Meditation In Action: A 10-Step Mindfulness Practice For Better Sleep

07/15/2013 08:03 am ET

It’s no secret that meditation can help us sleep better. There are some specific meditative exercises that can help us nod off when our minds are in overdrive. In the exercise below, the meditation experts at Headspace share some insight for feeling more at ease when your head hits the pillow. Remember, this is not an exercise to make you go to sleep, but rather to increase your awareness and understanding of your mind at night. It just so happens that it often results in sleep.

Step 1
Once you’re lying comfortably in bed, take five deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. As you breathe in, try to get a sense of the lungs filling with air and the chest expanding. As you breathe out, imagine the thoughts and feelings of the day just disappearing into the distance, and any feelings of tension in the body just melting away. This will help to prepare both the body and the mind for the exercise ahead.

Step 2
Begin by checking-in -- how you’re feeling --in both body and mind. Remember that in the same way you can’t rush relaxation, you cannot rush sleep, so take your time with this part of the exercise. Don’t worry if there are lots of thoughts whizzing around (this is absolutely normal). For now, just let them do their own thing. Whatever you do, avoid the temptation to resist the thoughts, no matter how unsettling or uncomfortable they may be.

check in

Step 3
Next, become aware of the physical points of contact in a little bit more detail. Bring your attention back to the sensation of the body touching the bed, the weight of the body sinking down into the mattress. Notice where the points of contact are strongest -– is the weight distributed evenly? You can also notice any sounds or other sensations. Sounds can be especially disturbing when you’re trying to go to sleep. At first it’s helpful to recognize whether it’s a sound you can change, or if it’s something outside of your control, something you can do nothing about. Then, rather than resisting the sound, gently rest your attention on it, remaining present with the sound for 30 seconds or so, before bringing your attention back to the body.

Step 4
Now try to get a sense of how the body actually feels. At first, do this in a general way. For example, does the body feel heavy or light, restless or still? Then try to get a more accurate picture by mentally scanning down through the body, from head to toe, gently observing any tension or tightness. Invariably, the mind will be drawn to areas of tension, but you can relax in the knowledge that you are about to sleep and that the exercise will help to release those areas. You can do this scan several times, taking about 20 to 30 seconds each time. Remember to notice the areas that feel relaxed and comfortable, as well as any areas of discomfort.

Step 5
By now you will have probably already noticed the rising and falling sensation of the breath, but if you haven’t, just bring your attention to that place in the body where you feel the movement most clearly. As always, don’t try to change the rhythm of the breath in any way, instead allow the body to do its own thing. There is no right or wrong way to breathe within the context of this exercise, so don’t worry if you feel it more in the chest than the stomach. Notice whether the breath is deep or shallow, long or short, smooth or irregular.

breathe

Step 6
As you watch the breath for a minute or two, it’s quite normal for the mind to wander off. When you realize you’ve been distracted, that the mind has wandered off, in that moment you are back in the present, and all you need do is gently return the focus to the rising and falling sensation. You don’t need to time this part of the exercise, you can just naturally move on to the next section when it feels as if a couple of minutes has passed.

Step 7
This next part of the exercise is about thinking back through the day in a focused and structured way. Begin by thinking back to the very first moment you can remember in the day, right after waking up in the morning. Do you remember how you felt upon waking? Now, as if your brain has been set to a very gentle "fast-forward," simply watch as your mind replays the events, meetings and conversations of the day. This doesn’t need to be in detail, it’s more of an overview, a series of snapshots passing through the mind.

Take about three minutes to go through the entire day, right up to the present moment. It might seem like a lot to fit into just a few minutes, but as I say, this is only an overview of the day, so don’t take any longer than three or four minutes. After a couple of days you’ll no doubt feel comfortable with the speed of it.

As the mind replays the day, there is the inevitable temptation to jump in and get caught up in the thinking. It’s normal for the mind to wander like this at first, but obviously it’s not helpful to get involved in new thinking at this time of night. So, as before, when you realize you’ve been distracted, gently return to the film playing back in your mind and pick up where you left off.

replay

Step 8
Having brought yourself up to the present moment, you can now return your focus to the body. Place your attention on the small toe of the left foot and imagine that you’re just switching it off for the night. You can even repeat the words
"switch off" or "and rest" in your mind as you focus on the toe. It’s as if you’re giving the muscles, joints, bones and everything else permission to switch off for the night, knowing they will not be needed again until the morning.

Step 9
Do the same with the next toe, and the next, and so on. Continue in this way through the ball of the foot, the arch, the heel, the ankle, the lower half of the leg and so on all the way up to the hip and pelvic area.

Before you repeat this exercise with the right leg, take a moment to notice the difference in the feeling between the leg that has been "switched off" and the one that hasn’t. If there was any doubt in your mind about whether anything was actually happening as you do this exercise, you’ll feel it now. Repeat the same exercise on the right leg, once again starting with the toes and working your way all the way up to the waist.

Step 10
Continue this exercise up through the torso, down through the arms, hands and fingers, and up through the throat, neck, face and head. Take a moment to enjoy the sensation of being free of tension, of not needing to do anything with the body, of having given up control. You can now allow the mind to wander as much as it wants, freely associating from one thought to the next, no matter where it wants to go, until you drift off to sleep.*

*It’s quite possible that by the time you’ve reached this point in the exercise you will be fast asleep. If you are, enjoy the rest and sleep well. Don’t worry if you’re not asleep though -- it’s not that you’ve done the exercise incorrectly. Remember that it’s not an exercise to make you go to sleep, but rather an exercise to increase your awareness and understanding of your mind at night.

Want more tips on how to make meditation part of your day? Headspace is meditation made simple, accessible and relevant to your everyday life. Sign up for the free Take10 program to get the basics just right with guided audio programs and support to get your Headspace, anytime, anywhere on the Headspace app.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

For more on meditation, click here.

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