The Buddha states that the root of all human suffering is grounded in desire, in our constant and insatiable craving for things we think we need or want. While I agree with this wise philosophy, I am still human; sometimes I cannot control what my mind and body desire. And right now, what I crave more than anything – more than to pay off my mortgage or take an all-expenses paid trip to Paris – is to have just one night of deep, fulfilling sleep. What I crave is to experience once again the sleep of childhood, the kind of slumber that overtakes consciousness and obliterates the outside world, the kind of sleep that ransacks the body, shuts down the mind and sends me to another dimension.
I have been an insomniac most of my life. I have tried exercise, hypnotic CDs and relaxation techniques, synthetic drugs, natural herbs…counting the cracks and lines on the ceiling. Some nights there is simply no relief. My mind is like a race car spinning round the track at Daytona, looping and curving at 200 miles per hour, but basically going nowhere. I feel the thoughts pouring through me and know that I am sabotaging yet another night of rest, which only compounds the anxiety I feel in the dark; however, I can’t seem to stop the parade of images, ideas and lists that march insistently behind my closed eyes. What did we cover in that meeting today? Did I respond to all those emails mounting in my in-box? Have I checked my calendar for tomorrow? Am I truly living up to my life’s full potential? Ah…. Any one of these questions is enough to fill a night of sleeplessness.
I think back to when I was a child and sleep was a different experience. I used to fight my parents to let me stay up “just one more hour, pleeeeease!” I hated nap time in kindergarten when the teacher made us lie on a plastic mat on the floor and pretend to sleep for a half hour after lunch. I would rest on the sticky mat and peek out of half-closed eyes at my neighbor to see if he was sleeping or pretending to sleep, too. Most days it felt like an eternity that we were forced to be still and quiet. To fall asleep was to leave this world, almost like dying, and sometimes I was afraid I would not wake up again. Sleep was the enemy, the thing that kept me from playing and talking.
But when sleep did find me, as it so often would after a day filled with Alabama sunshine and outdoor games, I would “sleep the sleep of the dead”, as my grandmother used to say. The sleep of childhood is like none other; it is all consuming. A truly tired child is able to turn herself totally over to unconsciousness; the body becomes limp and exceedingly heavy. Think of carrying a sleeping child to bed after she has drifted off kicking and screaming in the car or on the sofa. It is as if her body has gained ten pounds and no amount of jostling or repositioning can rouse her. She has checked out, abandoned this world for the one of REM.
There are two pictures I still have of me sleeping, taken by my father when I was a child. In one I am splayed on a bed wearing cotton pajamas, blissfully asleep next to one of my childhood playmates. We are both ignorant of the camera, of the parents obviously in the room marveling at our exhaustion. Our arms and legs are tumbled on the sheets, our hair is wild and the look on each of our faces is one of sweet blankness. In the other Polaroid, I am resting on my side; my face pressed into a pillow, my arm wrapped around it protectively. My dark hair looks sweaty and matted but my face is calm, my eyes softly closed and my mouth slightly open. I see that picture and wonder what I was dreaming about, where I was in my five-year-old mind….I see that picture and I long for innocent slumber and eight hours rests.
Most people say that the older we get, the less we can sleep. My grandmother used to wake up at 4:00 am, unable to fall back asleep not matter how hard she tried. The day stretched before her with all its hours of thought, and doing, and worry. I am scared that this will be my fate, too, someday; so for now I will continue to crave, despite the Buddha’s warning that this will only lead to suffering, just one or two nights of deep, rewarding sleep, the sleep of oblivion. Today I would welcome “the sleep of the dead.”