100+ Breaths: Another Back-to-Sleep Option

Another stressful night left me wide awake at 3am again. Not fun when you’ve got a long day of work ahead of you.

I went to my tried-and-true tactic: several guided meditations which usually work to take the place of the worries swirling in my noggin. But this time it wasn’t enough. The voices were soothing but I wasn’t close to falling asleep.

So I came up with a simple impromptu meditation that kinda-sorta breaks the mindfulness “rules”.

So many numbers out there for me to count while I’m not sleeping…

I’ve been taught that one can count the breaths to help deal with the chattering “Monkey Mind”, and this can be done in various ways. For example, count each inhale as one and each exhale as two, repeating with the next inhale as one and exhale as two, and so on, never progressing further.

Or counting each breath cycle up to 10 (or any other preset number) and then start again at one. If your focus is lost at any point, start at one again, working your way back to 10, restarting at one if your mind wanders off again.

These types of counting techniques aren’t meant to get you anywhere. The number you reach doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make the breath counts your point of focus, giving the Monkey Mind something to do and keeping anxious thoughts at bay.

But for this particular 3am waking, I decided to try something else: count breaths without a stopping point. Instead of observing the breath without changing it, as is usually done during other mindfulness meditation practices, I counted during the exhale, consciously extending the breath as I thought the number. And as I focused on my breath, I kept track of the ascending numbers. This required a touch more concentration and yet was simple and boring enough to not excite my mind.

Inhale, exhale, eighty-six…inhale, exhale, eighty-seven…inhale, exhale, eighty-z-z-z-z-z-z-z…

Somewhere in the 70s and 80s the numbers started jumbling in my head and I repeated several, not being sure exactly where I was. By the 90s, my monkey brain was muttering. I remember getting to 100 and going past it, but my memory is foggy. Consciousness faded in the one hundred teens, I think.

As far as back-to-sleep methods go, this was not a quick fix, but I was too awake to try anything else. I counted for a good 20-30 minutes. I manipulated the breath, so as I mentioned, this practice didn’t follow the mindfulness meditation “rules”, although it did offer me meditation practice in lieu of spinning my worry wheels.

But in the wee hours of the morning when nothing else seemed to be working, it got me to where I needed to be: asleep.

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When the going gets tough, I’ve found counting to be one of the most effective last-ditch back-to-sleep methods, for me preferable to getting out of bed and going out to the couch to read or something. If nothing else, I get in some effective meditation practice. Additionally, this was not a night with a totally hyperactive Monkey Mind. My monkey was awake for distractible.

Note that as I was doing this, I lay on my side, bolster between my knees, white noise playing through my earbuds (yes, I’ve taken to sleeping with earbuds in!). I was in “sleep position” and keeping still, so the only “moving parts” were my brain and the expansion and contraction of my chest and belly.

Counting Backwards to Sleep

I’m still experiencing weird sleep disruptions. Many nights I’ll be up for an extended time during the wee hours of the morning.

This isn’t conducive to being bright and alert during the day, so I’m devising a game plan for limiting the length of these nighttime interruptions.

My newest strategy is a variant of a counting practice that I heard over the radio years ago, and it goes like this:

Imagine a clean whiteboard. In one hand you’re holding a dry-erase marker in your favorite color, in the other a cloth or eraser.

Your imaginary nighttime whiteboard won’t have a reflection like mine, but you get the idea. The numbers are familiar but you might need to think a bit about how to form them in reverse.

Write “100” in large numbers, but do it backwards so it looks like a mirror image. Channel your inner da Vinci. 🙂

Your board may be brighter and the numbers more perfect than mine. Perhaps you’ll choose a different color. All that matters is that you focus on forming the numbers in reverse.

Then erase the number and write “99”, again reversed. Erase it again.

Keep counting down. Don’t rush. Think about how your hand should move to scribe the backwards numbers. Breathe deeply. When you erase, erase carefully and completely.

As you count down, don’t breeze past the erasure. Make sure you allow your imagination to clean off all markings of the previous numbers before you start writing the next ones.

You probably won’t get to zero. The first two nights I did this, I didn’t make it past 80. It doesn’t always work so well, but when it does, it’s soothing and sleep-inducing.

Why does it put you to sleep? First, you’re not doing anything very complex and therefore this shouldn’t be putting you into a greater state of wakefulness; in fact, counting down is kind of boring. You’re giving your full focus to this task so there are fewer opportunities for intrusive thoughts to interrupt. If they do, return your focus to the numbers. Do this each time your mind wanders. And while the task is easy enough, it does require you to pause and consider how to move your hand, since you’re doing the opposite of what you usually do to write a number.

The counting task requires enough attention that you shift your focus away from thoughts that may be keeping you up, but is gentle enough to lull you into a calmer state that helps bring on sleep.

If imagining a whiteboard doesn’t work for you in the middle of the night, there are other counting variations that would work as well:

Starting from 100, simply count backwards by threes (no imaginary writing required). If 100 seems too optimistically small a number from which to start, use 300 or even 1000. If counting down by threes seems too complex, try twos. Go slow.

Really good at addition? Try calculating the Fibonacci Sequence, a series of numbers where the next number is the sum of the two preceeding it. Start from zero, add one and then keep going: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… unfortunately, this can get out of control quickly (I usually lose track somewhere in the three-digit numbers). But intrepid math fans might be able to get far enough to refocus themselves to the present and enter a calmer state.

Does the idea of math cause you stress? Then just count your breaths, start from 100 and going backwards, slowing down the breathing as you go, imagining the numbers count down with each inhale. This works particularly well if you focus on releasing all your muscles with each exhale.

A specific strategy may not work every time, but the overall idea is the same: something that requires a little brain focus with minimal excitation or strain (so that you can lazily shift your focus and keep your mind gently occupied). Do not rush through these; the magic lies in the process. There is nothing to achieve here. You’re simply boring yourself to sleep.

Try any of these the next time you find yourself awake with a racing mind and let me know how it goes.