Monday morning after a late Sunday night. The alarm ringing. I don’t feel like getting out of bed. But I must. But I don’t want to.
I turn over and try to sleep a few more minutes, not remembering if I hit the snooze button. The alarm rings again nine minutes later. I shut it off. I have an 8 am meeting, which means I must catch the 7:20 bus, which means I have to get out of bed. Now.
Curled up on my side, I roll onto my back—a slight emergence out of the cocoon of warm sheets and sleep. Steady rain pelts the other side of the window, which makes the thought of rising even less appealing.
I try to sit up, to just get going. My head starts to lift, a suggestion of motion, but too much of me wants to remain in the snug comfort of bed. No. I roll back onto my side. What if I didn’t go to work? What if I stayed in bed as long as I liked? How long before someone phones or comes looking? How long before my reliability overrides my rebellion?
By this time most mornings, I’ve drunk something caffeinated, read a few pages, and made it to the cushion. It’s already too late to meditate. I roll back onto my back and will myself to rise. My self ignores me. I listen to the drops against the window pane. A pleasant sound. Even with an umbrella, I’ll get soaked running to the bus. I haven’t moved. Why can’t I do what I want to do?
Eyes closed, I watch my thoughts. What’s going on inside this sleepy head? Can I form the intention to get out of bed and then perform the action? I try. My chest and head rise an inch or two, then something overrides and I collapse down.
These ambivalent mornings are not uncommon. Not to me, and not, apparently, to wakers across the centuries. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) wrote,
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm? (Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays)
Who can blame him for not leaping out of bed when his job was to control wars, plagues, and insurrections.
When it comes to waking up, William James was, seventeen centuries later, the Roman Emperor’s philosophical bedfellow. In The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, James wrote—
We know what it is to get out of bed on a freezing morning in a room without a fire, and how the very vital principle within us protests against the idea. Probably most persons have lain on certain mornings for an hour at a time unable to brace themselves to the resolve. We think how late we shall be, how the duties of the day will suffer; we say, “I must get up, this is ignominious.
Ignominiously, without the burden of building a fire or fending off foreign invaders, I try again to get out of bed. And fail.
In 1983, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet and colleagues published a paper which detailed how unconscious electrical processes in the brain precede voluntary actions. In Libet’s experiments, study participants were asked to raise a finger whenever they felt like it. An EEG revealed brain activity occurring several hundred milliseconds before participants reported a conscious decision to perform each finger tap.
Libet’s experiments suggested that unconscious processes in the brain are preparing us to act before we consciously “decide” to do so. The implications of his research were hotly debated. Many heralded his paper as proof that we don’t have free will. Recent evidence contradicts Libet’s interpretation of the data.
But it’s too early in the morning to debate free will. Head still on the pillow, I return to watching my thoughts, hoping to observe the thought that will actually get me up.
A few minutes later, I find myself standing by the window, pulling the shade down so it will go up to let in the gray morning.
How did I get upright? It’s a victory I can’t claim credit for. One moment I was remembering my Scooby Doo lunch box, the next I was standing by the window. If there was a thought, I missed it.