A Simple Meditation Exercise for Sleepless Nights
I learned a lot about this one night—at about 4 in the morning. I was lying in bed, wide awake, not having slept...and getting more and more agitated by the minute. The possibility of having a good night's sleep—or even just enough sleep—was gone. By this point, it was just a matter of grabbing what little sleep I could.
The more distress I felt about not being asleep, however, the farther I was from falling asleep. And the more worried I was about coping the next day, having had so little sleep, the more wired I became.
It seemed as if my mind was seeking out each one of my "issues" and amplifying them. If only I had meditated more in my life, I wouldn't have insomnia. If only I had meditated better, I wouldn't have insomnia.
I should get out of bed right then, I figured, go to my cushion, sit upright, face my altar and meditate for my usual 30 minutes. But the house was cold, I was so tired and the thought of spending 30 minutes of my little remaining time for sleep seemed ridiculous. I could hardly even remember how to meditate. Instead, I made a promise to the universe that I would go on a long meditation retreat very soon if only I could fall asleep right then and there.
And then, suddenly, I saw what I was doing. By deferring meditation to another time and place, my mind was launching another great journey—far, far away from the present. What I actually needed was to meditate then and there—in bed, lying down, right in the middle of my distress. The formal structure that I associated with meditation—sitting on my black cushion for 30 minutes each morning, going on a long retreat once or twice a year—had become an obstacle to, well, just meditating.
It took some considerable determination for me to slow down my racing thoughts enough to find even the tiniest bit of attention to connect with my breathing. But I kept trying, again and again, one moment at a time, getting a little bit closer each time. Gradually, one breath at a time, I calmed down. I made peace with myself. And eventually, I was quiet enough to fall asleep.
What I learned on that night is how our minds can defer anything, even peacefulness, and this deferring creates even more stress. What we need to learn is not just to meditate more, or to meditate better, but to meditate wherever we are, whatever is happening.
I also learned that when the thought of doing a long meditation is overwhelming, the thought of doing a short meditation can be a big help.
Meditation is not, of course, intended to make you fall asleep. But it can help you fall asleep by unhooking you from whatever mental loop or agitation is preventing you from falling asleep naturally. The next time you find yourself in an insomniac loop, just do a minute right where you are, in bed. Don't worry if your form isn't perfect. You can do it on your back, on your front, on your side, snuggling a pillow. Just do it.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 41 percent of Americans report having sleep problems every night or almost every night. If you are one of them, you may have to do several minutes of meditation in a row, one after the other. But please take them one minute at a time (or you probably won't do it at all). Minute by minute, moment by moment, you will become a bit calmer, and more able to sleep.
The lesson, of course, is that instead of taking stress as a sign that you need to meditate more and later, take it as a sign that you need to meditate a little bit right now.
Author of One-Moment Meditation: Stillness for People on the Go, Martin Boroson lectures on the benefits of a meditative mind for decision-making and leadership. Marty studied philosophy at Yale, earned an MBA from the Yale School of Management and is a formal student of Zen.