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Can't Sleep? Try Meditation

01/15/2016 05:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2016
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Throughout my years as a meditation teacher, I've encountered many students who come to meditation from a place of acute anxiety. Meditation, and mindfulness practices in general, are scientifically proven antidotes to anxiety and stress, as they are about focusing the mind on what is rather than allowing the anxiety or stress itself to take over, and lead the mind into labyrinths of self-judgment, comparison, regret and other rumination.

Contrary to popular belief, meditation doesn't always feel relaxing in real time. When I first came to meditation when I was 18, I was experiencing a lot of suffering, and I was seeking a spiritual practice to "fix" my life. I imagined becoming an instantaneously skilled meditator, and becoming filled with white light and bliss during my formal sittings. Of course, what ended up happening was quite different: my meditation practice gave me the space to see the extent to which my mind was causing my suffering, and I began to practice letting go. Thoughts, self-critiques, comparisons to others and so on would still arise--but rather than "inviting the thoughts in for tea," I acknowledged them, ushered them out of my mind, and returned to my breath. Negotiating this relationship with the mind is one of the central pillars of meditation.

When we meditate, we are strengthening our "letting go" muscles, which we are not frequently conditioned to train in our competitive, work-focused culture. That's why I believe meditation is one of the most powerful sleep-aids. (And, in fact, recent studies prove this to be true!) One of my students speaks frequently about her insomnia, which, she tells me, often feels related to obsessional thinking and ritualistic habits of checking and re-checking her phone and email, feeling like the night hours meant for sleeping could be work hours, and therefore are being wasted. Needless to say, this student tells me that she feels tremendous gratitude for her meditation practice, and the space it has created for her to learn to rest, even when it feels difficult.

Sleep troubles often become a vicious cycle. First, we can't sleep, which is often the result of anxiety or stress--having endured a tough conversation that day, anticipating a big meeting coming up at work, enumerating your to-do list. Then, the mind tends to fixate on sleeplessness as the object of anxiety itself. I can't sleep. Why can't I sleep? What did I do wrong today to make me not be able to sleep? Rather than simply recognizing what is--the fact that we're awake in the present moment--the mind's stories, judgments, questions and worries enter the scene. Needless to say, rest doesn't usually emerge naturally from such a tight "grip."

Another one of my students developed a particular lovingkindness meditation practice for sleeplessness. In traditional lovingkindness meditation, we silently state phrases of lovingkindness to ourselves first, then to another individual-- first a loved one, and then someone who we find difficult. Finally, we direct phrases of lovingkindness to all beings. (Examples of phrases include May I/you/all beings be happy, peaceful, healthy, strong.) When this student of mine has trouble sleeping, she likes to imagine "all beings" to whom she is directing phrases of lovingkindess in a state of rest. This helps her mind release its grip on the fact that she is alone, ostensibly the only person awake, and her anxieties around wakefulness dissipate as her focus becomes directed on a more positive, restful thought.

Sure, meditation requires discipline, but the practice is more meaningful when we can find a sense of spaciousness in it. I often say that tuning into the breath, or phrases of lovingkindness, or whatever your object of mindfulness may be, is like noticing a friend in a crowd. Just because we are focusing on our friend doesn't mean the other individuals in the crowd must be eradicated. But we can still gently rest our attention on our friend, the breath. That way, we move into a place of restful attention rather than fixation. Focus may require energy, but it's an energy characterized by expansion, rather than constriction. Meditation creates space, and in that space we can rest. We are never alone in our search for peace. We just need to trust that it will come. So may you be happy, may you live with ease, and may you sleep restfully each night.

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