How to Tap Your Nap
What do you do when you have problems that need creative solutions? Would you like to be more creative? Are you willing to give sleep a try?
Thomas Edison, Salvador Dali and Stephen King all did it. So did Wagner, Poe and Twain. They all used this technique successfully at one time or another.
What am I talking about? The ability to use the initial stages of sleep to generate creative ideas or to solve a perplex problem. Sounds a little far-fetched, doesn’t it? I thought so too, until I discovered that many of the great scientists, artists and engineers of our time have used sleep as a means of inspiration and problem solving. It has been described as trolling or mining for ideas in the subconscious of our mind.
We now know that our minds are just as active while we are sleeping as when we are awake. Portions of the brain do shut down during the midnight hours, while others become active and take us to far-away places where the ‘wild things roam’. Some of the greatest minds of our time have mastered this technique and enhanced their creativity. And with a little help, so can you.
Salvador Dali called his technique slumber with a key. He would sit in a chair with a heavy key in his left hand and plate on the floor. He would drift off, enjoy the subconscious show and wake up when the key would drop on the plate.
Stephen King also gets ideas from his sleep. He says that ideas are sent the way you would send someone an interoffice message in a pneumatic tube. Sometimes ideas are normal and retrieved while in a light sleep. Other, more exotic ideas are found in the depths of his sleep and only occasionally survive the trip to the surface.
Thomas Edison would put two steel plates on the floor directly underneath his hands, which were holding a steel ball. As he sat in his chair and drifting off into dream-land, his hands would open, dropping the balls on the plates and wake him up. He then noted any images, thought or ideas he had during his “naps”.
The following article was inspired by Jeff Warren’s book The Head Trip: Adventures on The Wheel Of Consciousness. While this article touches on only one aspect of our sleep patterns, “The Head Trip” is truly an adventure on the exploration of our consciousness.
Who is Creative?
Everyone has the ability to be creative and we shouldn’t think otherwise. You, me, your neighbor, even your land lady. Not everyone needs to be a Picasso or a Rembrandt, but we all have a creative and artistic side that can be tapped and nurtured. The key is that one needs to have the desire and the willingness to try. I’m not saying it’s easy but with a desire to learn, and some persistence, you too can be the creative person you want to be.
For me, I selected writing as my creative outlet. I enjoy the craft and enjoy creating stories to communicate ideas. I’ve been freelance writing for a short time now, and people ask me, where do you get ideas for articles? I usually tell them, I sleep on it and get a confused look in return. For me, ideas come at different times and I’ve started to carry a notebook to capture them when they come.
Besides getting ideas while driving or taking a shower, I tend also to generate topics for articles or even entire paragraphs while I’m half asleep or in a partial sleep state. Sometimes I get these ideas in the morning when I wake before my alarm while laying there half asleep. Other times I get these ideas at the beginning of the night when the wheel of consciousness starts to spin and I end up in another place.
Sleep is Exercise for Your Brain
Did you ever think about how you fall asleep? It’s a little more complicated than curling into the fetal position and waking up in the morning. There are actually five stages of sleep that we go through each night. REM sleep is the most commonly known stage and is where many of our wildest dreaming takes place. But it’s in the first stage of sleep where we can easily be aware of our surroundings and mine our subconscious for creative ideas. The first stage of sleep is called the Hypnagogia. I promise never to use that word again and will use the term Sleep Onset, instead.
During the first phase of sleep is when we’re in between consciousness and that deep, REM sleep that we all love. As we slowly slip deeper into our minds, a funny thing starts to happen. Ideas start to generate. Some of them are fantastical, while others are practical. With a little practice, you too can use Sleep Onset to help generate creative ideas or solve complex problems.
Putting the Technique to Practice
There are two tricks to getting this technique to work:
- You need to ‘prime the pump’ of your subconscious
- Awaken before you slip into a deep sleep and don’t remember that great idea you had in the beginning of the night.
Did you ever experience a state where you were half-asleep? It’s when you’re kind-of sleeping, but not really and you can still hear things around you? It’s a strange feeling. You’re laying or sitting motionless, hearing noises or music around you, and you still have some cognitive ability. Your brain is starting to relax, but it’s not relaxed enough to send you completely into the land of Oz. That’s the stage of Sleep Onset that you can use to your advantage. I really enjoy this feeling and always wake very refreshed and feeling great. What a nice side affect – even if you don’t find any ideas, you’re getting some rest and wake up feeling refreshed. And that is never a bad thing to do.
Photo: Simón Pais-Thomas
The following are 6 steps to putting this technique to practice.
1. Start with a “Beginner’s Mind”
The concept of beginner’s mind is a Zen teaching that basically states that we should take our knowledge of a subject and set it aside for a while and approach a task with a clear mind.
