Meditation and insomnia


Baby yawning as it goes to sleep

Meditation’s about “waking up” to reality, but can it help us get a good night’s sleep? Bodhipaksa indulges in some pillow-talk about four ways meditation can help with insomnia.

Like most people I’ve sometimes had periods when I’ve found it hard to sleep (or to get back to sleep). In a word: insomnia. It’s not that anything external is keeping me awake, but simply that I’m wide awake with my mind both tired and over-active.

Over the years I’ve tried various things, like reading, getting up and making a cup of tea, etc, that have been useful in breaking into any unhelpful mental patterns that I may have. And often those things work well. Insomnia (in my case at least) generally involves being caught up in a loop of thinking that stirs up emotion, and that cycle of thinking in turn stirs up emotion which causes more thinking. That cycle needs to be interrupted for sleep to take place. Even getting up and making a cup of tea (a stimulant!) can be enough to interrupt the cycle and allow the natural sleep process to kick in. And I’ve found that reading provides an alternative thought-stream (I have the author’s words in my mind rather than my own thoughts) and can help lull me into unconsciousness.

But I’ve also found some meditative techniques that have never failed to work, and I mostly prefer to use these. The times when I’ve chosen not to use them are when I’ve been on a creative streak and I haven’t actually wanted to sleep because my preference has been to “go with the flow” and do the writing (or whatever) that’s been buzzing around in my mind.

The reason that I decided to turn to a more meditative approach is that sometimes wanting to get to sleep will actually keep you awake! What happens is that you lie there awake, but wanting to sleep. At some point you start to drift off, and some dream imagery may start to well up into the mind. Then the part of your mind that’s still awake gets all excited because it sees signs of sleep, and this excitement wakes you up again! This is classic craving, or grasping, in which your mind tries to grab hold of something it wants. But sleep by nature involves letting go, and so the act of grasping will prevent sleep from arising. This happens in meditation too, of course. When we try to recreate enjoyable meditative experiences we often find that we prevent them from occurring — the reason they occurred previously was that we’d stopped grasping and had simply relaxed into our experience.

There are four different meditative approaches that I’ve found to be useful in dealing with insomnia.

1. Mindful breathing

This is as simple as you can get. Basically, just meditate! But there are a few caveats. Not all meditative techniques will help you to sleep. Some will actually cause further stimulation and keep you awake.

So, lying in bed, keep your awareness focused on the sensations of the breath in your belly, observing the rise and fall of the abdominal muscles. It’s important to keep your awareness focused on the belly rather than any other part of the breathing process, because this is the most calming place to observe your breathing. The sensations in the chest, throat, and head are actively stimulating, and so observing the breath in those places would be counter-productive.

Also, pay more attention to the out-breath rather than the in-breath. The classic way to do this is to count at the end of each out-breath. You could also say the word “out” as you exhale. The out-breath is more relaxing, while the in-breath is more stimulating.

The other methods I use are based on an observation that there are three things that keep me awake: thinking that is comprised primarily of “inner chatter,” thinking that is composed mainly of vivid mental imagery, and physical arousal where there is restlessness in the body.

2. Dealing with inner chatter

Sometimes we can’t sleep because we’re talking to ourselves so much — internally, of course. There may well be some inner imagery (see the technique below) but mainly we’re caught up in hearing inner discussions.

If you have a lot of inner self-talk, try making the voice or voices in your head become very s-l-o-o-o-w a-a-a-n-d d-e-e-e-e-e-p, like a vinyl record that’s been unplugged. The trick is to notice the stream of inner chatter and to take control of the flow, slowing it down. You may have to do this a few times, but you’ll notice that as the voices slow down you’ll almost immediately start to feel more sleepy.

3. Dealing with vivid inner imagery

Sometimes our stories are primarily visual. There will of course be an inner soundtrack that accompanies the movie we’re showing ourselves, but it’s the images we’re mainly caught up in and that are keeping us awake.

I’ve found that the most effective approach under these circumstances is to make the imagery go dark, and then to fade in some images of natural scenes. I prefer to visualize leaves on trees, moving slowly in a breeze. The slowness is important. It’s also important that the images be of something relatively unstimulating and restful, which is why nature images work. But a mundane scene, like rain dripping off of leaves, is more effective than inspiring mountain scenes, which are likely to keep you awake.

