Although the mythology of the ancient Greeks can be easily dismissed today as belonging “to the region of poetry and fable, and not to that of history and real fact” (Saint Augustine, City of God, Book 18, 8), people unwittingly accept certain contemporary myths surrounding aspects of daily life, even though those tales are also the products “of a picturesque imagination” (Saint Gregory the Theologian, Oration 2). With respect to the problem of insomnia, there are a number of myths that need to be articulated and exposed, so that they will not disorient the sufferer searching for some solution and solace. What is needed in approaching the time for dreams is not the imaginative world of mythos, but the ordered universe of logos, not the weaving of fables, but the setting down of facts about how to best proceed.
In his dissertation to which I have referred before, Alfonso Marino discusses the two most prevalent myths about insomnia that many accept without a second thought. On the one hand, many believe that insomnia is not really a medical problem, but just an irregularity that will go away on its own. On the other hand, others think it is exclusively a medical problem for which medication in the form of sleeping pills is the only answer. Both myths distort the truth that many discover after years of suffering. In fact, insomnia often does not inevitably go away on its own, but the irregularity becomes an unfailing reoccurrence. Even more troubling, pills are not only far from being the ideal, easy answer people suppose, but rather are a Pandora’s box of other serious difficulties such as dependence, tolerance, hangover, memory deterioration, potentially toxic drug interactions, serious falls during over-sedation, and even mortality! In the ancient world, sleeping potions were used as an anesthetic for surgical procedures, since “the soul can be lulled to sleep by drugs, which overcome the pain and produce in the mind a death-like forgetfulness of its power of sense” (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book 10, 14), but those drugs were never meant to be a daily remedy.
In addition to these misconceptions about insomnia that affect laypeople, there are other insomnia myths that even influence the medical community. In their article entitled, “Insomnia Treatments: Moving from Efficacy to Effectiveness,” authors Patricia L. Haynes and Richard R. Bootzin begin by addressing four myths related to insomnia. The first myth concerns the medical community’s belief that in order to treat insomnia, one must be an expert in the field of sleep disorders, which in turn makes medical professionals hesitant about treating sleep disorder for fear of exacerbating the problem. The second myth is that if there is a co-existing mental disorder, then that disorder should be treated first, which will then result in the manifestations of insomnia dissipating on their own. The third myth is that insomnia is an inevitable part of a chronic problem such as aging or chronic pain. In practical terms, this has a similar effect as outlined in the second myth. Insomnia is not treated per se but viewed as something that will go away once the primary issue is addressed and treated. Finally, the fourth myth relates to blanket, general statements that equate sleep hygiene and therapy as though therapy for insomnia was just a matter of education and not about specific changes in behavior.
All of these myths and misconceptions need to be put to rest before we can proceed on firm footing. Sleeping medication is not a good option, although in some cases it may be called for on a temporary basis. Insomnia is a medical problem, but not solely a problem for sleep specialists alone. Insomnia is not just the byproduct of another chronic condition, but is a long-standing condition to be addressed in its own right. Falling asleep is a behavior and changes in behavior may be necessary to bring about changes in sleep habits. In all aspects of life, theoria and praxis, ideas and actions, need to be united for a new state of affairs to be established.
The good news that remains, when these myths are put aside, is that a medicated stupor is not the only solution, nor does one need to bide one’s time until other emotional difficulties or chronic conditions are resolved. It’s not always necessary to turn to a sleep clinic. There are changes that can take place through monitoring thoughts and behavior that can be quite efficacious. Authors Haynes and Bootzin make their point effectively that cognitive therapy may prove helpful in treating insomnia. They write, “Although sleep may be more difficult to initiate or sustain with some medical conditions, the development of an insomnia disorder is often the result of unhelpful compensatory behaviors associated with the chronic condition. This assertion is supported by studies showing how CBT-I is effective for sleep in older adults and in individuals with comorbid medical conditions, including fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis. As discussed above, insomnia operates independently via behavioral mechanisms and is responsive to change, even when other conditions are not. In fact, insomnia treatments are highly effective for most insomnia disturbances, regardless of attributed source of the disturbance or whether the original source of the disturbance is still occurring.”
