body scan

The mindful runner

Canadian Running Magazine: Runners push themselves. We test our limits by pushing our bodies and our minds to move out of their comfort zones. You may be familiar with mindfulness meditation, a practice of being present and paying attention in a particular way. Mindful running, or bringing a new awareness to each and every run can enhance your performance and bring a new ease to your running practice.

Mindful running may sound new but in practice it has existed for years. Japanese marathon monks of Mount Hiei are reported to …

Read the original article »

Read More

Mindfulness: Week 2 – The Body Scan

John Alex Murphy, The Province: I have really enjoyed completing Week 2 of my eight-week mindfulness meditation course. However, it has been quite challenging at times.

Upon reflection, it’s been an exceptionally busy week around our house, and I have found it difficult to find some quiet time for my two daily meditations.

After some thought, I have decided that my meditation times during Week 1 did not work well at all for Week 2. So I am planning to try different times for my upcoming Week 3.

I will do my morning meditations after I get up, but before having breakfast with Marjory and the kids. As for my evening meditations, I will do them earlier too, after the kids are asleep, but before we retire for the night.

Although it may take some time for me to find meditation times that work for me, I am comfortable going through the process and know it will be well worth it!

I started my Week 2 meditations by lying comfortably on my bed and closing my eyes. My trusted meditation guide first explained that the intention is to spend time with each region of the body, cultivating an awareness of what is already here.

Then I reminded myself that I am not trying to ‘get anywhere’, or striving to achieve any special state. Additionally, that I am not looking for anything special to happen, but allowing things to be just as I find them.

First, I acknowledged the sensations that I felt from my entire body as a whole, and from the contact between my body and what was supporting me. Then I brought my attention to the sensations of the breath in my abdomen, and stayed there for a short while, resting on the sensations of the breath.

Moving my attention down to my feet, I then noticed the sensations in my toes, the soles of my feet, my heels, and the top of my feet.

Again, I reminded myself not to have expectations, and that there is no right way to feel. I must simply acknowledge the sensations that are there already. If there are no sensations, that’s totally okay too. I will register a blank for that region and then move my attention elsewhere.

After focusing on my feet for a short period, I took in a deep breath, and then on the out-breath, I gently ‘let my feet go’ and they quietly ‘dissolved’ in awareness.

Then I slowly worked my way up from my feet to other regions of my body. As with the feet, I focused my attention on these regions, and then ‘let them go’.

Periodically during the meditation, my mind would wander off the breath, and thinking about memories, plans, worries or daydreams. I took great care not to judge myself, or to be upset with myself. I simply registered that my mind had wandered, and then gently escorted my attention back to the breath.

Several times, I would imagine that I was filling a region of my body with life-enriching oxygen on my in-breath. Then on the out-breath, I would let the expended breath flow out of that region. I finished my body scan by imagining my breath flowing in and out of my head and then my entire body.

The awareness and sensations realized from this week’s meditations were exhilarating and transcendental!

As mentioned, this past week has been a challenge for me. However, I gather that the second week of the eight-week plan is challenging for many people.

The body scan requires the mind to focus its attention on many regions of the body for relatively long periods of time. It takes time and lots of energy for the mind to reconnect with the body.

Given that my ongoing mindfulness meditation practice may well be hard work at times, I have now concluded that I must ensure that my mind gets adequate rest during the week, above and beyond getting a solid sleep each night!

Then, somewhat fortuitously, I received a tweet this week from Elisha Goldstein Ph.D. that linked me to an article he wrote about why and how to rest the mind.

Dr. Goldstein is a clinical psychologist, the author of ‘The Now Effect’ and co-author of ‘A Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Workbook’.

In his article, entitled ‘7 Tips to Create the Essential Habit of Resting’, Dr. Goldstein discusses why the brain needs rest, and suggests the following activities to help rest the brain:

– Go out in nature
– Engage in a hobby
– Do a mindful check-in
– Read a book
– Listen to music
– Take a bath
– Count your blessings

These seem excellent ideas for resting the brain, but as Dr. Goldstein points out, they are only effective if you actually do them.
Meditation grove – Mundy Park

Meditation grove – Mundy Park

What especially resonated with me was his running analogy at the beginning of the article.