I often make the weather bad. As I mentioned, rain dripping off of leaves is effective. The fact that it’s raining means that the imagery is duller than usual, and the lack of stimulation is the key to getting back to sleep.

With the techniques of slowing down mental chatter or calling to mind calming (and even dull) imagery, what you’re doing is taking charge of your mind. Rather than letting an uncontrolled stream of images and dialog run through your mind, keeping you awake, you’re deciding what you’re going to think about.

4. Dealing with physical restlessness

Lastly, one of the things that can keep us awake is physical restlessness. This can happen to me when I’ve been exercising too late in the evening. Even though my mind is tired my body is very much awake. If you find that you have a lot of physical energy, then imagine that your body is becoming very heavy, and that you’re being pressed down into the mattress. I sometimes pretend to myself that gravity is variable, and that someone has turned the gravity dial up to “high.”

This uses the same principle as slowing down your inner chatter or making your mental imagery dark and restful. When you’re naturally tired the body feels heavy. When you reverse this process, imagining that the body is heavy, you become tired.

You may have to use all four methods. I use method one to start with, and then the others as required. It has always worked! Sometimes I’ve been lying there thinking, “Nope, it’s not going to work this time,” and then suddenly it’s time to get up and I realize that I’ve slept the whole night through.

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40 Comments. Leave new

  • […] Meditation and insomnia Reading this made me yawn. In a good way. (tags: meditation insomnia) […]

  • Hello,

    I’m new to mediatation, having only been practicing over the last 2 months or so. My mind is always overactive and chatty, and very difficult to quiet. Insomnia has always been a problem for me. I have learned to be accepting of the chatter and quiet my mind at least briefly, through most of my meditating. Lately, I’ve been practicing chakra mediation, and notice that where my mood has gotten better, my insomnia has gotten much worse. Can this be atributed to the meditation because of the blocked energies that are now moving and the healing going on? Have you heard of people having this reaction? Or am I just having a bad week of sleep…?

  • Hi Mary,

    I really don’t know anything about chakra meditation (except to know that people keep mispronouncing it as “shakra” meditation) but in general in meditation there’s a balance needs to be found between energy and calmness. Often the way that we meditate can push things one way or the other, and so it sounds as if you may need to work more consciously on calming the mind. You can do this by paying more attention to the outbreaths (e.g. by counting them), paying more attention to the movements in the belly as you breathe, and by taking a few deep slow breaths as you start the meditation.

    It may be that you can find equivalents of these things within chakra meditation, but as I said I don’t know enough about the form of meditation to say anything useful.

    Good luck!

  • yes i live in an apartment which i have people above and below me and they just get on my nerves i am a very light sleeper and the thumping and the bumping vibrations just scares me and kind of make me nervous, i tried to sleep somewhere i can get some sleep in the area of my apartment i am forever going from one room to another and its gotten so bad i ask the manager can i bring my air mattress and sleep in a vacant apartment thats not rented out yet! sounds crazy i didnt like to leave my own bed to sleep in an empty apartment thats not rented out yet it was clean and all and that didnt seem to help. my boyfriend told me to start meditating again, i did stop doing that and he told me whenever i hear the loud thumping noises to put in my mind and become the thumping noises in mind and body and that it wouldnt bother me, when i was little my father always told us sisters to shut up be quiet all the time and i hated he told us that because i want to sleep in the noise but i just cant get it together!! i am 40 plus and i just dont like to be that way!! i want to sleep through noise when i hear the thumping nagging noises it will stop and i just wait for another one to come because i know its coming i am sleeping at the same time i am waiting for the noise to come, please help!!!!

  • Hello Wisdom,

    Have you checked out this page? It may be helpful. You may also want to consider cultivating lovingkindness for your neighbors. It helps us to take our focus away from ourselves. Sorry this is so short. I’m pretty tired this evening after an early start this morning.

  • Hello,
    I’m Jenny from Uk and really pleased i’ve come across your web-site.

    Firstly i’ve been having a problem exactly the same as Mary above with meditation, and at a point now where i feel totally confused as so many people have hugh health and happiness bonus’s with meditation, but i seem to be a stuck loop with my life… and so would really appreciate your comments.

