sleep

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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Waking up into the moment

The goal of Buddhist practice is “bodhi” or “Awakening.” Waking up fully to reality may yet be far off, but Vimalasara reflects on how in our day-to-day lives the times just before and after sleep can be valuable opportunities for practice.

The first thought when I woke up was, “I want my mind back.” After years of working hard to meet deadlines as a journalist and partying all night with my friends it felt like my brain was riddled with holes. There were big gaps in my memory and I’d sometimes joked that my brain was poisoned with stimulants and alcohol. And it was poisoned, but even worse my heart was toxic as well. And when I woke that morning, at the age of twenty-nine, I knew I had to make a change in my life. And I did.

And it often seems to work like that. We wake in the morning and some things have sorted themselves out. We’re clearer. We know what we need to do.

In my case I’d been meditating and starting to reflect on my life, but on that morning I had a sense of urgency to change how I was living. Meditation was the thing that woke me up, but it was sleep that provided the means for it to do so.

In my book, Detox Your Heart, I talk about how important it is that we pause in our lives so that we can connect with ourselves, and sleep is one of the places we pause. We may not pause at all during the day, but when we get into bed the physical body stops. So sleep was a place where I would stop, and where I had no control over what happened in my dreams or thoughts. In my waking life I’d try to control things, but in my sleeping life I couldn’t do that. When sleeping, our conscious habits of control are on hold, and other inner voices can make themselves heard. So it’s perhaps not surprising that there are moments of insight when we wake up, moments when we’re clearer and have a better sense of what we really need.

I think it’s really important to become aware of what we feel first thing in the morning. Waking up is a significant moment for getting in touch with what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, and how we’re doing. It’s a significant moment in which to check in. But often we don’t. The alarm goes off, we’ve got to get up, and we’ve got all these things to do. But waking up is a significant moment where it can really benefit us to take a few minutes to just to check in and gauge how we are feeling and thinking.

I often say that turning inwards in this way is a revolutionary act because it has such a profound impact on how we live. If we check in with ourselves in the morning and we know we’re feeling vulnerable, for example, we can put on a layer of emotional protection before we go out of the door and know that we need to take extra care. Otherwise we’re likely to find ourselves getting angry later in the day and be surprised about it and not know why it’s happened. Or if we wake up and we’re already angry then at least we’re forewarned and we can deal with the anger as best we can — befriending it, taking it as a warning that we need to take care of ourselves throughout the day, allowing the experience to be there but letting go of it and softening the heart. When we take the time to tune in in the morning it alerts us to what’s going on and we can deal with that appropriately.

It’s important to become aware of what we’re feeling because that’s what we’re taking into the world and that’s what we’re communicating through. If we could be aware of what’s going on 24/7 that would be great, but that’s difficult to do and I think that the morning is one of those times where we can really begin to introduce the practice of mindfulness, because it is the time when we’ve stopped, we’ve slowed down.

I’m one of these people that sometimes wakes up and pretends to be asleep. By “pretending to be asleep” I mean I’ll have an insight but not want to acknowledge it. I don’t want to know something I already know. I want to avoid truths that I find are uncomfortable. I want to pretend that something isn’t happening when it is.

I think a lot of people pretend to be asleep. I had a friend who told me she hadn’t read my book yet and so I asked her why not. And she said that she hadn’t read it because she knew she’d have to start doing things differently in her life. And I laughed, because it’s so common that people know, but they don’t want to know that they know.

Unless we’ve mastered the art of lucid dreaming we can’t directly affect what goes on in our sleeping lives — any maybe we shouldn’t — but we can choose what we’re going to do just before we sleep and the moment we wake up, and those choices can have a big effect on our lives.

When I’m mindful I’m really aware of what I do before I go to sleep. I don’t like to watch intense films — films with murder in them for example — just before I go to bed. Like most people I wouldn’t drink coffee just before going to bed because it stimulates the mind, yet intense movies can be just as stimulating. And I notice that if I just sit and check in for a few minutes it has a completely different impact than if I just go straight to bed from whatever I’ve just been doing. Even cleaning your teeth with mindfulness is a really good thing to do before going to bed. It’s a time of pausing.

We can also reflect before we go to sleep. This week I’ve been reflecting on impermanence by sitting and turning over in my head that the sexual relationship I’m in will change, and that it will end one day, even if it’s through death. I’ve been reflecting on all the things that I’m attached to in this way. I’ve been doing this because I still find that I react emotionally much more to the prospect of paying a large phone bill than I do to the fact that I’m going to die some day! Sometimes our priorities are just completely out of proportion and we need to reflect to bring things back into balance.

And reflecting on impermanence before going to bed has led to me feeling much more in the present this week. I’ve been quicker to notice my mind going off, have brought myself back to my experience more quickly, and have been enjoying the preciousness of life, or at least getting more glimpses of that preciousness.

What we consciously think about first thing in the morning is an important practice. There are several exercises in my book where I suggest that people do a specific action first thing when they wake up — taking some deep breaths, or checking in, or using an affirmation. If I use an affirmation first thing in the morning it’ll be with me for the whole day. What we first think about in the morning has a significant impact. If my affirmation is “I am lovable, I am lovable” that sets me up for the day and when difficult things happen I remember my affirmation and it gives me support.

We all have rituals in the morning. My partner gets up especially early to have a long bath and read. When I was a journalist I had to start with reading or listening to the news — and I was glad to be able to give that up because it was such a harsh way to start the day. So what I suggest to people is that they introduce positive rituals — rituals that support a healthier mind and heart.

Buddhism talks about the goal of practice being to wake up in a metaphorical sense. And yet our literal waking up is such an important time. It’s when we have breakthroughs, it’s when we have a natural opportunity to check in with ourselves, and it’s when we can start developing positive rituals that help us to be more awake and aware in our daily lives.

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A quick nap shows how smart you are (AZCentral)

Jared Sandberg, The Wall Street Journal: Without fail, Joel Darrow runs into a wall of torpor at 3:30 in the afternoon. The financial engineer describes it as “brick, thick and high.”

He doesn’t exactly go to sleep, he says, but he might as well. “It’s that point in between when you know you’re awake but you’re basically unable to move,” he says. Typically, he’s looking at his computer screen, his back to his office door and a pencil in hand. “Next thing I know,” he says, “the pencil’s on the floor, and I have a thousand-mile stare through the back of the screen.”

A colleague once asked Mr. Darrow if he was OK. “It would be easy for someone to think I popped some pill and was in La-La Land,” he says. “Fighting it just prolongs it, and self-medicating with sugar provides brief relief followed by deeper stupor.”…

Read the rest of the article…

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