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Being a philosophy professor who
specializes in a critical scrutiny of psychology, I often doubt that I
represent the typical consumer. I tend to find self-help programs simplistic
and even stupid. My chosen profession suits me because I tend to be a critical
person. Maybe it is no surprise then that I have some difficulty sleeping. It
also might be related to the fact that as an academic, I'm constantly
interacting with other critical people. Whatever the reason, it is not at all
unusual for me to wake in the middle of the night and find it impossible to
quell the stream of thoughts about tasks I need to do, replay exchanges at
various committee meetings from recent days, and occasionally dwell on some
events from my personal life or the latest family squabbles.
John Selby tells his listeners that
this is pent up anger and anxiety. People who cannot sleep feel threatened,
but they need to realize that unless they are in immediate danger, they need to
let go of their fears and simply accept that they have 8 or more hours to
sleep. He recommends that when trying to get to sleep, one identifies the
person one is angry with and say out loud several times, "I'm angry at
you," with the aim of expelling the anger from oneself. Readers, I have
to admit that I haven't tried this exercise. It would probably wake my wife,
who would not be at all pleased, and would likely make me sleep in the guest
room. I also haven't done it because, probably due to being in deep denial, I
don't actually think I'm angry at particular people. I just have lots to do
and I even find it helpful to remind myself of what I need to get done. For
those who do have anger, Selby recommends forgiving those with whom one is
angry in order to be able to relax, which might be a good idea, but I'm not
sure that forgiving is such a simple process. Furthermore, while this may be a
symptom of my emotional immaturity, I'm not inclined to forgive people who have
intentionally hurt me. I just don't think about them.
Selby makes some questionable
claims. Maybe it is true that anxiety is the primary cause of insomnia but
when he says that people only worry about the future and not about the past,
that seems to contradict the experience of all those people who worry about
what has already happened. Worry requires uncertainty, but there can be
uncertainty about the past as well as the future. However, his recommendation
that the future should take care of itself sounds like a good one, and I'd add
that the past can take care of itself too. He uses some meditative techniques
of focusing on one's breath and paying attention to one's body, encouraging the
listener to surrender and let go. He asks the listener to simply be in the
present and let one's awareness move to the good feelings in one's body. When
I focus on my body, I notice lots of tension in my back.
I would be very interested in
learning what empirical work has been done on the effectiveness on these
relaxing techniques as a way to get to sleep. It is clear that they work for
some people. However, I'm equally sure that many people are like myself: they
find it very easy to fall asleep when watching a boring TV program, or indeed
their favorite TV show, but when using relaxation techniques of focusing on
breathing and letting go of bodily tension, they just lie there wondering when
sleep might eventually come.
In Getting a Good Night's Sleep,
Selby talks in a slow calm voice, with synthesized ambient music in the background.
As the CD progresses, he talks less often, and obviously it is all meant to be
very soothing. I don't find it relaxing though. I listen to the way he
pronounces the word "pleasure" as "play-zir" and wonder
what's up with that. I think to myself that the music is annoying. The second
CD of this 2 CD set is music only, with light new-age sounds lacking any tunes,
which sounds like the music one hears when put on hold with the phone company.
I hate it.
I also wonder how people who sleep
with other people are going to listen to this. Either you can play it out
loud, so one's partner is going to have to put up with Selby going on about
soft bird songs wafting through the air and letting the love flow in, or you
can listen to it on headphones, which will likely mean getting the headphone
wire tangled around your neck in the middle of the night. Of course, it you
end up getting a good night's sleep, it is a small price to pay.
Personally, I find the best way to
get to sleep when awake in the middle of the night is to listen to some spoken
word that I find relatively interesting, and focusing on that helps me stop
thinking about other things. Audiobooks or the night time transmission of the
BBC World Service on my local public radio station are excellent. While my own
psychological tendencies may be atypical or even abnormal, I suspect that
intentionally relaxing tends to be somewhat self-defeating for many people. My
guess is that for a large proportion of the population, it is far more effective
to divert one's attention away from oneself and one's state of calmness or
tension, and to focus on something else that you find relaxing.
So I have to say that I didn't find
Getting a Good Night's Sleep at all helpful, but I suppose that some
other people might, if they enjoy insipid new age music and they are not so
critical to begin with. But those people probably don't have so much
difficulty sleeping in the first place.
© 2004 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.