Myths and preconceptions are part of our worldview. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note that “Worldviews, as they relate to psychology, provide background theories about human nature and the universe, a diagnosis of the human condition, and a prescription for its healing. In other words, they respond to four basic questions: Who am I? Where am I? What is the problem? and What is the cure?” The myths about insomnia can make it difficult to perceive the true problem and cure, because they present other problems and other cures. Deception is a problem in all aspects of life, physical, social, and spiritual. Some clear thinking about thought and behavior, however, can help individuals form a new inner and outer world. When this new state of affairs is infused with faith and trust in God, desired for rest is indeed nearer at hand. And that is in itself hopeful and refreshing.
If the goal of our lives as Christians is union with God (theosis), then the means by which we can attain this union is through the acquisition of a pure heart. It seems providential that we have reached this beatitude just as we arrive at the first Sunday of Great Lent. During this season of the holy forty days, which is a microcosm of our entire lives, we are given an opportunity to struggle, arduously, yet joyfully, for the purity of heart of which the Lord Christ speaks in His Sermon on the Mount. Saint John Cassian has written, “The goal of our vows, as we have said, is the kingdom of God, but their immediate purpose, that is aim (scopos), is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it happen that for a short time our thoughts wander off from the direct path, we must bring them back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as a sure standard” (The Conferences, I, IV, PL 49.486B).
This particular beatitude—“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”—can initially strike the believer as perplexing. After all, if the great Moses discovered that “no man shall see God and live” (Exodus 33:20) and if Saint John the Theologian declared that “no man hath seen God at any time” (1 John 4:12), how then will those blessedly pure in heart see God? Part of the answer to this mystery the church fathers provide in the distinction between the uncreated essence of God that no created being can know and the uncreated divine energies through which the believer can participate in divine life. Even at the most basic level of this physical world and the events of this earthly life, those with eyes to see and ears to hear can marvel at God’s handiwork throughout creation and become aware of His interventions in their lives. This, however, is still a vast distance away from the vision of God that the pure of heart know, for to see God means to have God in the heart, which suggests “eternal life, everlasting incorruption, immortal blessedness, a never-ending kingdom, perpetual gladness, true light, unapproachable glory, continuous rejoicing, and every good” (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes, PG 44.1264). Such is the promise Christ gives to the faithful!
Just as birds need healthy wings to soar through the air and fish need functioning gills to breathe underwater, so we need a spiritually healthy heart, meaning a pure heart, to see God. When our heart or “inner man” will be purified of the passions in the form of bad thoughts and harmful desires, it will be illumined with holy thoughts and compassionate emotions that will move us in the direction of virtuous actions. Then, with the obstructing passions removed from our heart, we will be able to see the divine beauty of the image of God engraved within. And in seeing that brilliant image, we will be indeed able to behold the divine archetype of that image, God Himself. In this sense, “no man hath seen God at any time” and “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” are both perfectly true.
Commenting on this beatitude, Saint Augustine writes, “How foolish, therefore, are those who seek God with these outward eyes, since He is seen with the heart! As it is written elsewhere, ‘And in singleness of heart seek Him.’ For that is a pure heart which is a single heart: and just as this light cannot be seen, except with pure eyes; so neither is God seen, unless that by which He can be seen is also pure” (On the Sermon on the Mount, Book 1, chapter 2). Purity of heart as singularity of intention suggests that the heart must not be weighed down by anything other than the desire for God. To attain to such a fiery desire for God that the dross of passions covering up the inner divine image will be consumed by divine love, the soul requires repentance, a change in focus, a change in lifestyle, a change in actions, and a change in thinking. Saint John Climacus describes the effort for such a transformation in this way: “As a snake cannot strip itself of its old skin unless it crawls into a tight hole, neither can we shed our old predispositions, our oldness of soul and the garment of the old man unless we go by the straight and narrow way of fasting” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 26).
