The Irresistibility of Insomnia

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I have insomnia. Rather than viewing this as a problem, I have learnt to embrace it as a part of myself, a way of exploring life to an even greater extent, and indeed tapping into my creativity at all hours. I find it useful, as a writer, to imagine worlds beyond daylight, to seek solace in the light of the moon, and to gaze at the stars when in search for words. Further, insomnia is a metaphor for engaging with life, to be awake at all times to the wonders of the world. Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘we must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake… Only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life.’ I find this comment extraordinary, not merely in the beautiful poetics, but in the heartfelt appeal to reawaken. The imaginative terrain of writers is not exclusive – it encompasses poets, scientists, children, teachers, or any person who seeks to experiment with existence in everyday life, to extend reality to new realms of the once unthinkable. Einstein used writing to engage with science – in fact perceiving the poetics in a beam of light, and its imaginary flight led to special relativity. Parallel lines will impossibly meet when we combine the arts of existence, merging into a singular cosmic creation, where time halts and space is infinite – much like black holes, the overwhelming metaphor of how little we know or understand about this universe. This is what I ponder during my long periods of sleeplessness, as I stare at the stars and imagine the Hubble Telescope’s oracle eye shining light into the edges of all that exists, all there is to know or ever exist, and my eyes adjust to the dark. Milton and Galileo, in their blindness which so many others would view as a curse, learnt to see with other eyes. They were truly awake, illuminated and illuminating.

 

How do we become fully awake? How can I rejoice in my sleeplessness, when surely I am increasingly on autopilot through exhaustion, sleepwalking throughout the world in a trance of quasi-productivity? I am awake because I remain in awe at everyday miracles, I find unexpected beauty in dandelions in the street, I notice shapes in the vast expanse of clouds overhead, and I know that life is far more elusive than my dreams. This is wakefulness – to be attentive to existence, to manifest curiosity at all times, and to know that the nocturnal sanctuary of dreams is only temporary. Thoreau said, ‘to be awake is to be alive… I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavour.’ I am awake, and I do not seek mechanical aid or drugs to send me into the deepest of sleeps. While I do not suggest that insomniacs are fortunate at all, I do use my affliction as a way of reminding myself that life is fleeting, and I would rather be awake than asleep. There is a fine line between the benefits of constantly being awake, and the detriment of never resting to revitalise the body and mind. Of course I desire a more adequate balance, but since I am awake, I remember to be fully awake, to practice mindfulness in every moment. It is about finding wakeful aliveness, and by all means, sleep to recover, to rest, but do not sleep for the sake of unconsciousness. Transcend mediocrity, reach new levels of intellectual wakefulness, and with eyes wide open become a luminary of this age.

 

To describe insomnia to those who have never experienced it may sound harrowing, a rollercoaster of exhaustion with extreme depressive troughs and exhilarating highs of alertness and productivity. Yet to me, I merely experience a sense of ‘ongoingness’, a blending of memory, beginnings, ends, time and space. Perhaps I initially ceased to sleep in fear of my past, of the trauma which would be recounted in my nightmares, or the dread that one day I would simply never wake with the dawn to live out a new day. Perhaps my mind was over-active, I could not press the ‘shut-down’ button in my system, and would lie in bed contemplating events of the day or ideas for the future. Perhaps there is simply too much life in me, and I’d rather not waste a single moment of it. Sarah Manguso reflects that, ‘Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,’ and in her diaries she agonises over the perception that time was escaping her, claiming ‘The trouble was that I failed to record so much. I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time – there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.’ While Manguso suggests that time is not made of moments, but contains moments, I instead believe that time is an evolving series of moments, and we only perceive them as individual events with gaps in between if we are not fully awake and mindful. By practicing attentiveness, we do not stumble from moment to moment in a trance, but rather recognise the importance of the ongoingness of time, the ever-unfolding moments which formulate our existence. When we become mindful, the fullness of the moment can be appreciated. Life for me is a rolling system, where I do not fret over omissions or events I forget, but thrive in those I do remember, taking care not to lean forward too eagerly as I anticipate the next moment, rather, waiting for the one I am in to reach completion. Manguso similarly regrets her impatience with the present moment, stating, ‘All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget. I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things.’ It is a largely Western affliction, I believe, to become intolerant and impatient with life. Forward momentum is important, yet not if a sacrifice of authenticity, self, and life itself is involved.

