I couldn’t sleep last night.
Tossed for a bit, tried some deep breathing, decided to just lay in bed resting in the knowledge that sleep would arrive. An hour later – nothing.
My mind was overstimulated. One racing thought after another, sometimes together, often crisscrossing on a motorway built to support both traffic and speed. It has happened before. Five years ago when I was experiencing what I later found out was an anxiety disorder, came to know that it was anxiety and not a disease, and now see that it’s a feature of the human condition, not a malaise unless extremely distressing, I had struggled to sleep. On the third night of virtually no sleep, I decided to seek help, but that’s a story for a different day. Now was different too.
Over the years, I have worked out a routine to fall asleep. A spot of exercise during the day, no screen time for a few hours before bed, a nice shower, journaling, some light reading, and then mindful breathing – tired, switched off, refreshed, unhindered, gently occupied, and present. I pride myself on the ability to fall asleep at short notice. “How do you do it? We’ve been in the cab for a minute!” “I have a technique. I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime I want to.” Clearly, like with anything, there is a caveat. Last night, I wanted it too much.
I had a busy day – reading, working, speaking with people, writing, planning, briefing – and there were a fair few things left hanging and incomplete. People who hadn’t responded in time (they still haven’t), some gaffes that were as laughable as they were infuriating, and tasks that seem to expand as you think you have made headway. Each of these things is perfectly natural, but, yesterday, they were distressing. They were empowered by the weight of my expectation.
When I want something badly enough, I start to subject every step towards that goal to complex analysis. Expect. Think. Analyse. Reflect. Reiterate. Repeat. Having spent years in urban solitary confinement, I have for a long time perceived this process to be productive and reassuring. To my surprise (and occasional horror), I couldn’t be further from the truth if I sat on a comet blazing in the opposite direction for a few years. The weight of expectation is just toxic forecasting disguised as a gentle desire for the preferred outcome. It may seem innocuous. In a world of chaos, however, it isn’t.
There are a few specific mechanisms that govern the human condition. Birth, ageing, socialisation, and death. Each of us has our own methods (often abstractions) to process these stages. Good health, deep relationships, sound nutrition, some creative outlet, and a healthy sprinkle of Memento Mori do the job for me, but there is one nasty critter that always manages to do my nut in – narrative. You see, the more ‘artificially’ social I become – building a personal brand, showcasing my creative wares, demonstrating my skill – the more aware I am of every moment presenting an opportunity to write the story of me. I move from being the actor to the director – arranging, critiquing, deriving no satisfaction from what is an academic pursuit of the aesthetic.
Life, on the other hand, usually has other plans, because everyone else is playing their own darn movie in their head. “How can they? I’m the star of this show.” “No, you’re not. I am. So shut it and take a photo. 97 followers can’t go without liking a photo for this long. Don’t deprive them, you monster.”
So, I decided not to bother. “If I can’t sleep, I’ll lay there. If I still can’t sleep and I have no energy, I’ll look around and observe my environment, maybe drift, but not dive, into a gentle stream of thought. If I have some energy, I’ll get some work done.”
Little work happens in our imagination, but all distress takes place there. Desire, that unforgiving delusion that peace lies in specific achievement, has a way of confuddling our minds into believing that preoccupation is productive. That’s why I do it instead of getting something done. It’s easier. Problem with easy is that it’s difficult to stop. The mind decides to chug along, the wheel spinning rapidly as the hamster gets knocked about.
I sat up. I walked into the living room. And then I decided to write. A sentence is more than the articulation of thought. It’s the purging of clutter for the simple fee of creative effort. If there’s a better deal than that, I don’t know it.
Goals need attention, not preoccupation. The former is a function of ‘what do we have here?’ and the latter of ‘what will it feel like when it happens?’. What we choose could well be the difference between making progress and not sleeping very well.
It’s time for a nap. I wonder what it will feel like when I close my eyes for some much needed restful sleep full of incredible dreams.