This is why it is so natural to speak of purity of heart in the season of the Church year in which Christians are most dedicated to prayer and fasting that need to be understood both literally and metaphorically. While the outward practice of ascesis prepares the soil of the heart, these practices are not an end unto themselves. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos makes mention of this in his work Orthodox Psychotherapy in writing, “The Old Testament is an icon of outward bodily asceticism, while the Gospel, or the New Testament, is an icon of purity of heart…If a person stays in the outward ascetical practices and does not go on to inward as well, he is living in the Old Testament period” (Orthodox Psychotherapy, p. 97).
Purity of heart is thus related to the whole of the Christian life, inward and outward, in body and in soul, through theoria and praxis. What I wrote in an earlier post touches on this: “Prayer is about theoria, which at its root means a way of seeing. But it is also intimately related to praxis, which at its root means a kind of doing. Many who admittedly pray with their minds nevertheless desire to pray with their hearts and from the hearts. And although there is much patristic counsel on how to pray with a humble and contrite heart, we need to realize from the onset that we cannot hope to pray with the heart in Church and at times of prayer alone, if we live outside of the heart during the rest of our daily activities. We cannot hope to keep our attention riveted to the face of God when we pray, if we do not keep our aims attuned to the will of God when we act. To live in the heart, we need to genuinely care for and love others, not for what they can do for us or give us back in return, but for no other reason than that it is good to love and care even as our Lord loved and cared for every soul. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, being there for the lonely, and visiting those who others cast aside or punish—all help us to think about others with the immediacy with which we experience life’s basic needs. To think about others and to act on those compassionate thoughts softens our hearts not only at that time, but also for those times in which we turn towards God in prayer. In other words, each of these actions that the Lord declares will separate the sheep from the goats, done whole-heartedly and unselfishly, in turn helps us to find our heart. That place in which we genuinely love our brother and our sister is the same place in which we are to love God by prayer. If we find that we do not pray from the heart when alone or in Church, it may be good to ask ourselves if we love from the heart outside of Church. If we have trouble attending to God in prayer, we might want to ask ourselves if we really attend and listen to our brothers and sisters when they speak to us, or are we just thinking about what we will say next. If in this area, we are found wanting, let us take heart for the time of repentance is at hand. Let us make that godly effort to love our neighbor and to attend to our neighbor with whomever is closest at hand.”
All the beatitudes, including this one, present our free will with a choice between the old life we know and the newness of life that our Lord graciously offers us to experience. What Christ suggests is radical, but also a deeply comforting source of joy, light, and sanctification. He calls us to cast off the deformed mask that the devil has cunningly foisted over the image of God placed lovingly in our souls. He calls us to a life of real, radical virtue through which the image of God within will blaze brighter than the sun in the firmaments, then “when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). This is the heavenly goal to which we are called during Great Lent. It is the purpose of our lives on earth. This is the pearl of great price. Nothing else matters. If we see God within us we have everything.
If philautia, that pseudo-love of self, is the root of all the passions and the very essence of sickness within the soul as Saint Maximus maintains, then love of the other, in the person of God and the person of our neighbor, can be understood as the source of every virtue and the very essence of spiritual health. For this reason, the fathers would encourage the faithful to cultivate a merciful heart for all of creation, instructing us to “compel ourselves at all times to be inwardly merciful to the entire nature of rational creatures” (Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 76). For the fathers, there is clearly something divine about being merciful, something that expresses the very image of God. We can see this in Saint Leo the Great’s comment: “Mercy desires for you to be merciful, righteousness desires for you to be righteous, so that the Creator may be seen in His creature, and the image of God may be reflected in the mirror of the human heart expressed by the lines of imitation” (Sermon 95).
