Book Excerpt: The Guru Next Door. Option Method Dialogue on Insomnia[ Mar 16, 2018 ] [ by Wendy Dolber ]
The “library group,” as Bruce called it, met in a small town library on Long Island. He would make the drive every Wednesday afternoon, cruising over a network of highways, tunnels, and bridges in his large comfortable car, drinking Pepsi and smoking cigarettes while he prepared his lecture in his head based on notes he had made the night before.
He liked to keep it simple, building each week on the message of the week before, and he liked to answer the unspoken questions that settled like a cloud around the group. These were the questions that most would be thinking but no one would raise — questions they judged too stupid to ask, or too challenging. He loved these questions the most. These were the questions that usually got to the core of why people clung to the old unhappy routines year in and year out, questions like “If I’m not unhappy about things, why would I ever try to change anything?” or “If I am happy with everyone, won’t people walk all over me?”
The group was small, only eight men and women, but a good cross section of ages and occupations: a young couple who were recently engaged, a grandmother, a thirtyish secretary who was always late, a local carpenter, a clergyman and his wife, and one of Bruce’s students who lived and worked in the city. The group lasted for two hours. He would start with his half-hour lecture and then open the group up for people to work on problems with him one on one while the others listened. In this format and setting, people usually avoided working on problems that were deeply personal. No one ever discussed sexual problems or problems with abusive partners, for example.
It really didn’t matter. His approach worked with any kind of problem, no matter how small or how large, how simple or complicated. The simple truth was that people were unhappy because they believed they had to be, and every bad feeling could be examined from that perspective. Mild annoyance about a traffic ticket or uncontrolled rage over being cut off in traffic — both had some belief underlying the bad feeling. The belief might even be the same in both situations. “This shouldn’t have happened to me. This is a bad thing in and of itself. If I weren’t unhappy about it, it would mean I didn’t care. That would be like saying it’s okay that people drive crazily or that cops give tickets when they shouldn’t.”
As he took his place in the corner of the library set aside for the weekly group, he thought about last week, the fourth session of the eight-week course entitled Introduction to the Option Method. He had spent the first three weeks explaining how his method worked and demonstrating by working with problems that people raised. The group had been going well, with the usual dynamics of one or two people being the most talkative, a few others interjecting here and there, and at least one person completely silent throughout.
Then something extraordinary had happened in the last half hour of the session. In twenty minutes, he had helped Jim Reynolds, the carpenter, work through his twenty-year problem with insomnia. Jim had been one of the people in the group who were especially receptive to the method. From the very first meeting, he was entranced with the idea that the only thing standing in the way of his happiness was to examine the beliefs behind whatever it was he was unhappy about. Jim felt that he was already a pretty happy person, but he needed help with some long-term problems, which he considered to be deep-seated and hard to deal with. Insomnia was one of those problems.
Over the past twenty years, Jim had averaged only three to four hours of sleep each night. The problem had begun in his high school years and was one of the reasons he had chosen a profession where he could work for himself. He could never be sure if he would be able to get up on time. He scheduled his work life so that his first appointment was at 10 a.m. So far that had worked out for him well enough, and he had gotten used to falling asleep only to wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to sleep most nights. But now, nearing the age of thirty-five, it had started to take a toll on his concentration on the job and his energy level. He was thinking of starting a family, as well, and was concerned about his ability to work more hours and increase his income.
That day, Bruce had been talking about phobias and the fear of being out of control. When he opened up the floor to the group, Jim raised his hand just enough to get Bruce’s attention. Basically a shy person, he was clearly hesitant about becoming the center of attention.
“Okay,” Jim said. He took a deep breath and folded his long arms into a tight knot in front of his chest. “I’ve been thinking about this problem since you started talking today. I don’t think I would ever have brought it up. But I’m desperate. I’ve tried so many things to change this thing about myself but I’ve never succeeded. It just seems to be part of me.”
“What does, Jim?”
“Insomnia. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in years.” He relaxed a little, then, at least enough to unfurl his arms and settle his hands into his lap.
“What happens when you go to bed?”
“It goes in phases,” Jim continued. “Sometimes I actually do sleep well, but most often I go through weeks and weeks where I’ll fall asleep right away but then I’ll wake up at two o’clock or three o’clock in the morning, sometimes 4 a.m. if I’m lucky, and I just can’t fall back to sleep. I used to lie there, but it bothered my wife so much, now I get up and watch television in the other room or read.”
“How do you feel about not being able to sleep?”
Jim thought about the question for a minute. “I don’t know,” he said. “In some ways, I’ve learned to live with it, and sometimes I tell myself that this is my natural rhythm and that’s just the way it is. Other times, which is most of the time, I feel oppressed by it.”
“What do you mean by oppressed, Jim?”
“I feel like it’s got me under its thumb and there’s nothing I can do about it.” He laughed at that. “Silly, huh, like it has a mind of its own.”
“Well, sometimes, things we can’t seem to control do seem that way. What do you mean when you say there is nothing you can do about it?”
“Well, short of taking drugs, I mean. I know there are relaxation techniques you can do, but once I’m lying there awake, I can’t stand being in bed anymore.”
“What can’t you stand about it?” Bruce asked.
“Just the feeling of wanting to go to sleep and not letting myself do it.”
“So you want to go to sleep and you are not letting yourself. What do you mean by not letting yourself?”
“Well, I think I must be doing something to cause it. I must be keeping myself awake in some way.”
“In what way do you think you might be doing that?”
“Well, sometimes I start trying to figure something out as soon as my head hits the pillow. I like to do that for a while, but then I’d like to stop and go to sleep. But I don’t stop. I just go from one thing to another all night almost.”
