Sleep is a hot topic. Many people are having trouble falling and staying asleep through the night. Researchers are probing the functions of sleep. Pharmaceutical companies are offering more and more medicinal recommendations for insomnia, often more problematic than helpful. Pills, while useful in the short term, may soon wear out their effectiveness, and encourage dependency. However, applying the principles of focusing to finding pathways to better sleep is empowering and has no harmful side effects!

We had been focusing partners (see and Focusing Oriented Therapists (FOTs) for several years, when the issue of sleeplessness emerged for Susan. She had an acute episode of insomnia after the sudden death of her sister. Robin had been coping with a more chronic problem with sleep related to stress. Together, we decided to bring everything we knew from focusing, and Robin’s training in clinical hypnosis, to bear on the issue of sleeplessness.

While asking colleagues of their personal and professional experiences, and reading about current non-medical recommendations, we discovered some useful body-work (Michael Krugman’s “Sounder Sleep” techniques), and various prescriptive hypnotic tapes. We found nothing that worked in an individualized way with each person’s “handle,” something that would allow a particular set of issues and concerns to release or open into sleep. We decided to see what focusing could offer when we had difficulties sleeping, to work together to help each other, our clients and ourselves. At least it would be better than lying there tossing and turning!

Focusing allowed us to come into the body. We found that to sleep more easily and deeply, it was helpful to be more “bodily-connected” and relaxed. Just the sense of moving our awareness downward, out of our heads, towards a bodily felt-sense was often, in and of itself, at least temporarily relaxing. In fact, we became aware that being stuck in ruminating “mind- tapes” was often what was keeping us awake. We wanted to use focusing to address the mind-tapes, and find ways to settle into our bodies.

We were learning a lot about sleep, and decided to develop a workshop to offer our discoveries to others. At this writing, we have given our workshop several times in New York City. Early in the first session of our three-week long workshop, we ask people to share their situations and difficulties related to sleep. People report despair, a sense of failing, helplessness, and rage. As most participants are new to focusing, we help participants to understand and bring a focusing attitude, of curiosity and empathy, to the “whole issue of sleeplessness.” We begin with teaching people to attend to their bodily-felt sense. This skill threads throughout all of the exercises we offer during the workshop.

With solo focusing, we could use focusing to move from a “thinking” process to a bodily-felt awareness, a very important step in addressing the mental alertness associated with sleeplessness. Questions such as “What is it that is keeping me from feeling a sense of well being so I can open to sleep?” or “What is it that my body needs right now to relax?” or “What is it that I am thinking about that is keeping me up?” assist in creating a better relationship to the wakefulness. We found the focusing step of “clearing a space” useful here too, particularly with the variant “Can I name this issue and leave it on a shelf until tomorrow?” to gain some distance. Here we were using traditional focusing with an issue to help create space and release.

We then looked at our relationships to sleeplessness itself and discovered that, in addition to the initial problems keeping us up, there was the insidious, vicious cycle of anxiety and anger, thinking, and coming to assume, that we wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. When the pressure is on to “have” to fall asleep, the notion of facing the next day with no energy may become terrifying. In addition to whatever is “up,” keeping one from falling asleep, the fear of not falling asleep, or anger with being awake, may become issues themselves. Once difficulties begin, it is easy to lose confidence in the ability to release into sleep.

Fear and anger may fuel the inner-critic, who can loom very large in the wee hours of the morning. The inner critic, in its valiant effort to spare us shame and pain of failure, may inadvertently keep us awake in looping thoughts, analysis and struggle. For example, while sleepless, Susan found a felt sense of something pressing on her like a heavy metal plate, with a voice screaming over and over, “you have to fall asleep, you have to fall asleep.” Another small voice inside countered, “I can’t, I can’t.” She encouraged herself to hold this “whole thing,” to simply be next to it, which brought a little more peace. Moving her awareness next to the screaming voice, in the way Ann Weiser Cornell works with the critic, she heard the underlying anxiety that she wouldn’t be able to function the next day. Now able to be compassionate to that frightened inner critic, she was more restful and able to sleep.

