Mindfulness meditation stems from a Buddhist practice called vipassana, a term which can be translated as ‘to see in a clear way’. Mindfulness meditation is one style of meditation that has attracted attention in Western cultures as a possible approach to healing. Today it’s also been used for anxious and racing minds as well as for insomnia.
Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself.
The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices that includes techniques designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy (chi, ki, prana, etc.) and develop compassion, love, patience, generosity and forgiveness.
A particularly ambitious form of meditation aims at effortlessly sustained single-pointed concentration, meant to enable its practitioner to enjoy an indestructible sense of well-being (Nirvāṇa) while engaging in any life activity.
Meditation often involves an internal effort to self-regulate the mind in some way. Meditation can help clear the mind and ease many health issues, such as high blood pressure, depression, poor sleep and anxiety to name a few examples. It may be done sitting, lying or in an active way, for instance Buddhist monks involve awareness in their day-to-day activities as a form of mind-training.
Short history of meditation
In brief, there are dozens of specific styles of meditation practice. The word meditation may carry different meanings in different contexts. Meditation has been practised since antiquity as a component of numerous religious traditions and beliefs (Hinduism, Buddhism, Tao, Islamic, Western Christian)
In the West, meditation is sometimes thought of in two broad categories: concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation. These two categories are discussed in the following two paragraphs, with concentrative meditation being used interchangeably with focused attention and mindfulness meditation being used interchangeably with open monitoring,
Note: Meditation is an experience. You have to DO it in order to understand and appreciate it. Also, finding your own way is key – believe in YOU and what feels right is right. There are different ‘schools’ and ‘rules’ and ‘guidance’ yet the key thing is to find your own way to keep (=enjoy) a silent moment, connect to your core and let your soul rest and re-energise. The better we learn to listen ourselves, the better we take care of ourselves. As a consequence, we also sleep better.
Mindfulness meditation and sleep
Many chronic poor sleepers simply can’t switch off their thoughts. Reactive thinking and anxiety-based worrying are still the most common causes of insomnia for most people. Stress-based reactive thinking describes those intrusive thoughts that keep on repeating themselves over and over again, like a broken record player. Experts tell us that excessive stress at work or the overwhelming burden of ‘things-to-do’ is common complaint. It is not that (only) the stresses are emotionally intense, it’s just the sheer volume of things to! The frequency of cognitive stimulation in periods of stress causes hyper-stimulation of the mind causing sensory overload. The thought pathways become so entrenched that they override other concerns and we become even more fixated and compulsive in our thinking. Stress-based thinking can lead to tunnel vision and a reduction in our perceptual acuity.
Anxiety-based reactive thinking is when we become consumed with worry and where the volume of thoughts may be less, but the intensity is much greater, producing the same level of emotional overload and reduction in perceptual acuity.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and particularly mindfulness-based CBT, or mindfulness therapy has proved to be immensely effective in helping people manage insomnia by helping people deal with the reactive thinking – automatic reactive thinking – that is at the core of insomnia.
The first step is simply training us to become aware of reactive thoughts. Now, being aware of a thought is actually totally different from being lost in the thought. Being lost is what happens during reactive thinking. The difference that can be seen is tiny, but the positive effect of training ourselves to recognize a reactive thought the moment it arises is incredibly powerful. During mindfulness therapy we develop the ability to “catch” reactive thoughts, before they have a chance to become reactive.
Mindfulness therapy also teaches you how to process reactive thoughts more effectively by the “catch and place” technique. We literally imagine taking the thought and placing it at some distant place away. This simple placing technique releases more space into our crowded mind. We need this extra space to manage stress of all kinds. And when there is some air between us and our disturbing thoughts then they have less power over us.
There are many, many other techniques taught in mindfulness therapy that can help you reduce reactive thinking and so remove one of the major causes of insomnia.
Mindfulness therapy for poor sleep
Preliminary work has been conducted on mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBT-I), a meditation-based program for individuals suffering from chronic sleep disturbance. This treatment integrates behavioural treatments for insomnia with the principles and practices of mindfulness meditation.
The goal of MBT-I is to help individuals increase awareness of the mental and physical states related to chronic insomnia and to develop adaptive ways of working with these undesirable states. Typical MBT-I treatment includes meditation exercises, discussion, and daily monitoring of sleep and wakeful activities and learning to make the distinction between sleepiness and fatigue. MBT-I aims to reduce unwanted wakefulness at night and improve managing the emotional reactions to sleep disturbance and daytime fatigue. As the program proceeds, participants are taught to respond to sleep disturbance with mindfulness skills rather than react automatically by increasing effort to rest. For example, awareness of internal cues (sleepiness rather than fatigue) along with a recognition of reactive tendencies (avoid fatigue by going to bed) is used to make changes in both the relationship to sleep and behaviours that are likely to promote sleep.
