What is it about waking up in the middle of the night that seems to allow our minds to conjure up a list of things in our lives that could go wrong? I can go to bed feeling like the day has been a good one, knowing that things in my life are in pretty good order, knowing that I live in a safe place, will be protected while I sleep and that there will be plenty of food the next day. All the basics covered. And then, in the middle of my night’s rest, I wake up to this laundry list of things that could go wrong–for which, of course, I would be responsible.
Not to mislead, I certainly can go down that worry path while I am walking around during the day. Whenever such a thing happens, what I notice about myself, and you may have your own experience of this, is that worry begins to take me away to some foreign land really not of this earth. It’s a scary place that I don’t recognize. It’s a castle of fear where the walls are made of worry and the floors always open up to drop me down into some bottomless pit. Lest you think that I walk around in some delusional state, this is all a metaphor. Worry and anxiety take us away from ourselves. Those middle of the night moments take me away the quickest and sometimes it seems the farthest. By the time I am up and moving around in my life the next day, I look on those middle of the night trips and wonder how that could happen.
Moving around in my life requires routine and examples of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “touching the earth.” Rising, bathing, making coffee, unloading the dishwasher, feeding the dog, making my lunch, getting dressed–these are all examples of touching the earth, of grounding myself in my life’s routine. In the middle of the night, most of my senses that are involved in touching the earth are stilled and motionless. Except for one.
Breathing. Breathing is always what moves me out of the dark castle of fear and back into myself, into who I am, into where I am, into what I am. Each breath in, each breath out. It’s not like I wasn’t breathing before, but if in the middle of anxiety or worry, I bring my attention to my breath, I have begun to Return Again. I have returned my attention to the most basic thing about who I am–my breath. Remove my breath, and I’m gone! So, to bring a worried mind from whatever it worries about to the very next breath is to begin to return again to who I am. The next breath in and out is to return again to where I am. The next breath in and out is to return again to what I am. Born and reborn again in every breath. I can choose to stay right there for as long as it takes.
This power of returning to ourselves is always with us. Returning to ourselves through our breath is a powerful practice that I believe one day will serve us in our ultimate return. I foresee a day when I will return to myself through my breath one last time. As Mary Oliver says of that final return:
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Whatever troubles there are today (or in the middle of the night). Breathe. And return again to who you are.