Sleep like the Buddha

Feel the comfort of your bed. Are you there to enjoy it? Or are you mentally somewhere else, stressing about something that happened during the day, or might happen tomorrow?

What is the usual way you contemplate the future? Is it with some anxiety? As we learn to look at tomorrow with a smile, sleep also smiles at us. We have concerns about our health, relationships, children and work. But as we change our attitudes and relax our need to control everything, those concerns lose their grip on us, and we can sleep better at night. During the day, your mindfulness practice can bring a sense of contentment, peace and happiness. At night, these feelings translate into a relaxed attitude and better sleep.

As we train that mind to get in touch with focussed breathing and calm down, restful sleep becomes a possibility. Mindfulness practices promote being in our senses over being in our thoughts, being in the ‘here and now’ over being in the past or the future. You may be physically present when you are in bed, but mentally you may be somewhere else. Even if you lay your body down in a dark, quiet and comfortable bed, in your mind you may be going over an acrimonious argument you had with your teenage son earlier in the day. But your body does not know the difference between an imaginary argument and a real one; in both cases, it gets worked up and soon you are more ready for shadow boxing than for sleeping.

Thoughts don’t come with a switch

Perhaps you’ve had nights like this, or know somebody who does. It is frustrating, because you want to live an effective life; but here you are, hours are ticking by, and you cannot bill them to anybody! For some of you, sleep might be a waste of time, when you could be doing something more productive.

It is in moments like these that we discover what a busy place our mind is. This is also one of the first discoveries that people make when they start to meditate. The heart beats, the lungs breathe and the brain thinks—constantly. Thinking goes on all the time; it does not stop after we hand in that brilliant research paper, finish tutoring our kids, or mail our income tax. Thinking does not stop when we go to bed. There is no ‘off’ button.

Some first-timers become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of their own thoughts. They find it disagreeable to sit with all that confusion. Yet, there is no way to avoid or ignore that initial confusion. Pushing it away by seeking distractions is self-limiting: the blockbuster movie is soon over, that gripping novel ends and guests eventually leave. Sooner or later we need to face it and find a way to deal with it.

You cannot control sleep

Calming the mind is the first step in Vipassana meditation. Mindfulness makes it possible to let go, and to abandon yourself to sleep. This is different from trying to control sleep. There are some things you can and do control—like your skeletal muscles, or which way your car is going when you are behind the wheel. There are some other things you cannot control consciously. Sleep is one of them. The conscious mind may be good at creating the conditions for sleep, like turning off the light, putting on some soft music and so on, but it has no clue about how to ‘do’ sleep. The ‘doers’ among us may try to control every aspect to a point where the habit backfires. This is where mindfulness helps; it makes us aware of our habits of mind, our attitudes, and our thoughts. And awareness is the first step towards change.

Train your brain to sleep

Change happens slowly, but it does happen. The ability of meditation practice to physically change the brain has been documented by neuroscientists. The brain is like plastic and will change to accommodate the changing demands that we make on it. In mindfulness meditation, we pay attention intentionally—we do not allow ourselves to give in to automatic thoughts.

In the iconic image of the meditating Buddha, he was sitting and watering seeds selectively—he was watering the seeds of positive mental states. With time and practice, weeding our thoughts becomes easier to do, and pays off.

During the day, the people around us, our work, or even leisure activities occupy our minds. At night, when these stop, automatic thinking takes over—unless we offer the mind something else. This ‘something else’ is what we develop in meditation. It is the ability to come home to our body… to the soothing rhythm of our breath. Because we have been shown the path, we can be certain that the Buddha was peaceful not only during the day, but also at night when he lay down to sleep.

Here are a few suggestions that can help

  • A daily period of meditation is important for calming the mind. In meditation, we become witnesses of our own thoughts and feelings. This is different from ‘drowning’ in them. We stay with the breath, and observe our thoughts.
  • Avoid watching the evening news on TV; it is usually a run-down of what’s wrong with the world. At night-time, you need to contemplate what’s right with the world. You may wish to mentally go over all the good things that happened during the day and give thanks for all the things that you feel grateful for.
  • If you enjoy reading before going to sleep, choose something nourishing, not a mystery novel or a horror story.
  • Emails and text messages are best read in the morning. At bedtime, bad news will get you upset. Good news will get you excited. Both these states of mind are not conducive to sleep.

Meditation has many benefits, and better sleep is one of them. In most pictures of the meditating Buddha, he sits on a seat of lotus flowers. This is a metaphor for his state of mind. Without a peaceful mind, even the softest bed can sometimes feel like a bed of nails!

This was first published in the December 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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