “Don’t listen to thoughts you have when you’re tired”

  1. Thank you for this wise reminder, Simcha! My mom used to tell me this all the time growing up, and I tell my kids the same thing. However, I still caught myself in an exhausted existential crisis the other night, convinced that my life was an irreparable mess and it was all my own fault. I felt better in the morning. 🙂

  2. Great article!
    For your sleep issues I would recommend playing a mildly interesting podcast. The key is that it shouldn’t be *too* interesting, so that it doesn’t keep you too alert, but just interesting enough to hold your attention to where you eventually nod off.
    I used to have issues with insomnia, I’d go to sleep for an hour or two then wake up and be completely unable to get back to sleep. The podcast solution fixed that. You can also listen to news articles if you have an iPhone (the “reader” button on the bottom left lets you listen to any page, which turns any article into an audiobook).
    I know it seems counter intuitive to have someone talking in your ear when you’re trying to sleep, but it really works!

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