Learning to trust the wisdom of the body
death is the surname of sleep but the surname unknown to us
sleep is the daily end of life
a small exercise in death
which is its sister but not every brother and sister are equally close
Peter Murphy, “Shy,” from the album Deep (1989)
Sleep was always a kind of wild animal to me. A jaguar, something to be in awe of, but also to run from; something that might eat my head on a sudden whim. Three-year-old me, often too scared to sleep. Six-year-old me, discovering that intellectual distraction eases the fear—I was gifted a secondhand record player, and instead of lying terrified in bed I’d get up and listen to my secondhand vinyls of Danny Kaye and Mary Poppins. When my mother came to tell me to go back to sleep, I discovered that if I turned the volume completely off and put my ear next to the needle as it glided over the grooves, I could still hear Danny whispering the wonderful story of Clever Gretel to me, over and over again.
Teenage me, in boarding school, with night owl roommates. If disturbed, I started to talk in my sleep, with lapses of memory and confusing (and sometimes amusing) consequences. In my early 20s, utter inability to sleep told me it was time to leave my then-husband. I’d go to bed at night collapsed in fear, wondering if I’d wake up in the morning or if he’d smother me where I lay. I dreamed—or had nightmares—with my eyes open, bedroom furniture turning into monsters.
Even after I’d found more safety in my life in my 30s, sleep was still a nightly wrestling match. Then, in my late 30s I read about the concept of biphasic sleep.
In every age before the Industrial, humans have had a tendency to wake in the night, be up for a little while, and then return to sleep. Especially in winter, there’s just too much dark to stay unconscious for all that time.
I took this as an excuse for my insomnia—I quit wrestling and submitted to wakefulness, spending an hour or two in the middle of the night on social media with my laptop. Friends asked me, incredulously, if I ever slept.
The problem with this biphasic sleep excuse is that, back in the year 1300, humans didn’t have glowing screens messing with their melatonin levels. What went on in their heads, I don’t know. But at least they were in the dark, maybe chatting or making love or eating a snack or at the most doing some some light chores or socializing. Candles were expensive.
Years of this half-validated insomnia took a toll on my health. A little over two years ago it completely collapsed. I had to get serious about sleep. My survival was on the line.
First I tried sleep medication, but that just made me agitated. Apparently it’s not easy to tranquilize a jaguar!
I want to witness here that the jaguar also guided me into fantastic, surreal landscapes beyond description. I have decades worth of dream journals. It’s just that eventually I realized that vivid dreaming was another intellectual distraction from true healing rest, the kind of sleep that’s death’s sibling: dark, flat, absolute oblivion. Jaguars can, however, be courted and tamed…and if you’ve got patience and the right touch, they can even be trained.
But here you are: you’re stressed out, so you can’t sleep. Worrying about not sleeping stresses you out more, and makes you even less able to sleep. Intellectual distraction may soothe your mind a little, but the body keeps the score. You may think you’re OK, but your endocrine system knows otherwise. How do you stop closing the loop?
One answer: Give your mind a task that keeps it grounded in your body, and learn to trust your body.
About 18 months ago I discovered body meditation, particularly yoga nidra (literally “sleep yoga”), and this has become one of the lynchpins of my health recovery in addition to no screen time at night and getting the hell off social media altogether.
In yoga nidra, you concentrate your awareness on different body parts in a standard rotation. You shed stress instead of compounding it. It’s not a miracle cure for every episode of sleeplessness, but with consistent daily practice I’ve begun to be able to truly relax for the first time in my conscious life. I nap every day—the nidra siesta is sacred. I get to bed at a reasonable hour. If I’m sleepless at 4:00 a.m. I do a body meditation, and even if all I do is lie there feeling wakeful and exploring my body space I am still way more relaxed than I would be otherwise.
I’m not out of the woods, but the trees are thinning, and I’m learning I can trust the jaguar. I can be unconscious and still be safe. She won’t eat my head—she guards me while I heal.
Alice Toler is still an apprentice at sleeping, but she intends to become a master someday. You can listen to her personal yoga nidra script here: