I was reading this article in the New York times concerning virtual reality, and VR as an aid for pain started to sound like the Transition Trek as an aid in curing insomnia. Both totally occupy the mind with something that divorces it to think about something other than physical reality. The Transition Trek engages the person with an imaginary walk through a forest that ultimately leads to sleep.
Author Archives: dshep
Insomnia and the Transition Trek
The method of getting to sleep presented in In Pursuit of Sleep is predicated on the Transition Trek. So what is the Transition Trek, and how does it help an insomniac get to sleep?
The Transition Trek is a narrative that defines the imaginary actions and images that you use just after closing your eyes to control the mind’s activity while it goes to sleep. It gives the mind something to do that is conducive to sleep by involving what you might call your psychic body in an activity. Here are some of the Transition Trek’s more salient characteristics:
- It is a first-person narrative, with you as that person within the narrative.
- It also involves sleep breathing, which means that you take control of your breathing and make it slower and more deep, as when you are sleeping.
- The narrative is full of images that you visualize as you progress along the route described in the Transition Trek.
- The narrative also evokes the other four senses: sound, touch, taste and smell. This fully involves you and your psychic body in the imaginary world of the Transition Trek.
- The narrative consists of nine scenes, starting with being awake and ending with being asleep.
- Here are a few sentences from the second scene of the Coastal Transition Trek narrative: I’m in a small boat rowing ashore with the sun heading toward the horizon. Its rays set a golden glow to the waves as they gently lap the shoreline. Off in the distance, I see the sailing ship I just left behind moving out to sea. My arms are tired from rowing as the bow of my little boat slides over the sand and onto shore.
In Pursuit of Sleep contains four different Transition Treks, each with the characteristics mentioned above. They are as follows:
- Coastal Transition Trek: This Trek is set in a coastal area and initially you are in a rowboat rowing toward shore. Once on shore, you follow a path from the beach inland to where you are to spend the night.
- City of God Transition Trek: I have added this Transition Trek because many people like to say a prayer before sleep. It seems logical to integrate the prayer with the Transition Trek. The trek I present here solves the problem by imagining a secluded holy place that we enter and continue on to our place of rest.
- Castle Transition Trek: In this Transition Trek, you enter a castle in a foreign land. The ground floor is filled with people, although you will only interact with them initially while you eat dinner. Then you ascend the stairs and pass through five more floors, the last being the roof where you go to sleep staring up at the heavens.
- Mountain Descent Transition Trek: The previous treks have been purposefully boring. But this Trek is for the adventurous. It simulates what we describe as “falling asleep” by coming down a mountain. When you cannot sustain the boring Coastal Transition Trek because of overriding real-life issues, you might need a trek that can peak your interest to keep you away from distractions. To do that, we have to take a chance by making it a little more exciting. You come down the mountain by sliding through snow and walking down an ice field. At the very end, you are a skydiver or flyer and don a wing suit before jumping off a cliff,
All the Treks but the last are purposefully boring. Boredom is your friend when you are trying to go to sleep. Each has nine different scenes because researchers have shown that that sleep onset has nine different stages. In In Pursuit of Sleep, I lead you through the basics of going to sleep, especially concentrating on what is called the “sleep propensity curve” ( related to circadian rhythms) and how to correct yours if it has been compromised by not being able to get to sleep night after night.
Transition Treks are the heart of the book, but I have also provided help for those who have suffered emotional trauma and fear they will die in their sleep. At the end, I discuss the problems encountered when you have overcome your insomnia but miss lying awake engaging in fantasies or trying to solve problems. Decades of research have gone into this little book, and I believe practically everyone with insomnia can solve their problem with the Transition Trek.
You can’t find this stuff anywhere but in In Pursuit of Sleep. Sleep hygiene and CBT do not really address what happens when you close your eyes. I stay with you until you are fully asleep.
Solving the Insomnia Problem
For years, maybe even decades, you thought you knew how to fall asleep. You used to just close your eyes, and the next thing you knew, you were waking up with a good night’s sleep. Was it all luck? If so, Lady Luck has abandoned you, and now that you have to get to sleep on your own, you have found out that you don’t know anything about it. You consulted some experts, and they recommended sleep hygiene and cognitive behavior therapy, which you tried. They actually helped some, but still the basic problem lingers. You could take medication, but medication shouldn’t be taken for more than a few weeks, and after taking medication, sleep generally is even harder to find. Then what?
You can get past the initial stage of getting physically comfortable, so that you should be able to let Snoozeville take over, but seems someone burned it down. Everyone you know has the same problem. You can’t shut off your thoughts. And even if you could, through some esoteric meditation technique, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will go to sleep. Seems the medical profession doesn’t know squat about going to sleep.
