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Sleep: A Beginner's Guide For Insomniacs

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Since Arianna issued her "Sleep Challenge", I've struggled with the very idea of writing about the subject since sleep lives for me as a country I visit occasionally, but one in which I carry a limited entry visa.

The customs agents who guard the sleep realm must know that I'm an illegal, since I'm regularly booted out of the country after about a 5-hour stay. On good nights, when the guards are feeling generous or perhaps distracted, they occasionally grant me an extra hour on my visitor's visa. Six hours of sleep a night is a rare event in my life.

Upon closer examination of my sleep passport, much to my surprise and chagrin, I see that over the years I've become a permanent resident of that much aligned, war-torn nation known as "Insomnia". Those of us who reside in this sovereign land are known as "insomniacs". Kind of sounds like "maniacs", doesn't it? It's enough to drive one crazy, just thinking about it.

Being an insomniac is not for the feint of heart, nor does it come naturally. After all, none of us came into the world not knowing how to sleep. Sleep was pretty much our default mode as we made our entrance into this reality. We have to be smacked on the bottom the moment we arrive in order to "wake up" and take our first breath. Such is our rude introduction to life in the fast lane.

No wonder babies and small animals sleep most of the time during their first few months after arrival! This place takes some getting used to. Then we spend the rest of our lives learning how to become fully awakened. Oddly enough, over the years, I've come to see that my insomnia has played a central role in my awakening. Thoughts on that in a bit.

My journey of deportation from the sleep realm was very abrupt. One night, I just stopped sleeping. Boom, and that was it! That was in 1988, but who's keeping track?

Like most new citizens of Insomnia, I was disoriented at first. "What's going on here? Where am I?" I seemed to have enrolled in an entirely new curriculum, one in which classes were regularly held between the hours of 1 and 5 AM.

At first, I resisted this curriculum. I mean, who wants to attend "class" in the wee, small hours of the morning when all "sane" people are sleeping? Who chose me for this assignment, anyway? Couldn't I just be like normal people and attend class during the day? Apparently not!

We all know how well resisting anything works. As in, it doesn't! Resisting not sleeping only made matters worse. I began to dread going to bed at night. Even before hitting the pillow, I'd already prepared myself for what was to come.

Falling asleep was not a problem. Staying asleep was. I'd sleep for 2-3 hours, then, be awake for the next 4. Around 5 AM, completely exhausted, I'd fall back asleep for 2 more hours and wake up to begin my day at 7 AM.

In the early years as a citizen in this strange land, after 5 interrupted hours of sleep at night, I fully expected to be exhausted and lethargic and have to drag myself through the day, but such was not the case. In spite of getting little sleep, my energy levels rarely dropped. In fact, even now, with another birthday approaching, people tell me I have the energy of someone half my age. Chalk that up to good genes.

I tried every supplement, gadget, and technique imaginable to help me sleep. Nothing worked. Everyone had their favorite sleep remedy and my circle of friends were more than happy to recommend their own sure fire way to combat sleeplessness.

Valerian, St. John's Wort, and melatonin did nothing for me. Zip! I then graduated to wearing eye shades to block out the light, used a sound machine next to my bed on which I could dial up white noise, a rainstorm, waves pounding, a babbling brook, and the like.

I listened to meditation and hypnosis tapes. Then I discovered silicone gel ear plugs, which turned my body into a kind of echo chamber where I could tune into the sound of my heart beating. All of these helped to have me fall asleep quickly. But falling asleep was not my problem. Staying asleep was.

I had been a citizen of Insomnia for about 4 years when I stopped resisting the fact that my sleep patterns appeared to have permanently changed. Nothing I tried, including prescription sleep aids, allowed me more than a 5 hr. visitation across the border. The truth was, and continues to be, 5 hours of sleep a night is just about right for me.

I've waged a war with insomnia for over 20 years. "Waging a war," I've found, is not a good strategy. The old saying, "What you resist, persists," certainly applies here.

Giving up the war has freed me to appreciate the deeper lessons available through the "Midnight Curriculum". Years of insomnia have ultimately been my best teachers. I've learned that acceptance and surrender to what already is, is the path to freedom, and thus the doorway to awakening.

Life doesn't always occur on the terms we prefer. In the face of challenges, whether it's about sleep, health, relationships or finances, (and I suspect they're all related) acceptance of what already is, is a very high state of awareness.

Most people, myself often included, operate on a default mode of "push back" against whatever appears to be counter to our goal. It's "the American way." We're used to getting what we want or at least fighting for it. How very foreign it seems to our American way of thinking that "surrender", meaning simply not resisting, is actually a more effective strategy for ultimately getting what we want.

In the absence of resistance, we can actually take stock of what is before us and consciously choose the path of least resistance to navigate the current condition.

Twenty-two years later, I still rarely get more than 5 hours of sleep every night and it's not a "problem". I have learned how to live in this land of Insomnia. In fact, I'm a model citizen. I know it's pointless to turn out the lights much before midnight, unless I want to get up at 5 AM, which I usually don't. Some of my most productive hours are between 10 PM and 2 AM. I do my best writing in those hours.

I'm happy here in the land of Insomnia and after all, isn't that the point? I could be miserable, but I choose exactly what I have and that has made all the difference.

Mind you, I still employ a strategy to get my 5 hours. I fall asleep with my iPod, listening to soft music or a dharma talk, and in the middle of the night when I invariably get up to use the bathroom, I insert my trusty ear gels to create the soothing inner sound chamber. (Thanks to Dr. Richard Shane, a sleep specialist in Boulder, CO. for this life-changing sleep tip).

If you're someone who needs their eight hours of beauty rest and you're able to pull it off, bravo! I applaud you! But if you're someone like me, whose system is tuned differently and manages to get by on far less sleep than most people, try just accepting it and not making it a "problem". The "this is a problem" mentality will only make matters worse and give your mind something else on which to ruminate during the night.

The Land of Insomnia needn't be a prison cell. There's freedom in surrendering to this state, be it temporary or "permanent". Given that everything is impermanent, this too, will evolve. For now, enjoy this land and see what emerges. You might just be surprised!

Calling all citizens of Insomnia! We're a strange bunch, but there's comfort in numbers. I'd love to hear from you. How do you deal with not sleeping? Has anything worked well for you? Please share your stories and lessons learned in the comment section here or on my personal blog and website at Rx For The Soul.

Know other insomniacs who could add to our discussion? Post this on your FB page or Buzz, Digg or forward a link to this article. For automatic updates of this post, click Become A Fan.

Til next time, blessings on the path.

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