Specific behavioural changes are implemented through sleep restriction and stimulus control. Sleep restriction limits the time spent in bed. Stimulus control re-establishes the bed/bedroom as stimuli to feel sleepy so that sleep is more likely to happen.
Effectiveness of mindfulness
Individuals with chronic insomnia often feel that they have no control over their sleep. Mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia was developed to help these individuals by using mindfulness meditation to manage the emotional reactions to sleep disturbance and daytime fatigue. The principles and practices of mindfulness meditation allow for sleep to unfold rather than increasing efforts to clear the mind or trying harder to make sleep happen. This approach might be more acceptable to patients who are looking for non-pharmacological treatments for insomnia and are willing to make lifestyle changes.
There’s a growing body of evidence supporting the use of a mindfulness-based approach for the treatment of insomnia but more is needed. One recent study, conducted by Cynthia Gross, PhD and her colleagues from the College of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota, has found some inspiring evidence that mindfulness may be just as powerful as the insomnia prescription medication, Lunesta (eszopiclone).
This randomized, controlled trial was conducted at the University of Minnesota’s health centre where 30 adults, diagnosed with insomnia, were split into two groups. 20 participants took an 8 week MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) training course, and 10 participants were put on a daily regimen of 3mg of eszopiclone (Lunesta). The folks in the mindfulness course had one 2.5 hour session a week for eight weeks, one full day retreat, and were provided with homework assignments designed to help them stay focused on their mindfulness practices.
Participants’ quality of sleep was measured using the Insomnia Severity Index, the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, and sleep diaries. After 8 weeks of training, the MBSR group fell asleep more quickly than the medication group and this was still true at the 3 month follow-up. What’s more, some of the improvements in quality of sleep continued to rise as time passed.
Please note: this does not mean that anyone currently taking medication should stop doing so. Always discuss with your GP/ Doctor first before making any changes to your medicine regimen.
Many people feel that mindfulness /meditation /mindfulness meditation is not for them regardless of many attempts. One problem often is that we don’t get how ‘letting go’ works and focus on (forcefully) clearing our mind. All efforts go to make the thoughts go away. In this kind of situation we can try another way. Rather than using effort to force these thoughts out we can simply allow them to be. See what happens when you just let your thoughts run their own course!
If you wish some support to mediate, the commonly used mantra is ‘So-ham’. So-ham acts as a natural mantra to control one’s breathing pattern, to help achieve deep breath, and to gain concentration.
- Sooooo… is the sound of inhalation, and is remembered in the mind along with that inhalation.
- Hummmm… is the sound of exhalation, and is remembered in the mind along with that exhalation.
Aim to keep exhalation twice as long as inhalation. This way your body systems slows down and you fall into peaceful state.
However, nothing prevents you to create your own ‘mantra’ something like ‘I feel safe’, ‘everything is alright’, ‘today is a good day’, etc. Don’t take meditation too seriously and rely on your instincts for what is the best way for you to find space and a connection for your core and soul.
Essentially meditation is about learning to live in the moment. Mindfulness is very much about ‘now’. Enjoying what is happening in an accepting manner. And choosing how we react to different experiences rather than letting the events around us take grip of us. The very same truth applies to ‘handling’ poor sloop. Our reactions are strengthening the very thing we are trying to lessen. We should not aim to learn how to beat insomnia but how to sit with it. It’s about letting go. Like babies do.
Useful meditation links
Mindful Meditation: Acceptance of Thoughts & Feelings (8 mins, YouTube)
Mindfulness Meditation Body Scan (15 mins, YouTube)
Soothing meditation music (~10 minutes, very soothing and peaceful)
The song 3055 (~4 mins, relaxing and sweet)
Ljósið (~4 mins, a bit more up tempo for more energetic days)
Mirabai Ceiba, Har Mukanday – Mantra of Liberation (~9 mins, spiritual, peaceful)
RaMaDa – Snatam Kaur – Love Vibration (~9 mins, spiritual, peaceful)
Relax music meditation (~4 mins, soothing earth music)
Meditation and sleep music (~30 mins, people fall asleep listening this)
Background music intrumentals (~2.5 mins, slow, peaceful)