mindfulness in daily life

Capturing the moment

I was sitting in a café with my friend David when he said, ‘There’s something to look at behind you.’

I glanced across, trying not to be obvious. All I saw was an old woman eating her soup. David leaned forward. ‘She’s like a Rembrandt.’

I looked again and noticed her intent concentration. She was very old, her body shrunk to a few feet, and every movement was a painful effort. Slowly, very slowly, she raised her spoon from her bowl to her mouth. And slowly she lowered it again. Her face was creased into a web of lines, as if her skin was fracturing and these lines, held together only by the power of her will, were all that bound her flesh. Her eyes gazed at the bowl and her attention focused the room. In the weakness of her body all that existed for her was this moment and the act of eating. Her clothes were plain and black, and outlined her against the bare wall. The light around her seemed to hover, fixing and framing her image.

‘I wish I had a camera,’ I said.

‘No,’ said David. ‘It’s perfect as it is. You don’t have to make a picture out of it.’

I looked again and saw David was right. Her face, her concentration, and the aching slowness of her movements were all perfect. She was like a Rembrandt painting, and her image embodied, in its way, their grace and stillness. But Rembrandt was simply a guide to this instant, this glimpse of a woman’s dignity in the face of her body’s decay and the palpable approach of death. This moment of quiet grace was the product of her presence and David’s appreciative gaze, through which its beauty had been disclosed.

If I had sat alone in the café I probably wouldn’t have noticed the woman at all. David showed me how to look, and most importantly he showed me that it is a mistake to appropriate such a moment. To see how extraordinary, unique and beautiful is each moment of our lives we need to let go of the grasping mind and see it freshly, with mindfulness.

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Mindful eating: a teacher responds to readers

Readers have posted comments on Jeff Gordinier’s article on mindful eating, along with questions for Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and meditation teacher in Oregon. Dr. Bays, the author of ”Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food,” responded to a first batch of comments.

News Flash — Mindful eating has been practiced for thousands of years by Jews. Prayer of thanks depends on the contents of the food, with multiple requirements on preparation, etc. Not sure why it’s described here as Buddhist, per se — philiphdc, Washington, D.C.

Yes, you are right. Mindful eating doesn’t belong …

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Seven ways to eat more mindfully

1. WHEN YOU EAT, JUST EAT. Unplug the electronica. For now, at least, focus on the food.

2. CONSIDER SILENCE. Avoiding chatter for 30 minutes might be impossible in some families, especially with young children, but specialists suggest that greenhorns start with short periods of quiet.

3. TRY IT WEEKLY. Sometimes there’s no way to avoid wolfing down onion rings in your cubicle. But if you set aside one sit-down meal a week as an experiment in mindfulness, the insights may influence everything else you do.

4. PLANT A GARDEN, AND COOK. Anything that reconnects you with the process of creating food will magnify your mindfulness.

5. CHEW PATIENTLY. It’s not easy, but try to slow down, aiming for 25 to 30 chews for each mouthful.

6. USE FLOWERS AND CANDLES. Put them on the table before dinner. Rituals that create a serene environment help foster what one advocate calls “that moment of gratitude.”

7. FIND A BUDDHIST CONGREGATION where the members invite people in for a day of mindfulness.

From the New York Times article, Mindful Eating as Food for Thought, Feb 7, 2012.

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Mindful eating as food for thought

Jeff Godinier, NY Times: Try this: place a forkful of food in your mouth. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but make it something you love — let’s say it’s that first nibble from three hot, fragrant, perfectly cooked ravioli.

Now comes the hard part. Put the fork down. This could be a lot more challenging than you imagine, because that first bite was very good and another immediately beckons. You’re hungry.

