How to Sleep

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 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 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.

Practicing telling the truth when the person you wish to speak to isn’t around can be helpful, but it will only get you so far. For some of us, practicing is what we’re already lying in bed doing while we’re wishing we could sleep. Ultimately, you’ll need the encouragement and support of someone acting in the role of a counselor to speak to the actual person or people you’ve been caught up thinking about. In fact, it’s so important that you do this that some part of your intelligence has been acting against your will and requiring you to lie awake thinking about it. This is a good sign that saying what you need to say really matters, that you’ll feel substantially different about yourself once you say it: clearer, more complete, more powerful, less stressed.

Forcing the Mind to Stay Still

Wakefulness is a state of consciousness. Sleep is a different state. Your rate of mental activity (and, literally, the frequency with which your neurons fire) is one determinant of which state you’re in. There are many practices which can help you gain some control over your state of consciousness. The one I’m about to share with you, however, requires no practice at all. If you can do it just once, it will work.

The yogis call this practice tratak. Traditionally, it is performed by staring at a candle flame, though I’ve never personally done it that way. My preference is to draw a big black dot on a piece of white paper and hang the paper on the wall. Here’s how it works. You sit up and face the dot, a couple arm’s lengths away from it. You set a timer for 10 minutes. And you stare at the dot. For ten minutes. The rules are simple. You must not move your eyes at all. Keep them fixated on the dot (or the candle flame, or whatever is your point of fixation). And you must not blink. Yes, you are correct. Staring at a point for 10 minutes without blinking is not easy. Your eyes will start to sting and water, and eventually you will be unable to keep them open and you’ll blink. That’s okay. The goal is to hold your eyes still and unblinking. If a blink happens, just go back to applying your will to keeping your eyes open and perfectly still. The yogic concept here is that if the eyes do not move, the mind will not move. After 10 minutes of this practice (which is not long considering how long you might otherwise be lying awake in bed), you will be in a dramatically different state of consciousness than when you started. Until you try it, you can’t know what I’m talking about, but your mind will be, in a short period of time, stopped in its tracks. It will be in a state far more conducive to sleep.

At least one researcher has tested the melatonin levels of subjects before and after doing this practice and shown that tratak increases melatonin. Melatonin is just a neurotransmitter that supports the change from one brain state to another, which is why people take it to help them sleep (and why darkness is important for sleep, as melatonin production kicks in when it’s dark). Even better, melatonin levels after tratak were found to increase each night if the practice was done several nights in a row, so expect an even stronger effect if you repeat this a few times.

Defocusing the Mind

Another practice that can alter your state of consciousness comes from a practice described by Carlos Castaneda that he calls, “stopping the world.” Whereas tratak stills the mind, creating a state closer to deep sleep, this practice defocuses the mind, creating a state closer to dreaming. If you can shift your state of consciousness to something closer to dreaming, entering the actual dream state is far easier.

The defocusing practice requires two stages. In the first stage, you need to get good at defocusing the mind by defocusing your vision, which I’ll explain in a minute, but to get good at it you have to do with your eyes open while walking around. In the second stage, you’ll apply what you’ve learned how to do to the experience of lying in bed with your eyes closed.

Castaneda’s stopping the world requires you to coordinate three different actions. The first is that you need to walk (somewhere where you can see for a ways in front of you, so ideally outside) in very slow motion. The second is that you want to take long, slow breaths, with no pause between the end of your inhale and the beginning of your exhale, and no pause between the end of your exhale and the beginning of your inhale. The third is the most important. You need to defocus your vision. I don’t mean here that you make your vision go blurry. I mean that you take in your entire field of vision at once instead of focusing on something that you’re looking at in the center of your field of vision.

Stand looking forward, and without moving your eyes, try to become aware of whatever is on the far right edge of your field of vision. Now, simultaneously, become aware of whatever’s on the far left edge of the field. While you’re at it, you might as well include the top and the bottom so that you are now looking forward while aware simultaneously of your entire field of vision. Once you’ve got this down, start walking. As soon as everything in your visual field starts moving, your eyes will tend to be drawn in the direction of movement. Your goal is to keep looking forward while everything moves, and you’ll find that after a few minutes you can maintain this, and that you can navigate around just fine without needing to focus on anything in particular. You have shifted now from using your foveal vision (the center of your retina where most of your visual receptors are concentrated) to using your peripheral vision (the remainder of your retina, the part that takes in the overall gestalt or impression of what’s around you). In the same way that stopping your eyes from moving in tratak stops your mind from moving, changing your vision from foveal to peripheral changes the part of your mind you’re using from the part that’s linear and goal-oriented and focuses in on things, to the part that’s contextual and intuitive and grasps things as a whole. As it turns out, this shift is exactly the shift you need when you’re ready to transition from waking consciousness to dreaming consciousness.

This practice stops the world because if you can combine slow walking, connected breathing, and defocused vision, it becomes very difficult to think. Thoughts give way to an eternal flow of present moment perceptions. Psychological time stops, and so the world stops for the person perceiving it.

The central skill you need to learn from this practice is defocusing your vision, and to learn it you have to practice with your eyes open. Once you get good at it, however, you can do it with your eyes closed as well. Lying in bed, close your eyes and try defocusing your vision. It is as if you want to simultaneously become aware of the entire visual field consisting of the dark inside of your eyelids. Even though there’s not much to see, there’s still a shift you can make in how you are using your vision as a way of shifting how you are using your mind. The result will be a reduction in the kind of linear, goal-oriented mental activity that keeps you awake. Instead, your mind will be free to roam in an associative, pre-dreaming state. To support the transition into dreaming, you can encourage associative imagery to form. As soon as you notice random visual images in your mind, just let your attention rest on those images until you naturally free associate from them to other images. The road that you seem to have been standing on becomes like the sea at night, and as the boat rocks, it’s like the beads on the bead curtain swaying back and forth at the entrance to the kitchen where your first grade teacher is sitting. And so you find yourself moving from random images into a dream, and what started this cascade was defocusing your vision with your eyes closed.

The Counseling Perspective

The different approaches to how to sleep suggested here correspond, from a counseling perspective, to the varieties of change that counselors help facilitate. Teaching someone to sleep is a developmental approach. It assumes that knowing how to fall asleep at will is just another developmental resource that someone can be helped to acquire and strengthen. Telling the truth can be thought of as a kind of healing work. It assumes that the system of someone’s life has been disrupted and needs to be mended. When a person’s relational network is healed, other parts of their life will benefit, as the whole system will become healthier. Providing practices to help a person deliberately alter their state of consciousness is a form of liberation work. Without knowing it, we have been trained to use our attention and our minds in a way that promotes particular states of consciousness. We don’t even realize that we’ve been limited by this training, so a person’s unaware way of being needs to be exposed so that alternatives (like shifting to another state of consciousness) can become available to be practiced. As with other life concerns besides insomnia, some people will benefit from a combination of healing, development, and liberation approaches.

Sleep well. Dream deep!

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.