“How do you feel about doing that?”
“I get frustrated.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I feel like I can’t control myself. I want to shut my mind off, but I can’t seem to do it. That drives me crazy.”
“Jim, let’s talk about why you are bothered first and then talk about why you believe you can’t shut your mind off. Why does it drive you crazy that you can’t shut your mind off?”
Jim laughed. “Because I should be able to.”
“Why do you believe you should be able to?”
“Because somehow I know that I can.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“I guess I don’t really want to.”
“Yes, maybe at that time you really want to be thinking about the things you’re thinking about. That’s more important to you than sleep at that moment. Could that be true?”
“I guess it could be,” Jim considered.
“What kinds of things are you thinking about when this is happening?”
“Oh, usually some job I’m working on where there’s something I can’t figure out.”
“Do you figure it out then?” Bruce asked.
“Actually,” Jim said, grinning a huge grin, “most of the time I do, or partially anyway. I’d just like to be able to do that during the day when I’m trying to figure it out.”
“What’s preventing you from doing that?”
“Well, nothing, really.”
“Then why don’t you do it then?”
“I guess I am kind of putting it off. These are usually the things that I’m not sure I can answer and I don’t like that feeling.”
“What feeling is that?”
“The feeling of not being able to do something.”
“Or not do something, like falling asleep?” asked Bruce.
“Yes, I really hate the feeling of not being able to do things I want to do.”
Bruce nodded and leaned forward, asking Jim, “What bothers you most about that feeling?”
“Well, I guess it’s keeping me from moving on, going where I want to go. That’s the main thing. It keeps me from moving on.”
“What is there about not moving on that bothers you?”
“I don’t really know how to answer that,” Jim said. “I just don’t like standing still when I know something has to be done. I don’t like waiting for anything. I don’t wait in line for anything. I’d be the guy pacing around looking at his watch every five minutes.”
“Okay, then, what is there about standing still when you want to move forward that bothers you?”
“I don’t know. I just can’t stand being incapacitated.”
“What do you mean by ‘incapacitated’?”
“I guess just being prevented from doing something I want to do.”
“What would you be afraid it would mean about you if you were incapacitated and you weren’t bothered about it?”
Jim had to think about that. “If I weren’t bothered, well, I don’t know. I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine not being bothered.”
“Imagine if it were possible not to be bothered. If such a thing were possible, what would you be afraid of?”
Jim closed his eyes and was silent for a few seconds. Then he said, “Oh.”
“I see it now. If I weren’t bothered, I guess that would be okay, then,” said Jim. But then he thought about it a little longer and added, “If I weren’t bothered, I guess I’d just be passive. Everything would be okay with me. But it’s not okay.”
“Why would it have to mean that?” Bruce asked. “Could you imagine wanting to move on, but not being able to, but still wanting to anyway and just being in that state? Without being bothered?”
Jim smiled. “That’s an amazing thought. I’m so used to being bothered about everything that isn’t the way I want it to be, I never considered that I didn’t have to be that way to change something.”
“So, getting back to insomnia? How do you feel about it now?”
“Well,” said Jim. “I feel different about it. First of all, I can see that this fear I have about figuring things out contributes. If I could get over that, I wouldn’t be saving all my unresolved problems until I’m in bed.”
“And, what else?” asked Bruce.
“I can see, too, that the same fear applies to my insomnia. I get frustrated when I can’t sleep because I am being prevented from doing something I want to do. But I don’t have to feel that way about it. The frustration isn’t getting me to sleep any faster. If I weren’t frustrated I could try just wanting to sleep. It’s really my only choice anyway.”
Today Bruce’s lecture was entitled “It’s Too Good to Be True,” but before he even got to it, Jim asked permission to tell the group about how last week’s session affected his insomnia.
Jim was beaming. “I wasn’t sure if we had really gotten anywhere last week,” he said, “but when I went to sleep that night, I had a whole different attitude. First of all, it was really okay with me if I slept or not. I gave myself permission to stay up all night if I wanted to, to work out any problems I wanted to. Before I knew it, I was asleep. I’m not going to say I slept through the entire night, but I slept at least six hours, and every night it gets better and better.”
Instead of being happy for Jim, the group generally was skeptical.
One man suggested that maybe it wasn’t real insomnia. “Insomnia is a medical condition that takes years of therapy to sort out,” he said authoritatively.
Others wondered how the seemingly innocuous interchange of the week before could have had such amazing results. “The questions seemed so obvious,” the secretary said. “I would have thought Jim would have asked himself those questions a million times.”
“You would think that, but I never did,” Jim said. “All these years I’ve just been feeling frustrated with my stubbornness about going to sleep, feeling as if it were my fault that I wasn’t sleeping. I treated it like a disease, like something that had me in its power. I don’t feel that way anymore. If you really listen to yourself answering the questions and realize that those answers, as dumb as they sound, are really coming from you, are really what you believe, it has to change you.”
“It’s too easy,” said the clergyman. “I don’t trust it. I hope this doesn’t happen, but I feel that you’ll go back to sleepless nights sometime in the future.”
“You know,” said Bruce, “every year, thousands of people travel over continents to talk to gurus in faraway countries. Every year marks another year in a series of years and years of therapy for some. There’s a belief in our society that the real answers are hard to find, that the more effort expended, the more valuable the information. I’m not saying that this isn’t true sometimes and that those are not good and valuable experiences, but what if, what if, the answer is right under your nose? What if the answer is within your reach this very moment? What if the answer is as simple as telling yourself the truth? What if the answer is already within you? Wouldn’t that be nice to know?”
They all nodded, but he saw they were in doubt. Except for Jim. Jim just smiled.
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