    Four years ago i had sort of a large spiritual awakening sort of thing where basically too much happened to me (all positive) but at night time and i feel that alot of stuff came up for me to heal. I started a total inability to sleep lots of different reasons but also what felt like enormous amount of energy surges. I started meditation to help myself, hopefully re-gain sleeping pattern etc but like Mary the meditation does lift my mood and i feel so incredibly peaceful when i am there but my sleep gets alot worse and then my mind gets more noisy. I then observe my mind and physical symptoms but actually i then feel almost too aware and then too awake to sleep.

    I meditate to keep myself going basically as i am worried what the lack of sleep is doing to my body and have tried numerous other different types of healing work incl. eft, sedona, yoga etc etc

    My question is why do you feel as though meditation brings up emotions for me that disturbs my balance instead of what i feel should happen which would be for old patterns of behavious or fears etc to disolve and for me to have more general peacefulness and sleep. I have also developed a trig neuralgia pain behind my eyes and face area which i have been trying to just notice and observe for months now.

    just feel as though i am trying too hard to heal myself, possibly too impatient and overly concerned with how i am (and i know thats my ego mind talking), so then i just observe that part of me which then makes me too inward feeling/thinking again.

    I will practise what you advised mary with watching the breath and focusing on the abdomen and i feel on reading your other pages being more tolerant and patient with myself and possibly stop trying to fix myself comes to mind. I think i have probably answered many of my questions, so thankyou for allowing my to express my confusion.

    Any words of wisdom would still be very much appreciated and any more hints to calm the released energy down before bedtime would be great.

    with love

    • Jenny,

      It doesn’t surprise me to hear that you started having insomnia and energy surges at a time when you were experiencing big changes in your life. Even though they may have been positive, big changes are big changes, and can bring up fear and resistance deeper inside. Moving toward something new is always scary, even if it’s all about positive things. Anything like this can create big shifts of energy, whether you’re consciously aware of them or not!

      I can say from personal experience that sometimes when we go though big inner changes, it creates physical symptoms that can be really uncomfortable and hard to live with. Insomnia is one I’ve had, so I can sympathize. Meditation in and of itself isn’t a cure all, and isn’t a guarantee of peace of mind and relaxation. So the first thing I’d suggest is to let go of the idea that there is something “wrong” with your meditation practice. It doesn’t sound like there’s anything wrong there at all. I’d say there’s something going on that’s creating more nervous energy in your system than you’re able to dissipate, through meditation or otherwise. So everything is working as expected.

      One question I have is whether your frustration and worry that something’s “wrong” is only adding to your anxiety. Yes, I understand that insomnia is terrible to live with, but are you making things worse with the worry and impatience? You also said you have a lot of healing to do. I assume you’re doing other things to work on this. Healing is an organic, natural process that can’t be hurried along. Meditation, yoga, EFT, etc, is all good stuff to do. You’re doing what you can. In the meantime, can you give your body/mind the space it needs to do its own work, in its own time?

      I’m sure there’s a whole lot more to your story, and I’m sure there are other things to look into. But based on what you’ve said, I feel that’s about all I can say. If you’d like to talk with me in more depth, I’d be happy to do so. I offer individual coaching to people who are working through difficult situations such as yours, and especially work with meditation and mindfulness as the tools for recovering balance. You can learn more about my work at

      Best wishes,

  • I’m 13 and live in the US. This site was reccomended from a different site (What Irony!) and too often I find myself awake later than needed. Sometimes I play only 1 specific game on gameboy and the repettiveness makes me drowsy and I sleep. I’m slighty afraid of the dark, which I don’t find peculiar b/c ppl are afraid of what they don’t know about, but it’s very common in me. Sometimes it’s physical, I’m sick and parts of me are achey, and thse are the worst times for insomnia for me. could someone help?

  • It looks like it’s been a couple of years since people have commented on this, but it hit the target with me this morning.
    First I’d like to tell Tom (if he’s still reading this blog) that unfortunately being 13 you have other issues going on— research has shown that teenagers have their biological clock shifted “forward”, meaning that they naturally (and biologically) want to go to bed late and sleep in late. Do a Google search on “teenagers and sleep” and you’ll come up with a lot. I’m sure there are tricks out there, like limiting light past 8pm, that kind of thing, but you’re just going to have to hang in there for a few years.
    Next, it’s interesting that something so wonderful as meditation can actually cause a disturbance, but I have also noticed it. Because when I’m meditating I take note when I start to feel or experience super-relaxedness, and I think to myself “there we go…that’s the right feeling” which is great when it’s the middle of the day. However, at night, when I start to drift off I think “there we go…I’m starting to drift off…” then BAM! awake again. So, I guess I have to re-train my thoughts in both situations. So many meditation guides say “when a thought enters your mind, just notice that thought…and let it go” but when you’re trying to fall asleep you shouldn’t even try to notice it…just let it pass without paying attention. And really I guess that would be good during meditation too? Anyone have any suggestions?