Among psychologists, there happens to be some debate about whether or not people can really be merciful. The term they use is altruistic, which basically means being concerned with the welfare of somebody else (altrui). The pessimists in their ranks, known as psychological egoists, would argue that no motive is ever pure; the self and selfishness cannot be separated from one’s actions. Even kind deeds become nothing more than a projection of one’s own will to survive. The more optimistic, however, would reply with some form of the empathy-altruism hypothesis that expresses what we encounter in life at its very best and not simply what we can conjecture about the psychoanalytic workings of the human mind. Namely, the optimists of human nature maintain that people can see the distress of others, feel for that distress as though it were their own, and have a desire to alleviate it that is not based on self-gain, regardless of whether they happen to be benefited in someway during the process. This sequence of events can also be observed in many passages in the Gospel in which “Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick” (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 6:34; Luke 7:13…). And so, when it comes to the altruism debate, Christians certainly would side with the optimists, but they would also go somewhat further.
In those passages in which Christ saw, was compassionate, and healed, Saint John Chrysostom asserts that “His motive for healing them is His mercy, His intense mercy (ἔλεον ἐπιτεταμένον)” (Homily 49 on Matthew) and His “surpassing friendship with humanity (φιλανθρωπίας ὑπερβολή)” (Homily 61 on Matthew). Something divine clearly shows through the intensity and the surpassing nature of the Lord’s mercy and kindness toward what others would see as a faceless multitude. How then is being merciful and being altruistic related?
There are, without doubt, similarities between being merciful according to the Gospel and being altruistic according to psychologists, for both reflect the same image of God in every human soul. The mercifulness of the beatitudes, however, blazes more brilliantly with lines etched more deeply, for they express the intimate response of the soul that has come to know God and has united the two desires that make us most human, the desire to love God and love our neighbor. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, writes, “If God is called the Merciful One by the divinely inspired scriptures and if divinity is truly blessedness, then it clearly follows that if a human being becomes a merciful being, he becomes worthy of divine blessedness through which he also can be called divine” (Homily on the Beatitudes, 4, PG 44.1249).
According to Saint Isaac the Syrian, a merciful person is not simply someone “who shows mercy to his brothers by giving him something,” but someone who “burns within his heart when he sees or hears of something that grieves his brother” (Homily 4). Elsewhere, the Saint provides a beautiful description of the mercifulness of the beatitude: “If you are truly merciful, do not grieve inwardly when you are unjustly deprived of something you possess, and do not tell others of your loss. Nay, rather, let the loss you suffer from others be swallowed up by your mercy, as the sharp edge of wine is swallowed up by much water. Show the fullness of your mercy by the good with which you repay those who have done you injustice” (Homily 6). The mercy of the Gospels extends beyond a natural tendency towards altruism by embracing those who have wronged us and caused us to suffer. The altruistic will be moved to compassion at the sight of someone suffering; the merciful will do so even when that suffering soul has just caused them much pain. Altruism can do much that it is good and worthy of praise, but it does not ascend easily to a “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Truly, the merciful are blessed in the sense of being Godlike. They are a source of joy, healing, and restoration in an often sorrowful, sick, and broken world. To be merciful is to overflow with goodness, forgiveness, and mercy. It is to be like the sun that gives light and warmth and the rain that gives refreshment and coolness, being truly “the children of your Father which is in heaven: for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). May we all cultivate that splendid mixture of goodness, forgiveness, and mercy that only knows kindness even where kindness is not deserved and does so in every direction towards every living thing. Then, we will know by experience the truth of the words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” for we will have come to know the merciful God in the depths of our own heart.
When insomnia persists relentlessly over time and insomniacs are convinced that their sleep difficulties are “uncontrollable, unpredictable, and solely attributable to external causes” (Morin, 1993), a sinking feeling of helplessness may set in. This, unfortunately, serves only to exacerbate the problem. In his dissertation on the subject, Alfonso Morin describes this condition in terms of “learned helplessness,” which is a demoralized state of giving up and just suffering one’s fate, because one has “learned” that nothing has worked in the past. This response to insomnia leads to viewing oneself in a negative light, to feeling increasingly anxious, and to having a mind racing with thoughts, all at the time when one would ideally be relaxing and falling into a gentle sleep. Saint Augustine gave an apt description of the calamitous thoughts about learned helplessness when he wrote, “What a dreadful catastrophe is this: that the soul should be reduced to greater helplessness when it is seeking rest from its toil!” (Concerning the morals of the Catholic Church, 7).