What to do?
Well, in the first place, we do know quite a lot about the time period from when we close our eyes until we are sleep. Researchers call it “sleep onset,” and psychologists call it “hypnagogia.” It has been studied extensively. They have written books on the subject. It is just that sleep professionals have not used those research results to help understand the causes of insomnia. I realize that sounds incredible, but it is true.
So what do we do until the medical profession gets its act together and solves the problem? We solve it ourselves. And it has already been done for you. Here is the answer:
In Pursuit of Sleep: The Origins of Insomnia and What to Do About It.
1926 Cure For Insomnia
Here is a cure for insomnia from 1926. I believe it will work:
Several things make this approach effective. First of all, it is heavy on visualization. I make the importance of images abundantly clear in Chapters 2 and 3 of In Pursuit of Sleep. Second, you as your psychic self perform an action, painting. Third, it is not an interesting activity. Boredom is your friend when you are trying to go to sleep.
Would I recommend this technique over the Transition Trek provided in In Pursuit of Sleep? Not really. So what is wrong with it?
I don’t believe anything is really wrong with it. It just doesn’t go far enough. First of all, the action isn’t leading anywhere, and actions are also important. Second, it doesn’t involve sound or any of the other senses, touch, taste and smell. It is important to get the entire psychic body involved when trying to get to sleep. Third, this scenario doesn’t lead you toward sleep. All of this is important. However, painting 3s is certainly a much better mental exercise than counting sheep.
Prevalence of Insomnia 1892
We tend to think of insomnia as a late 20th and early 21st century phenomenon. That certainly is not the case. Here is an article taken from the New York Times archives dated July 18, 1892, which indicates that it was in epidemic mode back then:
What this illustrates is that we have not been able to cope with insomnia in the past, and we haven’t been able to do anything about even here in the 21st century. We are still using the same things they used back then, but now we package them as “sleep hygiene” and “cognitive behavior therapy.” Same failed methods with new labels.
The truth is we haven’t leveraged what we know about the awake-asleep transition state (sleep onset, hypnagogia) against insomnia. In Pursuit of Sleep: The Origins of Insomnia and What to Do About it does just that.
Passing Through Sleep Onset
I make a comment in In Pursuit of Sleep (page 108) to the effect that what you go to sleep thinking about ripples into how you sleep, and in particular it has an affect on how deep you sleep. If you are worrying about something that really bothers you, it keeps you from getting to the deeper stages of sleep. If you have been doing that for a while, perhaps even years, you will rarely if ever get to the deeper stages of sleep and that can lead to depression.
On the other hand, if you have pleasant images and sounds in your mind when you drop off, that conditions you positively for the deeper stages of sleep. You essentially learn to separate your daytime emotional traumas from the sleep state. This can’t help but lead to a degree of emotional wellbeing that you may not have experienced in a while. Taking a pill does nothing like this. This is real sleep hygiene and not that superficial stuff about making your bedroom dark. That type of sleep hygiene will certainly be beneficial, but the internal stuff is so much more important that all this external sleep preparation becomes trivial. You have to get to the internal, psychic, stuff to make a real dent in your insomnia problem. And you don’t have to be under the care of a psychiatrist to do it.
So what does happen when we go through sleep onset successfully? If I am successfully negotiating the transition from being awake to being asleep, and trying to be aware of what is happening, what will I experience?
This is a really good question, and I answer it in In Pursuit of Sleep on pages 40-41. I assume the sleeper is using my Transition Trek, but the experience should be the same regardless of how you go to sleep. Here is the full quote (hypnagogia is sleep onset):
Signs that You Have Entered Hypnagogia
After you have closed your eyes and started sleep breathing, you will experience some things that indicate you have entered hypnagogia. You have experienced them many times, perhaps even every night, but probably have not realized that they are favorable indications that you are on your way to sleep. The first was mentioned before: you become more aware of body irritants: you notice an itch, can’t find a comfortable position, your nose whistles when you breathe, etc. Second, the images of the Transition Trek will become more vivid. This can be rather startling, although it should be comforting since it is proof the trek is working. Third, you may find that you have become more alert. This feels really strange and you may believe that you have come back out of hypnagogia, but you haven’t. It is your intellect fully recognizing your psychic body instead of your physical body and becoming fully invested in the psychic world. It is also an indication that deafferentation is taking over. Fourth, you start losing control of your thoughts and veer off the Transition Trek. When you realize this is happening, don’t become concerned. Again, it is good news. You are entering the latter stages of hypnagogia. Gently bring yourself back to the Transition Trek and proceed from where you last remember being. Fifth, you may start seeing fleeting images, some very strange, possibly accompanied by voices that have nothing to do with you or your trek. These are hypnagogic content you should not follow. They will rapidly disappear, and you can continue with the trek. Sixth, you may see bits of dreams, which appear as short sequences of images and voices that are associated with you but quickly dissipate. Take note of them but let them fade, as they certainly will. Seventh, by this time you are at the very edge of sleep, at the event horizon so to speak, and you will lose all control and be sucked into Slumberland.
