Exploring the convenient connection between mindfulness and sleep.
By Brad Beckstrom
“The Voice in My Head is an Asshole.” I laughed out loud when I read this line on the first page of a new book by Dan Harris called 10% Happier. I got a few funny looks on the airplane with the laugh. It was the day before Christmas Eve and the overbooked flight was delayed. There weren’t a lot of happy people on this plane.
I was happy. My family was on the plane and, even though our flight was delayed in Houston, our final destination was Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I had a decent seat, a cup of coffee, and was on page 1 of what looked to be an interesting book.
Dan Harris’s book is all about silencing the voices in our head and reducing stress. Even before I bought the book, I knew where it was going — mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, assorted gurus, granola, and yoga instructors.
I’d read about meditation before. I understood the benefits. I’d learned how everyone from Silicon Valley CEOs, soldiers dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder, athletes and coaches, Nobel prize winners, all reduce stress and up their performance with daily meditation. Phil Jackson a winning coach with 11 NBA titles. He got entire NBA teams to sit entirely still and focus on building mental toughness through meditation. That cannot be easy.
In fact, meditation is not easy. I had tried it, I approached it as mindfulness, doing breathing exercises to clear the mind, simply by focusing on breathing. In and out, in and out. It didn’t work for me. I’d find myself thinking about everything, and basically unable to sit still for more than two minutes.
I believe this is where most people struggle. They get all set up, turn on the timer, start their breathing exercises, try to clear their head. That’s when the voices start reminding you of all of the other things you have going on, are worried about, or should be doing.
Turning off the Monkey Mind
I felt better about failing at this when I heard Tim Ferriss,author of The 4-hour Workweek, talk about his struggles with meditation. Tim said he had trouble shutting off what he called his “monkey mind” — always agitated, never truly at rest. Tim mentioned the monkey mind again in his book The 4-hour Body, but this time it was in reference to his struggles with insomnia. He had a lot of trouble getting to sleep, aka, onset insomnia.
Now, years later, reading “10% Happier” was another reference to this “monkey mind”, this asshole in your head that will never shut up. Constantly telling you what will and won’t work, everything you should be worried about including various imagined illnesses and catastrophes that never happen.
The connection to sleep
That’s when I made the connection between mindfulness and sleep. All this time I’ve been attempting to meditate, sitting in my office looking out the window, or on a mat before a workout. I was trying to silence my mind while surrounded by stuff, whether that be desks, computers, work out equipment, stereos, whatever. I even had a meditation app on my iPhone with a timer. If the monkey mind didn’t distract me, something else would, usually within 5 seconds of starting my deep breathing.
I thought maybe I needed a distraction free environment like a beautiful beach or a quiet spot in the woods. Not so easy to pull that together, sitting in my office in January. That’s when I discovered that it was okay to meditate while lying down. I read the only problem with this was that some people would fall asleep! (bonus) What better way to silence the mind then to meditate and fall into a restful sleep!
Getting it right
So, I decided to try a new approach. Each night before going to sleep I would spend 5 to 10 minutes lying perfectly straight on my back with my hands folded across my chest (coffin style) and simply do breathing exercises. Repeating, in and out, with each breath, in and out of my nose. Really trying to think only about my breathing and completely silence the monkey mind.
This solved several problems:
- The location problem. I would do this lying in bed in the dark staring at the ceiling when I went to bed. You can do this anywhere you sleep or nap.
- The distraction problem. Everyone is asleep, everything is turned off, silence.
- The time problem. Doing this at the end of the day, consistently, allows you to clear your head of all the things that stack up during the day, week, month, decade etc.
- The Yogi, guru, problem. I’d rather not try to explain to people why I am sitting in my office cross legged with my eyes closed, breathing deeply.
Once I got these problems squared away, the hard part started, silencing the monkey mind.
For many people who have trouble falling asleep, it’s due to the fact that these voices, reminding us of all the things we should be worrying about, happen at some point when we are trying to sleep. This could include, having difficulty falling asleep or waking up at 3 AM with random thoughts and having trouble getting back to sleep. So if you’re one of these people you may find it challenging to turn these thoughts off. This is why you need to keep at it. You’ll fail often but you’ll see gradual improvement in clearing your thoughts and improving your sleep long-term.
Failing at this is an ongoing part of the process.
One additional breakthrough that I got from the 10% Happier book is that it’s perfectly acceptable to fail at this over and over. The failure is actually an ongoing part of the process. That’s the key. No matter how good you are at this, your attention will wander and voices will creep in here and there. The way I dealt with this was as each thought entered my mind, I just simply, acknowledged it then released it. Think of it as crumpling up a post it note and throwing it in the trash.
My experiences go something like this:
Forgot to send that email.
Need to get a book about Thailand.
Do I need a visa to go to Thailand?
Do I need shots of some sort?
Forget it, return to breath.
The dog needs expensive dental work.
I need to flip the pillow over.
Forget it, return to breath.
And so on. This is how it goes for 5 or 10 minutes. The Monkey Mind still going strong but I’m starting to reduce the noise.
That’s the key, gradually improving the percentage of time you can silence that asshole voice in your head. To get better it’s important to keep at it understanding that sometimes you will fail over and over. This is okay because you’re playing the long game, You’ll get better at it over time.
On the weekends, this habit makes a great on-ramp to a afternoon nap. So, maybe start with that then keep at it. In my experience, if you can get up to 10 minutes you’re doing better than 95% of people that try this.
To me the greatest benefits of practicing mindfulness through meditation is stress reduction and mental performance. Think of it as decluttering the mind.