As Dr. Goldstein points out in the analogy, when someone is training for a marathon, any credible trainer would emphasize the importance of resting the body. If you don’t, the probability goes up for injury.

Similarly, given our hectic lives, if our minds do not get proper rest (besides good sleep), we are likely to burn out with symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression.

I have been a runner for over 30 years, and have completed 9 marathons and many other half-marathon and 10K races, so I fully comprehend these words of wisdom.

Thank you, Dr. Goldstein. Your analogy makes total sense to me, especially after my week. I will ensure that I take the time to rest my mind in future, doing some of the activities you suggest.

In fact, I will start right away by reading more of my latest book that I haven’t found the time to read lately. It’s a terrific book, entitled ‘Into the Silence’ by Wade Davis. It’s an extremely well-researched, true story about the Great War, Mallory, and the conquest of Everest. I highly recommend it.

Dr. Goldstein’s timely article is highly recommended too! Here’s the link.

Given this week’s challenges, my daily meditations definitely helped me stay calm, feel less stressed, and better able to cope with the busy times at home.

As for the future, I look forward to Week 3 of my eight-week mindfulness course this coming week and to getting lots of physical and mental rest too.

Thank you again to Mark Williams and Danny Penman for writing the book that inspired me to start on this exciting eight-week journey towards mindfulness.

You can find out more about their book “Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” at http://www.franticworld.com.

I look forward to sharing more Mindfulness experiences with you in my next blog.

Namaste,

John

John Murphy is a volunteer Program Leader with the University of Victoria’s Centre on Aging, based in Ladner, BC. He currently facilitates their 6 week Chronic Pain Self-Management workshops (2½ hour per week) available free of charge across BC, to adults and caregivers who are dealing with chronic pain.

Original article no longer available.

Read More

Softening the heart and sitting with anger…

wildcat snarling

One evening after my Wednesday night meditation class, Amy, a member of our D.C. meditation community, asked if we might talk for a few minutes about her mother, a woman she often referred to as “a manipulative, narcissistic human.” Amy’s mother had recently been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and as the only local offspring, Amy had become her mother’s primary caretaker. So, there she was, spending hours a day with a person she’d been avoiding for decades. “I can’t stand myself for having such a hard heart,” Amy confessed.

Amy and I agreed to meet privately to explore how she might use her practice to find more freedom in relating to her mother. At our first session, she told me difficult early childhood memories had recently been emerging. In the most potent of these, Amy was three years old. Her mom yelled upstairs that she’d prepared a bath for her and that she should get in the tub. But when Amy went into the bathroom, what she found was a couple of inches of lukewarm water. What had flashed through her three-year-old mind then was: “This is all I’m going to get. No one is taking care of me.”

Amy’s mom had always been preoccupied with her own dramas, perpetually reacting to perceived slights from friends, struggling against weight gain, and berating her husband for his shortcomings. Little attention was paid to the physical or emotional needs of Amy or her siblings. “She doesn’t care about anyone except herself,” Amy told me. “She’s a self-centered bitch … it really pisses me off. I got gypped out of having a mother, and now I’m here catering to her.” As she was speaking I asked her to pause, and investigate what she was most aware of in the moment. After a long silence, Amy said “There’s so much rage, I can barely contain it.”

Part of the process of softening our hearts includes learning to recognize and allow whatever we’re feeling—even intense rage. But this isn’t always simple, or easy. When I asked Amy if she could allow the rage to be here, she shook her head. “I’m afraid if I really make space for this rage, it will destroy every relationship I have. I’ve already hurt people I love.”