In the moments of tossing and turning, and while working on this issue during the day, a traditional solo focusing process brings some relief and relaxation. We ask ourselves, “Is it possible to be empathic to the “me,” or the “part of me” that can’t fall asleep right in any given moment”, as well as to the inner critic? When we awaken after having drifted off, can we be with all of that, and, rather than being critical of the awakening, appreciate that we have been asleep? Here again, we are working in a traditional focusing way to bring self-empathy to critical, apprehensive moments or places within ourselves. However, in our workshops we found a need to go further to give people something more to take with them on their sleep journeys.

The paradox of trying to use focusing when trying to fall asleep, is that although we are in our bodies opening to “the more,” we are also guiding with our left brain minds, sorting out, and asking questions. Sometimes just realizing and “naming,” as Susan did, that she was still carrying enormous guilt around her sister’s death, helped her to relax and release into sleep. But at other times, and for many other people, this kind of focusing, while somewhat relaxing, isn’t enough to enable a move towards sleep. In fact, we found that for some people this is stimulating. It keeps them awake.

Though “standard solo focusing” may sometimes be a “right” preliminary step, a getting ready for sleep practice, additional moves may be required to bring body and mind together to soften towards sleep. In traditional focusing, one may explicates a felt sense to find “the more” of something and possibly a small action step. When wanting to rest or sleep, we encourage a move from a felt-sense to a “softening at the edge” of awareness. With experience, participants learn to relax into the “more” in diffused, hypnagogic states of consciousness that lead to sleep.

We brought in some of the non-medicinal suggestions currently recommended for insomnia, to combine with the focusing attitude, expanding it to what we call “companioning” ourselves in drifting towards sleep. These tools: breath-work, bodywork, visualization and self-hypnosis, become basic ingredients of our “sleep kit” of possibilities that we introduce in a focusing way for people to develop, work with, individualize and find for themselves. People may choose what they sense is “right” to assist them in a given moment of restlessness. We found powerful ways to assist people to move beyond, and cut through, ruminating or verbalizing activities. Before giving some examples of how these work, let us add something about the meaning of “companioning” and how it becomes crucial in the falling asleep process.

The process of falling asleep happens on a continuum; in fact, we are always, whether awake or asleep, day or night somewhere on this waking-sleeping wave. Even during the daylight hours, we have periods of greater and lesser alertness. At night, even while sleeping, we are moving from lighter to heavier to lighter sleep states. Sleep research has demonstrated that we have numerous moments of near waking during the night. Some people experience various periods of drowsiness, almost falling asleep, and then becoming aroused again through out the day and night. Some of us fall asleep easily, for some it is a longer process and, during any given night, patterns vary widely.

Since many people are not aware of the continuum, they tend to become attached to the rigid goal of having to fall asleep. In our workshops, we encourage a shift from the goal of falling asleep, to the more flexible one of moving into greater restfulness. Paradoxically, though letting go of the goal of falling asleep may, at first, not seem to make sense, simply allowing oneself to rest with wherever one finds themselves on the waking-sleeping continuum, opens the window to the possibility of sleep. For some people, the goal of falling asleep may cause one to think of themeself as a failure if sleep does not occur at will. Simply realizing that we are always on the wave of the continuum often loosens the grip of being too attached to that goal.

“Companioning” is also key in letting-go of goals. Companioning is a way of softening at the edge of conscious awareness, being with oneself in a kind and gentle way, perhaps including a visualization of a companion to keep us company during restless moments. Wherever one finds themselves on the awake/sleep continuum, companioning brings a shift in process, from being caught in a vicious cycle of thoughts, to caring about ones’ bodily-felt feelings and senses. Being companioned brings a sense of resting in someone’s arms. As people in our workshops offer themselves companioning, they are better able to rest within, and releasing begins to occur. Companioning supports moving from an effortful moment, towards a flowing-into rest.

When Robin was experiencing chronic sleepless, she often found herself reviewing difficult moments and concerns, and was made more alert by looping, analytic thoughts. She began to experiment with releasing her thoughts to image herself being held and supported by loving and gentle people whom she admired, such as Ghandi, and was quickly lulled to sleep.

