Thursday, September 30, 2004

Sleep ... the Final Frontier!

Captain Kirk may have been right as far as exploration of the ‘outer realms’ was concerned, but for my ‘inner exploration’ I’ve no doubt whatsoever what the hardest aspect of practice is, and which has remained stubbornly resistant to transformation … Sleep, or rather … the lack of it!

No other aspect of life has had such a dramatic and obvious effect on my ability to both see and work with my mental states. No other aspect of experience seems to dominate the mental events landscape so colourfully as sleep deprivation does.

My first beginnings with meditation and then Dharma coincided with the birth of my first child, my darling daughter. As any parent knows, with babies/toddlers comes lack of sleep, and lots of it. Those early years were frequently characterised as what might be called ‘rear guard actions’, defensive strategies for dealing with that lack of sleep. There was little I could do about getting more sleep. And when so deprived, my patience levels dropped, my inclination towards ill-will heightened, and my ability to see what was going on (and therefore do anything about it before something ‘automatic’ happened) was dramatically diminished. It was one of those spiritual Catch-22’s … the problem seemed inherently difficult to solve. The lack of sleep led to all sorts of negative mental states, and the dullness that permeated my mind made it especially difficult to attempt to transform them. Dullness is of course the epitome of this … a negative mental state with it’s own protection built-in – the diminishing of awareness.

Well, 15 years later, and 2 more kids on, sleep deprivation is still a major aspect of life. Until a few weeks back, my two year old toddler was waking around 6 times a night for bottles of milk and comfort. The effect on my sleep (and my wife’s!!!) was dramatic, and provided a challenge of continuing freshness. Fortunately for me, my years of working with whatever was, with however things were, had paid off in the ability to largely accept the ground as it was, and relatively patiently work with the bounds of the actually possible. Sleep deprivation, though it still coloured my daytime experience, was is no way a crippling handicap to mental cultivation, but had become just one more interesting arena within which my endless watching of the nature of things played out its hand. Tired or fresh, happy or sad, inspired or not it makes virtually no difference .. it’s still mind, it’s still appearances seeming to arise, it’s still impossible to grasp and ultimately empty.

Having said that, it still colours things more than most and still presents particular difficulties in workability. But no longer do I crave to not experience it, and no longer is it any sort of barrier to successful cultivation.

And, two weeks back, we started a program of ‘controlled crying’ with my toddler, teaching him to put himself back to sleep without the bottles and intervention. Following a so-called expert in a book, the technique has worked like a dream, with my son waking an average of once a night for a brief cry, but putting himself back to sleep within a minute or so. I still lay there wide awake at night, unused after all those years to being able to sleep throughout the night. But conditions change, arenas of practice alter, and the ‘work’ goes on, looking … deeply … and gently nursing my karmic inheritance in conducive directions.

Sleep …. The Final Frontier …. Hardly overcome, but at least partially transformed!

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