Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Getting to sleep at night

It's a hell of a wet December day out there so no chance of interesting walks for the foreseeable. But never fear, I just had an email from Craig, a friend in Australia who reminded me of something I wrote a few weeks ago when he asked me how to deal with being wakeful on going to bed.

My first attempt to reply to him got a bit out of hand so I sent him a few quick ideas. However I persevered with the mind clearing exercise he set off in me and sent him the long answer some weeks later.

I've no idea if I answered his question but I got something off my chest and thank him for providing the impetus.

You get the long answer I'm afraid.

Hi Craig

It may surprise you but receiving an email such as yours excites me.
I’ll tell you why. It suggests that there is someone out there who might be responding to what life offers.

This may seem obscure to you but it is my understanding that life is always dropping hints to us. Not many people respond to them other than to bat them away or complain so I’d like to do what I can to encourage you to explore the clues offered. Hints about what you might ask?

Well it is also my understanding that we are here to make the most of ourselves and yet most of us don’t. We get stuck in the troubled and ignorant patterns of childhood and never manage to free ourselves.

That poses another question. What is freedom?

All this and I haven’t got anywhere near addressing your question about getting to sleep at night. That’s the nature of the challenge we have I’m afraid. Getting through all the apparent junk to the heart of the matter. And we all have it. So much so that we don’t even know it’s a problem.

It has never occurred to most people to consider that freedom might be something to aspire to or indeed that they aren’t free. So the first step is to entertain the idea that they might not be.

Not being able to switch off and go to sleep at night is a clear sign of being in the grip of something. It might be indigestion of course but I doubt it☺ Exploring what the real issue might be is the first step towards finding out what is controlling us. Do that with a little determination and a whole new view of life opens up. My whole approach to life is based on wanting to get to the truth of things.

So let’s start with the concept of freedom as I understand it so far.
It seems to me that freedom happens, if it happens at all, bit by bit. You turn a lifelong prisoner out of his habitual jail and he freaks out. Stay in a darkened room for a few hours and run into sunlight and you’re blinded. No, the best option is to be let out for brief trips into the dangerous world of freedom with some kind of easy guidebook. I’ve been assembling my own for years mostly through a process of trial and error.

The first step if you want to be free might well be to begin by examining the nature of the walls and bars surrounding you. At present the indications are that your prison walls emerge most clearly when you lie down at night and try to go to sleep. If you think about it, they appear to be made of thoughts, probably, if they are anything like mine, repeated and never ending. They may turn up as worries about things you feel can’t do much about while lying in bed or plans that grab your imagination. You try to stop them and they wriggle out of your control. I’m only imagining this of course. The experience for you may be different. That’s for you to know and explore.

Let’s leave that thought there for a minute and jump to another idea.

Where do thoughts come from? Somewhere in my mind, seems an obvious answer. But where is that mind? In my head? I wonder about that. But more on that later, perhaps.

Here I can only speak from my own experience of exploring this issue. For me thoughts appear as a narrative accompanying images or scenes. Does that ring true with you? So where do these images come from? What triggers them? I did a lot of wondering about that in my early adult life. When I was unable to stop thinking in my twenties I had a hell of a time getting to sleep and used to ponder a great deal.

There were two factors that I identified as important for me. One was that in my childhood my mother wasn’t very tactile. She never cuddled me to sleep, never read me bedtime stories (she was too busy with my older brothers, the ironing, the washing up etc.) I don’t ever recall having a kiss goodnight when I was tucked up in bed. She never used terms of endearment. I’m sure she loved me but it was never overtly expressed. They say you don’t miss what you don’t know but I know my own kids really enjoyed a story and a goodnight kiss and wouldn’t go to sleep without one. I think my childhood experience left me with emotional heart damage and numbness. I explored all this when I was in my twenties. I'm sure my stuff is totally different from your stuff but you can bet your life you have stuff to explore about your mum. We all do and will never be free until we face it.

The second factor was my dad’s expectations. He was a very reassuring chap to have around and made me feel safe but there were conditions, big conditions and they were never overtly mentioned. The main one was that I knew I had to do well at school. I never questioned this at the time. It seemed like common sense because I went to schools where that kind of hard studying attitude was assumed by all. But when I had achieved all my goals academically, good A levels, the best university, a good degree, after the euphoria, I was left with a total emptiness. I soon realised I’d more or less done it for my dad.

