Not being able to sleep is deeply frightening. We panic about our ability to cope with the demands of the next day. We panic that we are panicking. The possibility of sleep recedes ever further as the clock counts down to another exhausted, irritable dawn.
Our societies have learnt to treat insomnia with the best applied discipline we know: medicine – and in particular, with pills powerful enough to wrestle consciousness to submission.
But rather than immediately medicalising insomnia, we should perhaps try to understand where it springs from in human nature – and what it might – in its own confused way – be trying to tell us.
And in many – though, note, not all – cases, it may go something like this: insomnia is the mind’s revenge for something extremely important we have forgotten to do in the day, namely, think.
Most of us do of course have a great deal on our minds during the daylight hours, but these tend to be practical, procedural, immediate matters – the sort that keep at bay the larger, deeper questions about our direction, purpose and values.
It’s tempting to think of philosophy as a remote specialised discipline of relevance to only a few academically minded sorts. But what philosophy really wants from us – which is that we should lead an examined, self-aware life – is in truth a basic necessity for every human being, as vital as water or exercise – so much so that if we don’t regularly do enough philosophy, if we don’t constantly make time to interrogate ourselves, question our plans, explore our talents and think over our relationships, we will pay a very heavy price. We’ll be stripped of the capacity to carry on our lives with enough rest in our bones.
So important are some of the questions we need to tackle, something within us – you might call it an inner guardian or conscience – prefers that we should stop deriving all the many obvious benefits of sleep rather than leave a raft of existential issues untreated for much longer.
This points us to the way to an important solution to insomnia: not so much a pill, or a special kind of tea, or a long bath but, principally, more time – in the reasonable hours of the day – for thinking, more time in which there are no demands upon us, and we can at last meditate philosophically: that is, systematically examine everything we are concerned about, sift through our regrets, discuss our work with our inner critic, air the tensions of our relationship with our true selves. In short, reacquaint ourselves with ourselves.
Insomnia is seldom a disease: it’s an inarticulate, maddening but ultimately healthy plea released by our core self that we confront the issues we’ve put off for too long. Insomnia isn’t really to do with not being able to sleep; it’s about not having given ourselves a chance to think.