When anger is buried, like Amy’s was, the energy gets converted and expressed in many different ways. Yet, anger is a natural survival energy that wants our attention, that needs to be allowed to be felt. However, “allowing” doesn’t mean we let ourselves be possessed by our anger. Rather, we allow when we acknowledge the stories of blame without believing them, and when we let the sensations of anger arise, without either acting them out or resisting them.

I encouraged Amy to check in with her fear. Was it willing to let this rage be here? Could the fear step aside enough so that she could be present with this rage? Amy nodded. Now, she could begin to investigate the emotional energy beneath the blame. I knew that for her to do this, she’d first need to step outside of the seductive sway of her resentful stories. We’d talked about the stories, respecting them as windows into her pain. But the anger also lived deeper in her body—in a place beyond thought. The next step was for Amy to widen and deepen her attention so she could fully contact these embodied energies.

I asked Amy to notice what she was feeling in her body, and she closed her eyes and paused. “It’s like a hot pressured cauldron in my chest,” she said. What would happen, I asked, if she said yes to this feeling, and allowed the heat and pressure to be as intense as it wanted. “It wants to explode,” Amy said. Again, I encouraged her to let be, to allow her experience just as it was.

Amy was absolutely still for some moments. “The rage feels like it is bursting flames, like a windstorm spreading in all directions,” she said. “It’s blasting through the windows of this office.” In a low voice, she went on: “It’s spreading through the East Coast. Now it’s destroying all life forms, ripping through the continent, oceans, earth.” She continued, telling me about the rage’s fury, how it was spreading through space. Then she became very quiet. Speaking in a soft voice, she finally said, “It’s losing steam,” before sitting back on the couch and letting out a tired sigh. “Now there’s just emptiness. No one is left in the world. I’m utterly alone, lonely.” In a barely audible whisper, she said, “There’s no one who loves me, no one that I love.”

Amy began weeping. Inside the rage, she’d found an empty place, a place that felt loveless. Now what was revealing itself was grief: grief for the loss of love in her life. When I asked what the grieving part of her most needed, she knew right away: “To know that I care about this pain, that I accept and love this grieving place.” I guided her to gently place her hand on her heart, and offer inwardly the message her wounded self most needed. She began repeating the phrase, “I’m sorry, I love you.” This wasn’t an apology. Rather, it was a simple expression of sorrow for her own hurt.

As Amy whispered the phrase over and over, she began rocking side to side. “I’m seeing the little girl in the bath,” she said, “and feeling how uncared for she feels, how alone. I’m holding her now, telling her ‘I’m sorry, I love you.’” Then, after a few minutes, Amy sat upright and looked at me with a fresh openness and brightness. “I think I understand,” she said. “I’ve been angry for so long that I abandoned her—the inner part of me—just like my mom abandoned that three-year-old.” She paused,then continued. “I just have to remember that this part of me needs love. I want to love her.”

Offering a compassionate and clear attention to her vulnerability had connected Amy with a vastness of being that could include her pain. This natural awareness is the fruition of an intimate attention. When we’re resting in this presence, we’re inhabiting the refuge of our own awakened heart and mind.

Some weeks later, Amy read me her morning’s journal entry: “There is more room in my heart.” The night before, after her mother had complained for the third time that her soup still wasn’t salty enough, Amy felt the familiar rising tide of irritation and resentment. She sent the message “I’m sorry, I love you” inwardly to herself, giving permission to the annoyance, to the edginess in her own heart. She felt a softening, a relaxing of tension. Looking up, she was struck by her mother’s grim, dissatisfied expression. Then, just as she’d learned to inquire about herself, the thought came:“What is my mom feeling right now?” Almost immediately, she could sense her mother’s insecurity and loneliness. Imagining her mother inside her heart, Amy again began offering caring messages. “I’m sorry,” she whispered silently, “I love you.”

She found herself feeling genuine warmth toward her mother, and the evening was surprisingly pleasant for both of them. They joked about her mom doing a “mono diet” of potato chips, went online and ordered a bathrobe, and had fun watching The Daily Show together.

