As a physician, I get asked frequently about insomnia. I also get to see what happens as a result of sleep deprivation and the multitude of opportunities for suffering that accompany this increasing problem. Many resources are available for attempting to find the cause of why you are having trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep. Today, I want to entice you to look into the deeper issue lurking behind what we call insomnia. This actual issue is not only the cause of most insomnia, but is the fundamental cause of incredible fatigue and exhaustion.
SO let us begin.The only reason lack of sleep would become a problem is if it makes us tired. If you are not sleeping, but are not tired, you do not have a problem and do not have insomnia. This may seem obvious, but I am continually surprised at how many people say they have insomnia and are not tired. Usually, they have been told or believe they “should be getting more hours of sleep.” If you are sleeping at all and are not tired, you are getting exactly the amount of sleep your body needs.
Then again, if you are not sleeping much and you are tired, the next question is often “what is causing you to be tired?” and “Is It is actually the lack of sleep that is causing you to be tired?
The fundamental question behind all of this is: why do we sleep at all? Science does not really know the answer to this question, but there are some ideas out there. I propose that we sleep because our body needs to take the mind offline in order to get basic restorative functions done.
What if one of the most tiring things we make our body do while we are awake is the act of thinking? Incessant, rarely stopping onslaughts of thinking about everything. Thinking when there is no need to be thinking. Thinking about thinking…
This incessant thinking is rarely a positive experience. In over 25 years of experience listening to patients talk about their sleep issues, I have NEVER heard anyone say “Doc, I am so plagued by the endless positive, uplifting thoughts that race through my head. All of this positive thinking is making me crazy and causing me to lose sleep at night!”
So, if thinking leads to fatigue, how do we not think? I have heard the instruction “clear your mind.” How, exactly, does one do that? I still do not know how to clear my mind. I do, however, know how to use my mind for something besides thinking. It turns out it is not about not thinking, it is about doing something with the mind that is not thinking. Anyone can do this. It is simply learning how to focus attention on something that is not thinking. Mind blowing, huh?
Using the mind as a tool for not thinking invokes a state I like to call Calm/Alert. When we are thinking, we usually are alert and frantic, or we turn off the mind and go into calm and comatose. Calm and alert at the same time can only be enjoyed when not thinking, by simply being and noticing. When we are simply being, our body can heal. It is not being asked to do anything besides heal. It is not being asked to recreate the fight we had last night, or worry about the plans we have laid out for tomorrow. (I encourage you to ever find a process of thinking that involves anything that is not either in the future or in the past.)
Any technique that trains us to utilize the mind to create Calm/Alert is worth actively pursuing with daily practice. Our teeth do not clean themselves, we have to brush them. Learning how to be calm AND alert at the SAME time requires practicing a new habit.
Why should we care about learning how to be calm and alert at the same time?
The only reason you would want this if you do not want to be tired anymore and want your body to achieve incredible resilience in its ability to heal. Using our mind to create the Calm/Alert state actually allows our body to complete more healing in less time than it can get done during the act of sleeping. In other words, when the mind is being utilized to bring on calm alertness, the body is able to efficiently and effectively get healing done as well (or better than) when we are sleeping!
Let’s look at this yet another way. When the body is healing, it causes a lot of metabolism, which results in byproducts. People like to call these byproducts “toxins,” but in reality they are simply waste products created through the act of reconstructing the body. These metabolic byproducts are a lot like the dirt kicked up at a construction site when something new, like a building, is being created. Unfortunately, we often experience the “dust” of our body’s healing activities as new aches, fatigue, upset stomach, and other physical sensations and experiences that may be disheartening or even scary. Many people leave the path of lasting health and wellbeing due to misinterpreting the “dust” of the construction site as failure. However, just like the dust at a construction site, the sensations are temporary and always go away. We just have to be willing to wait out the dust storm, which sometimes lasts longer than we think it should! The storm is ALWAYS temporary, as are the new sensations that are often labeled as negative experiences. Fortunately, you have a team of passionate helpers to assist you as you face these challenges.
