Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Falling Asleep

A couple of nights ago I couldn't fall asleep. I was on call and my beeper sat on my nightstand 8 inches from my head, scowling at me, threatening to make a nefarious digital laugh at any second. One of these days I'm going to summon all my strength and throw it back to 1992 where it belongs.

I have a lot on my mind these days and it's causing me more anxiety than I am accustomed to. I used to take pride in the fact that I was unflappable, but I am in a season of life in which I am flapping quite a bit. I believe I have landed in one of those "liminal" places - the transitional time, suspended between two places, unwilling to go back but unable to reach the other side. It's the place where your stomach never feels quite right, like you're either in a perpetual state of mild nausea or you're in a non-stop free fall.

So I lay there, staring at the ceiling in the dark, listening to my wife breathe softly and the cat by my side purr quietly, and I thought about sleep a lot, which really isn't as restful as actually sleeping. Willing yourself to sleep, as you probably all know, is completely ineffective. Shutting your eyes tighter, actively trying to sweep all the thoughts and images out of your head, and searching for the perfect sleeping position only brings joy to the god of wakefulness.

The only thing that helps me drift into sleep on those nights is to pay a light attention to my breathing. I don't focus hard on the rhythms of inhaling and exhaling, but I allow the breath cadence to fill my mind and body until there is nothing else. If a thought or memory or image comes to mind, I just allow it to float through and out of my mental sight-lines like a cloud through the sky overhead. I am emptying my mind so that I may experience rest.

It occurs to me, two mornings later, that falling asleep is a perfect image for contemplative prayer. In contemplative prayer we seek to rest in the Lord, to sit in silence with him and simply enjoy him. To that end we empty our minds for a time- allowing active thoughts, words and images to float through without concentrating on them. Yet the goal of contemplative prayer is not emptiness but fullness. True rest is not the mere absence of activity. We aim to fill our minds, souls, and hearts with the peace and presence of God in Christ, interwoven with the life of the Spirit in us. We are reminded that in order to be truly "filled by the Spirit" we must release the distractions that keep us listening only to the sound of our own minds. Our prayer technique may involve an "anchor" - like the rhythms of breathing or a short phrase like "Come Lord Jesus" - to help us move past those distractions and to become attentive to the sounds of the Spirit reverberating through us.

Contemplative prayer is not in competition with other forms of prayer and it certainly is not in conflict with word-based devotions and practices. I do wonder though if contemplative prayer is the prayer of the liminal place, because transition surfaces so much anxiety in us. There is so much ambiguity and mystery in transitional seasons. If we concentrate all our energy on the anxiety that inevitably comes from ambiguity, and attempt to problem-solve that loss of control, we only give it a louder voice. Maybe what we need is to, in faith and hope, fall asleep in the Lord. If you think about it, sleep itself is a liminal state. The old day has passed, but the new day has not yet begun, and we rest in the trust that the Lord is still working and that the sun will rise.