At our last meeting Amy told me how, several days earlier, her mother had woken up in the morning hot and sweaty. Amy took a cool cloth to her mother’s forehead and cheeks, arms and feet. “Nobody’s ever washed me,” her mom had said with a wistful smile. Amy immediately remembered the little girl in the bathtub, and felt tears in her eyes. She and her mom had both gone through much of life feeling neglected, as if they didn’t matter. And right now, each in her own way was tasting the intimacy of care. They looked at each other and had a moment of uncomplicated love. It was the first such moment Amy could remember, one she knew she’d cherish long after her mom was gone.

Read More

“Your Breathing Body” by Reginald A. Ray

“Your Breathing Body” by Reginald A. Ray

When Reginald Ray speaks of “touching enlightenment with the body”, he isn’t just saying that we can touch enlightenment with our bodies. What he really means is that there is no other way to do so. Sunada just finished her first pass through his 20-disc meditation CD series, Your Breathing Body, and gives it her ringing endorsement.

I first encountered Reginald Ray’s approach to meditation when I read his most recent book, Touching Enlightenment (excerpted elsewhere on this site), and attended one of his retreats on the same subject. As a yoga practitioner and a kinesthetic learner, I immediately took to it like a fish to water. And so I decided to invest in his CD series, Your Breathing Body – and I have to say I’m hooked.

Title: Your Breathing Body
Author: Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D.
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN Vol 1: 978-1-59179-659-6
ISBN Vol 2: 978-1-59179-662-6
Available from: Sounds True or Amazon.com.

In one sense, we could say that Ray’s perspective is unique. While many meditation teachers speak of working with the body, Ray goes so far as to say that the body is the only gateway through which we can find our most authentic core being and its ultimate connection to all of reality. But that doesn’t mean this is some minor, sideline approach. Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture. So this represents Ray’s efforts to bring meditation back to its intended roots.

Why the big emphasis on the body? Ray explains by taking us back to our prehistoric origins. When we were a hunter-gatherer species, we had to rely on our more intuitive, bodily cognitive functions in order to survive. Sensing predators in the wild, finding prey for the hunt, surviving the vagaries of nature – all this required that we lived rooted in our senses, keenly attuned to our environs. It was also a life in harmonious balance – our bodies and our sense of self were holistically embedded in our larger reality around us.

Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture.

But when we evolved into an agrarian species, our lifestyle changed to one of controlling, planning, and organizing – a more cerebral and disengaged approach to our world. This evolution has continued at a steady pace to the height of disembodiment that we find in our technological society today.

In our modern way of life, we mostly deal with our world through concepts and abstractions and much less, if at all, through experiencing it directly. In fact our society rewards those who are most adept at this kind of thinking and controlling. But of course, neither our bodies nor our world conform to our small-minded plans and desires. Such a view is bound to lead to suffering. And it’s this realization that gave rise to the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The path back to balance is through somatic awareness. And Ray suggests that our capacity for that awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup. Your Breathing Body is like a complete graduate program in reawakening our natural capacity for awareness. It’s a two-box set, each containing ten CDs. You can buy each box individually, or buy them together as a discounted pair. (If you buy the latter from the publisher, Sounds True, they throw in his Touching Enlightenment book as a bonus.)

In total it’s a goldmine of over 20 hours of in-depth teachings and guided meditations that go deeply into the subtleties of perceiving through the body. Many of the practices are based on Tibetan Yoga. If you’re a yoga practitioner, the emphasis on working with the breath and prana (a more subtle form of bodily energy based on the breath) will be familiar territory.

And Ray suggests that our capacity for somatic awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup.

I especially appreciated the very solid foundation and orderly progression of this series. Ray spends a lot of time teaching how to find one’s optimal posture, and then starts us on what are called the Ten Points and Earth Breathing Practices. These are in effect very detailed and extensive body scan and relaxation meditations.