Today’s experiment in eating, however, involves becoming aware of that reflexive urge to plow through your meal like Cookie Monster on a shortbread bender. Resist it. Leave the fork on …

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Shortcuts to Inner Peace, by Ashley Davis Bush

Shortcuts to Inner Peace

In the interests of full disclosure I should say that Ashley Davis Bush, the author of Shortcuts to Inner Peace: 70 Simple Paths to Everyday Serenity, attends the same Buddhist center I teach at. I’ve bumped into her and her husband a literally a couple of times, but it’s a large center, we’re not by any stretch of the imagination friends, and I’m under no obligation, inner or outer, to say nice things about her book.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Shortcuts to Inner Peace grows out of the meeting of Bush’s practice as a psychotherapist, and her personal Buddhist practice. She knew that many of her clients would benefit from meditation, and yet it was also obvious that few, if any, of them would be able to set aside the time for a regular practice. And so began a project to “sneak” (my word) mindfulness into daily activities.

Title: Shortcuts to Inner Peace
Author: Ashley Davis Bush
Publisher: Berkley
ISBN: 978-0-425-24324-4
Available from: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, and Amazon.com and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

And here is where Bush reveals herself to be a master teacher. She is positively cunning at finding ways for people to practice more mindfulness.

Here are a few examples:

  • Go With the Flow: Whenever you’re at a sink and touch water, let the stream of warm liquid cue you to say, “Go with the flow” or “I trust the universe” or “Everything is as it should be.” This reminds you to let go and flow with the current of life. (p. 46)
  • Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Look at your reflection and say simply, “I accept all of you.” For some people “I forgive you,” “I love you deeply and unconditionally,” or “You are doing the best you can and I admire you for that” also work well. If nothing else, give yourself a vote of encouragement with a “hang in there.” (p. 61)
  • Lend a Hand: When you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Place one hand on your upper chest and your other hand on your belly. Apply some light pressure, breathe deeply into your belly, and then as you exhale slowly, rub your hand in a circle on your upper chest. (p. 97)
  • Play It Again, Sam: When you find yourself grumbling over an unpleasant household chore … Sing a specific song or play special music when you’re engaged in that unwanted chore. Decide to let yourself have a positive experience and actually let it fill your body with good sensations. (p. 128)

There are almost 70 of these exercises in this quite substantial book. Most of the actual presentation is in short chapters or usually two page, with a brief précis of the exercise as I’ve given above, accompanied by a more expansive account of the background of the practice, with examples drawn from real life. Each practice chapter concludes with a summary of the deeper purpose of the exercise, so that it’s not just a “trick” you can pull in order to change your emotional state, but part of a total transformation of the way you relate to your life. There are also introductory chapters that “set the scene.”

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The practice chapters are organized into different sections, covering ways to weave mindfulness into daily activities, into relationships, into our experience of the senses, as well as sections on ways to calm the body, quiet the mind, open the heart, and to connect with a sense of purpose. At the end of the book there is a cross-reference list of the exercises so that you can find techniques that address specific problems, such as being angry or tense. Shortcuts to Inner Peace is nothing if not thorough!

There have been several books out recently that have addressed how to bring greater mindfulness into daily life. I’ve recently reviewed How to Train a Wild Elephant, by Jan Chozen Bays, and One Minute Mindfulness, by Donald Altman. All three are excellent books. If I had to distinguish between them I’d say that:

  • How to Train a Wild Elephant is ideal for the experienced practitioner who wants to go deeper into mindfulness, or for the committed beginner who is already able to devote a reasonable amount of time and thought each week to mindfulness practice. The practices are deeply transformative, and come from two decades of monastic practice, although the lessons given are applicable to “normal” life.
  • One Minute Mindfulness is similar in presentation and content to Shortcuts. It’s a little less imaginative in approach, but still a very fine book.
  • Shortcuts to Inner Peace would be my highest recommendation to anyone beginning to explore mindfulness and meditation, and who is having problems “fitting practice in” to their lives. I would also highly recommend it for anyone who has problems with anger, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, or any of these manifold contemporary problems of finding emotional balance in life.
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Destress your life in 10 easy steps

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Danny Penman and Mark Williams: The gloomy days of January can be the most miserable and stressful of the year, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If you follow this ten step guide to destressing your life, then the next few weeks just might become the most serene and fulfilling ones of the year.

