Night Terrors

A couple of my friends have trouble sleeping at night because their three year-old son wakes them up. For a few months he suffered from ‘night terrors’, screaming and scared at 2am, or he was wide awake and in the mood for playing and singing. Many other people have problems sleeping at night through anxiety, troublesome thoughts or disturbing dreams.

The long, lonely night was a theme frequently visited by the Psalmist and King David spoke of how ‘every night I drench my bed, with my tears I soak my couch (Psalm 6). His counterpose to this fear was ‘though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me’ (Psalm 23).

But how can we banish fear if we awake with anxiety? How do we jolt ourselves into a state of consciousness that is free from fear? If you’ve ever tried pulling out a yoga mat at 3am and trying to meditate or do a physical yoga practice, it isn’t always that easy to calm down and become present.

When the Children of Israel were preparing to leave Egypt amidst the 10 plagues and escaping Pharoah’s wrath, they were told ‘it will be a night of anticipation to God to take them out of the land of Egypt, this is the night to God, a night of guarding for all the Children of Israel for their generations’ (Exodus 12:42). The Hebrew word for ‘anticipation' is ‘shomer’, which is also translated as to ‘observe’ as well as ‘guard’.

A meditative reading of this passage can be deeply revealing. If our nights are beset with fear, the only way to banish the terror is to become aware of our fear and to understand that they are more intensified at night. If we can ‘shomer’, truly guard and observe our thoughts, then we can reach a state of peace. The idea of ‘Leaving Egypt’ is akin to becoming free from oppression, and when we become conscious we are free from the slavery to our oppressive thoughts. Finally, we can even re-read the idea of ‘God’ as become conscious to the Will of the Universe, to really internalise the notion that there is something bigger than ourselves. A night-time worry is often based on the idea that we have to fix everything, that we are responsible, that we have created our problems. When we can relinquish this ego and remember that there we didn’t create the universe, our problems are shared and our problems are halved.

So what can we do if night terror strikes? Does it work to roll out the yoga mat when the night is darkest “the country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll/ And the third hour of drowsy morning names”*?

Yes! That is precisely the time to meditate. It isn’t always easy. It might take some while to calm. It probably won’t feel like your favourite upbeat yoga class, but this is where the real meditation action happens. This is the time to create ‘a night of guarding’, to guard your thoughts, guard your soul and guard your wellbeing. Breathe deeply, commit to the practice and enjoy your journey from slavery to liberation. If you want freedom, you have to realise that it is within you.

*Henry V, 4:i. Sorry, couldn’t resist it.