Reframing Insomnia

I just got back from the Awaken in Your Dreams program yesterday. It was a five day intensive lucid dreaming and dream yoga program held at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado with Stephen LaBerge and Andrew Holecek. It was incredible in all the ways I could have hoped: met a lot of great people, learned a lot, and had 3 lucid dreams in 5 nights (including a pretty profound one).

It’s going to take me awhile to digest and metabolize the experience. One thing stands out immediately though:  people live in great fear of insomnia, even the minuscule subset of us interested in lucid dreaming and engaged with our sleeping patterns. My severe insomnia was actually the principal motivation for me to learn to lucid dreaming two years ago in the first place.

As someone who is naturally a bit wired and prone to waking up in the middle of the night anyway, maybe I’ve been blind to the concerns people have with the lucid dreaming induction techniques that require a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night. These concerns are absolutely valid. I’ve woken myself up to take Galantamine and get into the right frame of mind only to find myself unable to get back to sleep a few times. Further compounding the issue is that insomnia is one of those insidious things that becomes more likely and more severe the more we worry about it.

I’d like to share recent breakthroughs I’ve had with insomnia, as I believe the less we see it as a Big Deal, the less it will pop up. This is not to trivialize the tremendous amount of suffering it can cause, but to point out that insomnia derives some of its power to cause this suffering from the fear and trepidation we approach it with.

A Good Night’s Rest

The first thing I’d recommend is unlearning the assumption that a good night’s rest necessarily requires a good night’s sleep. I’d highly recommend this video by meditation teacher Shinzen Young on the topic (the YouTube channel has unfortunately disabled embedding). Shinzen is talking specifically about meditators experiencing insomnia, but I think his recommendations are applicable to anyone awake when they’d prefer not to be.

Shinzen recommends we:

  • Keep the body still, make sure it gets rest.
  • Try to keep the mind relatively still and rested by engaging in a loose meditation technique (in my opinion, relaxed concentration on the breath works well).

It’s not always easy, and sustained attention on the breath (or whatever) for an extended amount of time can seem a bit intimidating at first, but it’s empowering. Just the idea that there are concrete things we can do in the absence of sleep that will keep us from being caffiene-addled zombies the next day can immediately take some of the sting out of insomnia.

And boy, did I ever have the chance to test this out my first night on retreat in Colorado…

A Bad Night’s Rest

A use has been found for everything but snoring.

-Mark Twain

When on a lucid dreaming trip, it’s probably best to avoid sleeping in 7 person dorm rooms. When sleeping in a 7 person dorm room on a lucid dreaming trip, it’s best not to have 4 of those 7 people on a completely different schedule that involves waking up and getting dressed at 6:00 AM. When sleeping in a 7 person dorm room on a lucid dreaming trip with 4 of those 7… you get the idea.

Suffice to say, one of those 7 people had the worst case of undiagnosed sleep apnea I have ever heard. It was like trying to sleep next to a locomotive full of defective buzzsaws that have had their off-switches soldered off. I figured (correctly, it turned out) that I’d be able to weasel my way into more appropriate accommodations the next day, but I had to survive that night with my sanity intact.

The torrent of counter-productive, self-pitying thoughts arrived on schedule. Here are some highlights:

  • Fuck.
  • $**** spent on this trip, and I’ll be lucky if I fall asleep, let alone dream.
  • Why would this guy, of all people, opt for shared accommodations? Does he hate his fellow man that much?
  • I’m going to be a disaster tomorrow. I will be brain dead, say the wrong thing, and everyone will hate me.
  • Fuck.

Such is the self-perpetuating nature of insomnia. The inability to fall asleep gives rise to fears about the consequences of not being able to fall asleep, and those fears makes it even harder to fall asleep. Thankfully, having taken Shinzen’s advise to heart a few months prior, I was able to see what my mind was doing and start taking my internal theatrics a lot less seriously.

Yes, it was loud in there and there were going to be interruptions outside my control. Yes, these were not the conditions under which profound lucid dreams typically flourish. That’s life sometimes. At least by staying still and keeping a loose meditative focus on my breath, I’d get some much needed rest. With this in mind and my anxieties about not being able to fall asleep largely subdued, I was able to relax and fall asleep for a bit.

Finding myself awake again and in the same situation at 4:00 AM in the morning wasn’t great, but I had a revelation. I’m not that great a meditator. Maybe if I use the snoring itself as the object of my meditation, my mind will do what it always does and lose focus on whatever I’m trying to focus on. It worked, I tricked myself into ignoring the snoring! Freedom from the noise came from diving into it completely.

Life After Insomnia

I have little doubt that I will wake up in the middle of the night again sometime soon. I don’t think there’s much any of us can do to prevent that. But now that I’ve changed the way I think about insomnia and have a few tools at my disposal to mitigate it’s impact, it just doesn’t seem like a very big deal anymore. The lucid dreaming techniques that rely on sleep interruption have become far more palatable and effective because I don’t feel like the stakes are as high if they backfire and I can’t fall back asleep.

It’s actually quite elegant. In some ways, insomnia is not unlike the dream figures in our nightmares: we have given it much of the power it has over us, and we can reclaim it.

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