After being confused and without direction or ambition for a while I ended up in a terrible marriage that soon broke up and left me with a baby daughter that I had to leave with a mum I didn’t trust to bring her up. You see how life gets you in the nuts. I felt such an impotent failure and so depressed I could hardly get out of bed let alone get a proper job. I was so burdened it felt like the end.

So what has all this got to do with my dad you may be wondering? Well, one thing just leads to another in that fascinating way life has.

In desperation and needing somehow to support my kid and her mum, I ended up as a bus driver. You could say life drove me to it because it was certainly the last thing on my mind. The bus depot just happened to be less than a hundred yards from the little room I had rented when we split up. I turned up feeling pretty unemployable and wondering if I could get a job as a bus conductor. The guy behind the glass partition took one look at me and said, “You look the sort who’d make a good driver. Come back on Monday morning and we’ll try you out”.

He turned out to be a chap called Fred. Everyday angels like Fred seem to appear in my life from time to time. You may think I’m barmy but it seems to me there are times when we’re invited or directed to do things it would never occur to us to do normally. It was almost as if he’d been expecting me. I could give you further examples but it would take too long. Angels appear when most needed and least expected. People turn up in unlikely places with rather forthright messages and we do well to notice what they say.

At any rate a long stint as a bus driver turned out to be the greatest blessing I could have wished for. Bus drivers have to pay attention but they don’t have to think. It occupies some restless part of the brain and releases energy for other things that are on the mind. At last, after years of studying and striving to pass exams I was suddenly free of all that. I could earn a living in a simple thought free way.

Freedom I hear you say!! Yes it was freedom but freedom of the most circumscribed kind. I certainly never saw it as up to much to start with though, made to work odd hours on different shifts. Unable to do any regular sports. Given the plainest, old maid as a conductress when other blokes seemed to get the dolly birds. Grumble, grumble. But there was a sense of power in driving an old fashioned double-decker and it was so obviously a useful service to the community. It was novel and not unpleasant. An outdoor job in a cosy indoor environment. Oddly satisfying.

However, the real benefit was that I was given the chance to spend time on my own safely enclosed in a bus cab. Unwittingly I’d let life inveigle me into getting to know the content and workings of my mind. Very few people get this chance and no one tells us at school that it’s vitally important if you want to be free. Essential, it seems to me now. In my ignorance I was truly blessed.

Driving a bus became second nature after a few weeks. I enjoyed it. My mind, however, was a revelation. It became a tyrant and there was no escape. I just couldn’t stop the inner dialogue. It was a nightmare, an inescapable nightmare of semi-logical jabbering and argument, philosophising and self-justification, pontificating and imagining. But there was nowhere to hide so eventually I gave up the struggle to control it and went at it with a will. It took a while to make any sense of it because I felt so guilty about my daughter and such a failure.

When that subsided, I started writing thoughts down at the terminus or on breaks, even at traffic lights or when stuck in traffic. I filled several small spiral notebooks. It soon became an amazing adventure, full of discoveries and creation, poetry and memories. There was a darker side to it as well but more of that later.

First I want to mention one book I was reading. This was a book on Zen by D.T.Suzuki. The ideas in Zen fascinated me. They were all about no thing or nothing. What is the nature of reality? What is the mind? What happens when the mind is still? All very theoretical when my mind was whizzing about all over the place, with me feeling euphoric one moment, depressed the next. But it was important to add this new element of possibility. Zen Koans did seem to interrupt the thinking and leave gaps. The gaps were fleeting and soon flooded with thinking but they were there.

Gradually I became aware that a part of me was not completely caught up in this merry go round. That part was just observing. The still point at the centre of the Catherine wheel isn’t the bit that gets all the attention. It didn’t strike me as very important at the time because the rest of me was having fun feeling momentous or anguished and generally making such a din. I think this awareness of an observer was helped, though, by the fact that there was yet another part of me that was driving the bus. After a year the bus driver often did the job without the thinker even noticing him.

So the observer was just one more bit of me. It was just the bit that didn’t seem to do anything at all. It didn’t think, it just noticed. An odd discovery really for someone trained to think for England if not the world. How was it possible to exist without thinking? There’s a question that bears contemplating. Who’s there when the thinking stops? All very Zen. The answer vanishes the moment it appears. Like trying to grab at an eel.

It is often the case that we don’t notice something important in our minds because we are so caught up in old habits. Also the quiet bits tend to attract very little attention. It happens in life everywhere. We get drawn to where the action is, where the crowds are. A key lesson to learn is that the witness only gets caught up in the action when you think about it. It is free until you become conscious of it. Becoming aware of the witness is a massive step. So massive I still get shocked when I notice it and jump into thought.