One step should be carried out on each of the next 10 days. They’re based on the ideas found in the international best-seller “Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.”

The book uses a program based on mindfulness meditation developed by us at Oxford University in the United Kingdom to relieve anxiety, stress, exhaustion and depression. Mindfulness has proved in some clinical trials to be at least as effective as drugs or counseling for dealing with these conditions.

The ten steps described in the article are:

Day 1: Eat some chocolate

Day 2: Go for a short walk

Day 3: Take a three-minute breathing space

Day 4: Do something pleasurable

Day 5: The intensely frustrating line meditation

Day 6: Set up a mindfulness bell

Day 7: The ten-finger gratitude exercise

Day 8: Do the sounds and thoughts meditation

Day 9: Reclaim your life

Day 10: Go to the movies

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Reflections on pleasure, beauty and blessings

Asian child laughing as he runs through the spray from a lawn sprinkler on a sunny day

We live in a culture where the pursuit of pleasure is alive and flourishing.  We work hard and we seek relief and escape that we find in many different ways, many pleasurable ways.

For some, pleasure is defined as freedom from work, unstructured time, travel, leisure activities, not following a proscribed plan, or leaving responsibilities behind.

Pleasure can be seen as an escape from:

  • our responsibilities (recreating rather than working)
  • things that are “good” for us (eating chocolate rather than a salad) or
  • things that benefit us (taking a day off from exercising).

We many see exercise or meditation in this way, activities that we “should” do.

For many years I struggled in my meditation practice. I struggled because I believed that meditation should be a way to free my mind of thoughts and I should enter a state of bliss. My meditations were not like that.

Rather than a quiet mind, my sitting meditations consisted of list-making, obsessive thinking and attempting to follow a structure, like counting breaths, letting go of thoughts, and putting thoughts aside until the meditation was finished.

Those forms of meditation were not helpful for me. I felt frustrated and I felt as though I had failed to meditate correctly.

I started thinking about mindfulness and how to apply it in my daily life. As I practiced mindfulness off the cushion,  my intuition told me it was a form of meditation that suited me. I instinctively knew that I would benefit by practicing mindfulness, that I would learn about myself and become more aware, kinder, more honest and more generous to myself and others.

Then I read a comment about mindfulness that helped me to commit to this practice without feeling like I should do it but rather I want to do it. I read that mindfulness is pleasurable in itself, and I found it to be true.

Tasks previously considered mundane, repetitive or unimportant, when done mindfully, became pleasurable.  Sitting with a friend is pleasurable.  Driving to work early in the morning became pleasurable. Even sitting in meetings, when mindful, became pleasurable.

Mindfulness, being fully in the present moment, giving full attention to what I do is truly pleasurable. Mindlessness, running on automatic pilot, doing one thing and wishing to do something else or be somewhere else is the opposite of pleasurable.

Being a person who loves pleasure, and experiencing the pleasure of mindfulness made the practice something I wanted to commit to and has become a way of life for me. When I am mindful, I am living life fully, in the present moment and even during difficult times, I see beauty, blessings and wisdom that is always present.

When I am mindful, my mind is quiet and my heart is open and I find great pleasure in that. I wish the same for you.

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Jon Kabat-Zinn gives advice for unhappy news junkies

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Jon Brooks: Jon Kabat-Zinn was on KQED Radio’s Forum show on Tuesday, talking about his latest book, Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment.

Kabat-Zinn is a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the founder of the school’s stress reduction clinic, which uses “mindfulness-based” techniques to alleviate stress. He is also the author of two bestselling books on mindfulness, which is defined by the clinic as “a way of learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life, a way of taking charge of your life, a way of doing something for yourself that no one else can do for you — consciously and systematically working with your own stress, pain, illness, and the challenges and demands of everyday life.”

