You find your days running into one another as you wander through your life on automatic pilot. Coffee is your saviour and you struggle to concentrate on daily tasks—I think we’ve all encountered this scenario at least once in our lives. Sleep is almost always an issue with people suffering stress, either your work day keeps playing through your mind or your mind focuses on something aggravating and it won’t let go to allow you to drift into slumber. As your alarm sounds to rouse you for another day, you greet the day exhausted, short-tempered and resentful… you and your pillow slowly become enemies.
Now what would you say if someone told you that the key to finding more restorative sleep was right at your fingertips? And what if they were to say that it is also free and the only investment you make is time? Yes, I can hear it now, “Time? I hardly sleep as it is, why would I give up more time?” If I promised you a more cooperative relationship with your pillow, would this make the offer more enticing?
Meditate to improve your sleep
What I’m going to say next is not rocket science. You need no degree or formal education to practice this; all you need is an open mind, a comfy quiet space and a willingness to let go of stress. It really is that simple. Yes, it’s called meditation and it’s completely free. As a person from a high-stress field who has had many nights destroyed by worry and anxiety in the past, I can attest to the power of meditation as an adjunct to finding restorative sleep.
It’s not an instantaneous method; it does take some practice to fully achieve the relaxation and quieting of the mind required to get to a state of restorative sleep, but once you find the “spot,” it will become much easier to get there. Keeping in mind that the key is practice, which means you must create a routine for yourself. For me this involved heading to bed before my husband who is a TV watcher—we all know the type, they use the device to fall asleep, remote glued to the hand, requiring you to pry it from the death grip hours later as they snore happily amid the bright light and SOUND.
Setting yourself up in meditation
My routine became silence. Silence is a necessity when practicing meditation because it allows you to more easily tune in to your body, it focuses your mind on you and removes the focus from your external environment. With time and mastery, silence may not even be required as you become better able to focus on your internal state, but as a beginner, always seek silence to aid in your practice.
Now my next necessity as a beginner was darkness. After all it’s sleep that you seek and our natural state is to be asleep during the night-time hours—if you’re a shift worker, this will involve a sleep mask or a completely darkened room.
The third key is to find a position of comfort, one that supports you, makes your muscles feel relaxed, not contracted and tight. If your aggravation is such that you feel no position is relaxing, then I would suggest the “dead man’s position”—lying on your back, neck supported, arms resting either at your sides supported or resting folded on your tummy. This is the go-to position if I find my aggravation is most intrusive.
Finding your position of most comfort may take some time; don’t judge yourself if you can’t find it from the start because, like anything, it requires some adjustment to fine tune the practice for our individual needs. Go ahead and play with your positions until you feel most comfortable, remembering always that the base position of lying on your back can be used as a reference point if ever you have difficulty.
Now this is where we get into meditative practice. The key to achieving a restorative relaxing sleep is letting go. If it helps, say it to yourself gently as you fine tune your focus. Letting go is the reminder for you to simply let go of your worries, your daily stresses, your muscle tension and to achieve the same quiet state in your mind as that of your surroundings. If it helps, imagine them being sealed in a bubble and floating into the air away from you, or perhaps, dissolving into a mist in the heavens above. Whatever your main worry, wherever your thoughts, bring your focus to your body, your breathing and when you hear the chatter start up again in your mind, simply shhhhh and let go.
Progressive muscle relaxation
As a beginner there are two things we can do to help tune our focus internally, the first is to perform what is called progressive muscle relaxation—a fancy way of saying, take a personal inner mindful journey from your toes to your head and relax each muscle you encounter. Speak gently to yourself as you make your way up, I started off with something like, “toes, relax” and I’d stay focussed there until I could notice the tiny pop and release of the muscles in my toes and my feet would get heavier as they relaxed. I would then progressively move upward doing the same thing at each muscle group: ankles, calves, thighs, tummy, chest, arms, neck and head.
Now for me, the head has always been a favourite because I discovered so many muscles that were tight, muscles that I’d previously been unaware of. You can think of it as hovering, if it helps, but the face has so many muscles and as you hover over each section of your face, you will be astounded at how many of those muscles are actually tight. Chin, lips, cheeks, eyes, forehead, temples and scalp. Remember that your focus is always on the muscle groups. If your mind starts to wander and discuss the day’s events or slip back in memory or head off to future worry, gently bring it back to what you were focusing on at the time. It can help to think of it as teaching a pre-school class; you don’t scream or chastise the children who aren’t paying attention, you gently bring their attention back to the group activity. Always be gentle with yourself when learning the practice.
The second key element for a beginner is breathing (I’ve already written about in a previous article called Remember To Breathe). Breathing mindfully can be the base of your meditation if you find progressive muscle relaxation too difficult. As you breathe fully from the tummy, your body will naturally relax on its own. The essential element is to keep your mindful focus on the rhythm of your breathing.
Breathe in slowly through your nose, filling your tummy fully, feeling it expand and then releasing slowly, out through your mouth. With each exhalation you can imagine and actually start to feel your tension escaping your body and floating away from you. Allow it to happen. There will be a protest from your mind. It wants to keep going but you have to gently remind yourself that this time is for relaxation. Focus on your breathing, quiet and sleep. Again, think of that pre-school class, it’s nap time, not time for solving world issues or playing, it’s simply time for sleep.
It will not all happen miraculously the first time you do it, but restorative sleep will come more naturally for you over time with practice and routine and you will be able to fall asleep easily within a shorter time period. Here’s wishing you a good night and a more cooperative relationship between you and your pillow.
Not able to sleep? Get more tips in MINDFUL SLEEP: Practice mindfulness to relieve insomnia>>
image: Sick Sad M!kE (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)