  • Hi,

    I have been suffering a lot of anxiety and stress lately, which is due to a fear of having sleep problems. At the start of the year I had a lot of trouble sleeping, but got over it. Now as I have started a new part-time job, I have a great fear of insomnia (especially on the nights before I have work). This is affecting every aspect of my life.

    I am new to meditation, but feel it would greatly help me with my problems. Can you tell me a way to meditate which will help?

  • No I haven’t. I will try these methods when I next have trouble sleeping. Do you suggest I print the page and keep it by my bed so I can look at it if need be (or will the reading waken me up)?

    I am also interested in any meditations that I can do before bedtime, perhaps to prepare me for a restful sleep. Should these be done right before I hop into bed, or should I meditate and then read for a to wind-down before bed.

    • I find that reading helps put me to sleep, but your sleepage may vary :)

      Reading helps distract me from the “am I getting tired? Yes I am! Oh, damn, I just woke myself up” cycle. But some experts on sleep say that you shouldn’t do anything in your bed apart from sleep, to avoid building up other associations. That’s not advice I’ve ever found useful, however.

      Mindfulness of breathing meditation, even done in the morning, may well be helpful. It sounds counter-intuitive that meditating in the morning can affect what happens when you go to bed, but meditating in the morning can help bring a bit more calmness into your entire day, and so make your mind less busy when it’s bed-time. Meditating just before bed can also be helpful, but you really need to find out what works for you.

  • I’m a 63-year-old retired teacher who has been a victim of chronic insomnia for 7 years now. I have been taking ambien nightly (about 18 mg. and diazapam (5mg) since that time but really to no avail. My anxiety really revs up when I enter the bedroom to sleep because I know I’ll get very little, perhaps 4-5 hours. I recently read How to say Good Night to Insomnia and it did point out a few things which I’ m now cognizant of. I have tried imagry (tropical island views) and during the last 3 weeks have tried a relaxation technique where I concentrate on parts of my body slowly warming up, beginning with my feet. I just can’t seem to get it. When I do sleep the usual pattern is to fall asleep an hour after going to bed, wake up a half hour later, drift back to sleep 45 minutes later. sleep for 30 more minutes, fall back to sleep 30 minutes later, sleep for another half hour, etc. etc. I can’t even begin to tell you how depressing this is, not only for me but for my wife and daughter. The funny thing is my wife is a therapist and has done everything under the sun to help me. Hence, I want to learn more about meditation. Comments???

    • This sounds exactly like my sleeping pattern. I haven’t tried meds or potions and won’t as I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories. I have signed up for a 5 session meditation course in our area put on by the Buddhists so I am hopeful that this may help.

  • Wow! Since you asked I’ll give you my opinion…please remember I am not a medical doctor (but did used to be a sleep researcher!). First, I think you need to go to a sleep clinic and see a sleep medicine specialist. I’m serious. Any GP who would allow you to be on those drugs for 7 years knows nothing about sleep and how drugs work. Ambien is designed (as well as all those sleep drugs) to be taken for 2 weeks maximum. Read the package insert if you don’t believe me! It is doing nothing for you now. Also the valium is not a sleep aid- it’s a benzodiazepine that helps to relax you- not sleep. That was probably prescribed for anxiety. Also, not supposed to be taken for years on end. Regardless I think you need to get off those drugs but you should talk to a medical doctor (sleep specialist) on how to get off them. Cold turkey might not be a good idea so please talk to a doctor.
    If I were a medical doctor, which again I am not, I might think about putting you on a low-dose SSRI that could help with anxiety and have the lovely side effect of making you sleepy.
    I think (my opinion only) that the meditation isn’t necessarily going to help you sustain sleep- but what it will help you with is with the anxiety. The wonderful thing about meditation and the Buddist way of thinking is that everything is temporary. Yes, you’ve been an insomniac for 7 years. But tonight may be different! The past does not matter. It helps you just be present, for the now. Not the future of ‘OMG I might not sleep tonight!” but the NOW. Also accepting you for you. Having compassion for yourself. It’s OK that you’re going through some problems. Try the Metta for yourself meditation- concentrating on having some sympathy, compassion, for yourself.
    Finally, I’d to a Google search on “sleep hygiene”. I might also change your sleeping location, to alleviate the anxiety about sleep. There’s a great book I love called “Change Your Mind” by Paramandana (available at Amazon) about meditation and general ways of thinking. He talks about having metta towards yourself.
    OK I’ll shut up now…good luck! And really if you only do ONE thing to help yourself right now please make an appointment with a sleep medicine specialist and try to get off those drugs.

