Overcoming Insomnia, Without Drugs

Sleep is one of the primary contributors to physical wellness. Having just survived two years of having infants in our bedroom, my wife and I know this all too well. When either of us don’t get enough sleep, we inevitably grow more testy and irritable. Of course, being awakened by hungry babies is not the same as having insomnia, but the point remains: sleep matters. It matters so much so that, whenever a client complains about having insomnia, I never fail to share my secret remedy which (by the way) has never failed for me personally. I’ve used it hundreds of times with flawless results.

Before explaining this approach, a little disclaimer. Physiology matters. If you drink a large cup of coffee before bed, your body will likely be too stimulated for this strategy (or any other) to work. So, let’s assume that you’re physically tired, want to get a good night of rest, but find yourself tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep (or are woken prematurely in the middle of the night and having difficulty returning to sleep). What do you do?

Chances are good you do everything you can to fall asleep. You try different positions, rearrange your pillow, maybe get up and do some reading or grab a bite to eat before returning to bed to try again. This struggle can get frustrating very quickly. All you want to do is fall asleep. Ugh! Paradoxically, the fact that you’re trying so hard to fall is asleep is your first mistake.

So, step 1 of this insomnia cure is this: stop trying to fall asleep!

Ms_Jester_by_shinyscyther-210x300The human mind is a trickster that has a strange sense of humor. It delights in undermining your best intentions, gleefully asserting its independence from control. It’s like a rebellious teenager in this way. Tell an anxious mind to stop being anxious and anxiety will grow. Tell depression to feel better and you’ll feel more depressed. Tell your insomniac brain to shut up and sleep and, without fail, it will respond, “Screw you! I’m staying awake.” If you really want to fall asleep, the key is to out-trick the trickster. Here’s how you can do this.

Commit, wholeheartedly, to not falling asleep. For example, whenever I want to  begin duping my trickster, I proclaim something like, “Ah, I see that you want to be awake right now. Okay, in that case, here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to stay awake all night long.” Now, this is just a starting point. Staying awake all night isn’t difficult if you rely upon stimulants like spending time on your phone or computer, watching television, or turning on lights and engaging in activities. No, you don’t want to make it too easy for you to succeed in this new ambition. After all, if you are successful, you won’t get the sleep you desire. You want to commit to staying awake so that, ultimately, you can fall asleep. Complicated? You bet!

Your trickster brain is not an idiot. It’s not going to be easily fooled into believing your goal is to stay awake when it knows that what you really want is to fall asleep. It can smell a con game a mile away. If you are insincere in your desire to stay awake, the trickster will detect this. As such, it’s essential that you give the trickster a legitimate reason for this sudden desire on your part to stay awake. Why the heck do you want to be up all night? The trickster will want to know. So, step 2 is articulating your sincere purpose for staying awake all night. And here’s your reason.

Taos at dawn

Unless you are sleeping in a windowless room or have black-out curtains, your bedroom is going to have a measure of ambient light in it. During the height of day, your room is going to be brighter (even with the lights off) than it is at night. Assuming that your insomnia is occurring at night, once morning arrives with the dawning sun, the ambient light in your bedroom will change. At some point, probably around 5 o’clock or so, there will be an exact moment when this ambient light will first start to shift from darkness to a state of greater light.

Now, let’s call this moment the single most beautiful moment of any day, a moment of truly superior magnificence, an absolutely perfect moment of stillness when everything in existence resonates in a state of profound and meaningful, otherworldly harmony. Choose to bear witness to this moment, committing–with every atom of your being–to noticing the precise instant when the ambient light in your room first starts to shift to a state of greater illumination. This is your new goal, the true reason behind your desire to stay awake all night long.

photo by Jason B. Fischer

Witnessing this exact moment such a subtle shift in ambient light occurs will take extreme vigilance on your part. Being successful at this (which is now your true goal) won’t be easy. It will require a special type of focus that (dare I say) will push your brain to its cognitive limits. This is not the type of perceptual focus you use throughout your normal, waking life. Ordinarily, you literally focus your vision on objects in a specific way, training your attention on on this or that object that has your right and left eyes working together in tandem, sharing a common focal point. But now, in trying to witness this one miraculous moment, what your focusing on isn’t a physical object. You’re looking at the light and air in your room.

Staring at something as ethereal as light and space  presents your brain with an uncommon challenge. To explore what I mean by this, take a moment to look away from this article. Lift your gaze and focus on the air around you. Really see it. Try to see all the moving molecules and ions bouncing around in space. As you do this, what happens to your eyes? They naturally widen, separating from one another, as if focusing on an imaginary object that is far off in the distance, and your stare softens. Doing this, can you see the air? This is the type of vision that this insomnia remedy relies upon, the exact same type of vision that is used to see hidden images in “magic eye” (stereogram) graphics like this one here.