I want to call your attention to a few of things that might lead you to believe that you are not going to sleep. The fact that images, what you mind’s eye sees, become more vivid can be interpreted as an unfavorable situation and cause you to actually stop your descent into sleep. If you realize that this is a positive sign, you have much more of a tendency to allow the process to continue. Becoming more alert seems paradoxical and may be interpreted as another sign that you are headed in the wrong direction. You have to trust the process for it to work. Also, when you start to lose control of the process and enter one of the diversionary paths that lead to insomnia and not sleep, you can become discouraged and actually pull yourself back out of your descent into sleep. Having a specific thing to redirect your mind toward, the Transition Trek, as well as realizing that this is normal and a good sign, further enables you to trust the process and make it happen by return to the Transition Trek.
It doesn’t take long to learn the Transition Trek method. Trust is a major part of it because without trust, you start to develop irritation toward the whole thing, and it falls apart. You can learn this method by reading the first four chapters of In Pursuit of Sleep and then using it that night.
The Magic Bullet That Wipes Away Insomnia
I have had insomnia since I was a kid. It wasn’t so bad when I was young, but as I got older, it became more and more troublesome. I spent eight years in the US Air Force, and I got degrees at both Arizona State and Stanford. I worked on NASA missions to the outer planets and Star Wars projects. I got divorced, and suffered through my daughter’s disappearance and eventual reappearance. I got laid off from my job. Through all this, I had insomnia. I would wake in the night, some times two or three times, and not be able to get back to sleep without a struggle. I tried counting sheep, counting backward from one hundred, controlled breathing, meditation, concentrating on pleasant thoughts. I made my bedroom dark as possible, and removed the clocks. Nothing had a measurable impact.
I didn’t drink or smoke, and during the later years, I took three Benadryl capsules at bedtime and two the first time I woke. Later while teaching astronomy at a university, I took Ambien. It worked some but didn’t keep me asleep all night, and when I woke, I still couldn’t get back to sleep. When I went off it, I had sintillating sarcoma for a couple of weeks and had more trouble than ever trying to get to sleep.
In 1996, I moved into an old home my grandfather had built and started writing full time. I then used the hours of insomnia to my beneffit. I wrote from two to three hours in the middle of the night, every night. But I was ruined during the day, and would have to nap for an hour or two in the afternoon.
During all this time, I read every article on sleep I could get my hands on. It seemed that no one else was sleeping either, so why should I think I could solve my insomnia problem?
But then one day while looking into an interesting phenomena I had experienced while close to sleep, I came upon a topic called hypnagogia. Hypnagogia is the name for the state between being awake and being asleep. I didn’t even know that it was considered a separate state. I learned that it was also called sleep onset by researchers, who had worked on the subject. I learned about sleep propensity and electrochemical deafferentation. I learned about the different brain waveforms that are peculiar to that state, which lasts only five or ten minutes for a normal person going to sleep.
I also learned that this hypnagogic state is used by really smart people for creativity. That is where they get their earth-shattering ideas. I learned that most writers use it for help writing novels and short stories.
Old people have more trouble with sleep than do younger people, and I certainly experienced that degradation in sleep quality as I got older. Even after I retired, I worried about the past. I worried about problems I had growing up, my problems with my father. My past loves and my divorce. I worried about my grown kids. I worried about doing my income tax. I worried about my health and had long imaginary arguments with my doctors. As I got older, I was getting less and less sleep and was napping more and more in the afternoon.
But now, only a couple of years later, I get eight to ten hours sleep every night. I take a nap in the afternoon sometimes, but it is by choice and doesn’t generally affect sleep that night. I wake two to three times each night because of a dry eye condition and acid reflux, and yet I use eye drops or pop an antacid and go right back to sleep. My bedroom windows have light from street lamps streaming in, and I use my bedroom for my office with my computer right beside my bed. I have a bright blue light on a printer that that lights up my ceiling like a full moon. I have books all around just in case I want to read. I check the time with my iPhone every time I wake. I have planes flying overhead throughout the night and cars I can hear on the street out front. It rains frequently in Atlanta, and I can hear the drops pounding the room and hear thunder off in the distance. Still, I can easily get back to sleep if I wake and get eight to ten hours of sleep every night, even though I’m seventy-four years old. Sleep hygiene is no longer a concern for me.
