When I did a nine-day vipassana meditation retreat a few years ago, as you might guess, we pretty much meditated all day. We either sat on cushions, all 60 of us in a hall, or we sat in our rooms—on our beds or floors, observing our breath, thoughts, and sensations. About 13 hours of meditation a day: at turns grueling, boring, enlightening stuff.
The rest of the time, we watched a video or listened to audio of vipassana’s main disseminator, the late SN Goenka, intoning instructions in his gravely, funny, sweet voice. One of these was: No lying down during formal meditation—definitely not in the hall, and hopefully not in your room or meditation cell. I paraphrase him: “If you meditate lying down, pretty soon the whole place will be filled with the sounds of snoring.” Of course, I had to test his theory; this experiment resulted in some lovely, guilt-laced naps.
Accordingly, Goenka also recommended meditating while drifting off to sleep—or, as some people on the Internet call it: beditation.
Though scientific studies are undecided on whether meditation actually improves sleep (some researchers say it does by easing depression; some say it makes you need less sleep; some reveal increased alertness), I find it the spiritual equivalent of counting sheep.
Here’s what I do.
1) Snuggle into going-to-sleep position. For me this is on my belly with one leg up and bent in Frog pose. It’s surprisingly comfy.
2) Start noticing the thought torrents—work, that conversation I had that I didn’t quite do “right,” how I finished a big project—and the subsequent feeling waves: stress, shame, relief.
3) Find the breath. The other day I heard Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg say in a talk that we should think of attuning to the breath in the way we notice a friend in a crowd. We don’t stop seeing the other people (aka thoughts), we just focus on our friend (the breath). I’m finding this helpful. It’s the opposite of pushing anything away, and it’s friendly—the breath is a buddy, not a daunting challenger I must watch vigilantly or lose. When my friend fades, I just return to my nostrils, feeling the air going in and out.
4) Ride the waves. Sometimes I get to: “I can’t do this, I’m just going to read in the living room.” But really, I don’t have to believe that; it’s just another thought. I gently notice, I breathe, and I stay in the process with my breath BFF. Pretty soon, I’m out and snoring, just like Goenka said I would.
I know it’s not that simple for everyone—certainly chronic insomnia isn’t usually cured with a breath meditation. So if that’s not doing it for you, there are many guided audio meditations with suggestions and visualizations.
This is a lovely, free, guided meditation from the amazing (and mellow-inducing) Belleruth Naparstek.
You can also pick up her CD of the guided meditations, Healthful Sleep.
For the more musically inclined, I also really like Jeffrey Thompson’s instrumentals that are supposed to induce the deep delta brainwaves required for restful sleep. I have his Brainwaves variety pack, but his Delta Sleep System sounds really nice too.
Do you meditate as you drift off to sleep? How does it work for you?