  • Hi, J.D.

    Apologies for the late response, but I’ve been rather overwhelmed with requests for advice on top of my work and family life. And thanks, Melissa, for bringing in the medical angle. I’m not sufficiently aware of the medical issues to be able to comment on that, but Melissa’s advice to consult a sleep specialist sounds apt.

    I wonder if you’ve tried any of the techniques I suggested above, J.D.? I’ve found them very helpful because they keep the mind occupied with something other than the anxious preoccupation with whether sleep is going to arrive.

    I think meditation generally would be helpful in reducing anxiety. It’s one of the things it does best, although sometimes people with a tendency to anxiety actually experience increased anxiety at first because they’re worried about “not doing it right.” Some guidance is helpful so that reassurance can be given that there’s actually no such thing a “doing it right” and that even if you’re not “doing it right” it’s still effective.

    I’d recommend a balance of mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditation — both of which you’ll find on this site. If you want a guided meditation, you could try my CD, “Guided Meditations for Calmness, Awareness, and Love,” which contains both of those practices.

  • Hello,
    I began learning the Dharma about 15 months ago, after years of depression and imsomnia. For the past 15 months have been working towards my refuge with Geshe Tashi in March. I have’nt had any depression at all, and all was well until my medication was stopped. Now, depspite all my teachings my insomnia has ground me to a halt. My health is suffering because sleep is impossible. I find meditation very helpful but still I cannot fall asleep. I understand it’s self cherishing, but even my studies have ground to a halt. I try to help more people because this mad insomnia has shown me how much other people are suffering too. But still I don’t get a minutes sleep. I see the Buddha’s image when my eyes are closed and it gives me comfort through my tears. Please have you any advice for another insomniac? Many Thanks.

  • Hi, Jenny.

    I’m sorry to hear about your lack of sleep. You haven’t said anything about what avenues you’ve explored so far, either medically or in terms of meditation. Have you sought medical help? (Not that I know much about what they might be able to do).

    Have you tried any of the suggestions that I made above?

    All the best,

  • Long time insomnia sufferer-hey, I’m awake
    Now! When I really can’t sleep I take
    A pill called Doxylamine succinate. Works a charm!
    Makes you sleepy and turns off the mental chatter
    Cheap and available over the counter. Biting your tongue
    helps, too.

  • Dear Bodhipaksa

    I share my room with another friend of mine, we’ve been friends for about two years. It was recent that he was looking for an apartment in my city and I invited him to stay along with me, so that he saves some money in rents etc. Its been about one and a half month that he has joined in with me and since then I’ve lost my sleep. He is a heavy snorer and I cant sleep when there are disturbances. Moreover, he snores heavily when he consumes liquor. I’ve tried meditating, listening to music, ear plugs and he has tried snore menders, snore strips but nothing has worked out for us. Our room is pretty small and our beds are quite near to each other and this has now put me in deep trouble. I’ve been very frustrated for the past few weeks with my eyes sore without good sleep. I’ve now fought with him over this several times and the worse happened a two days back where I had to pour water on him and he agreed to stay up a weekend and let me sleep and he slept in the afternoon. I dont want this to continue since I would loose a good friend but I also would like to have some good sleep in the nights. Can you please advice, i;d be thankful to you

    • Hi, Dido.

      This is a complex issue, I’m afraid. In principle all I can say is that it’s possible to regard sounds simply as things to be experienced. It’s not the noises that are the problem, but our mental responses to them. In terms of mindfulness, we can learn to have equanimity toward our experiences so that we don’t react, and when we don’t emotionally react there’s nothing keeping us awake. In terms of lovingkindness, doing the metta bhavana practice as you’re lying in bed will also help you let go of your reactivity.