 

Time is stable – it will continue far beyond our existence. It is our own impermanence which should encourage us to love the moments, to record the memories, and to avoid missing each one with a chronic fear of amnesia. Perhaps my insomnia is a way of warding off amnesia, and perhaps I fear that with sleep will come loss of memory, an inability to recollect my life. Is this fear grounded? I prefer to advocate living each moment, to write my own story as I desire it to unfold, rather than focusing on the past and the fallibility of memories. Yet, while I treasure memories, I abhor photographs. There is a mnemonic violence to photography, a process of crystallisation and spectatorship, a ruination of the moment by attempting to encapsulate part of myself through shutter openings. Memories are summaries, never the real moment. The originals are irretrievable, and that is the wonder of life itself – this is why we must be awake to each moment, as no memory or photograph will ever truly recall it. I worry about reliance on photography as a self-defence mechanism against forgetting, the same as fear of mortality – perhaps even the same as my reluctance to sleep. I prefer to acknowledge indulging in some nostalgia, yet not retain the memory of my entire life as if seeking to control the sensations of its itinerary. Manguso deems it is fear that ‘in a hundred and fifty years no one alive will ever have known me. Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.’ I agree, yet surely that is the beauty of being awake, alive, and mindful – the ability to inhabit time differently, and ensure we are remembered through the stories we write. As Mary Oliver said, ‘attention without feeling… is merely a report.’ Wakefulness encourages us to embrace life, to live each rolling moment rather than merely observing it in a trance-like state of existence. Our brains are designed to forget, and surely this is a reminder to embrace life and dance through the beginnings and endings of moments against a backdrop of eternity. I continue, I am ongoing, and through my insomnia I find unity with existence.

 

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Being awake constantly allows an enchanting medium to be found within the disparate realms of death, life, desire, imperfection, love, and art. I can witness the very fabric of the universe, the beauty of the cosmos supporting this blink of a human life against a backdrop of eternal darkness. Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue notes, ‘we live between the act of awakening and the act of surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more.’ Although some of us may not experience the awake-asleep regular schedule, it is true that with the light brings an invitation to engage with life, and the act of awakening can be likened to our very birth, when we are awakened to the world in its entirety. Yet unlike sleep, the surrender to the transcendent realm of dreams, this is not the surrender of death when we finally become invisible – it is a temporary state between frailty and beauty, wherein anything is possible, but the new day will always come. Again, for some of us, sleep may not come and the surrender is unnecessary. Indeed, perhaps the time for sleep is the moment when the human soul, hungry for inspiration and beauty, can experience a homecoming, an emotional connection with the heavens.

 

Some may suggest this constant wakefulness leads to boredom, but I find it as an ongoing opportunity to learn, to grow, and nurture creativity. Walter Benjamin said, ‘If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.’ Apogee here I interpret as an extreme point, the point of orbit when we are farthest away from ourselves. Benjamin seems to recognise the importance of actively engaging with moments of boredom to draw forth our dreams, our experiences, and relax the mind to allow our imaginative self to emerge. The mind and body are complex entities, biologically and chemically intertwined, yet nights of sleeplessness and hallucination may suggest there is another ‘self’ waiting, dormant, if only I could uncover her. What if I leave my body during sleep, and another lost soul begin to inhabit it in my absence? What if my true self is desperate to be free of this vehicle, to explore the cosmos in the dreams which never come? So I attempt to be wholly awake and engaged at all moments, to ensure this ‘self’ I can perceive never suffers from boredom or craves sleep, but is set free in each moment, through my embrace of ongoingness.

 

Am I missing an essential part of living by not sleeping? What is the science behind dreams – and are they are necessity? I always believed I need not sleep to dream; that my waking dreams will foster creativity and mindful imagination, rather than an unconscious experience which I may forget. Are dreams an in-built nocturnal therapy for humans, or are they the deadly sirens’ call to slumber? Freud states that, ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.’ Alain de Botton notes in ancient times ‘people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future.’ While Anaïs Nin believes, ‘the earth is heavy and opaque without dreams.’ Are these the dreams of the night, the unconscious? Or could they also include daydreaming for creative purposes, to meditate upon existence, almost a waking REM sleep rather than the deeper trance of the unconscious? Of course, Freud’s theories have been debated extensively, particularly his premise that the symbolism of our dreams encodes our subconscious desires, usually of a sexual nature, yet there have not been many viable alternatives offered by theorists. Calvin Hall extensively recorded people’s dreams during the 1950s in an attempt to uncover the mystery and definitively counter Freud. Over fifty thousand dreams were analysed, and he viewed each as a short story, recording the setting, characters, dialogue, and plotline, in addition to details of the dreamers themselves. Hall found that many dreams did not consist of symbols and mystery, but were fairly predictable – he could forecast the narrative with some accuracy. He concluded that dreams are not a sublime realm, a surreal land in which our imagination operates at its peak, but rather they were explorations of everyday life and barely differ from our reality.