A superficial glance at this image doesn’t reveal much of anything. However, with “stereo vision”, a three-dimensional image emerges. Can you tell what this one is? On a small screen, it will be harder to see but I tested this one out myself, so I know it’s a good one. I’ll give you a hint: it’s a bunch of animals. What kind of animals? You can write your own answer below in the comments section, rather me posting a spoiler here.

camera-300x129When I first saw a magic eye image, in the window of a Seattle gallery in the summer of 1993, I struggled for a half an hour before I was able to finally see the 3D image hidden within it. After that, however, the skill became easier and easier for me. Nowadays I can see stereograms in a matter of seconds. If you want to learn more about how to improve your ability to see images like this one, here’s an article you may find useful: stereo vision article.

Anyway, this is the vision you want to use to see that extraordinary moment of shifting ambient light (instead of fruitlessly trying to fall asleep). You just lay in bed with all the lights off, pick a comfortable position and stay in it, keep your eyes wide open, and “focus” on the light and air of the room, wholeheartedly committing to see the exact moment when darkness first begins to transition into the light of dawn. What a sight that will be!

I cannot overemphasize how important it is to genuinely want to be successful at staying awake to see this moment. Completely forget that your goal is to fall asleep, tossing that right out the proverbial window. “If I’m going to stay awake, then so be it. I’m going to at least make it worth my while by seeing this subtle yet exceptional moment. And if tomorrow I feel exhausted because of it, then that’s okay. I’ll survive and it’ll be easier to fall asleep tomorrow night. No big deal. Plus, because I’m not moving, at least my physical body is rejuvenating, even if my mind is not. This is going to be cool.” Give yourself permission to stay awake all night long to witness something truly incredible.

Now you’re committed. Your eyes are intentionally wide open (not wanting to miss anything) and everything around you is dark and quiet. Of course, your mind is still at least somewhat busy and thoughts are arising and passing. While staying focused on the air, don’t chase these thoughts. Instead, reiterate to yourself: I’m just watching the air… watching the air… watching the air… Your eyes will start to close.

Don’t let them! If you think, “Oh good, it’s working!”, you’ll immediately tip your hand to the trickster and all bets will be off. Remember, your goal isn’t to fall asleep; it’s to stay awake! Fight with all your might to accomplish this goal, all by yourself, without the aid of stimulants, diversions or amusements. Through will power alone, do everything you can to stave off sleep. Each time your eyes start to close, demand that they open. Summon every ounce of stubbornness you can muster. Refuse to fall asleep!

4462477-large-150x150Now, your trickster will have found a new mission. It’ll be hell-bent on thwarting your efforts to stay awake. And, guess what, it’ll win, because–honestly–you are no match for it. The next thing you know you will be waking up in the morning, unable to even remember when or how it was you fell asleep. Dang it! That rascally, little trickster did it to me again!

Last night, I shared this insomnia remedy with a client. Astutely he asked, “Has this worked for anyone else you’ve taught this to?” Good question! I confessed that it hadn’t. Ha! But the reason for this is not that this remedy doesn’t work (I know from personal experience that it does), but because it is so subtly difficult to effectively implement. After all, for it to work, you have to not use it for the goal of falling asleep. This sincere changing of priorities is one reason it’s so challenging. The second reason it’s so challenging comes from the role that stereo vision plays in it, which doesn’t come naturally to a lot of folks. [Update: Since first writing this article, I have found several clients with chronic insomnia that now regularly and effectively use this method to fall asleep.]

Luckily, with practice, you can become supremely adept at stereo vision, and use it to remedy insomnia. I’m sure there’s a neurological explanation (regarding the relationship between the optic nerve and brain waves, or something) for what happens to the brain that facilitates the arrival of sleep. The bottom line is that, if you truly implement the strategy outlined here (which combines paradoxical intention and stereo perception), you’ll be better able to outsmart your trickster–and conquer insomnia–whenever you desire. Sweet dreams!


Jason Fischer’s Drug-Free Insomnia Cure

  1. Stop trying to fall asleep!
  2. Commit to staying awake in order to see the exact moment when the ambient light in your room first starts to brighten.
  3. Choose a comfortable position and stay in it. Don’t move. (I rest on my side with my hands under my pillow.)
  4. Keep your eyes wide open, staring at the air only. Nothing else matters. Ignore all objects in the room.
  5. Every time your eyes start to close, force them open. Refuse to fall asleep. “No, I can do this!”
  6. Wake up in the morning, jokingly upset that you failed in your quest to witness the arrival of dawn.