How might mindfulness practice – concerned as it is with cultivating a bright and wakeful mind – be relevant to getting a good night’s sleep – a state which, by contrast, requires the absence of alert awareness?
There is plenty of anecdotal and ‘expert’ evidence to indicate that mindfulness has a useful role to play in dealing with sleep problems. But, unsurprisingly, there are also considerable misunderstandings over why and how mindfulness helps.
Based upon my experience as a therapist and mindfulness practitioner, I want to suggest two ways of clearing up such confusions, both of which may help you to sleep better and maintain a fruitful meditation practice.
First, educate yourself about sleep. Second, review your motivation for practising mindfulness.
Insomnia (which is just one category of so-called ‘sleep disorders’) is very common.
It varies in nature and scope – getting to sleep, staying asleep, waking too early, and poor quality sleep are distinct problems.
Sleep is also dependant on a range of factors, such as health and life circumstances. Both the amount of sleep you need and the sort of sleep you have change as you get older.
Presuming good self-care during waking hours, the average adult only needs about four-and-a-half hours of sleep per night to maintain health.
The effects of less on an ongoing basis are, unfortunately, well-known to many of us: low mood, irritability, lack of energy, bodily aches and pains, loss of empathy, poor communication and impulsive behaviour.
Common symptoms also include poor concentration and diminished emotional awareness, which are marks of weak mindfulness or full-blown mindlessness.
So how might we, as practitioners, skilfully respond to insomnia?
How about in the same way that we might mindfully approach any and all difficulties – by letting go of our mental resistance to them, opening up to what is happening, moment to moment, and developing an affectionate curiosity towards them?
Easy to say, I know. It takes patience and trust – qualities likely to be in short supply to an agitated mind at 4am – to put into practice.
However, adopting a friendly, non-grasping stance to unwanted mental and physical states is a cornerstone of mindfulness.
Sleeplessness is an opportunity for practice. More about this later.
First, a more modest suggestion for working with insomnia: wise reflection.
Reflecting upon experience is as much a part of mindfulness as formal meditation.
Reflect on, for example, the purpose of sleeping. It is to allow the body and mind to rest.
Organs, muscles and tissue benefit from downtime; the mind likes to clean and tidy its busy offices while ‘you’ are out-of-the-way.
At night, if unconsciousness will not come, you can still take care of your psycho-physical organism by supporting its need for recuperation.
To acknowledge the presenting experience (i.e. being involuntarily awake) and to consider how you might treat your physical being with gentleness and kindness (i.e. allowing it to relax and holding it tenderly) is to tap into the very foundations of wisdom and compassion and to live and breathe them.
Practice is always possible, even in the middle of the night! Your body and mind will feel all the more rested for that.
If you want or need practical reflections for coping with insomnia, they are widely available in multiple forms, sometimes under the clinical-sounding title of Sleep Hygiene – a collection of good-sense habits that are conducive to sleep.
Sleep Hygiene divides into four main categories: health, environment, lifestyle and attitude.
A genuinely mindful approach to insomnia (and, indeed, to life in general) takes account of all four areas. But it is the last one – attitude – that is of particular significance when it comes to sleep problems.
Here, too, lies our bridge between:
(i) wisely reflecting on what we need (and how best to act) when in the grip of insomnia, and
(ii) the basic motivational strategy underpinning all mindfulness practices.
Intention is central to mindfulness.
Formal practice, whatever its form or technique, boils down to cultivating the intention to be aware and accepting of the conditions of the moment.
To be mindful of a state of sleeplessness is to know and feel it, to let go of expectations to have things different, and to be open and willing to not be asleep.
The paradox is that practising in this way may well result in falling asleep. But for the truly ‘mindful insomniac’, this would not signify the desired result, merely the cessation of the night’s practice.
If, on the other hand, you really don’t want to be a mindful insomniac, just an unconscious person, then you would be better off deploying some kind of specific relaxation technique, such as a Yoga Nidra practice intended to induce sleep.
That way, you may still get to sleep but you won’t have sewn any seeds of confusion for your mindfulness practice.
However you decide to deal with insomnia, it is best to be clear about what you are doing and why you are doing it.
Mindfulness invites us to watch dispassionately how the mind gets caught in the gap between how things are and how we want them to be. That is all. Just watch. Let go of everything.
Letting go is, in fact, the only characteristic shared by states of mindfulness and sleep, for both become easier when ‘you’ get out-of-the-way.
Article written by: Richard Gilpin a psychotherapist and mindfulness instructor based in the UK. He is the author of Mindfulness for Unravelling Anxiety and Mindfulness for Black Dogs and Blue Days (published by Leaping Hare Press). Visit his website