11/12/2012 04:30 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Buddha's Book of Sleep Review


I'm a pretty good sleeper under normal circumstances. As Ellie says, I'm usually asleep before my head hits the pillow. At my age, of course, nature tends to call at least once, sometimes twice and, on rare occasions, more often in the course of the night. Unless I have something on my mind I have little trouble getting back to sleep. As I learned on a recent trip to Europe from "unless" can be a big one. What was on my mind? Packing up to move on to our next destination, making plans for the next day, getting to the train station and carting the bags about, adjusting to an unfamiliar environment, the discomfort of heavy food at unusual times, sometimes late (for us) in the evening, a distress call from our daughter with news of little Luka's visit to the emergency room and generally being out of touch. It seemed like a million different things. I resorted, I confess, to sleeping pills -- first in the middle of the night when I couldn't fall back asleep; and then as a preventative measure before going to bed. Half an Ambien, I told myself, can't be that bad.

Joseph Emet, unsurprisingly, disapproves of the sleeping pill option. (I'm happy to report that I managed to kick the habit soon after my return.) Emet is the author of Buddha's Book of Sleep: Sleep Better in Seven Weeks with Mindfulness Meditation, due out in January 2013 from Tarcher/Penguin, a book which those who do have trouble sleeping will find eminently useful -- if they approach it with patience and a willingness to do the necessary work. Sensibly, Emet does not offer a quick fix, nor does he suggest that "mindfulness meditation" is something that can be learned overnight. His seven-week program is entirely feasible, but will need to be followed up for months and years if the results are to be maintained. What he proposes is a change of life, and most immediately a change of mind.

It's Emet's argument that if we have difficulty sleeping, we are standing in the way of ourselves. Those familiar with breath meditation practice will recognize the busy mind he writes about -- a mind that is obsessed with worries about the future or attachment to the past. They will have experienced the simple pleasure of being in the moment, a place where sleep comes naturally and unhindered by the mind's activity. The "mindfulness meditation" he advocates has proved an invaluable tool to address a variety of ills, from depression and anxiety to addictions and other self-destructive behaviors. It's a way of bringing mind and body to a place of calm detachment, a perch from which one can observe the brain's reactive patterns and learn to be at peace with them. Giving up the battle with sleep, Emet writes, is more than half the battle.

Roughly the last third of his book is devoted to that seven-week program referred to in his subtitle. Emet walks us though a series of seven basic meditation exercises, proposing a week's practice to learn each of them in turn. (An e-book version is available, which will usefully allow people to listen to the instructions, rather than attempt to follow and read them at the same time.) The exercises focus on the breath as a means to calm the mind, the body scan, the metta practice of sending out goodwill and so on. They are spelled out in easy-to-follow detail, and in language that is at once engaging and soothing in rhythm and intent. Emet writes, I imagine, as he speaks: The reader can hear the dharma teacher's gentle voice of guidance throughout.

There are many portals that lead us to the dharma, and this is certainly one of them. While modulated particularly to a single purpose, Emet's book serves also as a fine introduction to the Buddha's teachings, as well as to their application to the art of sleeping well. Readers may come to it attracted by its primary purpose. If they read attentively and follow the program of exercises with due patience, they will come away not only with changed sleeping habits, but changed lives.