      I wish you both well!

  • jenny from London
    October 13, 2011 6:09 pm

    Hi – I went into meditation because of long standing insomnia – then about 7-8 yrs. Because no one told me what would happen when I reach (Nirvana???) It scared me that was 13 yrs ago and I now go 5,6 even 7 nights without sleep. I have tried CBT but it didn’t work, but it did help me become more relaxed about not sleeping. I am worried about non sleeping – I am in my 60’s now and it has got to a point where I have physically felt suicidal! Can meditation help me this time?

    • Hi, Jenny.

      I’m sorry to hear about your insomnia. It’s funny to think of you being scared of trying meditation in case you got enlightened!

      It’s quite possible that meditation could help you. Generally meditation can help in reducing the thinking we do that keeps us awake. There are a couple of articles we’ve published that might help you — one by me, and another by Sunada.

      I’d suggest reading those, but feel free to get back to me if you have any questions.

      All the best,

  • You know, I also suffered insomnia from meditation. At first doing meditation was relaxing, then i tried to improve the skill.
    I think trying to focus while meditating has caused my brain somewhat difficult to shut down. I continually aware of the surrounding while I was shutting my eyes. Gradually my sleep pattern disturbed so much, I slept less and less, to the point I didnt sleep for 2 days straight. It really freaked me out. It was then impossible to drift off.

    I sought help from church…but they didnt calm me a bit, some people blamed me for doing evil thing such meditation, because it’s probably evil things had possessed me, and other equivalent crap diagnoses.
    Because of my fragile condition at that time, added by guilty feeling endorsed by church community, it had worsened my condition even more.

    I became depressed because of anxiety built up caused primarily by insomnia.
    I keep praying God to relieve my suffering. Until my prayer answered by someone advised me to go to this psychiatrist in town.
    She treated me with depression medication and sleeping pills. My psychiatrist is just like angel sent from heaven.
    Just after 3 days taking medication, my condition 80% improved. I continued my medication for about 6 months.
    Three months later…free from sleeping pills, i did have relapse by having anxious thoughts, but this time I was aware of the symptoms and back to my medication for another 3 month. I think I didnt finish my depression treatment completely at the first time, because I worried of the side effect for taking prolong sleeping pills.

    Now I consider myself 98%recovered. After one year and half ordeal caused by MEDITATION. I believe that it’s not suitable for everyone. Just like people allergic to certain food, I’m not built for meditation.

    There is good reading from Mary Garden at this website:

    She shared her experience about Meditation. She saw lots of bad effects caused by meditation. In fact there are many people having nervous breakdowns, and many need to be institutionalized. Read it!
    I’m glad, I’m still saved. God still loves me..

    • You. know, Baba, saying that meditation is bad for some people because it “caused” your insomnia is like saying that exercise is bad for you because you jogged into a lamppost. You’re waving around the word meditation without saying what you were doing. In a way, there’s no such thing as meditation, there’s just “meditating.” In other words meditation is not something independent of us — it’s something we do. So you were doing something that was keeping you awake. What were you doing? I’m afraid I’ve no clue, because you don’t say. Did you talk to any experienced meditation teachers to find out if you might have been doing something wrong? You don’t say. I suspect you didn’t. Perhaps you simply kept jogging into lampposts.

      Mary Garden’s article is frankly ridiculous. It opens with saying that someone killed themselves after going on a meditation retreat. Big whoop. Lots of people kill themselves after taking medication or after going to see therapists, or after eating at McDonalds. The kind of anecdotal nonsense she indulges in is a waste of pixels. I’ve deleted the second link since basically you’re just linking to another version of the same comment you made here.

