Insomnia

Screech owls. Yipping foxes. Howling eastern coyotes. Tree frogs. Flying squirrels. The brown crickets, slowing their chirps as the temperature falls. Night sounds that I notice when I have episodes of insomnia.

night

eerie night

All my life, I have experienced insomnia–sometimes to a distracting degree. Now that I have a chronic condition that induces fatigue, insomnia plagues me less frequently; but something about the change of season from summer to autumn tends to arouse the sleepless demon. A colleague speculates that this seasonal insomnia occurs because for most of my life I have had to operate on the school-year’s calendar, September to June instead of January to December. Annually, this has been my transition time. I think she may be correct.

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One of the most frustrating aspects of insomnia has been my sense that lying in bed unable to sleep is time wasted. We have only so many breaths to take in our lives. Stewing in anxiety, listening to thoughts run heedlessly through my consciousness–such fruitless minutes! I know I should be giving my body complete rest, nestling into proper circadian rhythms, instead of restlessly tossing. Or I should just get up and do something useful (but I’m too sleepy to do anything useful).

I am not a Buddhist; but learning about the practice of tonglen has provided me with a method for insomnia that does not feel wasteful. When I cannot fall asleep, or when I waken in the darkness and cannot get back to sleep again, the mindful breathing and the focus on compassion that tonglen prescribes are enormously helpful. I slow my breath and think about breath; I think about life, and about all sentient beings. In my awareness on the brink of sleep, I send compassion outward with my breaths–outward to all other beings in the cosmos. I repeat in my mind, “May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May they be released from pain and the causes of pain. May they find peace. I send compassion to all sentient beings.”

The practice is akin to prayer, which I learned very young (my father is a “man of the cloth”) in church and at home. From early in my life, however, I encountered problems with prayer because I had problems with the Omnipotent Other Being to whom I was  directing my prayers. In the abbreviated tonglen practice as I practice it, I do not need to direct my thoughts to any one being but toward all beings. [I should note that in actual Buddhist practice, there is considerably more contemplative work in tonglen; a good reference is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.]

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First Presbyterian Church of Yonkers NY, 1964

The benefits are several. Maybe my consciousness does not affect the consciousness of other beings, or in any way affect the suffering they experience. I certainly allow that may be the case. Nonetheless, the practice of thinking kindly toward all other beings works to make me feel happier and kinder; it reminds me of my own and others’ generous spirits. In addition, the practice soothes me both bodily and in my mind. Slow breathing is comforting and relaxing. All kinds of studies show that slow, thoughtful breaths relieve physical stress and mental stress while allowing oxygen to flow freely through the blood. All of that is helpful to the body–and the slow breaths are relaxing enough to get me back to sleep. Which is also, as studies show, quite essential for good health.

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The night sounds and the changing seasons kindle me to write poems, as well. Sometimes those middle-of-the-night awakenings are charged with inspirations, or snippets of imagery from life or dream.The urge to write differs from the urge to share compassion, but they feel like kinfolk to me. Poetry springs, often, from the feeling of shared struggle.

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May we make good use of insomnia. May we be free from suffering.

The Protestant in my upbringing says, Amen.

 

 

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Fear & peace

Human beings have a problem with fear.

I guess it is evolutionary, as well as anthropological, cultural, social…all those tribal basics, banding together to protect ourselves from anything that threatens, anything that is not us. From this perspective, how likely is it that we will ever learn compassion or know peace?GFS2

There is a practice among Buddhists called tonglen, a form of meditation to engage in compassion that is not just deep but also wide, spreading to “all sentient beings.” I’ve written a bit about it here, as well. In the past year, I have had personal and social concerns that urge me to confront fear in a loving and accepting manner; otherwise, I think I would despair.

The world offers comfort to its compassionate observers. Sorrow and pain are part of life, but they are not the sum of life; fear shuts us off from curious and open-minded observation.

