Mindfulness – in its meta-cognitive rather than hedonic sense – is a clinical Swiss Army knife. In my practice, I use it in a variety of contexts – for example, to deal with recyclic-and-recurrent depressogenic thoughts, with appetitive and compulsive problems, with craving control and stress management. Applications are many! Today, however, I want to talk about how I use it to help clients with DFA-style insomnia (DFA means “difficulty falling asleep”).
A classic way to use mindfulness for DFA-style insomnia is to shift from fighting insomnia to accepting insomnia. Sleep can’t be forced, it can only be welcomed, invited, allowed. When you try hard to fall asleep, you are just waking yourself up more and more. So, a classic approach to using mindfulness with DFA-style insomnia is to, first, accept insomnia and then to “dial out” to a metacognitive distance of passive observation. What that means is that you allows yourself to simply observe your insomnia… What is it made of? Oh, it’s made of this panicky thought that “I can’t stand this!” or of this catastrophizing predication that “If I don’t get enough sleep tonight, my week’s gonna to hell!” So, you watch these thoughts come and go. You watch new thoughts arise and pass. And as you watch, you begin to drift off.
You see, mind is its own hypnotic. Most of the time, when we are awake, we are already dreaming. We are asleep even when we are awake. Even the panic about not falling asleep, you know that catastrophizing thought that “your day tomorrow is gonna go to hell” if you don’t get some sleep right now, – that very thought is already a dream, a mind’s waking dream, a self-imposed hallucination of what might be.
Mind is its own hypnotist, it marvelously puts itself to sleep. The whole literature on mindfulness is about waking ourselves up to the idea that we are all sleep-walking…
Anywho… I want to now talk about a way to turbo-charge this self-hypnosis through mindfulness. I call this The Lullaby of the Infinite Regress. As I mentioned before, my use of the term “mindfulness” is mostly synonymous with the idea of “metacognition.” Metacognition is thinking about thinking… or thinking about who is thinking a given thought. Now, what about Infinite Regress? Infinite Regress – in the matters of consciousness is: “the formation of an infinite series of “inner observers” as we ask the question of who is observing the output of the neural correlates of consciousness in the study of subjective consciousness.” (I poached this last line from Wikipedia).
So, say you are struggling to fall asleep. First, you give yourself the permission to not struggle – “Oh, yeah, I remember that blog I read, I am gonna try this… I shouldn’t struggle… Yes, I can’t fall asleep, I tried, so I am gonna now try not to try so hard… I am just gonna see if I can let sleep happen…” Then, you “dial out” to that metacognitive riverbank that I always talk about in my books… and you watch your thoughts come and go, now and then re-focusing on your breath, until you get once again sucked into yet another thought-eddy… And then, you dive in! You pick a thought and you go into the Infinite Regress of asking yourself – serially, continuously – “Who is this who is thinking this thought?” And you go deeper and deeper into that, building the Infinite Regress until you drown in this self-hypnosis of self-search.
Your mind: “I can’t believe it! I am still awake. That mindfulness crap is not working…”
You to your mind: “Who is thinking this thought that “that mindfulness crap is not working.”?”
Your mind: “I am thinking that thought…”
You to your mind: “And who is this “I” who is thinking the thought that “I am thinking that thought…”?”
Your mind: “I am the one who is thinking the thought that “I am thinking the thought…””
You to your mind: “And who is this “I” who keeps thinking the thought “I am the one who is thinking the thought that “I am thinking the thought…”?”
And so you go, dissolving into the Infinite Regress of Self-Search.
How exactly this plays out doesn’t matter – the script above is not a pre-scription, it’s just an example to give you a taste of what happens as you try to swim up the stream of your own mind-stream. The higher you get to the source of this mind-stream, the closer you get to the dream of milk and honey, to the land of mindfulness-powered self-hypnosis, whence mind issues its own dreams.
In sum, the very mind-stuff of your insomnia is the mind-stuff of your dreams.