After his appearance on KQED Radio, I took the opportunity to talk to Kabat-Zinn about a topic of personal relevance to me: How do you keep from being negatively affected by the news? He said a lot of really good stuff before recommending, among other things, taking a “news fast,” where you don’t read, listen to, or watch the news. At which point I remembered what I did for a living and had him escorted out by security.

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Jon Brooks

There’s been a lot of bad news in recent years with the economy decimated and unemployment high and budget cuts. For consumers of news who find themselves overly affected by negative reports, what can they do in terms of mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn

If they’re very affected by it and negatively affected by it, what mindfulness would suggest is that you start to look at that and actually experience how you’re being affected by it. How it’s affecting your body, how it’s affecting the rest of your day, how much of your time are you spending consuming the news. That’s the word that’s often used; we consume the news, we eat it up. And it often consumes us; just the way tuberculosis was often called consumption. So in a way it’s a certain kind of disease process.

Why do we have to know all of that? And how much do we have to know it and in how much detail? And then why do we repeat it or read three newspapers or read the same newspaper three times and then read it on your iPad or iPhone? And maybe if it’s really having a negative affect on you, one might entertain the notion quite seriously of just for a couple of weeks taking a news fast and not doing it at all.

First of all you’ll have so much more time, and second of all real life still unfolds. You will still have a full life. And if you’re unemployed and you have to find a job then maybe you won’t be so bummed out that all the possibilities seem against you. You can tap into what’s possible, independent of what all the experts are saying is possible. That’s a hugely powerful way to work with things.

So one way is to just cut it out for a period of time and see how addicted we are to it and what the affect of it is. I had that experience once when I went on retreat right after 9/11. I was on retreat for six weeks, no newspaper, no radio, no nothing. I was just meditating and sitting and walking all the time for six weeks.

When I came out we were at war in Afghanistan and this and that, but the fact of the matter is that if you do a news fast for any stretch of time, the French have this old saying, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they’re the same. You can miss six weeks of the news, and it’s like almost any six weeks of the news will replace any other six weeks. The same maniacs are saying the same stupid things over and over again and they’re being decoded by all the pundits and everybody’s got something to say and a lot of it is just totally empty.

And the good news that there is in the newspaper — that often doesn’t get much air time. There’s an enormous amount of good news -– you can actually start to read some of the good things that are happening, or emphasize them.

The other thing to do is to bring mindfulness to reading the newspaper or listening to the news. And notice how easy it is to get addicted to it, and how passive a process it is, and how in some sense disempowering. And that awareness is actually in itself empowering. And how you choose to be in relationship to it is of course part of the repertoire of life decisions each of us must make moment by moment and day by day.

I bought a newspaper this morning to get on BART. At a certain point I just left it on BART because I wanted to walk down the street without a newspaper under my arms. I wanted to not go back to it if I had 10 minutes to — quote unquote — kill. You don’t have ten minutes to kill; no one has ten minutes to kill. Because those moments are irretrievable and they’re your life in those 10 minutes. So how about feeling the air as you walk down the street, how about noticing the light, noticing the quality of emotion on other people’s faces or the buildings if you happen to be in the city.

And in all those ways you’re reclaiming moments of your life, as opposed to in some sense pissing them away by absorbing something that has no direct relationship to your life at all.

Jon Brooks

You mention being empowered. One thing I find is that when I read the news is I get upset because I feel powerless — I have no control over these world-changing events that can affect my life, and that makes me frustrated and mad.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

I sympathize with and understand that. It can be quite depressing and anxiety-inducing. But for the most part it doesn’t lead to any satisfactory way to take a stand. Sometimes it does – this Occupy movement for instance. People actually saying we are fed up. And the news media very often, until you have thousands of people in the street disrupting things, doesn’t call a spade a spade. But when you have a meme like the 99% — we can be frustrated but we can also feel empowered. There are ways to actually bring awareness to how much we disempower ourselves and then blame it on the media.

I have to say, I read the newspaper a lot, I watch cable news from time to time. Because I want to see what other people are saying about something; it’s like taking the pulse of the nation. When I can hear people giving very different perspectives on things, it reminds me that no one has a monopoly on the truth. And everyone’s citing it from a different coordinate system, and it’s up to me to synthesize from moment to moment what I think is actually going on.

