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If you want to use your brain’s ability to think while you sleep, just create a sleep thinking prompt or question that takes the following form: “I wonder what I would truly love to paint?” or “I wonder what I might do to ignite my painting career?” Then, when you’re ready to fall asleep, murmur your question to yourself, either silently or out loud, in a gentle, meditative way that is more like a wonder than a worry.
You want to go to bed not with a worry, as most people habitually do, but with a wonder instead. But you may be asking yourself, “Why should I go to bed interrogating myself at all, whether with a wonder or anything else? Why burden myself that way?” For at least a couple of reasons. First, most people already go to bed worried about something: outstanding bills, their child’s school problems, their painting progress. They brood about these problems as they try to fall asleep. What happens then? They take a long time falling asleep and don’t sleep very well. Nor do they get their problems solved that way. If most adults went to bed without a care in the world and then slept like a log, it would certainly be wise of them to wonder whether they should be asking themselves provocative questions at bedtime. But since restful sleep is a blessing that already eludes a great many Americans, they have nothing much to lose.
Second, while a percentage of the millions of people suffering from insomnia have some physical disease or physiological change like menopause causing or contributing to their sleeplessness, and while a much larger percentage are kept awake by their worries as, for example, they replay a disappointing exchange with a gallery owner or brood about making too little money from their art, an even larger number are kept awake by a problem graver than any particular worry. They are kept awake by general feelings of pessimism and hopelessness.
These many folks get stuck believing that their problems are insoluble. So when they go to bed worrying, they aren’t really hoping for answers. They’ve given up on the possibility of answers. Their stress just grows, because their worries are never solved. This vicious cycle, where people worry but don’t feel that they can solve their problems, which makes them worry more, produces pessimism and despondency.
I’ve engaged in what may seem like a digression to make it a little clearer why there is really no risk in sleep thinking. Most people are already worried and taking their worries to bed, and, even more significantly, these worries are not of the sort that go away very easily, because of our uncertainties about how life ought to be lived. This leads me to third reason why you might as well go to bed with a question and sleep think: sleep thinking can do far more than help you solve this or that problem. It can actually help you make the shift from pessimism to optimism, from hopelessness to hope, from meaninglessness to new meanings. The underlying feeling-tones of sleep thinking are hope, optimism, and affirmation. These are the feelings that you communicate to yourself by the very way you say your question to yourself as you drift off to sleep.
That’s the primary difference between “a wonder” and “a worry.” It has to do with the underlying hopefulness that lightens a wonder and not just with the words you choose to use. If you go to bed saying to yourself, “I hate what I’m painting,” you’ll toss and turn and probably find yourself wandering around the house at two a.m. But if you say to yourself, “I wonder what I would truly love to paint?”, and if you couple that wonder with an inner smile and some lightness, believing that real answers are available, then you’ll fall asleep quickly and sleep think answers.