Once upon a time, on the nights when my wife had trouble sleeping, she would close her eyes, lie on her back, and say, “teach me how to sleep.” In my best lulling voice, I would give her these basic instructions:
“Close your eyes, and let go. Everything that could be done today has already been done. Anything that needs to be thought about can be thought about tomorrow. Now it’s time to allow your body to stop moving. It’s time to let your muscles go. Let yourself sink into the bed. Let your muscles spread out, and let the bed take your weight. Allow your breathing to become just a little bit slower and just a little bit deeper. That’s right. If thoughts come, let them drift away like clouds. Don’t pay them any attention; just let them disperse and recede. Let your breathing slow down a little bit further and deepen a little bit more. Keep releasing it into the bed. Let go.”
Sleeping is a Skill
Not everyone knows how to sleep. You might assume sleeping is just a natural capacity that everyone possesses, but like most natural capacities, it’s one that some people have well-developed and some have not-so-well-developed. If the capacity to fall asleep is only weakly developed in you, it can be strengthened, and one way to strengthen it is to receive nightly instructions, ideally delivered in a tone of voice that mirrors the quality of consciousness needed to drift from waking into dreaming and then into a deep sleep. After enough repetitions, and enough opportunity to practice, the ability grows stronger and becomes internalized. The voice delivering the instructions speaks inside your own mind. Eventually, it may cease to be a voice at all and become integrated into a somatic routine of releasing muscles, deepening breath, and allowing thoughts to pass like clouds.
Some people know how to sleep, but under stress seem to forget. Thoughts become so persistent that the somatic routine of breathing and letting go is overridden by mental activity. If you find yourself in this situation, there are several things you can do to diffuse the thoughts, to drain them of their power, or to make them subservient to other, stronger processes within. Here are three approaches to the problem of insomnia fueled by mental activity.
Telling the Truth
More often than not, the thoughts that plague people when trying to sleep are about things that you haven’t said to someone you wish you could say them to. On the surface, your thoughts may not appear to be about things you haven’t said to someone but look deeper to make sure. As Brad Blanton, author of Radical Honesty, says, “lying is the source of all stress.” Who are the characters that appear in your ruminations? Do you have unfinished business with any of them? Is there something you’re afraid someone will find out? Are there things you feel bad about having done or failed to do in one of your relationships? Is there a relational dynamic in which you feel disempowered, not free to use your voice or say what you really think? Have you been pretending to be something you’re not? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve probably got some interpersonal work to do. You can practice by imagining the other person there and saying (out loud, not just in your head) everything you wish you could say. Even better, have someone you trust stand-in for the person in question and sit across from you. Speak to that person as if they were the person you have unfinished business with. You may need to reveal something you’ve been hiding, apologize for something you feel guilty about, express your real opinion, make a request, tell them how you feel, tell the truth about your fears or your limitations.