The tools we offer, such as companioning, may be practiced and used to enable relaxation throughout the day, bringing a body-sense of the waking-sleeping continuum, and helping to prepare for a more restful night. Different tools work at various moments of sleeplessness for each person, and we encourage people to sense into what feels right for now. One man in a workshop told us “Just knowing I have all these possible tools gives me confidence.” Learning companioning, he became more able to approach sleep, less anxious, feeling empowered and supported by the tools he had learned and could use in whatever ways worked for him.

Bodywork designed to relax the body, and bring the mind towards a relaxed and passive state of awareness, may help one prepare for sleep. In one exercise, that Michael Krugman calls “body-surfing,” we ask participants to gently rest their hands on their bellies or chests, as they bring attention to the gentle movements caused by their breath. Practiced over time, this helps to shift attention away from arousing thoughts to enjoying the rhythm of fingers moving together and apart as the belly rises and falls, and bring a ripple of relaxation into the body. Resting hands on one’s body is also a way of holding and cradling oneself, a bodily way of companioning.

Imagery, another pathway to sleep, is the language of the subconscious and dreams. When one is having difficulty sleeping due to stress or worry, imagining a fanciful and/or peaceful place and time, with bodily/sensory associations, is moving towards deeper, sleepier, dream images and states. Related to imagery, self -hypnosis also has the power to release the mind from alertness, while relaxing the body into less defensive, more deeply relaxed states.

Our workshops begin with an exercise we adapted from Joan Klagsbrun. You may try it here now too. Close your eyes and notice how you are right now, how you are feeling, notice your attitude towards yourself. Then imagine that a person or pet, whom you know loves and comforts you, enters the room and spends some time as your companion for a few minutes. Have that person as close or far as you prefer, maybe touching you, or gently holding you, if that feel right. Take time to feel how this is for you now and then slowly open your eyes.

When people share their experience of this exercise, they realize they are feeling more relaxed, and more importantly, comforted. We suggest that this person or pet can be summoned during a difficult, sleepless time. This exercise has several purposes: it begins to help people to go inside in a focusing way, it opens people to the possibility of working with imaging, or if that doesn’t feel right, getting a kinesthetic sense, and it becomes part of integrating the experience of companioning.

In a recent workshop one woman imaged her four-year-old daughter laughing, lying on top of her and hugging her. Another invited in an old friend with whom she used to have fun. For her, the feeling of having fun became a theme. Throughout the workshop she realized that instead of “angsting” when she couldn’t sleep, she could have some fun with imaging. This opened a door for her. Later, when we offered an exercise to teach clearing the space, she shared that she didn’t really do it, because she didn’t find it helpful to think about her troubles. It was more relaxing for her to just be with the positive, fun experience she had earlier. We congratulated her on finding her way to be with herself!

Our work is an ever-growing process. As we are empowering people to find that falling asleep may be a creative process, we learn and expand our understanding and concepts. We are continually surprised at what emerges. One participant, whose loneliness contributed to her sleeplessness, imaged herself companioned and linking arms with all of the other people in the world who too were having trouble sleeping. Another, in the “clearing the space exercise,” imaged her space as a lovely and restful boudoir with red plush pillows.

Each experience of success supports a greater receptivity to sleep, knowing the pathway is close by. The tools of focusing, bodywork, imagery and self-hypnosis encourage experimentation with pathways to sleep. In each of our workshops we offer examples of each, allowing that any one of these may be best in a moment of restlessness. What is restful in one moment may not be in another. In the group process people share what works, and often come up with ideas for the other participants. If you would like to attend a workshop, or work with us individually, or contribute to our work by sharing your experiences, ideas and pathways to sleep, please write to us at Good night.

Author's Bio: 

I am a seasoned psychotherapist with over 18 years of experience working with people from all walks of life. The clients who seek to work with me have experienced the gamut of stresses that happen in life, from marital difficulties, job pressures, and difficulties with children, to the issues created by trauma, PTSD and addiction. Often clients come to me who have externally successful lives, but are looking for more balance and meaning.

I am trained in a discipline called Focusing, a wonderful listening process that assists me in more fully understanding my clients. In addition, I am trained in EMDR and hypnosis. In my work with Susan Rudnick, LCSW and our "Rest Well Tonight," we offer not only suggestions about one's external sleep environment; we assist in helping people find something that is already there, and that is each person's birthright: a natural capacity to rest into sleep.