  • I agree with Bodhipaksa. Also, if you (Baba) were so aware of your surroundings that every little thing got your attention- that doesn’t really sound like you were meditating. Sounds like hyper-vigilance. From what I understand meditating is kind of mentally sitting back, and allowing thoughts, sounds, etc. to sort of float past you. You can notice them, but the point is to calmly let everything happen that’s going to happen without fighting it, or without hooking yourself onto it. Sounds like you were getting hooked into the sounds and thoughts.
    Now when you’re trying to fall asleep the part of meditation training that I’ve found useful is the whole “sitting back and letting it happen” part. Relaxing your mind, trying not to hook yourself on every thought that comes through your brain. Now the difference is that when those thoughts eventually turn dream-like, you do want to hook onto them. So- you’ve got to train yourself to be able to tell the difference between thinking about work, stressing about what you have to do tomorrow, making mental lists etc. and generating an interesting storyline that can lead to dream-like imagery and sleep. It takes time, be patient with yourself.
    AND, if all else fails, take a Benedryl!
    Finally, I’d like to add that people who have never meditated have this pre-conceived notion that it is “relaxing” and promotes sleep or stress reduction. This may be true eventually, however, meditation can bring up all kinds of mental/emotional stuff that someone just stumbling into it because they’re stressed out may not be ready for. You really have to read about it and know what you’re getting into because it will change your life- you’ve got to be ready for that and willing to put in the time and work to make that change good for you.

  • I searched for meditation and insomnia and found this page. The reason is that I have experienced the same thing as the commenters above, i.e. that meditation has made it more difficult for me to fall asleep at night. I usually meditate half an hour a day (during the day) and focus on my breath and sometimes also on sounds – I note them before shifting my attention to whatever else is occurring. I guess this is a kind of mindfulness meditation. The problem is I have become so aware of my thoughts and impressions that I find it difficult to drift into sleep at night… it seems to me that falling asleep requires me to not even note the thoughts, rather than to note them before letting them go in an endless stream, and that there is a paradox in that meditation is about staying awake and focused while sleeping is about letting go and drifting off. But perhaps I am too focused in my meditation and should try some other technique? I don’t want to give up on meditation cause it has improved my life a lot in other areas.

    Also, I will try your suggestions but would like to hear your comments also if you have got the time. Thanks!

    • Hi, Ron.

      I think your problem with lies in “I have become so aware of my thoughts and impressions that I find it difficult to drift into sleep.” It sounds like your mindfulness practice is a bit unbalanced. The first foundation of mindfulness is the body, and that’s where the bulk of our attention should be. In your meditation, and in bed at night, try paying more attention to the body by using body scanning, or by experiencing the body and imagining it to be very heavy. It’ll probably take quite a while for you to undo the habit of being caught up in your thoughts, but if you persist then you should find that you become less focused on thinking, and are able to drift off more easily.

      I’ve had phases like this in my own practice. There’s usually an element of anxiety (“will I ever fall asleep?”) and an element of mental over-stimulation or excitement. Body awareness helps slow the mind down, but for a while you’ll find that you still tend to pounce on your thoughts, rather than just leave them to drift through your mind like clouds passing through the sky. You’ll be thinking “is this working” rather than just letting your experience happen. But it’s just a matter of time.

      Do try some of the suggestions I make above, though. I’d be interested to hear at some point how you get on.

  • Thanks, I will try this. It has made me think about meditation technique also, how “focused” should you be? Is it about being intensely focused on whatever occurs within and outside of you before immediately letting go, or intensely focused on a particular thing (like your breath or a visual stimuli), or more being vaguely focused on these things if you know what I mean… shall I turn down the intensity of my focus? I guess one could mix these different approaches. From what I understand some schools suggest that one should have a very intense focus and be very alert when meditating while others argue for a more relaxed approach (which is similar to relaxation techniques). This raises the issue of the distinction between meditation and non-buddist (?) relaxation techniques. I would love to hear your take on this. Thanks for listening and replying!

    • Hi, Ron.

      That’s a good question about focus. I think it’s clear that the Buddha advocated a variety of meditative styles. I’ve found that these styles are mutually complementary, and so there’s a value in practicing them all. There’s (1) jhana meditation, which builds up to an intense one-pointed focus (one-pointedness). There’s (2) formless meditation, which people usually call “formless jhana,” although the Buddha never once called these states jhanas, but referred to them as ayatanas, or spheres. This style of meditation is much more open. While in jhana you’re cultivating more and more focus on a smaller and smaller set of experiences, in the formless ayatanas you’re paying more and more attention to a wider and wider field of awareness, without discrimination.

      There’s a complication here that means I have to back off before talking about a third style. Most commentators will say that you have to go through the four jhanas in order to get to the four formless spheres. And that’s why they call the formless spheres jhanas, even labeling them as jhanas 5 through 8. But in fact the ayatanas can be approached from any experience of equanimity, which can arise in fourth jhana, in brahmavihara meditation, in reflection on the six elements, through kasina meditation, and in other ways too.

