When I did a nine-day vipassana meditation retreat a few years ago, as you might guess, we pretty much meditated all day. We either sat on cushions, all 60 of us in a hall, or we sat in our rooms -- on our beds or floors, observing our breath, thoughts, and sensations. About 13 hours of meditation a day: at turns grueling, boring, enlightening stuff.
The rest of the time, we watched a video or listened to audio of vipassana's main disseminator, the late SN Goenka, intoning instructions in his gravely, funny, sweet voice. One of these was: no lying down during formal meditation -- definitely not in the hall, and hopefully not in your room or meditation cell. I paraphrase him: "If you meditate lying down, pretty soon the whole place will be filled with the sounds of snoring." Of course, I had to test his theory; this experiment resulted in some lovely, guilt-laced naps.
Accordingly, Goenka also recommended meditating while drifting off to sleep -- or, as some people on the Internet call it: beditation.
Though scientific studies are undecided on whether meditation actually improves sleep (some researchers say it does by easing depression; some say it makes you need less sleep; some reveal increased alertness), I find it the spiritual equivalent of counting sheep.
Here's what I do.
- Snuggle into going-to-sleep position. For me this is on my belly with one leg up and bent in Frog pose. It's surprisingly comfy.
- Start noticing the thought torrents -- work, that conversation I had that I didn't quite do "right," how I finished a big project -- and the subsequent feeling waves: stress, shame, relief.
- Find the breath. The other day I heard Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg say in a talk that we should think of attuning to the breath in the way we notice a friend in a crowd. We don't stop seeing the other people (aka thoughts), we just focus on our friend (the breath). I'm finding this helpful. It's the opposite of pushing anything away, and it's friendly -- the breath is a buddy, not a daunting challenger I must watch vigilantly or lose. When my friend fades, I just return to my nostrils, feeling the air going in and out.
- Ride the waves. Sometimes I get to: "I can't do this, I'm just going to read in the living room." But really, I don't have to believe that; it's just another thought. I gently notice, I breathe, and I stay in the process with my breath BFF. Pretty soon, I'm out and snoring, just like Goenka said I would.
I know it's not that simple for everyone -- certainly chronic insomnia isn't usually cured with a breath meditation. So if that's not doing it for you, there are many guided audio meditations with suggestions and visualizations.
This is a lovely, free, guided meditation from the amazing (and mellow-inducing) Belleruth Naparstek.
You can also pick up her CD of the guided meditations, Healthful Sleep.
For the more musically inclined, I also really like Jeffrey Thompson's instrumentals that are supposed to induce the deep delta brainwaves required for restful sleep. I have his Brainwaves variety pack, but his Delta Sleep System sounds really nice, too.
Do you meditate as you drift off to sleep? How does it work for you?
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