Morin notes, “In order to cope with insomnia, people may develop maladaptive sleep habits, such as: excessive time spent in bed, irregular sleep-wake schedules, and daytime napping” (Morin, 1993). All of these coping mechanisms are ultimately based on learned helplessness. The rationales go something like this: Since I’ve learned that I can’t do anything else, I might as well lie in bed. Since I’ve learned that I can’t sleep when I want to, I might as well sleep whenever I can. Morin points out that although these coping mechanisms may reduce the unpleasant feelings of sleepiness, in the long run they disrupt the normal sleep-wake rhythm making it even more difficult to experience a restorative and restful sleep. As we shall see in later posts, there are other options that can be tried other than reacting to learned helplessness.
The more attention the insomniac pays to the problem the worse the problem becomes. Such thoughts as “I’m never going to get a good night’s sleep” become statements of fact rather than mere thoughts that don’t necessarily reflect reality. The key to not being at the mercy of these negative thoughts and that obsessive focus on the problem is to turn one’s attention to reliance and confidence in what the people of Alcoholics Anonymous deem a “Higher Power” and whom Christians confess as the Lord Jesus Christ who reveals Himself to us in the sacred Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church. Once the helpless person turns his focus away from the problem and turns to God, his Helper, the negative effects of learned helplessness can dissipate and the soul can gain the courage to walk down other paths besides the maladaptive behaviors suggested by learned helplessness. Saint John of Kronstadt in his My Life in Christ wrote, “We must trust God in all temptations, in all desolate conditions of the soul. The Lord will deliver.” In that blessed trust, there is not only peace in storms and comfort in distress, but also possibilities that those who focus only on their helplessness will never see.
Elder Paisios taught his spiritual children to trust in God in all things, most especially in difficulties. “If we do not ask for help from God, we will fall flat on our face. Whereas, when we do ask for divine help, Christ will bind us with a rope to His Grace and will uphold us. The wind may blow fiercely from all directions, but, because we are bound fast, we are not in danger. But when man does not realize that it is Christ Who upholds him, he may unbind himself, in which case he will be buffeted left and right and tormented” (Spiritual Awakening). When we trust in God in spite of difficulties we free ourselves from the morass of our problems. We become less anxious because we recognize the real solution to our problem lies in the providence and love of God. Saint Isaac the Syrian once wrote, “The soul that loves God has its rest in God and in God alone. In all the paths that men walk in in the world, they do not attain peace until they draw nigh to hope in God” (Homily 56, 89).
The person wearied with insomnia may object that although these are beautiful passages, they don’t change the fundamental problem of not being able to fall asleep. That is true. But they do widen one’s horizons beyond the narrow confines of the individual wrestling alone and unsuccessfully with the monster of insomnia, they suggest possibilities where there were only restraints, and they connect the confessedly helpless with the one Helper who can overcome every ill and difficulty in ways we cannot even imagine. Psychologists have already demonstrated that with some effort learned helplessness can be unlearned. The good news is that for those with faith the effort required is even less through trust in the Helper and Creator of all that is.
The Beatitudes can be likened to the rungs on a ladder that we are invited to mount in the journey from earth to heaven. Those rungs comprise both virtuous actions and holy states of being associated with the deepest inclinations of the heart. In order to attain the fortunate condition associated with mourning for our sins and for our distance from God, we must have some acquaintance with genuine self-knowledge, the start of humility exhibited by those with poverty of spirit. To complete the repentance associated with mourning for our sins, we need to hunger and thirst for the exact opposite of everything sinful and selfish, we need to hunger for the righteousness of God that puts all things right.
