For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a hard time falling asleep. When I was little, I’d lay in bed, pretending to stir the stars that blanketed the ceiling in my imagination. Or I’d lay there writing stories in my head or dreaming about my future – career, wedding, husband…I had plenty of time to plan it all in those sleepless hours.
Being a somewhat anxious child, I’d also worry about all the things that could go wrong while I was sleeping. What if there was a fire? What if something happened to my parents? What if a burglar tried to break in? As my mom can attest, my nightly prayers often included pleas for protection against any potential maladies or disasters that might come down on our household.
During my college years, my sleepless nights were fewer, probably because I was chronically sleep-deprived. Like most over-achieving academic – especially those with a long-distance boyfriend that they’d talk to on AIM (throw-back!) until the wee hours of the morning – I was lucky to get an average of five hours a night. So when my head hit the pillow, it didn’t take long to drift off into dream land.
These days, though, I’m back in the thick of it. Chasing after sleep like it’s a coveted prize. Struggling to achieve lack of consciousness, even when I’m past the point of exhaustion. Wrestling with questions about why I have such a hard time letting go and just getting to sleep for goodness’ sake.
I am, and always have been, jealous of people who can drift off to sleep with ease. Part of me – the very irrational part of me that’s fueled by sleep-deprivation – thinks they’re rubbing it in my face. Whether I’m sharing a bed with my sister on vacation or just sharing a room with a friend who’s in town, I wonder how they can surrender to sleep so effortlessly while I’m trying ever technique I know to nod off.
My sleeplessness is not for lack of trying. I’ve read countless articles about “10 Natural Ways to Sleep Better Tonight” or “How to Drift Off in Under 5 Minutes.” I’ve read enough and learned enough about insomnia to know what I’m “supposed” to do to fight it: breathing techniques, mind tricks, yoga before bed, warm milk, prayer. But once I get so wrapped up in the tangles of insomnia, it takes a while to unravel.
It’s not to say that I lay awake every night. Most nights I’m able to sleep peacefully thanks to my bedtime routine that includes earplugs, blackout curtains, and journaling until my pen squiggles off the page as I nod off to sleep. You probably have a routine too, although I hope it’s less regimented than mine. And I sure hope you have an easier time living without it than I do. Because that’s when I really struggle – when I’m in a new place or even just sharing the room with someone, my routine is altered, and my mind knows it. (Let’s all say a prayer for my future husband. Learning to sleep with someone else is in my the bed is going to be a process that requires patience and grace.)
If there’s one thing that my insomnia has taught me, though, it’s how to listen. What I feel most when I’m struggling to sleep is anxiety. And, as I’ve learned through relationships and professional counseling (highly recommend that, by the way!), anxiety most often stems from guilt. Allison Vesterfelt calls this out in her book Writing to Find Yourself.
“Every time we’re feeling anxious,” she says, “we should ask ourselves, ‘what do I feel guilty about?’”
Another way of framing that question would be, “what am I afraid of?” Whether I’m feeling anxious at work or anxious in my bed, the answer most often is: judgment. I think to myself, “why am I such a bad sleeper?” or “my mom must think I’m such a failure for not being able to get over this,” or “they’re probably judging me for not being strong enough to fight this thing.”
I’m acutely aware of how self-centered these thoughts are. But we all do this, don’t we? We assume people are thinking about us in good and not-so-good ways. If we allow ourselves to explore what’s beneath our fear of disapproval or desire for recognition, we may uncover a lot of un-truths that need to be uprooted along with some truths that need to be replanted or just pruned a bit.
Take me for example. In the rational part of my brain that functions better when I’ve actually gotten enough sleep, I realize my mom is not judging me for still being awake while she’s already sleeping. For one thing, she’s asleep! So, she’s probably not thinking anything at all. And for another, she has had so much grace for much bigger shortcomings of mine, so why in the world would she judge me for my trouble sleeping?
And yet, it’s so easy to convince myself that I’m not enough – not strong enough, not healthy enough, not easygoing enough. Even the way I think about my periodic insomnia as a “shortcoming” reveals the self-judgment in my own heart. So, these days, I’m trying not to fight for sleep anymore. Instead, I’m trying to listen. To listen to my body, to listen to what’s in my mind, and to listen to what’s happening in my spirit.
“Listening to your body” might conjure up all sorts of new age connotations or images of down dog or lotus pose. Yoga has, in fact, helped me become more aware of how I hold my body and has taught me how to have grace for my imperfections by being thankful for the way my limbs and muscles hold me up in tough poses. But my hope is that listening to my body goes far beyond the yoga mat. I want to be aware of the good and bad sensations that accompany me throughout my day so that I can learn from them and not let them control me. If I’m tired, it’s important for me to take note and ask myself whether I feel like going to that party tonight or whether I just need to rest. And if I notice an extra burst of energy, I want to soak it up and thank God for it.
Listening to my body is an important part of the process in healing from years of over-exercising and bouncing between consoling myself with food and severely restricting my eating. While it’s not always easy, I try to practice mindful eating – essentially, being aware of what, how, and why I’m eating. Am I just bored or stressed or trying to control my situation? Or am I really hungry and am I going to create an environment where I can relax and enjoy this meal – whether alone or with others?