How many stories have we heard where someone described an invention that everyone said was impossible. Sometimes too much knowledge can get in the way of a creative endeavor. If you know something is impossible, then it will be. But, if you don’t, then the possibilities are limitless.
2. Prime Your Subconscious by Focusing on Your Topic
You need to set your mind to the topic or problem at hand and this should be done before you start to fall asleep. It’s similar to when you have a problem and you have that Aha! moment while taking a shower. Up until that point your subconscious was busily working on your problem while you were distracted by the noise of everyday life. But one word of caution: you need to focus deeply on a problem repeatedly for a while, in order to drive it into the subconscious. Only then can your Aha! moment pop out later.
3. Turn on the Music
I’ve experienced the creative state of Sleep Onset many times, and it most frequently occurs when I’m listening to music. Either I put on headphones or have music playing in the background. While I enjoy rock-n-roll and Guitar Hero, a softer style of music works best for me when going to sleep. Buddha Lounge and Kitaro are my favorites. Don’t be afraid to experiment New Age and Ambient Music . Guns-N-Roses may be right for you, and that’s ok too. Whatever works, works.
4. Get Comfortable
Being on an easy chair, lying in bed or sitting on a plane – pick your favorite place, get comfortable and relax. Believe it or not, I experience the creative state frequently while flying. Once I reach the point where ‘electronic devices are permitted’, the head phones go on and I start streaming music into my brain. Maybe it’s a combination of the music, the gentle rocking motion of the plane and the hum of the engines that get my mind going. For me, it’s a recipe for creative success. It’s a shame the mood is broken when the plane hits some nasty turbulence and my drink ends up in my lap.
5. Think About Your Topic as You Drift Off
You’re comfortable, you’ve thought about your topic, and your favorite music is playing in the background. Now you can start to drift off. Before long you may notice that you’re “kind-of” sleeping. You can’t move, you hear the music, and you’re aware that you can’t move and you’re hearing music.
6. Free Your Mind
In your semi-conscious state, you’re aware of what’s happening and where it may lead. Learn to recognize this state of mind and focus on your idea or problem. This is where problem solving occurs and the ideas start to generate.
There’s no magic that I can write about here, you’ll just have to try it and see what happens. For me, I usually start to think about a topic for an article and I’ll start to formulate the opening lines and the premise of the initial paragraph.
7. Wake Up and Take Notes
I typically wake up after a period of time without the aid of heavy keys or ball bearings. But you may want something to prevent you from falling into a deep sleep and missing your creative opportunity. I suggest you set an alarm for 15 – 25 minutes and be prepared to take notes when you awake.
When I wake, I usually write down the opening lines or scribble the paragraph that I was thinking about. It’s never perfect, but it gives me enough information that I can easily bring it into focus. The process is like polishing a rock, after a while the rock becomes smooth and shiny. When you polish long enough, you can make anything look good.
Normally when one thinks of altered states, you have an image of being locked in an isolation chamber or taking substances that shouldn’t be taken. While some may have had success with these alternative methods, they usually lead to unwanted side effects. The sleep approach is legal, it works AND you wake up refreshed. What more could you ask for?
What are your thoughts on alternative methods for generating creative ideas? What do you do when you’re stuck with a problem? See you in the comments below.
Editor’s Comment (Tina): I have not consciously tried sleep as a method for generating ideas, but am very intrigued by Victor’s unique voice. I will give this a try and comment. What I do regularly is a simple “visualization session” either in the bath or sitting on a comfortable couch.
The idea is to relax completely and let your unconscious mind flow, while allowing your conscious mind to lightly direct traffic. I would start with 5 minutes of gratitude with eyes closed, and then I would drive in to visualizing the end result I want for various problems. I would list out specific constraints and ask specific questions. I would repeat the question in my mind.
Even if I didn’t find the answer after my ‘rituals’, I would continue to mentally repeat the question throughout the day. The answer eventually comes, sometimes quickly, sometimes after a few days. I’ve found that when the answers are received, I’m usually in a relaxed state: after waking up from sleep, after visualization session, while reading, and while taking a walk. Music wise, I prefer any CD from Nawang Khechog for creative visualization. It’s also what I listen to when writing all articles for Think Simple Now.
Editor’s Editor’s Comment (Adam): I have been using shallow sleep as a focus and contemplation opportunity for a long time. I can remember when I was younger, lying in bed at night as thoughts stream through my mind and wondering Why aren’t I this creative during the day? Like me, I imagine that most people experience this same rush, but rarely write down those thoughts. I really appreciate Victor’s approach and style. I hope to see more of his writing on Think Simple Now.
I would also like to note that the Editor spends a long time in shallow sleep every morning while her alarm rings, sometimes for hours. She may not have consciously tried this technique, but I guarantee that she’s experienced it.