But to a large extent, the way society changes is when we no longer accept the consensus reality and say no, I’m a citizen, my reality is going to be the reality, I’m going to inhabit it and then take action in the social domain and exercise my rights of citizenship.

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Audio: Jon Kabat-Zinn on people negatively affected by the news

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The power (and pitfalls) of criticism

wrathful deity

From time to time people write to me with interesting questions or observations. Often, the less time they’ve been practicing Buddhism and meditation, the more interesting the questions are. As Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” (I don’t think Suzuki is entirely right here, but he’s certainly not entirely wrong either).

The other day a fellow called Boon wrote to me from England. He’d been reading the Dhammapada, which is one of the most ancient Buddhist texts, written in an archaic form of the Pali language. He’d been wondering about criticism, and its role in spiritual practice. He’d seen passages such as these:

One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.

He who pays attention to the faults of others (and) is always irritable, his defilements grow. He is far from the destruction of the defilements.

Boon correctly understood that what’s been warned against here is getting caught up in criticism based on ill will. Our negative emotions are rather sneaky, and try to take over the more creative aspects of our life. So we take up Buddhist practice, which is about learning to eradicate ill will (plus craving and delusion) from our lives, but our ill will co-opts our spiritual practice. We take spiritual “rules,” and ideas about right and wrong behavior, and instead of using them as tools to help us develop more mindfulness and compassion, use them to judge others. We take the yardstick against which we are to measure our own practice, and use it as a rod to beat others. And so we’re neither mindful nor compassionate. We think we’re being “spiritual” as we criticise others, but really we’re just reinforcing our sense of separateness and superiority. This is the opposite of spiritual practice, disguised as spiritual practice.

But, Boon wondered, does this imply that we should “simply stand aside and watch [others] as they slide down the slippery slope, continuing with their unskilful ways without pointing out their faults or helping them?”

That doesn’t sound very mindful or compassionate either. Once a horse master came to talk to the Buddha and said that when he worked with his horses, sometimes they needed mildness, sometimes they needed harshness, and sometimes they needed both. If a horse reponded neither to mildness nor harshness, then he’d simply destroy the horse.

The Buddha said he did the same with his monks! Some needed encouragement. Some needed criticism. Some needed both. If a monk responded to none of these approaches, then the Buddha would destroy them by refraining from giving feedback at all. What the Buddha meant by this was that someone who isn’t open either to encouragement or to reproof is beyond saving. They’re headed on that slippery slope, and there’s nothing you can do for them. In reality, the Buddha didn’t destroy anyone; people destroy themselves. But we can take from this that it’s spiritually very destructive not to give people criticism when they clearly need it.

Boon said he’d also seen other passages in the Dhammapada suggesting that criticism was spiritually useful.

Should one see a man of understanding who, as if indicating a (buried) treasure, points out faults and administers reproof, let one associate with such a wise person. To associate with one like this is good, not evil.

Let him instruct, let him advise, let him restrain (one) from uncivilized behaviour, (and the result will be that) he will be dear to the good and detestable to the bad…”

We need to be open to criticism. What’s clear here is that the criticism that’s being described is coming not from ill will that has co-opted a person’s spiritual life, but from a place of clarity and insight. When someone can see that we’re engaging in actions that will cause suffering for ourselves and for others, then it’s helpful for us if they share their wisdom.

Intent is crucial. If the intent is to be helpful, and comes from genuine compassion, then this is totally different from ego-based criticism that causes separation and a sense of superiority.

Given how hard it is to avoid ill will, I do think we need to be very careful about offering criticism. And we should try using the carrot of encouragement before resorting to the stick of criticism. But sometimes is has to be done, and notions that Buddhism is “non-judgmental” can often be misleading.

The emphasis on the Dhammapada is on receiving criticism, anyway, not on giving it. Compassionate criticism is a blessing that we should be grateful to receive, but when it comes to doling it out, we need to be cautious.