I’m hopeful that listening to tensions and tiredness in my body may also help in what’s been a long and, as yet, unsolved journey to find my missing period. Something has broken down in my body. Things no longer work as they should, and none of the six doctors I’ve seen have been able to figure it out. So, the most important part I can play in the process is to listen to how I’m feeling and ask questions – both of myself and of the physicians I entrust with my care.
Listening to my body often leads to listening to my mind. If I become aware of tension in my shoulders or racing in my chest, it’s typically accompanied by thoughts about these sensations. I’ll ask myself “why do I feel so tense?” or “where is this anxiety coming from?” And that leads me back to those deeper questions about the guilt, fear, selfishness, ungratefulness, or longing I may be feeling.
This process played out while on vacation with my mom a couple weeks back. Dressed in our comfiest clothes and with books and to-go cups of tea in hand, my mom and I set out to find a cozy spot in the downstairs lobby of the resort in which we could curl up and read. Unbeknownst to me, the lid to my cup wasn’t quite on all the way, and as I gripped it a little too tightly on the way out the door, a flood of near-boiling water came pouring out all over my hand. I wish I could say I handled the moment gracefully, but I threw what was essentially a grown-up temper tantrum – complete with tears and a few choice words thrown in here and there.
God bless my mother. While I ranted on about “why did this have to happen right now – right when we were ready for rest and relaxation?” (melodramatic, much?), my mom patiently tended to me. She gently forced me to sit down and pause for a few moments. “We have time,” she said. “You just need to ice your hand and rest.” So, we did. Instead of rushing out the door and insisting that we carry on with our plans for reading and rest – the irony of my planning out rest is not lost on me – we shifted our plans momentarily. We sat on the couch together, me icing my hand, and my mom reading my book aloud to me and massaging my tense shoulders. As the pain subsided under the coolness of the ice and the tension released as my mom tended to me, I asked myself why I freaked out so badly.
Yes, the pain was real, but mostly I was upset about the unfairness of the injury – it seemed so meaningless and like it could have easily been avoided. I blamed myself for not being more careful. And then I blamed myself for not handling the pain better. But as I took the time to rest on that couch with my mom, I realized that she was not judging me, she was simply caring for me. And I let that truth sink into my heart and push out the lie that her love was conditional, based on my good or bad behavior. And let me tell you, when I – when we! – operate out of a cycle of grace versus a cycle of achievement, we’re much more joyful, effective, and loving people.
And that’s the final step in the process, the most important layer of awareness: listening to what’s in our spirit. As the Bible says, the “heart is deceitful.” So, I hesitate to follow any advice along the lines of “follow your heart” or “just listen to your gut,” and I’m certainly not about to offer that kind of advice here. But I do think it’s important to get beyond what you’re feeling in your body or thinking in your mind and really delve into what’s in your heart.
If you have a hard time listening to your body, mind, or spirit, you probably fall into one of two categories:
- You’re busy. With lengthy to-do lists and jam-packed social calendars, it’s all too easy to rush through life without asking questions about how you’re feeling.
- You’re fearful. While you may not be aware of it at first, you don’t want to dig into how you’re feeling because you’re afraid of what murky, messy truths that process might unearth.
But dealing with our messes and celebrating our joys is part of the human experience. And thankfully, we don’t have to journey alone. Not only are there friends, family, and professionals who can help us in the discovery process, God is also ready and willing to empower us with his Spirit.
In The Good and Beautiful Life, James Bryan Smith writes, “The Spirit leads us to Jesus, reveals the Father, exposes falsehood, offers correction, and gives us the needed encouragement that make growth and transformation possible. The Spirit helps us change our narratives by leading us into truth, enlightens us as we practice the disciplines, and binds us together in community. If not for the work of the Holy Spirit, transformation simply will not take place. But we must participate in this process. By serious reading and reflection, by practicing the spiritual exercises and by entering into community, we create the condition in which the Spirit can transform our character.”
When we participate in this transformative process of getting at the root of things, we are changed.
“The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful,
a puzzle that no one can figure out.
But I, God, search the heart
and examine the mind.
I get to the heart of the human.
I get to the root of things.
I treat them as they really are,
not as they pretend to be.” (Jeremiah 17:9, The Message)
When we stop pretending and when we take the time to let God’s Spirit enter and change our bodies, minds, and hearts, our character and our outlook will be transformed. Only then can we be “easy in ourselves.” That phrase comes from John Wesley (a great preacher and founder of the Methodist movement) whom Smith quotes in The Good and Beautiful Life. Being “easy in yourself” looks like awareness coupled with a gracious, malleable heart – willing and open to being made new.
That’s why it’s so important to slow down and listen: it’s transformative. If we don’t stop and listen to what’s happening in our bodies, minds, and hearts, we won’t know whether we’re filled with truth or lies. We’ll miss what our emotions or senses may able to reveal to us. And we’ll most likely miss what God is trying to tell us in his “still, small voice.”
So, I’d encourage you to practice listening. Take some time to be alone and be silent – even if it’s just for a few minutes. Leave your phone behind and take a walk in the park. Skip the headphones and just listen. You may be surprised by what you find.