How do I do it?
Having discovered that hypnagogia was an actual state, and that it had several aspects that could act as diversions to keep me from going to sleep, I started work on a technique to control my thoughts. I also realized how silly was the notion that we “fall’ asleep. Gravity had nothing to do with it. Having practiced good sleep hygiene for decades with little if any favorable results, I knew that sleep wasn’t come for me and that I had to go get it. I realized that sleep professionals knew nothing about the actual process of going to sleep. They knew nothing about sleep onset or hypnagogia. Research scientists said as much. They said that someone needs to do research on it, but no one ever does. This is such an obvious omission that you really wonder if pharmaceutical companies don’t guide research away from sleep onset and toward providing medication so that they can make money off of the condition.
I found a way to put myself to sleep in five to ten minutes every time I wake. It is a simple thought control technique that leads me toward sleep. Usually, I can put myself to sleep in under a minute. Once you understand the nature of hypnagogia, the reason so many people have insomnia becomes obvious. And the solution is so easy that it only takes a few minutes to learn.
In my next blog post, I’ll go through what happens during a successful trip through hypnagogia on your way to sleep. It is surprisingly simple, but if you don’t know how to avoid the hazards along the way, you can end up spending a couple of hours traveling a dead-end road.
The Problem With Sleep Hygiene
I know I have come down rather harshly on sleep hygiene. And I also realize that it does most people some good trying to get to sleep, but only some help. Now I am going a step further with my criticism.
Sleep hygiene keeps you from going to sleep.
There I said it. Yes, I know I also said it can help, so why the paradox?
The problem is that the environment target isn’t stationary. It keeps moving. How about a business man or woman who is frequently on the road? They can’t control the bedroom light, and frequently can’t control the temperature, and they certainly can’t control what is going on outside, down the hall or what noises that come through the walls from the rooms next door. They have less control over what they eat. They can’t even control when they go to bed or when they have to get up. The sheets feel funny, smell funny, and the pillow doesn’t fit my head.
Sleep professionals speak as if they are always talking about someone 20 – 40 years old who stays home all the time. What about the elderly who are frequently in a retirement community and can control little of their environment?
What if you are in the mountains camping out? What if you are sleeping over at your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s place? They can sleep through anything, but you have your body and mind tuned to an ideal environment. You’ll never get to sleep.
But here is the biggest problem with sleep hygiene. By telling you that sleep hygiene practices are the only way you will be able to improve your chances of getting to sleep, when you can’t control your environment, they have sabotaged you. They have conditioned you to believe that you cannot sleep anywhere but your own bed.
It also appears that sleep experts know nothing about electrochemical deafferentation, which occurs during sleep onset (hypnagogia). Deafferentation minimizes inputs from the five physical senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) and allows you to get to sleep regardless of your environment, within reason of course. Deafferentation isn’t my invention. Sleep researchers are well aware of this phenomenon, and it happens naturally. We don’t have to do anything to get deafferentation to take over, provided of course that we don’t allow ourselves to be overcome by hypnagogic distractions. But the “experts” who are trying to educate us on how to get to sleep know nothing about deafferentation. They are in fact clueless about sleep onset.
All this is explained in detail in In Pursuit of Sleep. It also provides a method, called the Transition Trek, which tells you how to deal with sleep onset, even if you are a homeless person sleeping on the street.
My Experience With Sleep Hygiene
For decades I took the advice of sleep professionals and practiced good sleep hygiene. I kept my bedroom as dark as possible. I covered clocks with illuminated dials so I couldn’t check on the time during the night. I entered therapy, not just to solve my insomnia problem but it was one of my issues. I made a concerted effort to not emotionally provoke myself before bed. I thought only pleasant thoughts after closing my eyes. I went to bed at the same time every night, and I got up at the same time every morning. I didn’t take naps in the afternoon. But whatever new technique I adopted, it never had a measurable impact on my insomnia.
My insomnia defeated all my best efforts. My problem was mostly what experts call “sleep maintenance” insomnia. I got to sleep the first time easily enough usually but woke during the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. During the day, particularly in the early to mid afternoon, I had a lot of difficulty staying awake at work. My desk seemed like a better place to sleep than my bed at home. I had trouble staying awake in meetings. It wasn’t because my work wasn’t interesting. I was working on NASA missions to the outer planets and US Air Force Star Wars projects. And it wasn’t just once in a while. It was practically every day. And it wasn’t as if I just felt drowsy. I was painfully sleepy. I would have to get up from my desk, go outside and walk around the block to keep myself awake. And even while walking in the bright Colorado sunlight, I was in a daze. I felt as if I were sleepwalking.