We may never know peace–not in terms of a constant, steady-state peacefulness; evolution doesn’t operate that way. Physics doesn’t operate that way. Change can be painful, but it is necessary and beautiful in its many unfolding ways. I wonder if it isn’t peace we should be seeking but freedom from a close-minded, intellectual sort of fear.

I am posting this poem (from my book Small Things Rise & Go, available from FootHills Publishing). Readers respond to this piece, I’ve found, in startlingly different ways. It is, among other things, a meditation.

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Liturgy

We will not know peace.
Hay clogs the thresher,
Snow stoppers thruways.
Starlings haggle out the morning.
Red fox probes her muzzle
Into the voles’ weed bunkers;
Harrier screams over moors.

We will not know peace.
Here, the caterpillar
Tires chew fields into slog;
Here a child’s toy erupts
Into a village of amputees.
Sands shift under an abstraction,
The sea grows warm.

We will not know peace,
During our lifetimes, the tines
Break, the cogs slip,
Polluted slough impedes
Our efforts at contentment.
Our own natures
Bully us down:   Peace—

Peace to those who do not know peace.
To the fieldhand knee-deep in grain.
To the broken doll clasped by a broken child.
To the small-time fisherman far at sea.
To my mother with war scrawled through her
To the empty church, the hill of snow, evening—

That may never know peace.

~

© 2002, 2006 Ann E. Michael

Empathy & compassion

quanyin
Quan Yin, bodhisattva or goddess of compassion; the Chinese interpretation of Avalokiteśvara

Sensitive. Or: oversensitive.

These are terms I hear bandied about to describe people who react deeply to anything from wool clothing or sock seams to sarcasm or “charged language.” When I was a child, people told me I was sensitive; initially, I thought that was a kind of compliment, and sometimes that was the intention. The teenager I once was believed that sensitivity made me empathetic and compassionate.

As I matured, however, the term sensitivity took on more negative connotations of the “can’t you take a joke?” sort. Worse yet, the charge of sensitivity came loaded with accusations of narcissism, as in “you take everything personally.” In today’s phraseology, “It’s not all about you.” Under those terms, sensitivity does not resemble empathy.

Empathy is a feeling-response, true. It appears to have a like-kind relationship to sensitivity–but a person must be sensitive to others’ experiences in order to feel empathy; so the similarity’s not as swappable as it first seems. I thought that my feeling-response signaled that I was a compassionate person. Indeed, fiction elicits empathy in me. A lifelong bookworm and early addict to novels, I definitely feel along with the characters of the stories I read. Is it really the experience of others that makes me weep or feel joy as the characters forge through lives such as I will never be able to encounter? Or is it a feeling response to damned good writing?

I ask myself these questions because, given my inquiries into what consciousness is and what poetry does, it seems I have not made clear to myself the differences between sensitivity, empathy, and compassion.

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My current thoughts on the differences have evolved through reading and writing poetry, not fiction, and through getting older. Nothing like life experience to knock a person’s youthful errors into strong relief.

Here goes:

Sensitivity is the strength of a person’s reaction. That reaction may be physical or emotional and will vary widely from one individual to another.

Empathy always means that one “feels within” another person (from Greek empatheia em- ‘in’ & pathos ‘feeling’); it is an inward response to external stimuli. As Daniel Goleman notes, there are several types of empathy psychologists have identified–here’s a brief article on that topic.

Compassion, while a noun, must be active. I think of it as behavior, as action, as verb in noun form. It is a response or reaction to suffering in others (empathy) that is accompanied by an urgent desire–the word desire isn’t strong enough to convey the feeling–to help alleviate the suffering.

That’s where the activity comes in. Until I feel a desire to act, I am “merely” empathetic and sensitive.

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Recently, I have begun to recognize that my desire to write poetry is partly compassion-based. Art of any kind is process as well as result, and process is action. Additionally, my career as an educator has compassionate action structured into the job description. There are other ways we–I–can be compassionate in the world. This matters to me.

We can learn from the practice of tonglen: “Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” ~Pema Chödrön

And we can live in the world and begin to use our sensitivity to pain, and our sense of empathy, to activate compassion–as a verb.