 

This is comforting for me, and I suggest that while night dreams may be of value, active daydreaming better engages with our creative self, allowing the most room for development. Alternatively, Ernest Hartmann suggested that dreams are form of therapy, where the ‘mind takes what is new or bothersome and blends it into what the brain already knows, making the new information seem less novel or threatening.’ Hartmann placed high value on dreams, and sleep itself, to address the traumas of life and restore emotional balance. Hence I find an entirely alternative theory which, for me in particular with my own background, suggests that sleep is a vital part of emotional recovery. Perhaps to sleep, and by chance to dream, allows my emotional subconscious to accept the trauma and allow my brain to digest it. For me, however, my history manifests as recurring nightmares, which is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder. Is there a way to control my dreams? Or is my insomnia indeed a blessing in disguise? I find sanctuary in my daydreaming, my wakeful state, guiding my imagination through an exploration of myself and the world, and no solace in the darkness of my occasional dreams. On the occasion I do sleep and experience my personal dreamland, it is no adventure in wonderland. I much prefer to live with eyes wide open, and only at the end of my life will I fully embrace the eternal sleep.

 

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I do find the concept of controlling my dreams, at least those waking dreams, appealing in the sense that it may foster creativity. Stephen King himself claims that ‘creative sleep’ is his most powerful writing tool, and notes, ‘In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.’ It involves engaging in a self-mesmerism which, as King writes, ‘produces the paradoxical alchemy of disciplining our minds into unleashing their unrestrained creative potential.’ Like King, I believe creativity and imaginative processes associated with my writing are often best explored in a creative dream-like state – although, not sleep and dreams themselves. Sleep may indeed unleash our minds into greater potential, but for me it is only a wakeful dreaming, perhaps better described as a retreat into my imagination and the repressed parts of my mind. Freud similarly believed that daydreaming is integral to creative writing, and psychologist Jerome Singer delved into greater research in the 1950s regarding the styles of daydreaming, published in his 1975 text The Inner World of Daydreaming. Singer distinguished between ‘positive constructive’ daydreaming, being a free, vivid, and wishful imaginary experience of creativity; ‘guilty-dysphoric daydreaming,’ combining personal desire, ambition, and conflicting fantasies of failure, heroism, and trauma; and the third as ‘poor attentional control’, the distracted musings of failed concentration.

 

Singer’s theory was developed by Scott Kaufman and Rebecca McMillan, exploring the concept that mind-wandering is essential in the creative process and personal empowerment, and exposing the paradox that daydreaming prevents us from entirely inhabiting the present moment although we engage with it so often. This is courtesy of our ‘default mode network’ (DMN), which allows the brain to be at ‘wakeful rest’ rather than focused actively on the world. Singer found that frequent daydreaming increased creativity and storytelling capacity, also positing that it developed personality, fluency, attention, divergent thought, curiosity, and problem solving ability. He labelled such people ‘happy daydreamers,’ able to assimilate their daydreaming, imagination, fantasy, and curiosity into future planning and a fulfilled mental life. Kaufman and McMillan suggest the presence of an idealised dream-state, a romanticism to the wandering of the mind, stating, ‘we mind wander, by choice or accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful.’ Yet, I must note that while daydreaming is appealing to me, as an insomniac, I also caution against living in the world of the waking dream. As Annie Dillard notes, ‘how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’ The process of living can be distinguished from imaginative processes and the art of writing itself, as life is more than a dream. We must actively engage with the world, and remain awake to its beauty, rather than withdrawing into the imaginary. It is about balancing the two worlds – dreams allow us to unlock the creative capacity of the limitless human mind, but then we must live and evolve in order to emulate and assimilate these dreams into reality.

