Last night, I did something I haven’t done in a long time. I went to bed without my laptop or smart phone. Once in the bed, I did not so much as peek at either screen. I didn’t even set an audiobook or podcast to playing as usual. I just laid there in the dark with nothing but silence and my very own thoughts. Not even a book.
As I laid there, for what seemed like forever, I was reminded of a conversation I often have with my son, which goes something like this.
“Caden,” I say, “You’re not getting enough sleep.”
“I can’t sleep,” he says.
I look at the unshaven hair on his chin and neck. It itches me.
“You know you need at least seven or eight hours of sleep per night,” I say. “How much sleep have you been getting?”
“I don’t know. About four hours?”
“If you’d stop going to bed so late, you wouldn’t be so exhausted and then, when you are awake, you would be more effective. Your mind will be clear. Your brain will work better. You won’t be so stressed.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I tried that. It doesn’t work. I just lie there and I can’t fall asleep.”
“So, just keep lying there until you do!”
“It doesn’t work! I just lie there with my monkey mind, thinking about all sorts of things, and I never fall asleep.”
And then he gets frustrated. I bark at him about shaving, or his unkempt hair, or his absences at school, unfinished business, or whatever. I’m always dispensing advice – like annoying drips of water on his forehead. I might as well be thumping him there with my finger. I can see from the way he diverts his eyes that it feels like that – endless criticism, not guidance.
Anyway, so I’m lying there thinking about this. Thinking about that. Thinking about all sorts of things. Monkey mind, as my son said. And just like him, I can’t sleep.
Still, I resist the swelling urge to grab my smart phone.
And then it occurs to me. That monkey mind, all that noise in my head, is me. I’m am with myself, in myself, of myself. Even if my thoughts are in the past, or the future, I am experiencing them fully.
I remembered that, as a boy, I once enjoyed this time before sleep. It was my chance to make movies in my mind. I would close my eyes, the lights in the theater would dim, and I would project my stories up there on the back of my eyelids. And I would enjoy them as much, if not more, than the real movies. I would work on them for nights in a row – changing up the scenes, introducing new characters and situations. And then, in the days, I would write or draw or tell stories and people would often ask “Where in hell do you come up with this stuff?”
So, I try it again.
Instead of just letting my mind jump around like a broken time machine, I direct my thoughts. I try to hold them on a single idea or question.
At first, it’s very clear that I’m out of practice. Every little thing that comes to mind reminds me of something else – like an inbox full of spam. But, I concentrate. I heave my mind back out of the muck and return it to the idea. Back and forth it goes like this until alas, I’m thinking.
I’m not bored, I’m thinking.
Since when did thinking become boredom?
I like thinking!
I like this place of thought. I like this spot here in the dark, in the bed – this perfect place for quiet contemplation. I like the silence. I can hear myself. I’m in good company.
And then, maybe thirty minutes later, maybe an hour, maybe more, I fell asleep.
I woke early, feeling fully rested – energized, but remarkably peaceful. I made a cup of hot tea. The house was quiet. I watched a hummingbird drink from the feeder just outside the window.
I opened my laptop. I didn’t jump straight into the email. I didn’t open Skype. No Facebook. No Twitter. Not even the daily news. Just a blank page and a blinking cursor.