A Body Scan Meditation to Promote Sleep
Ever have difficulty sleeping? Most of us do. Here again we seem to be very different from other animals. Dogs and cats seem to sleep easily everywhere, while we buy fancy mattresses and take all sorts of drugs to try to knock ourselves out.
It doesn’t take much introspection to see that our thinking disease plays a role. When we can’t sleep, our minds buzz with thoughts of the past or the future. We’re busy solving problems, anticipating disasters, or reviewing misfortunes when we might be resting. Many of our thoughts are frightening, activating our fight-or-flight system. It’s no surprise that one function of this system is to keep us awake—we wouldn’t want to start drifting off when being stalked by a tiger. Our problem is that the tigers within can stalk us all night long.
One of these tigers is usually anxiety about not getting enough sleep. That’s why it’s often easier to get to sleep on Friday or Saturday night than on Sunday. On Friday or Saturday we think, “It’s okay if I don’t get to sleep right now; I can always sleep later in the morning.” On Sunday we’re more likely to think, “If I don’t get to sleep soon, I’ll be a basket case tomorrow, and I have so much to do.” Anxiety about getting to sleep can be the biggest threat we face when tossing and turning. Other inner tigers include our full assortment of fears and regrets—all of which have a way of visiting when our guard goes down at night.
Since insomnia, like other stress-related problems, is fed both by our fight against the symptom and by other disturbing emotional issues, it’s no surprise that practicing mindfulness can be helpful. This works best when combined with other techniques.
Conventional non-drug treatments for insomnia focus on three broad strategies:
- stimulus control
- sleep hygiene
1- The first approach, stimulus control, is designed to teach us to associate the bed with sleep. To do this, you are advised not to read, watch TV, or eat in bed. Most approaches instruct patients to reserve the bed for only sleep and sex. Furthermore, they suggest that if you are not sleeping, after around 20 minutes you should get up and read or have some (caffeine-free) tea, returning to bed when you feel tired (the idea is not to associate the bed with tossing and turning).
2- The second approach, sleep hygiene, is designed to establish a regular pattern of nighttime sleep. This is done by getting into bed at the same time each night, getting out of bed at the same time each morning, and avoiding naps—regardless of how long you’ve slept. This way you won’t fall into the pattern of napping during the day to catch up on sleep, only to feel wide awake at night.
‘You may wonder why you would reserve the bed for sleep and sex if you’re trying to create an association in your mind between the bed and sleep. The answer is that health professionals are too prudish to suggest that you sleep in the bed and have sex in the living room, though this would be the better strategy.
3- The third approach is relaxation training. The idea here is that by practicing relaxation you can reverse the arousal of the fight-or-flight response and more readily get to sleep.
Experiences gathered during mindfulness meditation retreats have led to the development of another approach, based on three observations.
- First, when we practice mindfulness intensively, we find that we have a reduced need for sleep—we feel refreshed and alert with fewer hours in bed. This suggests that either some of the restorative function of sleep is met by mindfulness meditation or it helps us sleep more deeply.
- Second, fighting insomnia just keeps us awake. Mindfulness, with its emphasis on accepting whatever is happening in the moment, tends to defuse this battle.
- Third, mindfulness practice helps us let go of goal-oriented thoughts and work with difficult emotions—so it’s an effective way to deal with the tigers within that keep us up at night.
Together, these observations suggest that you might try practicing mindfulness meditation when you go to bed. One of two things will happen—either you’ll have an opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted mindfulness practice or you may fail and fall asleep. Either way it’s okay. If you don’t sleep, you’ll still get some rest and have an opportunity to work with what keeps you up at night. If you do sleep, your insomnia is resolved for the evening. In either case, the fight against the symptom, which is central to the condition, is over.
Mindfulness Practice for Sleep
If your insomnia has developed suddenly, particularly if accompanied by other new symptoms, you’ll want to see your doctor to rule out any unusual illness. After this, many commonsense, conventional approaches to insomnia are good ideas: don’t drink caffeinated beverages in the evening; sleep in a darkened room; avoid strenuous exercise and upsetting books or TV shows right before bed.
Many people also find it helpful to practice stimulus control, in which you reserve the bed primarily for sleep, and sleep hygiene, in which you try to get to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. In addition to these steps, you can use mindfulness practice as Lisa did—to give up the whole battle with wakefulness. Many different practices are suitable for bedtime.
If you are agitated or excited, the concentration practices presented in Chapter 3 can be helpful. Breath Awareness Meditation, whether focused on the belly or the tip of the nose, perhaps including labeling or counting the breath, tends to be calming.
The Body Scan Meditation also increases mental stability and works well when lying down. Should you find yourself having difficulty accepting your current state of mind, the Loving-Kindness Meditation practice presented in Chapter 4 can help you cultivate soothing self-compassion.
If you’re being visited by anxious thoughts, the Thoughts Are Just Thoughts and Mountain Meditation practices in Chapter 5 can also be helpful. If difficulties with sadness, anger, or other emotions seem to be interrupting your sleep, you can experiment with the exercises in Chapter 6 designed to work with these states of mind.
However, bedtime is usually not the best time to try to do more exploratory practices such as the Stepping into Fear practice in Chapter 5 or Stepping into Sadness or Stepping into Anger in Chapter 6, as these tend to be more energizing. The most important principle is to use your time in bed until you fall asleep to practice awareness of present experience with acceptance.
Say yes to whatever arises.
Your mind and body will benefit from whatever happens—whether meditation or sleep.
Source- The Mindfulness Solution, by Ronald D. Siegel
Adapted by G Ross Clark