Flexing Your Letting-Go Muscle
Cheryl Downs McCoy is a working mother who has a lot to manage: “I need to call that guy about fixing the car. I think I’ve run out of my daughter’s favorite snack. Should I change the batteries in the smoke detector?” And she’s managing it all in bed, at 3 AM. To help her sleep, Ms. McCoy has gone to a sleep therapist and taken every sleep aid—prescription and non—available. Ambien, Lunesta, even low-dose anti-depressants.
Same with Susan Stoga, a mother of two. “Did I send that email to my client? Is the permission slip for pictures due today? Do Carrie’s dance shoes still fit? Is Girl Scouts on this week?” According to a 2007 study, “Women and Sleep,” three in ten women report using some kind of sleep aid at least a few times a week. Eighty percent of women surveyed said they felt too stressed or worried to close their eyes at night.
“Sleep-medicine practices,” the article said, “are overwhelmingly dominated by women.” But that’s hard to believe. I often struggle to sleep for the same reasons: I can’t stop thinking and thinking and thinking. What if? I can always imagine fifty things that could happen, upsetting my well-laid plans. Ana Maria Alessi, a single mother who gets up in the wee hours and walks the house, puts it this way. “I think so much of what drives it is our need for control. We feel like it’s our job to anticipate any variant on The Day—much less The Life—If it rains will I need to change my schedule so I can drop off my kid and he doesn’t need to ride his bike in a downpour? We try to ward off anything that can interfere with the Good Day.”
Control. It’s always there, always the trouble-maker. We just can’t let things go. We keep imagining that we must shape and fix and manage and superintend all these things that are mostly out of our control. That’s the pity of it all. We need to control all these people—and it’s a fool’s errand. Can’t be done.
Enter prayer. Not the juvenile gimme version of prayer, but the simple act of contemplation. Sitting quietly and letting our thoughts go, releasing them. They come, we let them go. They come, we let them go again. Over and over. Until there is that empty moment when we are alone with the Ground of our Being, and everything is Ok.
That, I find, sometimes helps me to sleep. The thoughts come at 3 AM; I examine them, take them seriously, let them have their say, then I let them go. They always come back of course. So I let them go again. The letting-go muscle is like the muscle that wiggles your nose: you have that muscle but you don’t know how to engage it. So prayer exercises that letting-go muscle. And at 3 AM it’s nice to be able to flex your muscle.