It’s 2:30 a.m. I can’t sleep.
My brain won’t turn off and my body can’t seem to quiet down. To my great annoyance, I’m running through my mental lists, cycling through a series of worries, details and projects in progress without making any actual headway.
Having learned the hard way that this endless loop will not terminate itself without some kind of intervention, I get out of bed, go downstairs and unroll my yoga mat. I light a candle, take some deep breaths, and do a few slow, gentle stretches.
Within minutes, I feel the smooth machinery of my parasympathetic (“rest and relax”) nervous system clicking into gear, and the frenetic jittering of my sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system rumbling and grinding to a stubborn halt.
Simultaneously, I feel two consciousnesses confront each other: the ancient wisdom of my body, informed by eons of cumulative experience about what it needs, about what it can and can’t control — and the nattering rantings of my modern-day mind, replete with frustration and anxiety about an absurd laundry list of things that feel urgent, most of which I can do virtually nothing about.
With every breath, and in no particular order, each one of these anxieties briefly rises to the surface and then evaporates. Let’s see: There’s the suite of maddening, almost surreal TV ads promoting high-fructose corn syrup; a bunch of semi-edited articles, assignment letters and other miscellaneous work assignments that need attention; a vague sense that our society has gone wacky; a very specific feeling that I’ve forgotten something related to an upcoming presentation — oh, and let’s not forget the economic crisis, impending presidential election and other matters of global importance.
Big sigh. None of this changes the fact that I have to get some sleep or I’ll be no good to anyone tomorrow (learned that from “Sleep Deficit: The Hidden Debt That’s Hurting Us All” in this issue ). So I come back to the mat, to the smell of the beeswax candle, to my breathing. I come back to my faith, my love, my gratitude for all the things that go right and are beautiful every day without my having to lift a finger.
Inhale, exhale. I let the yoga sink in, I channel all my wise teachers and decide to let reality be what it is right now.
The chemistry in my brain and body is already shifting. The ragged edges of things are being smoothed. My heart rate has slowed. The jitters have subsided. My sense of centeredness is returning and I’m beginning to feel blissfully sleepy.
I step outside into the cold night air and look up at the stars, thinking about the countless generations of ancestors who’ve done the same — some of them sleepless with worry, perhaps, but more of them called by the mystery and beauty of the night sky to look up, to notice, to feel lucky to be in this particular place and time, and to feel the wonder of being alive.
This, I realize, is one of the great lessons I have learned in the course of seven years editing this magazine: It is possible to shift your life, your circumstances, your self — simply by being willing to shift your thinking and attention, and then just doing the simple little things you can, even if your rational brain says they will never be enough.
Years ago, I was given a great piece of advice: In times of high anxiety and frustration, before desperately grasping for solutions not yet within your reach, focus on fully applying the solutions you already have at your disposal.
This often means doing the most mundane sort of inventory: Are you eating well, drinking enough water, getting daily exercise and sunshine? Are you spending time relaxing and enjoying time with your loved ones? Are you challenging your negative thoughts and beliefs, and taking small, daily, positive actions? Are you following the advice you’d give to someone else in this situation? And — ahem — are you getting enough sleep?
So often, when our problems seem unsolvable or our lives feel out of control, it turns out we aren’t doing the most essential things already within our grasp. In fact, we’re hardly breathing.
We put together this “Reflect and Revive” issue as an encouraging nudge, a reminder to do what you can to take care of yourself now — and to leave at least some of your worries behind.