Referring to hunger and thirst is significant, for there are no motivational states more powerful or more painful than those visceral cravings of an empty stomach or a parched palate. They impel God’s creatures to move about purposefully seeking ways in which to sate their hunger and quench their thirst. In our case, we are to let that hunger and thirst energize our minds so that “we avoid sin as wild beasts shun poison and always hunt for righteousness as they seek vegetation that is good for food” (Basil the Great, Homily 3). Saint Cyprian of Carthage further notes that when hunger and thirst are present one eats vigorously, one drinks plentifully (Epistle 62), suggesting that when we encounter moments of holiness and righteousness that we cling to them and try to gain everything we possibly can from them. In commenting on this Beatitude, Saint Athanasios the Great taught that Christ was referring to psalm 42, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?” The thirst for righteousness is ultimately the thirst for the God of righteousness as the God of our heart.
There is a difference, however, between the hunger and thirst for food experienced by all creatures, and the hunger and thirst for righteousness experienced by God’s rational sheep. As Saint Basil the Great writes, “what is performed by the beasts unwittingly may be done by us through careful attention and constant exercise of our reasoning faculty” (Basil the Great, Homily 3). The hunger and thirst for righteousness, though present by nature, must be cultivated by free choice, and this can take place only by collecting the mind. Thus, Saint Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “as long as the human mind… is dispersed in any direction to whatever happens to please the senses, it will never keep along the genuinely good path, but when it turns inward and collects itself, it then moves in a natural way without straying, ascending to higher realities much like water can rise up a pipe because of the constraining walls and in spite of gravity. In the same way, the human mind when enclosed by abstinence (ἐγκράτεια), not being concerned with extraneous issues, will be raised by the natural power of motion to exalted love” (On Virginity, Chapter 7).
Thus, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, it is necessary to collect one’s mind, to restrict the senses, and to focus on the one thing needful. When this happens, the soul begins to thirst for God, to be hungry for God, and to love God. The hesychastic tradition of the Church that encourages the faithful to keep their minds within their hearts united to Christ is ultimately about gaining hunger and thirst for righteousness. All the asceticism of the ascetics, all the fasting of the fasters, all the prayers of those who pray serve to increase this blessed hunger and holy thirst. Ultimately, it becomes a hunger for Christ Himself, a desire for communion with Him and union with Him alone. This singular hunger for righteousness is what made the psalmist exclaim, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8). And if we but follow that path of abstinence for the love of God, if we but choose to fast in body and spirit, He Who “has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53) will also fill us with “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) and “satisfy us with the bread of heaven” (Psalm 105:40). Then, we will become like that for which we hunger and thirst, righteous before God, because the righteous God will be within us.
“Moderation in all things” was a guiding principle that the holy fathers would recommend in the life of the Christian (Saint John Chrysostom, On the Statues, 1). Virtue was a measured state, being neither too much, nor too little, but symmetrically situated right in the middle between two vices defined by extreme deficiency on the one hand and extreme excess on the other (Saint Gregory Nyssa, Homily on the Song of Songs, 15). From this patristic and Aristotelian vantage point, a good night sleep would be the golden mean, but too little sleep or too much sleep would represent the pernicious extremes that need to be shifted in one direction or the other. Interestingly, contemporary sleep scientists have defined the chief feature of insomnia in not so very different terms.
Insomnia, according to modern researchers, can be understood in terms of an excessively excited state known as hyper arousal. Alfonso Marino describes its relation to insomnia by noting that “Arousal regulates the balance between sleep and wakefulness. Therefore, when arousal is present, sleep may be inhibited. Different stimulus conditions can heighten emotional, physiological, and cognitive arousal of an individual above a critical threshold, causing it to interrupt the natural sequence of relaxation, drowsiness, and sleep onset (Morin, 1993). For example, after a few episodes of sleepless nights, a person may come to associate certain bedtime routines and bedroom surroundings as stimuli that cause worries, apprehension and fear of being unable to sleep. The amount of time that it takes for this conditioning process to develop varies from person to person.”
In other words, there are certain things we do and associate with certain places such as eating in a dining room, praying in a church, and sleeping in a bedroom. But we can make other associations or links that are much less healthy and can be just as powerful influences on our behavior. We might become used to snacking while watching TV and find it difficult not to reach out for potato chips after turning on the television; we might get used to having conversations during a worship service and find it difficult not to chat with our neighbor as soon as we arrive in church; and in the case of insomnia, we might get used to worrying at bedtime, and after a few sleepless nights find it difficult to go to sleep when we get in bed.
