Sleep disturbances affect about a third of the population (1) and research has shown that most people require between seven and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night for optimal daytime performance (2). Routinely getting less than seven hours of sleep per night can result in sleep debt accumulation, which in turn results in cognitive impairments and detrimental changes to physical health (2). A common cause for sleep disturbance is rumination (excessive thinking). Learning to quiet the mind and relax the body can therefore be a very effective tool for improving sleep quality for ruminators.
Learning to meditate is easier when well-rested than when carrying a significant sleep debt load, because there will be a strong tendency to fall asleep during meditation. Don’t be discouraged when this happens, because this tendency recedes as your sleep quality improves.
Meditating first thing in the morning is often more convenient and productive. During the first week set aside about 10 to 20 minutes for meditation, either immediately after waking or after a brisk walk. Sit in a straight-backed chair or on a soft, supportive pillow on the floor. At this point there’s no need to worry about forcing your lower limbs into a difficult and sometimes painful yoga position, since the primary focus is to learn to quiet the mind and relax the body. The acoustic environment should be somewhat quiet. If it isn’t, try using soft instrumental music or a white noise generator to mask disruptive noises. To help maintain wakefulness during meditation, try keeping a steaming mug of herbal tea and a kitchen timer handy. Wear comfortable clothing and ensure that you are neither too warm nor too cold.
Begin by paying attention to the act of breathing. This should be fairly easy at first. Then silently count each exhale. If 10 exhales are reached, begin the count over again. The goal, at least initially, will be to completely occupy the mind with attending to the act of breathing and counting exhales. Don’t get frustrated if, and when, counting to 10 exhales becomes impossible. Try adopting the attitude that intrusive thoughts are neither good nor bad, but nevertheless unnecessary. To suppress intrusive thoughts, try welcoming them into the conscious mind and focus exclusively on them. Intrusive thoughts tend to fade under direct scrutiny, which allows a return to attending to the act of breathing and counting exhales.
As the body relaxes during meditation there will be a tendency to become drowsy or even fall asleep. This is what the kitchen timer is for. Set it for 2 to 3 minutes at first and cover it with a towel to make it less jarring when it goes off. This is useful for preventing extended periods of sleep and acts as a reminder to return to mediation if intrusive thoughts have taken over the mind. Take a sip of tea if desired, reset the timer, and return to counting exhales and attending to the act of breathing. The kitchen timer also takes away the need to watch the clock, which can be another source of intrusive thoughts.
Meditation doesn’t necessarily get easier over time. For many it will become more difficult as the mind rebels against the silence. With continuous practice it will become apparent that the repetitive process of quieting the mind, confronting intrusive thoughts, and then finding your way back to a quiet mind, IS the process of meditation. So don’t fret if it doesn’t go smoothly.
You should notice an almost immediate improvement in sleep quality. Meditating before bedtime can also help, as can meditating while lying in bed should you find yourself awake in the middle of the night. As you learn to more efficiently quiet your mind and relax your body, improvements in sleep quality and your waking life should continue.
1. J Adolescent Health, 2010; E-pub Jan. 13, pp. 1-6
2. J Clin Sleep Med, 2007; 3(5):519-528