In addition to physical sensations, something even more important to know is that when the mind is Calm/Alert, another uncomfortable byproduct is energy released in the form of increased thoughts, which, out of sheer habit, our mind turns into Thinking. (NOTE: thoughts DO NOT EQUAL Thinking-bear with me on this one! thoughts = building material, Thinking= the process of using the material called thoughts. )
The action of the body healing can be compared to when we start up our car in the morning: Our car engine burns gasoline, and as a result of this process, toxic gases are released out the car’s tailpipe. In other words, a Calm/Alert state of mind allows the body to heal, which results in a form of energy release called thoughts. (Our head is our exhaust pipe!) When we use our mind to pay attention to this energy release called thoughts, the mind is now being used to pursue an activity we call Thinking. In other words, we are using building material (called thoughts) to create something called Thinking. When busy creating Thinking, our mind is no longer busy creating Calm/Alert; it is now busy creating Thinking!
Thinking is actually the most exhausting (pun intended) activity that humans pursue. Thinking, it turns out, is a learned habit, which is excellent news! A learned habit can be replaced by a new learned habit. When our mind is used to turn thoughts into Thinking, the experience is similar to wrapping your lips around the car exhaust pipe and taking a big deep breath in. We feel lightheaded, nauseated and dizzy, as well as tired. Instead of simply letting the thoughts move out of us (out of the tailpipe), we trap them by turning them into Thinking processes (inhaling the exhaust). Instead of using the mind to create Thinking, we can learn a new habit of creating the experience of Calm/Alertness. The practice of returning the mind to a Calm/Alert creator, in effect, removes our lips from the tailpipe. Yeah!!! We then breathe in fresh air and the healing process can resume completely unobstructed.
What About the Power of Positive Thinking?
I suspect that no one has told you that Thinking is not only a chosen activity, but we had to actually work really hard to learn how to do it! If we only pursued Thinking for 5 or 10 minutes a day, I doubt we would experience problems related to thinking. Incessant thinking leads to dis-ease, as both positive and negative thinking utilize resources in the body in the same fashion. But what about the “power of positive thinking” you ask? Aren’t positive thoughts better than negative ones? When we are looking at the body and effective utilization of its energy resources, saying that positive thinking is somehow less energy wasting than negative thinking is kind of like saying that driving a car backwards is uses less gasoline than driving a car forward. One direction may be more pleasant than the other, but in the end, the gas pedal goes down and the process is the same.
Another realm to explore in the arena of positive and negative thinking is that thinking always involves opposites. If you believe one thought to be positive, you must have a comparison thought to base that judgement on. That opposite is called a negative thought. You can not have positive thoughts without, at some point, having a negative thought. This is called duality. When utilizing the mind to create thinking, duality exists, and positive and negative are born. Welcome to the teeter totter ride!
Fortunately, for those tired of the teeter totter existence of duality, there is another way of living that utilizes the mind to create Calm/Alert instead of thinking and duality. From the Calm/Alert state of mind, we not only see the existence of the teeter totter, we now can see that the teeter totter exists along with many other toys in the playground as well as oh so much more! In other words, positive and negative do not vanish, judgement just becomes a much smaller piece of a much bigger picture.
Before we learn that the mind can be used for Calm/Alert, we only know that experience of riding on the teeter totter, and we assume all we have power over is holding on tightly and going up and down. We have highs, followed by lows, followed by highs, followed by lows, followed by….you get the point. In essence, working on trying to create positive thinking is like trying to create a better teeter totter. In the end, it still will only go up and down. When we use the mind to create Calm/Alert, the experience allows us to move to the center of the teeter totter, move the middle of the merry-go-round, and have our first glimpse at the entire playground. Look– there is a swing set! And a sandbox! And the monkey bars!
Hopefully, this has blown your mind a bit. That was my intention. Perhaps it is not lack of sleep making us tired. Hmm… don’t think about that too much!
If you are interested in pursuing this more, we would love to share all kinds of tools to teach your mind a new trick or two! Come join the fun and discover the entire playground with some really passionate guides here at TLC. We love having fun together in the playground of life. But only join us if you are tired of thinking it is all about hanging on while the teeter totter tries to fling you off!!!!
I have also not yet met a person who is plagued by incessant positive thinking, where they are driven crazy by all “those positive thoughts,” is all about how wonderful life is and how stress free they feel. I suspect that person, if they truly exist, would not need to learn to use their mind for calm alertness.
Fortunately, we can retrain the mind as a tool of Calm/Alertness. It does take consistency and daily practicing. But it is so worth it!
In conclusion, maybe the thing that is keeping you from sleeping at night is the actual cause of your fatigue. There is a tool for this cause of fatigue. I encourage you to go find this tool as soon as possible, as it will likely not only solve your sleep problem, but also impact more areas of your life than you can imagine! But do not take my word for it. Go find out!