Falling Back Asleep: Nighttime Relief

As calm as I may be during the waking hours, nightfall poses a unique challenge. How many of us have struggled in the darkness, surrounded by those scary thoughts that we thought we had dealt with during the day?

The darkness seems to make us more vulnerable to flying thought-gremlins. They creep in at night when our brains can’t reason them away. I’ve fought those little buggers for much of my life and they’ve been responsible for many hours of lost sleep. It wasn’t until I got serious about meditation that I developed means of protecting myself against them.

These are my best recommendations for returning to dreamland:

Drop into your bed. After waking to Dementor-esque anxieties circling you, realize that they’re flying, ephemeral creatures. And if you’re up there with them, it’s time to come back to Earth and settle into your bed. That is where you really are and you are safe. Focus on how it feels to have your body contact the bed, how the bedclothes feel against your skin. Rustle the sheets and listen to the sound. Take three deep breaths and listen to the exhales. You’re not “up there” with the swirling thoughts. You’re down here where it’s calm.

At times when there’s too much noise in my head, I will put a soothing voice in there from a meditation app like Calm, Plum Village or Insight Timer. Sometimes a guided meditation is enough to quiet the negative clamor.

Practicing stress release during the day will make it easier to do the same at night.

To support nighttime attempts at falling asleep, establish a sense of calm during the day. Practice being present — as opposed to chasing thoughts down rabbit holes. Pay attention to your reaction to various stimuli. Take conscious breaths, meditate, and use whatever tools work for you.

For instance, I have associated certain images with a calm state and I use them as anchors during the day (e.g., setting up a safe space). I have them pinned up by my bed and at work so that as I work to release stress I look at them, and as I look at them I release stress. The more I do this, the more powerful the association. I draw upon those images and feelings at times when things seem out of control. Practice during the day and you will have more peace at night.

Appreciate the nighttime wakening. Odd as it may seem, this can be a positive opportunity. Each such interruption allows you the chance to ground yourself and learn how to gently drop off to sleep. Stressing about being awake does you no favors and only adds to your wakefulness.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad or frightening things actually happening in your life — sometimes there are and they can be very serious. I struggled with this when I got my cancer diagnosis. But at that moment in the middle of the night, lying in your bed, you have a temporary reprieve. Your only responsibility then and there is to go back to sleep. There’s nothing on fire.

Unless there really IS a fire, in which case, RUN. But most of the time, it’s just our fiery thoughts. And we can learn to douse those flames.

This will take practice – it’s not a one-time pill. But once you have done this enough times, you’ll find that not only is the relief wonderful, so is the knowledge that you are capable of determining how you react to things. That provides a satisfying sense of strength and a peaceful sense of control over what may seem like an out-of-control situation.

“Dropping Down”: A Meditation Analogy

One of my greatest obstacles to meditation is distraction. I’m particularly susceptible to having my mind wander off because of the drug tamoxifen that I’m taking for breast cancer, the side effects of which include difficulty with concentration and focus.

A wandering mind, however, is not limited to those with cancer medication side effects. If you meditate, you’re pretty much guaranteed to struggle with focus at some point. I use the analogy of a cave to describe what this feels like and how to deal with it.

I sit in a darkened cave, warm and comforting, the only light coming from a hole far up above, where the noisy world buzzes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but right now is the time to devote to my meditation cushion. I focus on my breath. As I sit, a thought emerges and I notice a rope hanging down from above. Before I realize it, I’ve grabbed hold of it and start climbing.

These thought-ropes are so tempting to grab onto, pulling us up and away from the meditation cushion.

The further I climb, the easier it is and the louder the world gets. My surroundings brighten, but I’m no longer meditating. I’m actively engaged in what’s going on up above, perhaps agitated, perhaps excited. I’ve lost track of my breath.

“Drop down,” I tell myself gently. And I slide down the rope, into the welcoming darkness below, until I find my place back on my cushion in this womb of Earth. One deep breath and I’m grounded again, calm and rooted.

I can’t stop what’s going on in the world above, but I can choose whether or not to climb a rope.

This experience repeats itself, like a flowing dance between the meditative breath and wandering attention. Another thought catches me and I reach for its rope, making my way back up swiftly.

“Drop down,” I tell myself again patiently. I let go and return to my place in the cave, surrounded by the supportive darkness. Another deep breath and I’m calm again.

So many thoughts, so many tempting opportunities to climb out of my cave too soon. Some days, I swing from rope to rope, only hovering over my cushion, never quite managing to ground myself. On other days, it’s easier and the path to a peaceful meditation session is straightforward. The darkness of the cave soothes me and reminds me that I am safe, and that I can choose whether or not to cling to a thought.

My distraction is a constant, but that doesn’t matter as long as I can drop back down. And I can always drop back down.

Permission to Let Go

My mind is usually abuzz with thoughts about what I have to do, what happened in the past and what the future may bring. Imaginary conversations take up space in my head, dragging me down down rabbit holes. All that unnecessary mental activity can get exhausting.

Meditation offers a reminder that I don’t have to do that.