The mere fact of identifying and describing the witness state tends to limit it and diminish it. It is so much more alive and immediate than thought. Whole philosophies are based on it. Here I just want to brush up against it in passing so to speak and then retreat to the safety of thought before I spoil it. But rest assured it’s there like some huge living presence. By comparison thoughts and even imaginings are pretty secondary.

I clearly remember how a kabbalah teacher I knew before my marriage collapsed used to start his meetings. He would ask us to sit there quietly and feel the presence. I had no idea what he was on about or how to feel such a bizarre thing and plenty of ideas rattling around my head to clutter up the silence. I'd come to hear words and argue the toss not sit about feeling presences. But there was something about the man that drew me back

Well, to return to the topic of thinking, as time passed I grew pretty used to the thoughts in my head and began to identify frequent visitors and sort them out. After a few months I could sort out the confusion and boot them all off into space within an hour or so of beginning my shift. This eventually became so easy that I only had to get in the cab and switch into driving mode for them to dissolve. Except for some core feelings that would go quiet but not go away.

These took centre stage when I finished work, went home and lay down on my bed to rest. Then the deep stuff would eat into me.

What I understood to be happening was that my driving was a bit like the Buddhist concept of sweeping the temple. It gave me a peaceful routine to get my head clear but once that stopped I was faced with deeper stuff. Which brings me again to the second element that was at play, my dad and his expectations.

In all this mental kerfuffle I hadn’t understood just how important my parents still were in my inner world. I was 26 for God’s sake and assumed I’d grown up and left home. I even lived 100 miles away and rarely saw them. I hadn’t lived at home since the age of 19. But while I drove there they were in my head the whole time, indeed, occupying large areas of it.

My mum wasn’t so much a problem as someone I felt sad for. I seemed to want her to love me but it always ended up with me comforting her. A part of me resented that but I couldn’t bear her a grudge because she’d so obviously done her best given the knowledge and upbringing she had. So I just noticed her there.

Slowly I became aware of the image of her that was triggering my thoughts and feelings of her. She was a baby crying for attention, crying her eyes out. I ended up holding her in my arms and singing songs to her. It made me feel better, more relaxed. I didn’t see my real mother during this time nor did I ever tell her any of this. I have no idea whether the nature of my thoughts affected her or not.

What I did gradually come to understand was that the parents we deal with inside our minds are not the people we see on show out there in the "real" world. They may be, to some extent, a product of our childhood suffering and imagining. More perceptively, they may be indicative of our subconscious awareness of their subconscious workings. Our adult discoveries about them may change our view of them and thereby change our reactions to them and theirs to us. All of this may be beneficial in improving peaceful communication but the point of it all is not to change them but to be free of their control.

When push comes to shove, though, not many people want to be totally free of their parents. They want to remain in the child state to some degree because the prospect of freedom is so frightening. Often, of course, they do this by creating a substitute parent out of their life partner. But that’s another very interesting can of worms I don’t want to open here. Suffice to say, it worth a look at some stage.

When exploring the mind it’s important to make this distinction between inner and outer because one is then free to allow feelings to arise that have been suppressed by society’s moral codes. One does not become free by applying moral rules to one’s feelings. In the inner world one has to be free to let the imagination loose. It is my experience that people who bear great resentment of their parents become free once they are allowed to imagine inflicting some very satisfying kind of punishment on them. Having empowered themselves by imagining bashing their brains out they can then see them much more clearly as damaged individuals rather than the tyrants they were when seen through the eyes of a frightened or needy child. Any trip down memory lane is of great value as long as we take our mature self with us and give people and events a new assessment with more mature eyes. It can help us let go of highly debilitating grievances.

Which brings me to my dad. In his quiet way he was a powerful chap for a little lad to grow up with. I used to hear him yelling at my older brothers when they didn’t get their music practice right. I took the hint and never showed any interest in playing a musical instrument. I also must have decided at a very young age that it was best to be a good boy and obey the rules. Only until such time as I could get away from home, of course, but childhood habits die hard.

It never occurred to me to picture him as I drove but he was there all right. I used to spend ages trying to justify myself to him. Trying to get him to approve of all the brilliant ideas I was having about the nature of the mind and the problems of the world. The man in my head never said a word but didn’t seem to accept my explanations however hard I tried.

