Photo Credit: Alice Campos Magalhaes
Too excited? Worried? Wired up? Can’t turn your mind off at bedtime? I too have experienced this occasionally prior to a big fat Indian wedding, or a busy week in the clinic, or a major change at work, or even before an exciting vacation trip. How can you turn the mind off and then sleep like a baby? Studies have shown that Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) works better and for a longer period of time than do medications. And mindfulness is one of the techniques recommended as part of CBT-I. It calms your mind at bedtime, gently pushes away those intrusive thoughts and lets you fall asleep. Learn the technique. It is not difficult. Try it, learn it, practice it, and you shall avoid the side effects of the sleeping pills.
“Mindfulness practice is simple and completely feasible. Just by sitting and doing nothing, we are doing a tremendous amount.”
During mindfulness practice, we are trying to achieve a mind that is stable and calm. What we begin to discover is that this calmness or harmony is a natural aspect of the mind. Through mindfulness practice we are just developing and strengthening it, and eventually we are able to remain peacefully in our mind without struggling. Our mind naturally feels content. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
• Create a favorable environment. It is good if the place where you meditate, even if it’s only a small space in your bedroom, has a feeling of sacredness.
Begin with baby steps. I encourage people to meditate frequently but for short periods of time—ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes. If you force it too much, the practice can take on too much of a personality, and training the mind should be very, very simple.
• Create a sense of discipline. When we sit down, we can remind ourselves: “I’m here to work on my mind. I’m here to train my mind.” It’s OK to say that to yourself when you sit down, literally. We need that kind of inspiration as we begin to practice.
• Maintain an erect posture. The Buddhist approach is that the mind and body are connected. The energy flows better when the body is erect, and when it’s bent, the flow is changed and that directly affects your thought process. People who need to use a chair for meditation should sit upright with their feet touching the ground. Those using a meditation cushion such as a zafu or gomden should find a comfortable position with legs crossed and hands resting palm-down on your thighs. The hips are neither rotated forward too much, nor tilted back so you start slouching. You should have a feeling of stability and strength.
• Maintain a soft downward gaze. For strict mindfulness practice, the gaze should be downward focusing a couple of inches in front of your nose. The eyes are open but not staring; your gaze is soft. We are trying to reduce sensory input as much as we can.
• Focus on your breathing. When we do the mindfulness practice, we become more and more familiar with our mind, and in particular we learn to recognize the movement of the mind, which we experience as thoughts. We do this by using an object of meditation to provide a contrast or counterpoint to what’s happening in our mind. As soon as we go off and start thinking about something, awareness of the object of meditation will bring us back. We could put a rock in front of us and use it to focus our mind, but using the breath as the object of meditation is particularly helpful because it relaxes us. As you start the practice, you have a sense of your body and a sense of where you are, and then you begin to notice the breathing. The whole feeling of the breath is very important. The breath should not be forced, obviously; you are breathing naturally. The breath is going in and out, in and out. With each breath you become relaxed.
• Pleasantly Ignore your thoughts. No matter what kind of thought comes up, you should say to yourself, “That may be a really important issue in my life, but right now is not the time to think about it. Now I’m practicing meditation.” It gets down to how honest we are, how true we can be to ourselves, during each session. Everyone gets lost in thought sometimes. You might think, “I can’t believe I got so absorbed in something like that,” but try not to make it too personal. Just try to be as unbiased as possible. The mind will be wild and we have to recognize that. We can’t push ourselves. We notice that we have been lost in thought, we mentally label it “thinking”—gently and without judgment—and we come back to the breath. When we have a thought—no matter how wild or bizarre it may be—we just let it go and come back to the breath, come back to the situation here.
What we are talking about is very practical. Mindfulness practice is simple and completely feasible. And because we are working with the mind that experiences life directly, just by sitting and doing nothing, we are doing a tremendous amount.
(From Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher. Published in the January 2000 issue of the Shambhala Sun.)
Happy Learning. Sleep Well, Live Well.