Ask someone what brought them to learn meditation and the response is often one of the usual suspects: stress, anger management, focus issues, depression, anxiety and the source of my own explorations into this area: insomnia. When I hit puberty I started getting nightmares and sleepless nights, restless tossing and endlessly cycling thoughts of regrets and possibilities. To counteract my sleepiness in the day, coffee became my lifeblood, then cigarettes too. I worked part-time at a movie theatre—often until after midnight—participated in musical theatre productions three times a year and somehow managed to still make my classes and get good grades. This was all while functioning on minimal sleep. I rarely reached the deepest and most restful phase of sleep. Eventually, I realized that the stimulants were treating the symptoms and not the cause. I became obsessed with finding forms of meditation that could help me sleep and I have been living insomnia-free for over a decade. Many of the following techniques now happen unconsciously for me and going to sleep is often as easy as lying down and placing my hand on my heart.
This was where it all started for me. Though all a part of the whole, each body part has their own personality and needs. In my experience, once each part is acknowledged, it has a way of “tucking itself in for the night,” like saying goodnight to all your children. Starting from the toes and moving upwards, bring your attention to each body part and then allow it to relax. I like to physically flex or tense each body part and then relax it. Continue upwards through the body and arms, finally ending with the neck, face and crown. In the beginning, it will take longer to go through this process but eventually it becomes like a slow electrical wave that passes through you. This is a wonderful base for any relaxing meditation, journeying or for those whose insomnia comes from out-of-control thinking, as it commands focus.
I first came across this technique in Buddhist group meditation and eventually coupled it with another technique I encountered while lecturing on heart-based meditation, because they are both expressions of the same intention. This technique is especially useful for out-of-control thinking and what Eckhart Tolle calls “mind movies.” The mistake most people make—myself included—is to engage with the thoughts that arise – especially trying to push them away. Instead, gently diffuse the thoughts away through either swiping or ballooning.
Swiping: Imagine you are a car and your mind’s eye is the windshield, then turn on the wipers. Gently wipe the thoughts away, side to side, and allow them to disappear.
Ballooning: Place a balloon around the thought and then let it float off into the distance. If needed, physically lift your hands to set the thought free.
Heart-based meditation or Coherence was developed by the Heartmath Institute after years of studying meditation techniques and the heart. This method stimulates optimal communication between the heart and brain, which produces over 1,300 biochemicals, most of which have healing and mind/body balancing effects. There are three simples steps to this meditation:
1. Heart Awareness: Bring your attention to your heart by placing your hand or a couple fingers on it.
2. Heart Breathing: Take deep, comfortable breaths—nothing forceful— while picturing the breath entering through the heart and going up to the top of the head then back down and out the heart again.
3. Heart Feeling: Generate a feeling of thanks or appreciation. This is a feeling and not a thought form, so what you want is that fluttery feeling in your chest when you experience gratitude. Good keywords to help generate this are: Gratitude, Appreciation, Thank You or simply picturing one of those adorable ‘cat befriends turtle’ or ‘hamster eats tiny burrito’ videos. Put your hand on your heart, breathe and feel. If you get lost or distracted, just do the three steps over again.
This is an incredibly simple and potent method for easing into sleep that comes from Jonathan Goldman and the hardest part about it is not feeling silly. A sustained hum actually stimulates your body to produce natural melatonin, the hormone we produce in response to darkness (and which many people take in synthetic form as a sleep aid). You will be shocked at how well three comfortable, sustained hums will help your body relax.
Declaration/Request of Intent
Sometimes the body is unsure of what to do, after being pulled in so many directions all day. Stating your intent for a restful sleep, where you wake feeling refreshed and energized, is a great technique – especially if you have an important day ahead. It can be formed as a request to your guides and spirits, or directly to the body itself. The body responds to whichever paradigm as long as the intent/request is stated clearly.
Above all, don’t overwhelm yourself! Pick one of the techniques to start with and build from there. You’ll be sleeping easier in no time.
Finally, just like the old shop owner in the classic film, I offer three other simple rules to help keep your Mogwai from turning into a Gremlin:
- Avoid stimulants. Caffeine stays in the system an average of 10 hours, so avoid having it within 6-8 hours of bedtime. The same goes with cigarettes, vapes and energy drinks. If you are truly battling insomnia, consider scrapping these altogether.
- Don’t eat after 8pm. Your digestive system also has a sleep cycle and it takes a while to get to sleep as well. Eating too late confuses this system. What you end up with is bad dreams and partially digested food.
- Put the phone down. Not only does the light from your screen affect your body’s natural rhythms, so does those dopamine hits from social media/mobile games/doom-scrolling the news. Put your phone away at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and keep it powered down in a different room from where you sleep.
This article was originally published in the Healing Connections Wellness Centre January 2023 newsletter. To subscribe to this newsletter visit here.