This is not an idle question. We tend to think of our thoughts as phenomena which come and go like the weather and which we cannot control; but thoughts can absolutely be cultivated and trained. Think of it less like weather and more like gardening; helpful and fruitful thoughts can be nurtured and harmful weeds can be uprooted. The more we do this during our waking hours, the less we will be disturbed by unwanted thoughts during the night.
Even so, I often wake in the night and start to Think with a capital TH. Last night around 4 a m I started off worrying about climate change and graduated to an unfolding horror-film where I was discussing my novel on live TV and burst into tears when someone criticised it. Oh, the embarrassment, the humiliation! Oh, the millions of hits on youtube! Oh, the total inability to ever live it down! These are the scenes that my brain presents to me in the early hours, and it’s a total pain. I know why it happens: the reasons are well-documented. First, it’s the middle of the night; it’s dark and there are no distractions, so the unregarded thoughts and fears of the day grab their chance to get a little me-time. Second, there’s an energy dip; it’s a long time since you last ate and blood sugar is low, meaning that the defences are down. And third, you haven’t yet had enough sleep, so the brain is more suggestible.
It’s not always terrible during these hours; sometimes I get amazing ideas, lightning-flashes of genius that illuminate the entire landscape of my life. Sadly, just as the terrific fears don’t seem so bad in the light of day, these ideas don’t seem so brilliant either. The cold light of day is a great leveller.
One thing I’ve learned from reading Paul McKenna’s book on sleep is that it’s a good idea to tackle these things while you’re still awake. Write down your fears; transcribe your ideas. For me the best time is often the late afternoon when my work for the day is done and I have a little time to contemplate where I’m at; what’s worrying me, what’s exciting me, what dark fears lurk beneath the surface, what great hopes are straining at the leash. The more time you give these things during the day the less likely they are to pop up at night.
Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s not a good idea to read before going to sleep. Now, this presented me with a problem: it’s been my practice ever since childhood to read in bed and before I needed reading glasses I would lie down with a book propped beside me on the pillow and often fall asleep that way. However I couldn’t but acknowledge that reading almost any novel is likely to stimulate thoughts and emotions rather than calming them: enter Pooh. I was able to read the House at Pooh Corner and Winnie-the-Pooh over and over and found that they sent me into a dreamlike, contemplative state and satisfied my need to read without stimulation. After I’d read them each about a dozen times I turned to the Narnia books and these have kept me going ever since. You’d think I’d get bored but I don’t because it’s not about what happens so much as entering a new and eternally fascinating world, and this has an entirely different effect on the brain from reading an ordinary grown-up novel. Those novels are wide-awake but in Narnia you seem to dream.
I have other techniques for when I’m awake in the night: rewinding the day is one (describing to myself the events of the day in reverse order) or counting backwards from 300 or putting my hands in shakti mudra or asking my subconscious to put it all in a dream instead of keeping me awake – a bit like asking your secretary to put all their ideas in an email. There’s no doubt that as a people we are overstimulated; turning off the TV half an hour before bed is a good thing (not that I usually do) practising meditation or visualisation is another, and I’ve gone back to this after a Holiday Hiatus.
So that’s me. How have you been?