When I first started meditating six months ago, I took note of every little shift in my behavior. But the biggest change in my life almost slipped right by me.
While I was sleeping.
I didn't begin my meditation practice with the goal of knocking myself out for eight hours. I wanted to fix the panic disorder that had haunted me all my life. I hoped to feel less anxious on a day-to-day basis, and maybe lower my blood pressure.
That was too much to ask for.
I'd never been a great sleeper. And ever since my hormones started bouncing around ten years ago, I'd been sleeping poorly, sometimes just three to four hours a night. My friend Linda was always one step ahead of me, alerting me to the good times to come - hot flashes, heart palpitations, night sweats and more insomnia.
"Could it get any worse?" I wondered. I wandered around like a zombie, afraid to drink coffee in the morning because it would percolate in my body later that night. I tried warm milk at bedtime, and my hormones roared with amusement.
I tried Calcium, Magnesium and Vitamin C. They made me sleepy enough to fall asleep, but not for long.
I didn't exercise after 4 p.m., which did nothing but make me fat.
If I sipped wine to relax, my heart pounded so badly in the middle of the night that I was afraid I was dying.
I was once so desperate to sleep that I took supplements made out of beet juice. I think the theory was that my sugar levels would rise and crash at just the right time. But they didn't.
So I turned to Klonopin, an anti-anxiety medication which gave me a decent night's sleep, albeit sometimes restless and interrupted.
Meanwhile, Buddhist monks all over the world were meditating (and, presumably sleeping) happily. I decided they had something to teach me. "Get thee to a monk" became my mantra.
On my first Buddhist retreat, Yongey Mingur Rinpoche - who had battled panic attacks successfully through meditation - assured me that I could do the same. "It's horse-rider," he explained. "Your body is the horse. It needs exercise, sleep and proper diet. Your mind is the rider, and what it needs is meditation."
I stuck my horse in a stable for a while and focused on my mind, meditating every day for 20-30 minutes, as I'd been taught. I practiced meditation at all hours, whenever the spirit moved me. Indoors, outdoors, on the floor, in a chair, on the beach, on my front porch, on a train, and in an airport lounge.
The first time I slept for five hours straight, I took notice. And went back to sleep for two more. While friends began to tell me that I seemed calmer, my body began to demonstrate that was true. My sleep patterns changed, slowly but surely, after the first couple of months of meditation.
Five hour of uninterrupted sleep turned into six. I hit the seven hour mark and celebrated with a chocolate chip scone the next morning, which undid some of my progress. It turns out that a horse/body loves sugar cubes. But one cube leads to another, and apples are better for my health.
I still haven't taken my horse out of the stable for a good, long gallop. I need to get more exercise, and that day will come.
But meditation has helped turn me into a decent sleeper. Instinctively, I've started doing the things I always knew I should do - like eliminating television and computer use at night, putting myself to bed before Jon Stewart shows up. I sleep better and that somehow makes me eat better. Sugar and caffeine don't tempt me as much as they used to.
When I do wake up in the middle of the night, I don't turn on a light and read. I don't assume that I will be awake for the rest of the night. I lie in bed, relaxed, and meditate, by following my breath, slowly. Just being where I am. I do a lighter version of my daytime practice.
And - just as I've found to be the case with my meditation practice - when I don't push things too hard, when I just let go, without judging myself or my sleeping prowess, I am able to go where I want to go.
Which is usually back to sleep.
Priscilla Warner is the co-author of The Faith Club. Her new book, about her journey from panic to peace, will be published by The Free Press in 2011. Follow her progress on her blog. And meet her mother at www.rivaleviten.com
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