Neither sleep routines nor mindfulness practice respond well to a heavy hand. If you set out to force yourself into sleep, you’re less likely to sleep. If you strain for some picture-perfect mindset when meditating, you’ll create more stress and uncertainty. If you set yourself up with clear-sighted planning and patient resolve— intentionally but unforced—sleep and mindfulness are both more to likely follow.
A Guided Meditation for Sleep
- Begin while lying down, and bringing your attention, as best as you’re able, to the physical movement related to breathing, such as your belly rising and falling. Or, if you prefer, focus your attention more closely on the air moving in and out of your nose and mouth.
- Observe your thoughts. Your mind rehashes the day or gets caught up in worrying about tomorrow. Recognize those habits, and then practice letting them be. Label whatever grabs your attention, and come back to noticing the sensations of the breath. Breathing in… and breathing out.
- Notice if you get caught up in effort, or frustration, or fear with compassion for yourself. Catch thoughts of self-criticism or frustration, and come back to just one breath, one more time. Breathing in… breathing out. There’s nothing you need to fix or change right now in this moment. Notice where your thoughts go, and label them “thoughts.” Come back to one next breath, over, and over again.
- Shift attention to sensations in your body. Start by moving your awareness to physical sensations in your feet. Just notice them—the temperature or the pressure of your heel against the blanket.
- From your feet, move your attention up into your lower legs, and then your abdomen, noticing in each area of your body, whatever there is to notice. Letting go of a sense of effort or needing to make anything happen. If you feel any sense of stress or tension, relax, breathe, and let go.
- Move your attention from your belly into your chest and your back. Note each time your mind gets caught up in thoughts of discomfort or distraction or you feel any tension. Relax your muscles as best as you’re able, gently and with patience.
- Shift your attention into your hands and lower arms, again without actively needing to move or change anything, observing and letting go.
- Then moving through your neck and into the muscles of your face, perhaps noticing any locations of tightness or pinching, and then with gentleness, as best as you’re able, relaxing those muscles. And then for a few moments, have a general awareness of physical sensations throughout your body.
And then (if you’re still awake) bring your attention back to the breath, each time the mind wanders, or you get stuck thinking, bring your attention to the sensation of your body breathing.
Research on Mindfulness and Sleep
Research findings from a team in the Netherlands suggest that even a small amount of mindfulness meditation can help calm our hyperactive minds and improve our sleep. Study participants with no formal meditation training were given reading materials that introduced them to the basic tenets of mindfulness—the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. They also received instructions and audio of guided meditations for four specific mindfulness practices: a three-minute “mindful breathing” exercise (which focuses attention on the breath), the body scan (moving focus across different areas of the body), mindfully focusing on an everyday task (such as preparing breakfast or taking a shower), and loving-kindness meditation (sending feelings of love and compassion to themselves and others). Over the course of two-weeks, meditators experienced steady improvements in sleep quality, sleep duration, and mindfulness.