He just never seemed to get the fact that someone with a Cambridge degree could be leading a useful and even important life as a bus driver. I rationalised and argued the toss with him until I was exhausted. Needless to say the man himself knew nothing of this as he worried about me in his workplace a hundred miles away. While I was at work the driving brought a kind of relaxing counterbalance to the vigorous but one-sided arguing but once I lay on my bed at home I just felt sick and desperate.

At certain times while driving and trying to explain things like the Zen concept of no mind to my dad I would make mental connections and discoveries that seemed positively earth shattering. He was the most challenging and fruitful stumbling block because he never said anything and was impossible to please. Perhaps this is how some people are driven to create whole systems of philosophy, simply to get some dominant parent off their backs. It was all very exciting and gave me a greater sense of self worth I’m sure, but this sense of euphoria collapsed the moment I lay on my bed. The foundations were non-existent. I’d let my dad down.

And this brings me back to a previous question. If thoughts are triggered by images, as I suspect they are, where do images arise? Well, I can only tell you what I experienced regarding my dad.

One afternoon, after work, I sank even more deeply into the depths of despair that awaited me every day. I could almost see it as a black tarry swamp somewhere in my solar plexus. This time instead of fighting to get out some fascination took over and I just sank down and looked into this black, black pit. Looking back now with the benefit of greater experience, I think what happened, and this is the true crux of the matter, was that I simply gave up trying to escape it. I surrendered and finally witnessed the sensation.

What then happened is an indication that there is more to witnessing than just doing nothing. At the time I didn’t understand this but witnessing is more than just looking. It causes something to shift and release the emotion locked up in what is seen. This is the crucial part for me. When we do nothing with full attention we become very powerful but in such a subtle way that we dismiss it as nothing at all. In reality we become life givers or creators of life. Pure attention or pure consciousness is the essence of life.

What happened was that it suddenly occurred to me to look up into my mind and see what was there. This occurring was in some way different from a usual thought. It was a sudden connection from my solar plexus to the front of my brain where the picture show is. There on the screen, right in the middle of my mind was my dad’s face. It was just looking at me with a stony, judgemental look. I knew it had always been there whether I’d noticed it or not. That was why I felt so desperate.

As always the face said nothing but just seeing it caused something to stir in the pit below. They were inextricably connected, the pit and the image. In my whole body there was like the roar of something waking up at last. A pair of hands, my hands rose out of the pit. Reaching up, they took hold of my dad’s head one hand on each side of his face and heaved it out of the way. Their power was irresistible.

Behind the face was a very pale disk of light.

At the time the significance of this was lost on me but I now regard it as one of the most important steps I took on the path to freedom. I shoved my dad out of the way. I had been arguing the toss with him because, as a child, I had unwittingly, though highly understandably, set him up on the throne as my judge. He was blocking my view and interfering with all my thoughts. Up until then, I could do nothing without reference to him for his approval.

From this it has become my understanding that as long as any person or any god image occupies the throne in my mind, I cannot be free. If I detect any person trying to set them selves up as my judge, I have to challenge them and push them aside. No one has the right to judge me.

Of course I still argued the toss with my dad for ages afterwards because you don’t kick a lifelong habit overnight, but now I knew what lay behind it and found myself laughing when it happened. Whenever I saw the judge appear, I took to swiping his head off with an imaginary samurai sword. I never told my dad anything about this because it wasn't about him but about what I'd made of him.

Gradually the chatter in my head diminished and I could think more clearly and concisely rather than rattling around on a treadmill. As far as I know none of this aggression did my dad the least harm and, as time went on his trust in me grew and my freedom to mess up my life as I saw fit was no longer subject to his interference. I had become a man. Dadadaaaaaaa!

As with all such revelations, I spent plenty of time reviewing this inner event and absorbing the message it contained. Even writing about it again now has given me further insight into its ramifications. I’m not a particularly quick learner or dedicated practitioner of meditation techniques. I just mull things over and pay attention as best I can.

So now I’m going to pause and read this lot through after a while and see if it makes sense. Then I’ll answer your question and you’ll know why I’m suggesting what I do. You can then decide whether it has any relevance to your life and if not work out your own solution and approach. That way I won’t feel like a bully.

Back in a bit….

And there the letter ends just as breaks begin to appear in the clouds outside. I'll take the hint and try to deliver some Christmas cards and parcels that have been wrongly addressed. Life goes on....

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