Keeping your eyes open while falling asleep may sound counterintuitive, but it is one of the simplest ways to drift off quickly and effectively. It can be done in bed or sitting in a chair your bedroom. The most important aspects of this technique are keeping your eyes open and making sure the room is as dark and as free from LED light pollution as possible.
Stephen Lockley, a Harvard sleep researcher, suggests that light at night is one of the main reasons people aren't getting enough sleep. Devices that emit LED light only seem to make the problem worse. While LEDs are great for energy efficiency, they wreak havoc on our internal clocks and on the production of sleep producing hormones we need to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Experts recommend that you cut off your exposure from LED emitting devices such as tablets and phones at least a half an hour before bedtime. But even if you end up bingeing the next episode on Netflix or glancing at your Facebook feed before bed, you can counteract this exposure by the eyes wide open technique, which I've dubbed darkness bathing.
Darkness bathing simulates the nighttime conditions our ancestors experienced for centuries prior to the introduction of electric lights. Your bedroom is the ideal location but any room will work provided it's dark enough. If you require some light, lamps that emit an amber glow such as salt lamps are best. The amber hues emulate candle/firelight to which we are well adapted.
How to darkness bathe:
Climb into bed or sit on a comfortable chair and concentrate on keeping your eyes open.
If you feel restless or anxious sitting there, try a simple meditation like focusing on the rhythm of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Let your body's natural breathing pattern ease you into relaxation. If your mind is still unsettled, you can listen to a guided meditation with your phone's blue light filter on or try a walking meditation until you feel calm.
Darkness bathing is effective in two ways. Absorbing the darkness stimulates your natural melatonin/sleep hormone secretion. Keeping your eyes open prevents your monkey mind or restless mind from hijacking your thoughts and encouraging the release of stress hormones.
After a few minutes on concentrating on keeping your eyes open, you will start to become sleepy and your eye lids will feel heavy. If you are in a chair, go to bed now. If you are already in bed, let yourself drift off when you are ready. You will find that by not trying to sleep, sleep will come.
This process usually only takes a few minutes, but be patient if you are feeling anxious or restless. Acceptance of whatever you are feeling at the moment will help you to stay calm and focused.
This technique is also helpful if you wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back to sleep. Stay in bed if you can. But get up and go to a chair if you feel restless. Most importantly, don't panic. It is normal to wake up slightly after each sleep cycle. As you get older those short periods of wakefulness just become more noticeable because of stress or pain. Additionally, recent research suggests that prior to the industrial revolution, our ancestors slept in two shifts not in a consecutive eight hour stretch.
To fall back asleep without much effort, focus on keeping your eyes open and use gratitude to keep your mind from spiraling into stressful thoughts and doing sleep algebra (if I go to sleep now I'll get "x" hours of sleep). If this does start to happen, gently redirect your mind back to breathing and thoughts of gratitude and contentment. You want to engage your relaxation system and not flood your system with stimulating hormones. Loving-kindness meditation can be a wonderful way to generate a feeling of gratitude. By sending love to other beings, you suffuse yourself with love also.
Try it tonight. You'll be having sweet dreams in no time.
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Check out Mindful.org for some great guided meditations:
1. Harvard Health Letter. Blue light has a dark side. Harvard Medical School. 2018. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side.
2. 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html.