At the appointed time for sleep, thoughts, anxieties, worries, and physical restlessness can make it nearly impossible to relax into a gentle sleep, because they foster a state of hyper arousal that needs to be doubly calmed, passing through a state of moderate arousal, in order for someone to fall into a pleasant slumber. Marino describes this in his dissertation as follows: “Daily events or interpersonal conflicts that are frustrating or problematic may activate arousal for some individuals which is taken to the bedroom, and consequently prevents sleep. They may remain worked up at bedtime as they ruminate over the daily events, which then fuels arousal and amplifies the conditioning process (Morin, 1993).”
The fathers were aware of the conditioning process and its influence on the soul. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I mentioned Abba Dorotheos who observes that “‘The soul has one disposition when mounted on a horse, another when seated on an ass, yet another when installed on a throne, and another still when sitting on the ground” (Discourses, 2). Thus, one strategy in the battle for virtue involves learning to avoid situations conducive to sin and to seek out settings favorable to virtue.” Hence, making one’s surroundings conducive to sleep is important with respect to insomnia. That being said, it is also true that external factors that appear to burden us with cares and concerns are not the sole culprits for a sleepless night. We may also give our free assent to intrusive thoughts that in turn lead to hyper arousal. Elder Ephraim points out this fact in his book, My Elder Joseph the Hesychast, “But when a monk denies his own will and does the will of God through his elder, he lives happily. He becomes like a little child, like a spiritual infant, and he has no worries or cares, nor does he worry about his salvation. He feels so light that he feels a great peace within himself. He sleeps and wakes up calmly like a little child.” Childlike simplicity, cheerful humility, and a gentle acceptance of life provide the joyfully obedient servants of God with a measured calmness that makes falling asleep and waking up as easy as a small child’s smile.
Although few Christians live the carefree obedience to an Elder described by the Elder Ephraim, all Christians are called to live in obedience to the will of God as expressed in the gentle words of our Lord. And that obedience can also bear similar fruits of simplicity, humility, acceptance, and peace. As to concerns, worries, and problems of the day that can keep us up at night, the Lord calls out to us: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
Obedience to these words frees us from cares, frees us from trying to solve everything, and frees us to seek the one thing needful. These words can clothe us with humility and fill us with vitality. They cut us loose from the earth, so that we might spiritually soar towards the heavens during the day and physically rest in our Lord’s care at night. Many of the issues that lead to hyper arousal and inhibit sleep are beyond the scope of our control and rather belong to the providential love of our Father in heaven. Through obedience, through humility, and through the relinquishment of control over those things that in all actuality we can’t control anyway, we begin to cultivate peace and serenity. And in so doing, we will begin to set in place the necessary and natural preconditions for rest and restorative sleep.
Saint Augustine was fond of quoting a line from Virgil’s poem Georgics, “Fortunate (felix) is the one who has learned the causes of things” (The City of God, Book 7, chapter 9, PL 41.204). He once expanded on that verse elsewhere as follows: “we ought to know the causes of good and evil as far as a person in this life may know them in order to avoid the mistakes and troubles that so fill this life. Our aim must always be to reach that fortunate state in which no trouble shall distress us and no error shall mislead us. If we must know the causes of physical convulsions, there are none that concerns us more than knowing the causes that affect our own health” (The Enchyridion, Chapter 16, PL 40.239). Having discussed the “physical convulsions” and debilitating consequences of insomnia, it is time to review the various causes of this misfortune in order to chart a path towards that fortunate state of a good night’s sleep. Contemporary researchers generally categorize the causes of insomnia in terms of physiological, cognitive, and emotional factors.