I recently attended another mindfulness retreat. It had been a stressful week with many worries. As I took my seat, thoughts swirled in my head about everything that had been going on. It felt like I was juggling plates over my head, trying to keep everything in the air. I was tensing without even realizing.

Whoa, buddy, how about giving it a rest?

And then it hit me like a bolt from the heavens: I could choose to let go of it all. There was nothing that I had to do and nowhere to be, except sit in stillness exactly where I was.

We practiced mindful movement. I have a habit of challenging myself by trying to make poses more difficult to make my muscles work harder, and I’ve found myself doing this even during retreats.

But this time, I let go of striving and took a simpler route. No need to set personal records, hold the pose longer or deeper; I wasn’t competing against anyone.

I didn’t need to do every movement perfectly, I needed to mellow out. It took more than a few breaths to bring myself down and feel the ground beneath me.

Sometimes I need a reminder that I can simply choose to stop the noise.

Not worrying about who was watching, what they thought about me or how I looked — what a concept. I gave myself permission to set all those pressures aside, and for the first time that week, everything calmed down.

Obviously, this is not something I do enough of. If I forget that I can simply let go during a formal mindfulness practice in a supportive community setting, then it’s not surprising that I tie myself up in knots during everyday life.

And everyday life is what really matters.

I’m still not good at this. But maybe each time I stop myself, I do so just a bit earlier. With time, I will get closer and closer to stopping before I even start. And that’s something I can look forward to.

Why I Meditate in Panda Socks

“I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who, after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Before my very first all-day silent retreat, I bumped into my meditation teacher in the hallway. I had just gotten an “all clear” mammogram following a year of breast cancer treatment and I was so excited.

She said hi to me, so I happily related my test results, only to have another meditation teacher poke her head into the hallway and sternly shush me. This was, after all, a silent retreat.

At the lunch break, that shushing teacher gave me a gentle hug and handed me a sweet note of apology. None was necessary — I hadn’t been offended by having her correct me.

Weeks later, I happened to see her again (not at a retreat!) and she explained how she had felt during her very first retreat when no one would look at or speak to her, because, of course, they weren’t supposed to. She admitted that she felt slighted at that time, and that’s why she hadn’t wanted me to feel the same way after she quieted me. She was so darling and sincere, I couldn’t help but hug her again.

This is something I’ve thought about: at many of these retreats, when we practice noble silence and custody of the eyes, there is a tendency to adopt a dour expression. We’re working hard to concentrate and turn inwards…perhaps a bit too hard. It’s easy to lose that lightness and joy of mindfulness if we’re being too serious.

There is comfort in humor. “Right now” can be a pretty funny place.

At the next retreat I attended, that same teacher was teaching mindful yoga. We were on all fours and instructed to raise up our left arm…then our right leg…and our left leg…leaving a few of us confused since levitation hadn’t been part of the class curriculum. The teacher chuckled and said that we needed to keep a sense of humor about our practice.

I like that idea. And that’s why now when I go to meditation retreats, I bring along my thick socks with panda faces and cute little ears. Life hasn’t been easy and it certainly hasn’t gone as planned. But as I sit there amongst all the other meditators, I smile knowing that I can still find humor in this world.

Keeping Anxiety at Arm’s Length

These are the most difficult mental calisthenics I’ve ever done.

The most frightening part of anxiety for me is that when scary, intrusive thoughts hit, they are right in my face. It feels as though there is no buffer zone so they come at me fast. I am highly reactive — nausea, cold bowels, rapid breathing, sweating, buzzing head. No opportunity to pause and consider a response. I am thrown into “flight” mode.

I don’t get panic attacks the way others have described them: heart beating so hard it feels like it’ll burst out of your chest, or hyperventilation to the point of getting lightheaded, even passing out. But I still feel anxiety intensely and physically.

So my practice lately has involved allowing stressful thoughts into my line of sight, but softening them, so that they appear blurred and more distant.

I establish this by immediately focusing on my body sensations as soon as I’m aware of the physical sensations of anxiety. That means feeling down to where my skin touches my clothing and focusing on the sensation of pressure on my seat and feet (if sitting) or the entire length of my back (if lying down).

Once my attention in on my body, I revisit the stressful thought, but as if squinting with my “inner eyes”, sometimes looking at it from the side instead of head on. I acknowledge its presence, but fuzz out the details, and most importantly, I keep it at a distance from me so that I have some space. Then I bring in deep breaths, slowing them down and allowing them to calm me as much as possible.

This is not even remotely easy. On some level, I’m still reacting to the thought and do experience a fear of bringing it closer to me. But the soothing nature of the breath helps temper my reaction. I think of this as exposure therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, except where everything takes place inside my head.

Establishing the breath as a self-soothing “anchor” takes time and consistency in practice.

Lately, I’ve been having more success with this, particularly when I wake in the middle of the night, which is one of the most frightening times for me to experience runaway anxiety. This self-comfort would not be possible without established meditation and relaxation techniques — I’ve used the breath to soothe myself through cancer diagnosis and treatment, but the great majority of my meditation practice takes place when I am not stressed.