 

Sleeplessness in itself has a variety of forms for me, including daydreaming, waking, being, and mindfulness. There are philosophical challenges arising from the dichotomous default view of awake-asleep, and I have often turned to Eastern perspectives, particularly the Indian approach using Advaita Vedānta theories to assess the subjectivity of sleep. There is lucid dreamless sleeping, white dreams, diagnosed insomnia, subjective insomnia, cross-cultural dreaming practices, and various interpretations of consciousness and meditation. My engagement with the present is permitted by my constant wakefulness, and I endeavour to study how I can optimise this ongoingness in my life. Evelyn Waugh said, ‘Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.’ This is a problem in contemporary society, with our anxiety regarding future possibilities or the re-enactment of past events often having a parasitic impact on our ability to exist in the present. Perhaps through different states of consciousness, we can better understand how to overcome these anxieties and engage with each moment as they unfold. Evan Thompson is a cross-cultural dreaming and waking philosopher who acknowledges that ‘neuroscientists and philosophers of mind describe dreamless sleep as a blackout state in which consciousness is absent,’ and indeed this is not a new concept – Hume and Locke believed that our awareness simply disappeared during sleep.

 

In the Indian tradition, Advaitins and Buddhist philosophers believed that some form of awareness remains even in a deep sleep, although Nyāya philosophers (Nyaiyāyikas) state that it is entirely absent. The debate between the two schools of thought is complex and might be discussed at another time, but it is unmatched by any other philosophy. I focus on Eastern philosophy and yogic teachings to learn about intensification of my attention and awareness through meditation, which is the calming of the mind and the practice of sustained attention in the waking state. Sleep can similarly provide an opportunity for this sense of heightened awareness, by watching what occurs in sleep phenomenally as various stages including falling asleep, the hypnagogic state, dreaming, and the deeper sleep, and identifying the sense of insight we may feel during lucid dreaming. Somewhat paradoxically, there have also been benefits cited by Even Thompson regarding lucid dreamless sleep, where lucidity is ‘in being aware of the phenomenal edge or borders of the state from within sleep’. Similarly, white dreams involve the awareness that we did dream, as it leaves an impression on our subconscious, but we are unable to recall any details of the dream itself. Finally, subjective insomnia is a misperception of being awake, which Jenny Windt describes as ‘maintaining a pre-reflective awareness of ongoing sleep while mistakenly conceptualising it as a state of wakefulness.’ Is it the case that I am in fact asleep when I believe I am lying awake? Unlikely, but the possibilities and theories surrounding wakefulness, quasi-sleep patterns, and deep sleep are fascinating. Sleep science is still in its embryonic phase, and the door is wide open for philosophical discussion.

 

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Evan Thompson is interesting, as he advocates Indian philosophy as the key to understanding the science of sleep, which has become increasingly ‘Westernised’ in my opinion. He labels the participants in current studies as ‘WEIRD’, meaning ‘Western, Educated, and from Industrialised, Rich Democracies.’ Humourous at the outset, although unfortunately true. The philosophical issues surrounding consciousness itself are far broader than American and European studies, and I believe a cross-cultural insight is required to learn more about the science of wakefulness, meditation, sleep and existence. Early writers such as William James saw the conscious state as continuous, while some Indian Buddhist philosophers view it as discrete, occurring in rhythmic pulses – hence we have two forms of consciousness, one of cognitive access and one of experience at a subjective level, or phenomenal consciousness, encompassing dreams and some meditative states. Perhaps this in itself leads to the deeper question of whether the self is an illusion or a construction – can we take a nihilistic viewpoint and suggest that the self is just a fabrication, an illusory perception of our brain itself? Indeed, even as we refer to ‘I’ and ‘me’, our sense of self shifts throughout states of consciousness, and I personally find I can almost become a different entity depending on my state of wakefulness, dreams, subjective insomnia, or dreamless sleep. Meditation is a valuable tool I will delve into in another post, to fully explore the beauty of silence and stillness, and the philosophy behind the benefits of this ancient practice.  The Westernised concept of meditation is not so much focused on awareness and mental cultivation as is the tradition, and more with a brief ‘time-out’ to escape the chaos of reality. Meditation at a philosophical level involves a level of sustained attention and reflection on a chosen topic, which may be deeply complex such as the very nature of awareness, the existence of suffering, or the elusive concept of happiness.