In terms of physiological causes, the body needs to be ready for sleep, meaning to be in a state physiologically conducive to sleep. Saint Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, “sleep relaxes the strain of waking, and, again, awakening tenses up what had become slack: and neither of these abides continually, but both give way, each at the other’s coming” (On the Making of Man, 13, PG 44.165). In modern terms, Saint Gregory was referring to cycle of the autonomic nervous system. Alfonso Marino notes in his dissertation, “Autonomic activity must be reduced in order to initiate sleep. A rapid heart rate or muscle tension are examples of factors that can manifest physiological arousal in an individual. When these factors are present, onset of sleep is difficult (Freedman & Sattler, 1982). The aim is to lower the physiological arousal. This can be done by using relaxation techniques (Morin, 1993).” Physiological arousal can also be influenced by alcohol or caffeine intake as well as by eating just prior to going to bed, all of which can make it harder to fall asleep.
In terms of cognitive causes, having a peaceful or an agitated mind at bedtime can make all the difference in the world. In the ancient Clementine homilies, the author recounts, “O friends, I confess that through much anxiety about the discussion that was to take place with Appion I was not able to get any sleep” (Homily 4). And this is precisely what modern researchers have found: anxiety-producing thoughts are known to affect one’s ability to fall asleep and maintain a restful sleep pattern. Alfonso Marino notes that “cognitive activity may be manifested in terms of worry, racing mind, rumination, intrusive thoughts, planning, analyzing or difficulty in controlling exciting thoughts” (Morin et al., 1999). And that cognitive activity prevents a person from falling asleep as Lynn Petras Gould makes clear in her dissertation entitled, “A Comparison of Three Cognitive Behavioral Treatments for Insomnia: Paradoxical Intention, Coping Imagery, and Sleep Information.” Thus, she observes that “highly-demanding cognitive activities (such as studying and planning) and emotional stress have been associated with longer sleep onset latencies.”
Emotional factors play a similar role in disturbing sleep patterns and frustrating the onset of sleep. According to A. Harvey in her article, “Beliefs About the Utility of Presleep Worry,” “patients with insomnia are more emotionally reactive to and take longer to recover from stressors during the day. Further, there is evidence that people with insomnia inhibit or internalize their emotions throughout the day compared to good sleepers.” In other words, having a hot temper or being oversensitive to slights and easily hurt all bode ill for a good night’s sleep.
Obviously, these three sets of causes are intertwined in complex ways and not always completely separable. People often need help in all three areas. Marino writes, “The psychological profile of individuals with insomnia, indicates that these are individuals with higher levels of anxiety, dysphoria, worry, or somatized tension” (Freedman & Sattler, 1982). A tense body, emotional distress, and cognitive worries, all seem to combine forces to prevent someone from falling asleep.
To return to Augustine’s quote from Virgil, we are indeed fortunate to know the causes of things and insomnia in particular, for that knowledge may contain the key to a solution. If the problem is with the thoughts, the emotions, and bodily responses, then part of the solution will involve their change. Saint Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, “if wise thought assumes sway over such movements of the soul, each of them can be transformed into a form of virtue, so that anger becomes courage, terror caution, fear obedience, hatred aversion to vice, the power of love the desire for what is truly beautiful; high spirit in our character raises our thought above the passions, and keeps it from bondage to what is base; indeed, the great Apostle, even, praises such a form of mental elevation when he bids us constantly to “think those things that are above,” and so we find that every such movement, when elevated by loftiness of mind, is conformed to the beauty of the Divine image” (On the Making of Man, chapter 18, PG 44.193).
Virtue can brings harmony to one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions, so that they reflect the beauty of God. In that reflection, there is peace, there is calm, there is rest. Perhaps, virtue can transform a portion of one’s experience of insomnia into an experience of vigil, waiting on God, waiting for God, and waiting in God. And as we wait and trust, thanking God for His mercies and for giving us strength, time, even sleepless time, passes with a sense of purpose. In the arms of our loving God, we can relax in His warmth, we can feel secure in His care, and we can let go of our worries knowing that He cares for us and provides us, whether we sleep or remain awake. Then as His children, we can make the words of the psalmist our own: “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for Thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).