And isn’t it a drag when we can’t have it?
I was talking with a client recently about sleep. He said that he occasionally suffers from insomnia. I asked some questions (“Is it hard to fall asleep? “Does your mind race?” “What time do you usually wake up?”) and gave him some techniques to try. At the end of our session he told me, “You really know a lot about sleep, you should write a book about it”.
A book? No thanks. But, a column, sure.
I am an amateur sleep expert. I have done mountains of reading on the subject and experimented on myself with countless sleep-encouraging techniques over the past twenty-five years. I never thought I really knew that much about sleep until my client gave me a reality check. So let me share with you a little bit of what I know so you can more easily fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up happy and rested.
First of all, when you can’t fall asleep (or stay asleep), stop fighting it: that only makes it worse. You can get up and do something calming (reading something light and fluffy like Peoplemagazine) or you can stay in bed and let yourself just lay there comfortably. When I can’t fall asleep, I put on a relaxing guided meditation (with words, to keep my mind occupied), lay on my back on a small mountain of pillows and listen to the words of the meditation as they replace the racing thoughts in my head. Eventually, I start to feel sleepy again.
Here’s another technique I have shared with sleepless clients: imagine yourself in a really beautiful, peaceful place. It may be the best vacation you ever had. It could be the hammock in your back yard or your favorite spot in a desert or public park. Why not have more than one peaceful place in your repertoire? You can always visualize different ones to see which one works best on any given sleepless night.
For many of us, our minds (our “monkey minds”, as the Buddhists call them) keep us awake: our thoughts are bouncing all over the place. We try, but fail, to turn off our worry thoughts, obsessive thoughts…all those thoughts that keep us from falling asleep.
How to work with these intrusive thoughts? Here are a few things to try:
Observe them – don’t try to fight them, it’ll just make you more tense. Instead, aim for a neutral stance: try seeing your thoughts as clouds or balloons floating through the sky. Just watch them and let them move on.
Replace them with something – I like to use a meditation tape with spoken words, but you can use anything that displaces them, try counting backwards from 100 or recalling times from your life when you were really happy.
Walk away from them – Visualize your monkey mind thoughts as a living “sculpture” piece. See this sculpture on a stage in an auditorium. You are sitting in the front row of the auditorium, watching those crazy thoughts on the stage. Watch for a while, then, get up and move towards the back of the auditorium. Now you see your thoughts on stage, but they’re further away: smaller and less annoying. Then move to the back row of the auditorium, where the thoughts are smaller still. Then open the back door of the auditorium and exit, leaving your crazy thoughts onstage, without you to witness them.
Relax your body – Find a YouTube video of a guided visualization, one that talks you through relaxing each muscle group of your body, one-by-one. The more your body relaxes, the sleepier you get. Eventually, you won’t need the guided visualization, you can relax your body yourself: start with your feet, toes, ankles, shins and move slowly upwards. I usually fall asleep before I make it to my shoulders.
Occasional insomnia is normal. Learn to calmly work with it – don’t panic – and it will bother you less-and-less often. I hope these ideas/techniques are useful, they’ve sure helped me – and my clients – to get the best sleep ever.