 

Research into meditation and its benefits is a particular area of interest to me, and it is curious to address how Indian epistemology can inform modern theories, Buddhist logic, metaphysics, moral psychology, Chinese cognitive science, and meta-ethics theory. A discussion for another time, I believe – as I have digressed from my focus on insomnia. A final note however, is in the value I find in yoga itself. It seems paradoxical to suggest that meditation and yoga are an optimum form of wakefulness and engagement for me – in particular as they are often associated with a state of the subconscious or semi-awareness. Rather, they instil in me a particular sense of focus beyond the everyday, despite the practice itself also operating to calm overactive brains. Psychologists in cognitive therapy have found that anxiety, being future focused, can be treated with yoga and meditation as it holds us in the moment. I focus on the feel of my body as I hold an asana, and the movement of each individual breath. We cease to fret over possible outcomes and uncontrollable futures, instead cultivating mindfulness and an emotional distance from unhealthy thoughts. Indeed, advanced MRI studies have shown that after mindfulness meditation, patients have activated the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which acts to dampen worrying feelings. Simultaneously, activity increases in the anterior cingulate cortex, governing thinking and emotion, suggesting that rational thought has displaced worry. Further research shows that yoga can affect levels of GABA in the brain, which is a calming neurotransmitter linked with neuronal receptors targeted by the antianxiety benzodiazepines. Without delving into the multitude of research centres and institutions conducting similar studies, or the daily yoga and meditation practices now assimilated into psychiatric treatment, there is no doubt that for me, at least, it is highly beneficial. Of course, my insomnia itself may be my mode of meditation, even if as an originally unwanted condition. Again, I am not suggesting that no sleep is the way to live the healthiest and most engaged life. Rather, I have learnt to use it as an opportunity to practice true wakefulness, embrace this feeling of ‘ongoingness’, and ensure that no moment passes by unnoticed.

 

I have heard many people claim that academics and writers suffer from lack of sleep, to the point where it is an epidemic in the world of literature. Any selection of studies will suggest differing numbers of hours of sleep required for optimum functionality, although I believe it is largely dependent on the person. The important factor is finding your personal point of exhaustion, and learning to function either before or indeed beyond that point, rather than remaining at its peak. Interestingly, William James wrote about energy levels in his creative process, and learning to function without sleep. He states, ‘The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed.’ Many insomniacs may be familiar with this sensation, and we find power in a new level of consciousness – perhaps it may be likened to a dream-state, yet I find it is more than daydreaming. It is a source of energy resulting in extreme focus, a deeper stratum beyond the surface of basic concentration. I have no doubt that most people on this planet do not push to their own resources to the extremes of their capabilities. Perhaps we fear breaking beyond repair, and while this is possible, we should never forget how incredibly versatile and adaptable humans are as a species. Of course we all have up and down days, and James himself notes that, ‘on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us… Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake.’ On these days, we operate below our maximum potential, accepting the habit of inferiority of our true potential. There is a transformation I learn to undertake, to admit my wider potential range of wakefulness, and push the barrier of exhaustion further away, to find solace in an ephemeral level of being. William James again advocates this personal development away from self-imposed limits, stating that the transformation is a chronic one, where ‘the new level of energy becomes permanent,’ and we have uncorked ‘human nature’s reserves of power.’

 

My point is that the challenge of exhaustion may be entirely a matter of perception, a creation of our smaller self which can indeed be broken, allowing us to transcend our pre-conceived notions of our limits. James states, ‘Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up. Every siege or shipwreck or polar expedition brings out some hero who keeps the whole company in heart.’ I may have digressed from my original point that insomnia may be a blessing, but I am attempting to apply the principal of being constantly awake to the idea that exhaustion, in turn, has an unnecessary taboo attached to it. For in experiencing exhaustion, often in the form of difficulty and despair, we can question our own limits. Carl Sagan memorably said, ‘try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,’ and similarly William James said of our own minds: ‘One thing that ideas do is to contradict other ideas and keep us from believing them… Our philosophic and religious development proceeds thus by credulities, negations, and the negating of negations.’ My point here is that, merely because you have a hypothesis that your optimum functionality is with eight hours of sleep at a given time, or that daydreaming is for the directionless, it may be worth questioning your own will – conversions of the self will permit your energies to be set free. Waking, being, and dreaming are all the necessities of life, but is this routine you have formulated your only way of existing? Or is it a self-imposed limit, which you can reshape simply by changing your mind? Question yourself and these limits, and perhaps you will find a far greater capacity for power, creativity, imagination and human potential within your soul than you ever believed possible.

 

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