03/18/2013 11:02 am ET Updated May 18, 2013

Falling Awake

Aside from a month-long episode of insomnia when I was 10 years old and my best friend moved away to Texas, I've always been a good sleeper. I missed my friend so much that I couldn't sleep. I'd lie in bed listening to the minutes turning over on my alarm clock, and eventually I'd wander in to my parents' bedroom and climb in beside my mother. I'd stay as long as she'd have me, long enough to be soothed, and then I'd go back to my own bed and sleep.

For most of my 20s and 30s, if I couldn't sleep, I could usually point to some anxiety as the cause -- a stimulating writing project, an important exam, a conflict with someone I loved. It's only now, in my early 40s, that I frequently experience sleeplessness for no apparent or obvious reason. I look back on that brief period of childhood insomnia over a friend's move to Texas with something like nostalgia. If only there were a single, clear and compelling (and likely temporary) reason for my current bouts of sleeplessness. I don't know what's keeping me awake, exactly. My doctor told me that she meets many patients like me -- female, in their 40s -- whose habitual sleep patterns are disrupted, likely by hormones. The changes vary from woman to woman, but usually, the new pattern is marked by less sleep, not more. Sometimes the changes are permanent.

I've always loved sleep. The biggest hurdle for me in committing to a three-month-long training period in a Zen monastery was the thinness of the time between the morning wakeup bell and the last evening period of meditation. I was seriously afraid of being really tired. How would I function on six hours of sleep each night when I typically bank eight or more?

I did go to the monastery, called Tassajara, and I did experience a state of extraordinary fatigue there. I was so sleepy I was dizzy. I asked one of the practice leaders what was the point of the sleep deprivation. What was the wisdom in not being able to keep my eyes open when Zen practice is about endeavoring to wake up? He said that tiredness can help us to soften and let go where we might harden and grip if we were well-rested and comfortable, and thus ready with our usual defenses. Instead of falling asleep, we fall awake -- opening to all that we experience because we're too crazy tired to fight for our preferences.

My doctor gave me a prescription for sleeping pills -- not because I plan to take them every night or even most nights, but to have as a backup for when I must sleep and the more natural approaches I'm trying don't work: the herbal teas and nightly bedtime routines. But she also said something I didn't expect to hear from a doctor of Western medicine, even in California. "The next time you can't sleep, just see if you can be curious about it. What is this not sleeping?"

For a moment, I might have been back in the monastery, being reminded in a Dharma talk that what happens in this life is not as meaningful as how we respond to what happens. The problem isn't so much not sleeping as it is having a problem with not sleeping. According to Elizabeth Kolbert's recent article in the New Yorker on the science of sleeplessness, sleep may in fact be less critical than we've been trained to think.

Until the proof is in, I'll still take my eight hours, but I'm trying not to harden around my desire for sleep when it doesn't readily come, especially the kind of sleep I often had in earlier years -- long and uninterrupted. Accepting how little we control in life is so hard, but it can also be deeply freeing, the way it's liberating at the monastery to just get up when the wakeup bell rings, even when you don't want to.

I was tired at Tassajara, to be sure, but I was also very happy. And I slept like a baby.

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