So how can we skillfully give criticism?

  • Remember that your concern is with the wellbeing and happiness of the person you’re talking to. Even if you’re talking to them because they’re causing pain to others, they’re causing themselves pain as well. The aim is not to hurt the other person, or to impose your will on them, but to end up in a state of mutual harmony.
  • Ask permission. If you say, “Do you mind if I make an observation?” the person will be primed to receive your viewpoint, and it won’t come as a random bolt from the blue.
  • Be careful to distinguish facts from value judgements. Let’s say you tell someone they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” because at the speed they’re driving you don’t feel safe. Probably that person thinks they’re being perfectly safe. Presumably they’re not themselves feeling fear as they drive. There’s no point of contact between their experience and yours. They don’t think they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” and your criticism just seems like an attack. That’s because you’ve imposed a value judgement on them. What if instead you said, “Actually, I’m feeling anxious travelling at this speed …” [That’s a true statement of fact, not a value judgment.] “…I think I’d feel more relaxed if we were going a bit slower.” [That’s also a fact, not a value judgment].
  • Concentrating on facts (things any neutral observer, even your “opponent” can agree on) also means that you don’t focus on the person, but on actions. You’re not using inflammatory language, where you criticise the person as a whole. You’re just concentrating on one particular facet of their engagement with the world.
  • Know when to back off. When you get heated, or the other person gets heated, it’s time to cool down. At the very least, pause the conversation, even if just for a minute or two, so that both of you have time to regain some composure. When your conversation stops being a discussion and starts being an argument, it’s all become rather pointless. If it’s clear that you’re just going to fight, apologize for bringing up the topic at a bad time, and move on to something else.
  • There’s a lot more to skillful criticism than this, but these are things I’ve found useful. What have you found useful in giving constructive feedback or criticism?

    [Mea culpa: I don’t always have the mindfulness or compassion to practice these hints. That doesn’t detract from any validity they may have.]
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    Mindful ways to get a good night’s sleep

    Cat sleeping under duvet

    Getting a good night’s sleep is vital to feeling energetic and making the most of our days. Some nights, even though we are very tired it is difficult to get to sleep because there is so much going on in our minds. When this happens, we feel stressed and that makes it even more difficult to get some rest.

    Here is a list of techniques you may want to use to clear your mind before bed:

    1. Write a list of what you need to do the next day. Having the list helps to let go of worrying that you will forget to do something.

    2. Practice yoga. Practicing yoga takes concentration so it takes your mind off all the thinking that stops you from being able to go to sleep. Concentrating on the yoga asanas helps to quiet the mind and lying in savasana helps the body to relax.

    3. Take a warm bath to relax muscles so that falling asleep occurs easily.

    4. Read, but not in bed. Part of the reason we have trouble sleeping is because we work, check our cell phones, work on our computers and read in bed. In order to fall asleep easily, it is important to use bed for sleeping and sex and that is all. That way, when we go to bed, we associate bed with sleeping.

    5. Listen to soothing music.

    6. If you go to bed and cannot keep your mind from thinking too much,  get out of bed and do something (read, write a letter, fix a broken appliance) until you are very tired and then go back to bed.

    7. If you are worried or concerned about something or someone, remember that worrying does not help the situation and think about all the times you worried and what you were worried about never happened.

    8. Write down what has happened during the day that was troubling and what was positive – it helps to clear your thoughts about the day.

    9. Write in a gratitude journal, a list of things you are thankful for.  Going to sleep in a positive frame of mind will bring sleep sooner and make dreams sweeter.

    10. Visualize yourself on a beach, in the warm sun, listening to the waves of the ocean.

    It is helpful to have a list of techniques that help to clear your mind before going to bed, so when you are in bed and cannot fall asleep, you know what to do rather than tossing and turning and feeling stressed because you cannot sleep.

    I hope some of these techniques will work for you and you will sleep peacefully, have sweet dreams and wake up refreshed.

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