But he leads us much further. It’s not just about bringing our awareness into our bodies. What happens is that by fully relaxing and continually letting go to our present experience, we start peeling away more layers of tension and holding. That holding, we begin to see, is not just physical. As our awareness goes more deeply inward, we find further emotional and psychological layers to release, such as doubt or fear.

When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness – the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise. This is how we begin to explore who we really are and what’s our unique place in this world. And isn’t this what we took up a spiritual practice for?

My approach in working with this series was to go slowly through all the discs over the period of several months. Ray says that some practices will resonate for us better than others, and that it’s good to follow our instincts to explore those more fully. So I spent longer on some discs than others. I’m now starting on a second pass, and I’m still gleaning insights from it. It’s a mark of an excellent teacher that Ray’s talks can be so clear and inspiring on the first pass, and still have more to give on repeated listening.

When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness—the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise.

What level meditator should you be to use this series? While he does start from the basics with an extensive talk and guided practice on posture, I don’t think it’s intended for complete beginners. I personally think that embracing these practices requires some degree of stillness and concentration off the bat.

But if you do have experience with breath-oriented/samatha meditations, dive right in! Even if you think you already know all about posture, I would encourage you to start from the beginning. He offers helpful perspectives that are often overlooked by other teachers. Overall, there’s enough depth and richness to keep you going for months, if not years.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Dr. Reginald Ray — he has been practicing for over 40 years and is a master teacher in the Tibetan lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. He is also an academic by training, and has been on the faculty of Naropa University since the beginning. He brings all that depth, knowledge, and clarity of thought to his teaching. I find him a great model of what someone well-grounded in his body should be: he has a warm, inviting, and down-to-earth way of speaking that makes you feel like he’s sitting right there talking to you personally.

So as you’ve probably gathered by now, I found Your Breathing Body to be excellent all around. It’s not only brought more depth and focus to my meditation practice, it’s helped me gain a perspective on my life that I’m sure will continue to unfold with discoveries well into the future. I highly recommend it.

Read More

Goals in the spiritual life

Lotus bud reaching upward for the light

Are spiritual goals dangerous triggers for grasping and selfish desire? Do we need to let go of goals in order to be truly free and happy? Sunada doesn’t think so. She argues that it’s not the goals themselves that are the problem, but how we approach them.

Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.
— Yoda

We all come to the spiritual life with some sort of goal in mind. Like wanting a calmer mind, less anxiety, a kinder heart – in short, to become a better person. Yes, spiritual practice can bring us all these things, and they’re entirely valid reasons for starting down that road.

But at some point we hit a wall. What happens is that TRYING to achieve these things only gets us so far. At some point, we find ourselves with the exact opposite of what we wanted – a lot of self-doubt and frustration.

 I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it.

I’ve often had people ask me whether I think they should let go of their goals – that maybe it’s a sort of grasping that has no place in the spiritual life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it. So then how do we navigate this process that seems so elusive?

The wise quote I bring in here is not from the Buddha, but a different wise man — er, creature — Yoda. When I first heard Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker 30 years ago, I thought it sounded like the ultimate parody of Zen-like wisdom. I couldn’t make any sense of it. But now many years later, I’ve discovered that it’s quite profoundly true. Yoda was a pretty wise being!

This is what happened. From very early on, I kept up a regular practice of the Metta Bhavana meditation (the development of loving–kindness). Even though I had a lot of difficulty with it, I did it because I was pretty sure it would help me to open up a heart that had shut down through years of depression. Besides, I had a sort of bulldog-ish attitude that if I kept at it, something would eventually break through.

Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it feels … out of reach.

And boy, did I struggle. My teachers would talk of feeling a warmth in my heart area, recalling kind thoughts and images, and wishing people well. But I sat there feeling blank and gray. Nothing. When the gentle approach didn’t work, I tried MAKING myself feel happier by sheer force of will. Not much success there either. It was all too forced and artificial, and I’d feel thrown right back to where I started.