      Another style of meditation is (3) insight meditation, where (traditionally) you take the concentration you’ve developed through jhana practice and apply it to observing the impermanent and not-self nature of experience. Of course a lot of modern vipassana practitioners are disparaging about jhana meditation, which is a shame. The Buddha got enlightened by practicing jhana and then applying that focus to reflecting on his experience.

      When we practice just one of these three forms of meditation, it is like a car that’s not running on all its cylinders. The different forms are, as I’ve said complementary.

      So this isn’t Buddhist versus non-Buddhist styles of meditating, but drawing on the full range of meditation styles available that the Buddha himself taught.

      I’m sure it’s useful, though, to have gained some proficiency in one form of meditation before taking up the others in any serious way. This doesn’t mean complete mastery, but it does mean a solid body of experience with (ideally) jhana meditation before taking up either ayatana or insight meditation.

      I’m not sure where you learned meditation, or what style. Is it insight meditation you were taught?

      When I said “phases” I meant that it comes and goes. There are always ups and downs, balances and imbalances, in our practice. It’s a long time since I’ve had a sleepless night, but I’d imagine it could still happen.

  • Another question: when you say phases do you suggest that it is a beginner’s thing or that it comes and goes (perhaps with longer intervals and being less of a problem)?

  • What a great and learned response, it will surely be of help to more people than me. Thank you! I am self-taught – through reading books by Jon Kabat Zinn and others – I have to admit and have practiced more or less daily for about one and a half year. I vaguely know about different variations of mediation and I guess I change between them – sometimes I’m focusing on my breath sometimes I try to be aware about whatever goes on inside and outside of me (thoughts, feelings, bodily states, sounds etc.) without getting caught up in these things. I have not really started yet to reflect on the nature of the self or practicing compassion meditation.

    • Thanks, Ron. Kabat-Zinn is a fine teacher, and I have a lot of respect for what he does. You might want to spend more time on following his body scan instructions in order to move your focus away from your thoughts. Mindfulness of our thoughts is an important part of practice, but it needs a foundation of mindfulness of the body. We tend to be very focused on our thoughts in the west, and not so much in touch with our bodies. And our meditation practice needs to counteract that imbalance, and not become part of it.

      All the best with your practice!

  • Hello,

    I’ve been successfully using visualisation meditations to help with insomnia for some time, but am glad to have discovered this site and your suggestion for focusing on rain – looking forward to trying it tonight!

    I was wondering if you have any suggestions for teaching myself to sleep on my back. I have always been a side-sleeper, but would like to be able to sleep on my back for camping trips and long flights. I can reach a very restful state on my back, but can never nod off completely.

    I sense that my resistance to fully letting go when supine is because of a feeling of exposure – curled up on my side feels a lot safer, and I’ve always preferred being the little spoon!

    Is there anything that you’d recommend?

    Many thanks in advance,


  • Hi, Colin.

    I hope that you did try this and that it was helpful. It’s worth persevering, even if these things don’t immediately seem to work, since it takes time to learn new habits and to unlearn old ones.

    I’m afraid I don’t know anything about learning to sleep on the back.

    All the best,

  • thanks for all your advice so far. i am going to try these techniques tonight as i intend not to take any sleeping pills. i ve also ordered a cd from your site, the sleep yoga one (which you recomended). fingers crossed that i can get my sleep problems under control.

  • Ganesh Subramaniam
    February 20, 2015 3:03 am

    Hi, I’m so happy to find that my problem exactly matches what you have mentioned. “Then the part of your mind that’s still awake gets all excited because it sees signs of sleep, and this excitement wakes you up again!”. Please help me overcome this.
    Thank you!

    • I’ve found that the most effective thing, Ganesh, is to give the mind something boring to do, like visualizing unstimulating imagery. My favorite is the sight and sound of rain falling on leaves. If your mind is busy observing this imagery then it doesn’t notice sleep approaching.

  • Ganesh Subramaniam
    February 24, 2015 1:13 am

    Thank you very much for your response sir. It has been two weeks since I slept well in the night. It is a nightmare literally! I will definitely try this technique tonight and provide you the feedback. Thanks again.


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