Listen, I Need Sleep

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“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”, they say.

“Stay busy”, our culture teaches us, as a central touchstone of mental health.

But when you’ve made the choice to Lifecation, and you don’t necessarily have to fill your time with the demands of others, arbitrary busy-ness, for busy’s sake, doesn’t make sense.

In this chapter of my journey, in Southern California, I’ve been keeping my hands busy with playing the guitar, attempting to write, cleaning out old closets, meditating, distracting myself to avoid writing, going for walks in the park, dating a couple lovely humans, thinking about how I’d really like to be writing, and wondering why on earth I can’t sit down to write.

Over the last 9 months or so since I started transitioning into this lifecation, more and more of my time has become mine to do with what I please. This is exactly according to plan. I haven’t had to spend anywhere near the amount of time I used to paying invoices, or driving to appointments… battling traffic, or fielding customer service calls. I’ve been able to have my hands busy with almost only things I want to be doing. They feel an appopriate amount of busy. My mind is another story – and I’ve learned it’s really an idle mind that is the devil’s workshop. Without systems to create and company operations to manage, I have the freedom to do what I want with my brain, and it’s a learning curve, to use that responsibility well. Over these same last 9 months, I’ve seen my sleep patterns go to crap, become more aware of my tendency to “spook” into anxiety patterns, and my moodiness stay as strong as ever.

Some of that I actually view as highly positive. After an adult life of running from feelings out of fear of being “too much”, or out of an undying allegiance to productivity, giving myself permission to feel big waves of emotion come and go and knock me out of my chair seems to be a really vital, life-force-returning, amazing part of the process.

But not sleeping well sucks.

And I think those of us that have stepped off the traditional path of social expectations may be at a little higher risk for the “I just need to figure this out” mental hamster wheel that squeaks away through the wee hours. I mean, our story hasn’t been written for us by our culture, just waiting for us to follow. Every day is an active discovery, a figuring out of who we are and where we fit and what we want out of this life.

When I’m my well-rested self, I know that I can’t think my way through, or analyze my way into certainty around any of those big questions. They have to simply be lived into and allowed to reveal themselves. But the hum of 3am sings a siren song of worry, otherwise.

Fortunately, I’ve recently learned why.

This hum of obsessive, uncontrolled problem solving comes from a system in the brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN). To be fair, there is some disagreement in the neurological community about the actual existence and function of the DMN, but to me it makes a hell of a lot of very useful sense, so I’ll buy into it, until I see sufficient science to the contrary.

The DMN is the part of our brain that’s active when we’re not using it for something else. (Hence, “default mode”). The brain doesn’t just turn off or take a break when we’re not specifically asking it to work, it just goes back to its unconditioned habit of grinding on potential problems. Good for survival when the problems are impending wooly mammoths, bad for sleep when a quick glance at facebook before bed yeilds 5,000 new bits of information to autonomically worry about. Overactivity in the DMN is highly correlated with all sorts of bummers, like depression and chronic illness and pain. Stress is bad, kids!

Interestingly the DMN involves the same structures in the brain that we use when we’re consciously making social decisions, or self-referencing… so if it feels like your default is to reviewthat jerky facebook comment over and over in your brain, or to obsess over whether or not you’re happy in your life, it’s because, in a way, those are your default.

Like I said, bummer.

So, is there no way to durn the darn thing off?

It appears there is. fMRIs of Long-term meditators show less of this DMN party than most of us normal worry-worts. But the key word there is long-term. I definitely work to be consistent in my own daily meditation practices, but unfortunately this year has shown me that one good period of mindfulness this morning isn’t necessarily going to mean I can stop the hamster wheel tonight. And, in a confusing bit of consequences, I’ve even read that some forms of non-directive meditation, like Trascendental, can actually increase DMN activity (according to Wikipedia). Not what I’m going for.

There are, however, a chorus of voices on the internet suggesting that there may be a more immediate solution: giving the brain a job to do. I guess this is where the concept of counting sheep comes from – it seems humans have been trying to rid themselves of sleeplessness for a long time.

I found a surprising number or sources (who may or may not have any reliability), suggesting the act of listening, as a prescription for insomnia. Finding an uninteresting noise, like the hum of a fan, and focusing simply on listening to it, supposedly works wonders. You just keep listening intently to every moment and subtle intricacy of your chosen sound, until you’re out.

I’ve just jumped on this research train today, after another characteristically sleepless night last night, so I haven’t tried this out at bedtime yet. But I have, throughout the day, paused and pulled myself out of whatever temptation to worry I may be entertaining at the moment, to hear the buzz of the neighbor’s air conditioner, the grinding of the in-fridge ice maker, the whir of lawnmowers outside. And when I really listen, there are no problems to solve. That all fades into the background, if only for a moment. I’m too busy actually being here, to worry.

It’s the same mindfulness teachings the masters have been telling us all along, but for some reason, I can really hear this version of it. (See what I did there?). Maybe it’s because my life is pretty musically-inclined at the moment, or maybe different techniques just work for different times. In any case, this listening practice really resonates for me now.

Right now, there’s a bird chirping nearby the picnic table in the park, where I sit. I hear footsteps of young families running in the grass. The woosh of breeze in the tree leaves rises and falls. And what do you know, my keyboard is clicking. I’m actually sitting down and writing for a change. Really listening outside filtered some (hopefully) halfway decent ideas out of the jumble of nonsense that bubbles within. Stopping to listen has, at least for this moment, finally calmed down from the constant stimulation and whirlwind pace of LA life, enough to sit and make words. And make this click click sound. And share something useful. And that, maybe like everything else, is certainly not a problem to be solved.

(Photo: One of my favorite webcomics, The Awkward Yeti)

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