I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common experience with the Metta Bhavana practice, so I now know it wasn’t just me! But everyone encouraged me to keep trying, that something would happen eventually.

And something did happen. It’s not that I changed in any objective way. Instead, it was my perspective that shifted. I started seeing my “problem” in a completely different way, and then it grew to no longer be a problem.

See also:

The shift began with my decision to start every meditation session with an extensive period of a body scan (focusing on successive areas of my body to help bring my awareness to myself and the present moment). I also imagined what it feels like to come home from a long day at work and to relax — to sink into my favorite easy chair, feel proud of what I’ve accomplished today, knowing that I’ve done all I can — and now it was time to let go to the “ahhh….” feeling.

What doing this allowed me to experience, quite viscerally, was a sense of physical contentment in the here and now. In that moment, I was perfectly happy being just as I was. I didn’t need anything else to make me feel complete. It was the simple joy of being present. It didn’t mean I had gotten rid of my problems, and I was still the same imperfect person I always was. But in that moment, none of those things were weighing on me. I was content, plain and simple.

..when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching … In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly.

Once I contacted that very real, very authentic feeling of contentment, it was an easy step to move into the Metta Bhavana practice. For the first stage, I imagined myself wrapped in warm blankets of kindness, which made it easy to feel warm emotions toward myself. As long as I stayed connected with a genuine feeling of contentment and pleasure, moving toward each successive stage of the Metta practice came much more easily. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If I’m feeling positive about myself, and in touch with my own happiness, my good mood naturally spawns kind feelings toward others. It’s pretty elementary and obvious, now that I think about it.

On days that I was not feeling so good – feeling angry or depressed, for example – this technique worked just as well. I usually couldn’t make myself feel any better, but that was OK. By starting with a foundation of relaxation and physical contentment, I found I could lift myself out of my “poor me” self-absorption. I was able to wrap myself in sympathy and acceptance of how I was, even though I couldn’t change the ugly mood. So it was this kindly self-acceptance that I touched in that moment that I used as the foundation of my metta practice.

This experience helped me to understand that metta is a quality I always have within me, and it had nothing do to with how I’m feeling at the moment. Metta is not the opposite of anger or depression. Metta is an attitude of patient acceptance toward whatever is there – good, bad, or anything in between. It’s always accessible to me, as long as I care to notice it and call it up.

As I reflect on my experience with the Metta practice, I see lots of parallels to the whole idea of personal development off the cushion as well. Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it always feels like a reach, or perhaps even out of reach. This is what I assume Yoda meant by “trying.”

If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us.

But when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching. By simply turning our kind attention to its presence, it begins to grow on its own. We don’t have to “try” anything. In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly. We don’t grasp for something distant and off in the future. We appreciate and cultivate something joyful that we already have, and can readily touch.

Now I bet there are doubters out there among you that are wondering whether you have any inkling of the qualities you wish you had. If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us. It’s only our own self-doubt that keeps us from seeing them.

So if you’ve been trying to become a better person in some way, stop trying. Instead, look for all the ways that you already have those qualities in some small, nascent form. Trust that they are there, and think of ways to encourage those qualities to blossom. For example, if we want to become kinder, it’s important that we feel good physically – that we eat well, get enough sleep and rest, and have time to laugh and enjoy ourselves. We need to be kind to ourselves in the same way that we’d want to be kind to others, so that we begin to touch an authentic experience of our own kind heart. If we set these sorts of conditions, the kinder side of us can’t help but come out and grow stronger.

So the crux of the matter is in how we view our goals. Are we grasping for something off in the future in a way that denigrates our present experience and triggers a poverty mentality of lack, need, and desire? Or are we aspiring toward a higher ideal that’s on the same path we’re already on — while at the same time loving ourselves as we are now, and encouraging ourselves to feel whole, warm, abundant and blessed? It’s that switch in our state of mind that makes all the difference. That’s what sets the tone for what kind of future we create for ourselves.

Read More

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.

Read More
Menu

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.

X