When I was very young, some obviously sadistic member of my family taught me a bedtime prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Tell me. Please. What the hell kind of prayer is this to teach to a small child?
Later on I learned that there were other much nicer versions of this prayer. Versions without the dying and the soul taking. By then it was too late, though. The damage had been done.
I said this prayer every night before bed. After just a few days I started to think… Die before I wake?! And then I would actually lie awake wondering if I was going to die. It became a tangible fear. Will it be tonight? Am I going to die tonight? Oh, God I hope it’s not tonight.
I should have given up on that damned prayer. But I was three! What did I know? Instead of giving up on it I started to use it as a magic spell. I thought that if I said it I would be protected. I would be good for another day of life. If I forgot, then surely that would be the night I died.
This ritual stayed with me for a very long time. On mornings when I woke up and realized I hadn’t prayed the night before, I would consider that as a gift. A miracle! Whew. I made it. He must’ve been busy listening to other kids last night.
I became obsessed with the idea that either I or someone I knew would definitely be dying in their sleep. It must happen all of the time, right? Or else why would I have to say a prayer to keep it from happening? So my prayer grew to include everyone I knew. A long list of people that should not be taken in their sleep.
When my grandfather would nap on the couch I would watch his chest rising and falling to make sure he wasn’t dead. When I woke up in the middle of the night to go to bathroom I would check to make sure my parents were still alive. When I was eight years old my great-grandmother died while I was away at church camp. I wondered if I had remembered to say my prayers that night.
Ten years later, nighttime got really scary for me. My dad was battling cancer. I would spend my nights lying awake, trying to tune my ears in to his breathing in the other room, to make sure he hadn’t died. During the day when he slept in the reclining chair I was back to my old pastime of watching the rise and fall of someone else’s chest. And if I couldn’t see him moving I would make sudden noises to startle him awake.
“What?” he would say as he rolled his eyes open and looked my way.
“Nothing. Sorry. Go back to sleep.” I’d reply.
There was a good six month chunk of time when I only slept an hour or two a night. I was exhausted. I was prone to crying jags and panic attacks when I wasn’t writing morose poems or drinking beer.
I was in a lecture hall one morning and the professor had gone off on a tangent about near death experiences, walking toward the light, that sort of thing. I was about to get up and leave because I felt the panic rising up from my center. But I forced myself to sit in the giant lecture hall, shaking my leg nervously and chewing my cuticles as the walls closed in around me. The professor then said “Why do we have to be so concerned with death? It’s gonna be just like it was before we were born. And that couldn’t have been too bad. Or we’d remember it, wouldn’t we?”
I went home that night, and I slept soundly. Ahhhh.
I wasn’t completely cured, though. Through the years I would still have occasional moments of sheer terror when I would think about dying. Especially immediately after my girls were born. Maybe some of that was hormone induced, but some of that fear is still living deep in my brain. It has been there for too long to move out completely.
Needless to say, my girls were co-sleepers, because I would have been standing at their cribs with a mirror under their noses every fifteen minutes.
There was a time when writing this would have sent me into a cold sweat and heart palpitations. But I have noticed that lately, I can have actual conversations about death without panicking. Sure I might cry, but I won’t panic. I will get sad for the people I love that have died. I will also get sad if I think of the things I might miss, but I don’t panic any more.
Maybe it was just a matter of time before I learned to deal with my anxiety? Maybe it’s because of a healthier lifestyle and less sleep deprivation.
Maybe it’s because of yoga?
Every time we take a yoga class we act out the drama of human existence on our mats. There are moments of yin and moments of yang. We sweat and we breathe. We come to terms with what our bodies can and cannot do. We come to terms with the control or lack of control we have over our thoughts. All the while, our subconscious is aware of that final resting pose. Savasana. Corpse Pose.
As we move and breathe and flow, something waits for us at the end. Playing dead. My yoga mat becomes a casket. I am a corpse. And I haven’t been dreading this pose. Not at all. I have actually been looking forward to it.
I practice being dead a few times a week, and somehow this has been sinking into my subconscious. There is a new groove being carved into the record that is my brain. I have been teaching myself a new prayer.
Now I lie me down to rest.
This is the pose that I like best.
Nothing but breath flowing in and out.
This is what life is all about.