In the last couple years, I have been waking up in the middle of the night gripped by some unnamed fear. Things that don’t seem like a big deal in the daytime loom larger than life as a lay awake in bed with my heart pounding. This never used to be a problem, but as life gets increasingly hectic, I’ve lost touch with the feeling that all is fundamentally well. How can I reconnect?
No Sleep in Brooklyn
Dear No Sleep in Brooklyn,
Thank you for writing in about your experience. I think we all can remember a time where we were caught in this kind of tremendous fear and anxiety that wakes us at night. Our natural knee-jerk reaction to this kind of worry is to want to get rid of it, or turn away from it, and this reaction makes total sense because the fear hurts tremendously.
In this article, I will offer you a mindfulness practice that you can eventually apply to this fear. I say eventually because, as I will advise you below, it will be beneficial for you to start with a less challenging emotion. The teaching I will share with you is a version of the RAIN of self-compassion practice taught by the meditation teacher and psychologist, Tara Brach, PhD. RAIN is acronym that will be fleshed out below. I find it best to clear out space in your day to complete this meditation. Perhaps 15 to 30 minutes will be a good amount of time to dedicate. This will leave you time to get settled into a meditation posture (sitting or lying down, so long as you don’t fall asleep if horizontal) and time to journal about your discoveries afterword.
The first step in this process is coming to a true recognition that there is this enormous fear that is coming up and it feels so big that even the body is reacting to it. The heart is pounding. This recognition is taking the first step in shifting your relationship with the fear. There is a catchphrase coined by the author and psychiatrist, Daniel Siegel, MD, that applies here: “Name
it to tame it.” You said that the fear is “unnamed,” so part of the process of recognition will be to put a word or perhaps a few words to the fear. The subsequent steps of RAIN may help with that.
Another description of meditation that I once read somewhere, some years back, was that the process of meditation involves a getting familiar with what is. Therefore, by recognizing and eventually giving a more descriptive name to your fear is to approach it, accept that it is a part of your present-moment experience, and eventually to dispel or dissipate its power. This is a very different way of being than desiring to suppress it or resist it. It may sound counter intuitive, but the path of mindfulness encourages us to move toward what is frightening. The intention is to eventually come to a place where the fear can be, as Brach teaches, attended to and befriended.
Our next move is to open a compassionate and loving inquiry into this fear. This is where you will gain more familiarity with it. However, because this fear feels big, I would advise you to first practice on an emotion that feels less overwhelming. When working with the energy of self-compassion, mindfulness teachers (such as Brach and Sharon Salzberg) suggest it is often best to start with what is the easiest, and then move toward more challenging emotions.
Furthermore, it sounds like you have a sense that this experience of the unnamed fear seems to amplify when life gets increasingly hectic. Therefore, by working on smaller emotions or thoughts, you may start to chip away at this larger fear. When you have identified an easy emotion, thought, or situation, you can apply the full RAIN of self-compassion to it. Once you feel you have achieved mastery over the lesser emotions, then move onto the next steps of RAIN to the most challenging level of your fear.
The third step is to move closer inward to inquire into this fear. The goal is to do your best to uncover as many dimensions of this fear as you can. This is a process of insight. There are many ways in which you can work this inquiry. What comes to mind for me would be to start with describing how the fear feels—its texture, where it lives in the body, as you sit with it, what else comes up. Pay attention to related thoughts, images, emotions, physical sensations, and what is evoked on a more intuitive level.
The best time to practice working with the fear may not be in the middle of the night. It may be advantageous to try to evoke the fear when you are feeling emotionally balanced and rested, during the day. As you get more skilled with practice, you may be able to work the RAIN steps at night more quickly and come to a peaceful resolution of the fear for that night. Please also be patient with yourself, as this will likely be a practice that you have to come back to more than once. It is a process and practice, not a one-time deal.
Sit with the fear an amount of time that feels wholesome and healthy for you. If the practice becomes too difficult, then step out of it and practice some other form of relaxation that works well for you. I recommend identifying go to coping strategies before stepping in to work on the big fears. These may be abdominal breathing, having a sacred space in your mind that you can visualize for calming, or having some other soothing objects or activities that you can engage in to help you self-regulate if your emotional state is challenged. This brings me to the last step in the RAIN: self-nourishment.
You can practice self-nourishment while holding the fear in your heart and offering to yourself comforting words or actions. Come up with a list of self-soothing statements that you can say to yourself. A few traditional phrases that I have learned over the years from various teachers of Lovingkindness meditation are:
May I be safe.
May I be healthy.
May I be healed.
May I be happy.
May I be at peace.
May I be free from worry.
May I be free from fear.
May I be free from suffering.
The idea is for you to use these words or change them to phrases that have more meaning and resonance for you. I find it particularly powerful to put my hands over my heart while I repeat these phrases to myself in times of challenge. I find it helpful to repeat the full cycle of these phrases for at least three or more repetitions.
What is also important is that if you find that it is too difficult to work through these phrases on your own, you can call in a council of friends and helpers to support you. You can do this by visualizing powerful people, such as trusted family members or friends, animals, or power places, real or imagined, that help you feel strong, balanced and centered. While holding these images in your mind, feel the beauty and power they offer you and stand firm in that as you offer these words to yourself. Give yourself enough time to complete all the above steps and come back to them as often as needed to work toward a full befriending and embracing of your fears.
You cannot skip to this integration stage, it takes effort, dedication, and an immensely open heart and courage to get there. I believe in you and that you can do it! Please also consider working with a qualified teacher or licensed therapist to give you additional support along the way. This will be especially crucial if you feel like this practice dysregulates you further. It may be that you need the expertise of an in-person guide. I can only offer you education and suggestions here, not a formal assessment or finely attuned approach.
One more thing: I believe that you are very right in realizing that you (and so many of us) must make a return to remembering our own basic goodness in life. This remembrance of our innate beauty, worthiness, and self-love is always a practice. It does not feel that it is a developmental task that we can check off our list of life accomplishments. In our busy, modern lives, we are all constantly operating under time pressure, deadlines, and the challenges of balancing work and life. It is so easy to forget that we are here together on this earth to be joyous beings of love. We are here to be caretakers of each other and of this beautiful earth. So, I invite you, and all of us, to put down in writing on our daily agenda and calendar some dedicated time to simply love and appreciate this amazing, confusing, and most precious life.
Thank you so much for writing in. I am sending you my best heartfelt wishes as you work to bring this practice into your life.