My big beef with my rented apartment at the time was that it had thin drapes in my bedroom. The streetlight outside showed through my bedroom sliding glass door and made my bedroom unacceptably light. I was sure it contributed to my insomnia.
Then I had an eyeopening experience. Following a business trip to Europe, I took a week of vacation to hike the Austrian/Swiss Alps. We stayed in what are called Huettes (huts) that provided meals and small foam mattresses in a communal sleeping loft. One of these huts had a loft that was so well built that it let no light whatsoever into our sleep area. I woke during the night, and had a bad reaction to this no-light situation. I couldn’t get back to sleep at all. I had panic attacks. My extraordinary emotional situation continued for a full six hours, until the sun started coming up and light did filter into the room. I then got a couple hours sleep before I had to get up for breakfast.
When I got back home, I had a new attitude about the light filtering through the drapes in my bedroom when I was trying to sleep. It was comforting. I welcomed it. I slept better knowing I had a little light.
This experience started me questioning the science behind sleep hygiene. I uncovered my clocks. I also started looking deeper into what was going on inside my own mind while I was trying to go to sleep that might prevent me from doing so. Twenty-five years of research led me to hypnagogia (sleep onset). The results of scientific research of this period of time, between when we close our eyes and when we are actually asleep, is what I present in In Pursuit of Sleep.
The thing that really amazed me was that none of the characteristics of hypnagogia had been folded into the search for solutions to insomnia. Here’s a quote from In Pursuit of Sleep (pages 16/7) that stresses the issue:
The strange thing is that, although hypnagogia [sleep onset] has been studied, it is rarely, if ever, addressed when discussing insomnia. Yes, you read that right. When professionals deal with the problems of getting to sleep, they rarely if ever discuss the nature of the transition state and how to deal with it.
…we know neither why nor how we fall asleep. The study of sleep has for the most part focused on measures obtained during established sleep, and many of the events and phenomena of sleep onset have been ignored. [Sleep Onset, Normal and Abnormal Processes, edited by Robert D. Ogilvie, PHD and John R. Harsh, PhD, Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 1994, page xviii]
The problem with sleep onset is that it has a multitude of distracting influences that keep you from going to sleep. Not only that, during the later stages of sleep onset (what we also call hypnagogia) we lose much of our ability to control what is going on inside our mind, and our thoughts can rage our of control. This is the open door through which insomnia walks. In Pursuit of Sleep provides a safe way through this hypnagogic maze. It is called the Transition Trek.
I leave you with a graphic that illustrates the problem and its solution.
Insomnia and Your Psychic Body
What is your psychic body, and what does it have to do with insomnia?
Glad you asked.
To even ask this question is to suggest that you have been dabbling in reading In Pursuit of Sleep. I develop the concept there, and it is not so strange as it might seem at first. Actually, everyone has experienced their psychic body, and it has a really close connection to sleep.
Ever had a dream? Of course you have. Were you in the dream? Of course you were. I show up in my dreams too. That is your psychic body. You experience it all the time, five times a night in all probability, every time you go through REM. (See my previous post for the sleep cycle diagram.)
I also like to define the psychic body in terms of what happens when you read a novel. I know. A lot of people these days are not readers, but since you are reading this, you probably dig into a novel now and then. When someone reads a novel, they experience total sensory deprivation in the fictional world… unless the author pulls a few tricks to get the reader in there. And yes, the author possesses skills that enable him/her to evoke the reader’s five senses, which places the reader in the fictional world. The five senses are: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. If the author can evoke all five of the reader’s psychic senses, the reader feels as though they are in the fictional world.
To put this on a visual basis:
Your psychic body is your dream body, and since it is used during sleep, we should also use it to try to get to sleep. We do this by activating all the psychic senses when we use the Transition Trek to negotiate hypnagogia. That puts us firmly in the psychic world where we are most susceptible to the sleep propensity curve. Of course, we would want to change out those high heels and that dress for something more amenable to hiking.
The trick, of course, is to put that psychic body to sleep. The more real we make the psychic body through evoking images of the psychic world, the quicker we get to sleep. All this is accomplished by using the Transition Trek.
Here is the clincher: Insomnia depends on the mind being occupied with real world concerns of the physical body. When we minimize the our attachment to the physical body, and instead concentrate on what we have planned for the psychic body (the Transition Trek), we are then able to get to sleep quickly.
All this is explained more clearly and in more detail in the first four chapters of In Pursuit of Sleep.