Insomnia no more
There are plenty of other blogs on how to cure insomnia out there in the cyberverse. What more can another one add to the chatter? The difference with this blog is that I’m inviting you to change your attitude to insomnia. Rather than see it as a problem, see it as an opportunity to meditate. Don’t worry, you will still get the deep refreshing sleep you need.
There are two types of insomnia, and you may be familiar with one or both ofthem. There is the problem of not being able to fall to sleep when you first go to bed, and there is the problem of waking up in the early hours of the morning and not being able to go back to sleep again. Best to deal with these separately.
The conventional wisdom for enhancing our ability to drop off to sleep as soon as we touch the pillow includes the following: adopt regular sleep patterns; avoid stimulants and heavy food in the evening; exercise regularly; avoid the electronic screens which emit blue light that delays release of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. All correct.
For most of us this means we need to adjust our nightly routines to go to bed early enough to get a good night’s sleep. There is a lot of wisdom in the adage that one hours sleep before midnight is worth two hours sleep after midnight. If you need to be given a time, then go to bed by 10pm. You will also find it easier to fall asleep if you finish with electronic screens at least an hour before you go to bed.
One problem you may encounter is that you may not feel ready to go to bed earlier. Another is there will be nights when you are out late socialising, or when you really must watch that miniseries (all six episodes at once) on Netflix.
So here are some suggestions. How about a night walk, especially after evening meal or before you plan to go to bed. Have you got a dog? If you feel a bit uncomfortable about walking the streets at night (then get a dog 😁), how about an informal meditation drinking the night air and stars from your balcony or in the garden? If you are feeling a little too agitated and awake to go to bed, then why not try the Breathing the Ball movement meditation we learn in Lifeflow’s Learn to Meditate classes? Or, more conventionally, simply reading a gentle book by a soft warm light …that means no iPad or other eBook…may be your passage into sleep. Hot milk with cinnamon and honey helps me.
You can also try a body scan or simple breath meditation lying prone in bed. There is an important difference between using meditation to go to sleep, and using meditation at other times of the day. In our normal sitting meditations we aim to develop mindfulness of the distracting ‘train of thoughts’ or entrancing ‘boat of dreams’. When we become aware that we have drifted from the meditation object we gently return our focus to it.
However, when we are using meditation to fall asleep we allow ourselves to follow the hypnogogic imagery and float away on that boat of dreams. If a train of thought emerges instead, then visualise your thoughts as just that, a train disappearing into an imaginary tunnel. Allow your softening focus of attention favour the imagery, rather than the thoughtery (I just made that word up!). Just watch the images arising with no trying to fall asleep. Indeed, hold the intention to stay and explore the imagery. Sooner than you expect, your resolve will dissolve and you will be asleep.
If you still feel restlessness in the body that your night-walk or breathing-ball movement meditation didn’t soothe, then allow your awareness to open up to and embrace that sensation in the body with other less restless sensations surrounding it. You can gently take your imagined breath to flush the restlessness out through the limbs, fingers and toes. I feel sleepy just writing this down.
Perhaps, if you get in the habit of going to bed a bit earlier, you might find you have the second sleep ‘problem’; waking up in the early hours of morning. I think we all wake up at least once or even several times each night, as we turn and fall back to sleep again. But sometimes we just can’t slip back into sleep because the mind keeps turning, turning, turning.
If you have read the other insomnia blogs, you will already know that each night we go through several 90-minute cycles of sleep, ranging from deep sleep to lighter sleep when we have rapid-eye movements, and when most of our dreaming happens. Sleep science is complicated and I won’t dig into the details, but these cycles explain why it can take such a long time to fall asleep again. Even though the mind is awake, the body is not yet ready to fall asleep again. Knowing this we can be gentler with ourselves. Embrace this short period of awake time rather than fighting against it.
We also know that before the electric light there were cultures where people would have two phases of sleep during the night hours, divided by a period of light chores, quiet domestic socialising, or study by candlelight. It is a modern assumption that we should have 8 hours of interrupted sleep, complemented with 8 hours of labour and 8 hours of recreation to complete the 24-hour cycle. Why not experiment with an hour of gentle activity or even meditation, away from the bed, in the early hours of the morning?
For a start, try the prone body scan or simple breath meditation suggested above. Give yourself 10 minutes with this, but if it doesn’t work, and you are wide awake then get out of bed, maybe go out into the night air for a moment and freshen up, then sit for a formal meditation. You are not going to fall asleep, so why fight it? Give yourself a set time depending on how long you are usually accustomed to meditate; maybe take it a little bit longer than your daytime meditation.
At this time of night, you have plenty of time. It is good to have a set time otherwise you will be distracted by thoughts of “how long have I been meditating? Have I sat for long enough?” Perhaps even use a meditation timing app on your mobile phone. You keep on meditating until you hear that sweet bell sound when the time has come. This can be the most delicious meditation of the 24-hour circadian cycle. You are wide awake, you have no immediate responsibilities or commitments, the house is as quiet as it ever will be, you have maximum freedom and opportunity to sink deep into absorbed and blissful meditative states.
And when you are finished this deep-night meditation slip back into bed and rest in the experience of a spacious mind and allow the dream images to emerge. You will be asleep in no time, you are likely to have very sweet dreams, and you will certainly wake up in time and really fresh.