Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lie back and think of -- nothing!

When I go to bed at night I switch off my light, lower my head on my pillow and wait for Morpheus to cradle me in his sweet embrace. (No, not my husband – this is Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams.)

But while my body is willing, my head won’t follow. For as soon as I want to let go of the day’s cares, I am assailed by half-finished thoughts and an army of to-do-list items marching through my weary mind.

First, I pass review of the Small Stuff: for instance, rescheduling the cat’s vet appointment. This reminds me that I have to make a doctor’s appointment for my son. And book dental check-ups for the twins. Since I’m on appointments, I make a mental note to confirm a birthday-party invitation for my daughter, which in turn reminds me that I have to buy a birthday present for her little friend. Oh, and order that DVD my older son wants for his birthday. For the next five minutes I reel off a list of dozens of things I need to do in the next few days. I grow increasingly tense wondering whether I’ll be able to remember them all by the time the alarm rings the next morning.

This leads on to Medium Stuff: my book that awaits publication, blog posts requiring writing, cooking classes demanding preparation, recipes that want testing, tax declarations, work and family administrivia (and not-so-trivia) that are running late. By now, I’m feeling downright anxious.

From here, it doesn’t take a big step to get to the Big Stuff: the state of the economy, my children’s future, my ageing parents, climate change, and eventually – inevitably – Life, Death and Forgiveness. The script is depressingly familiar, and yet each time it fills me with fear and loathing.

At this point, sleep has become an entirely unrealistic proposition. I get up, pad downstairs and read a boring book to lull myself to sleep. This can take up to an hour. The next morning I’m so tired I feel I need a coffee just to find the coffee!

I have one or two nights like this each week; either my thoughts prevent me from getting to sleep in the first place, or I awake in the middle of the night and the unrelenting cycle of nocturnal ponderings begins anew.

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly tormented soul; it’s mostly a function of having a very busy life and not sorting out my mental clutter before I go to bed. As part of my sleep challenge, therefore, I want to find ways of calming my pointless night-time chatter. Because, let’s face it, night-time ruminations aren’t Quality Thinking Time: I rarely get any real problem-solving or creative thinking done, and in the bright light of day many of the concerns that kept me up at night seem ridiculously small and perfectly manageable. So here’s what I’ll do.

Small Stuff first: I will keep a note pad next to my bed, and before settling in for the night, I will write down any niggling concerns that I haven’t been able to attend to during the day. When I can think of no more items to add to my list, I tell myself: “That’s all for today. You can stop thinking now.”

Medium Stuff: I will keep a comprehensive list on my computer (Microsoft Outlook has a to-do-list-function that includes deadlines and reminders) of the important and/or urgent jobs that need doing and consult it every morning when I begin work, aiming to deal with at least two items before attending to anything else. (I already do this – kind of. For while I often add items to my list, I rarely get around to doing them – just writing them down feels like they’ve been taken care of...)

Big Stuff: this is the most complex nighttime cogitation-fodder, and that which has no Easy Answers. Here’s where taking quiet time to think – and to “not-think” (i.e. meditate) – may help bring some peace.

Talking to loved ones about unresolved conflicts or worries is also important – something I keep putting off, but that keeps coming back to haunt me. So I will schedule time to talk with them, trying to say what needs to be said in the hope of bringing greater clarity and peace to our relationship and to my frazzled mind. And in case my approaches fall on deaf ears, learning to accept things I can’t change and not dwelling on them also strikes me as useful.

Liberating snatches of Quiet Time during the day to “let dangle the soul” (“die Seele baumeln lassen”), as German writer Kurt Tucholsky put it so evocatively, will be a challenge. But my mind has a way of getting what it needs, and if I don’t give it time during the day, it will steal it from me at night.

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