That fact, along with consistency in practice, has been critically important to me. In order for the breath to serve as an effective anchor, it must be recognized as one. And that means building up “anchor-like” peaceful associations over time so that the link is not easily broken.

None of this is a quick fix. But as with many things that are not quick fixes, the process of achieving success is part of the success itself. And that is a very reassuring thought.

Mindfulness Apps I Love: “Plum Village”

Much gratitude to SmileCalm who brought this meditation app to my attention!

So far most of the mindfulness apps and programs that I’ve written about have reflected a more secular version of mindfulness (Insight Timer is an exception, because it encompasses a very broad range of practices).

The opening screen invites you into Plum Village…

However, Plum Village is the meditation app of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Tradition of Buddhism. It is beautiful in its simplicity, reflecting mindfulness authentically — and appropriately so, as Thich Nhat Hanh is considered the “father of mindfulness”.

Things that ring true for me:

1. It is completely free. There are no in-app purchases or upgrades, and certainly no ads. You download it and have access to everything. It is open to everyone.

2. It is uncomplicated in design, allowing easy navigation within a simple serene tangerine-colored layout.

3. There is no competition inherent in this app: no meditation counters, no record of meditation “streaks”, no gold stars for hitting meditation milestones, nor a way to compare your progress against that of others. It focuses only on the selection that you are doing now. And when you are done with it, you are done. No clinging.

A partial view of some of the categories in the “Meditations” section.

There are five sections, buttons for which run along the bottom of the screen. “Resources” contains chants, poems, mindful movement videos, in addition to spoken and written teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh. “Practices” could be considered the ‘how-to’ section as it explains various mindfulness practices and concepts.

There is a large selection of guided meditations in the “Meditations” section. They are based on Buddhist values, and while most are lovingly presented by monks and nuns, there are some led by Thich Nhat Hanh himself. To round out the collection, there are clips of nature sounds to use as a background to meditation.

The “Ask Thay” section (Thay, or “teacher”, referring to Thich Nhat Hanh) contains a long list of questions posed to the Zen Master with audio clips of his gentle responses. While these within themselves are not meditations, I found myself mesmerized by his words.

But the section I’ve utilized the most is “Bells”. It’s possible to set up the sounding of a ‘bell of mindfulness’ for intervals ranging from every five to sixty minutes. I’ve let that run for the entirety of my workday, setting up the bell to sound every 10 minutes, as a reminder to stay present and focused. When I get lost in work, the bell declares its presence, easily cuts though the noise in my head and serves as a reminder to take several deep breaths.

I have been using this app differently from other mindfulness apps like Calm and Insight Timer. Plum Village is more instructive, and as I am interested in deepening my knowledge of Buddhist Dharma, I use it not only to calm my monkey mind, but also as a learning tool.

Of all the programs and apps I have used, Plum Village feels the most authentic, as if I’m coming home to the roots of mindfulness.

Mindfulness Programs I Love: “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction”

Although I may never be able to prove it, I’m willing to bet that stress played a role in the proliferation of my cancer.

As a result, getting my stress response under control was a high priority, so I started a meditation practice and once the toughest parts of my treatment (chemo, radiation) were done, went searching for a formal class to address anxiety.

My clinical counselor had told me about a book called “Full Catastrophe Living” by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. As it turned out, Kabat-Zinn had been a long-time meditator and, drawing on both Buddhist Dharma and scientific research, developed a stress-reduction program for patients at the UMass Medical School in the 1970s called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

So when I found a Center for Mindfulness at a local university, I jumped at the opportunity to take that same flagship MBSR course.

This is an 8-week class with an additional full-day retreat. The curriculum has been developed to introduce students to mindfulness and help them, over a two month period, develop a practice, both formal and informal to manage stress in their lives.

It is also not cheap! The non-discounted version may cost about $600, depending on where and when you sign up. If I hadn’t had cancer and therefore a powerful reason for needing in-person guidance in mindfulness meditation, I would have considered myself priced out of this course, instead opting for a self-paced, free online version, such as Palouse Mindfulness.

But I used the significant price tag to motivate myself to do each and every homework assignment. The classes themselves were 2.5 hours a week, with daily home practice lasting about 45 minutes to an hour. That’s no small commitment! I had to move around my schedule to be able to fit the practice time in, and even the Center for Mindfulness itself recommended that if you could not accommodate the home practice to wait for a time that you could before signing up for the class.

The teachers were warm and supportive. They genuinely cared about student progress and themselves had a regular practice in addition to having spent time and resources on their own teacher training. As such, the instruction was excellent.

There were a number of resources for the students, including audio and video programs, which are also available to the general public. Currently, as an MBSR alumna, I have access to all the day-long mindfulness retreats for students free of charge. This gives me an opportunity to immerse myself into silent meditation for substantial periods of time in a similarly conducive environment.

The development of a mindfulness practice has more to do with the effort of the student, rather than the expense of a class.

I was struck by how quickly the class registration filled up, and how during the first session, when asked why we were taking the course, so many of us cited the amount of stress and anxiety in our lives. It is a sign of the times that so many people are willing to pay a significant amount of money to take a class to help them get some semblance of control over their inner state.

Actually achieving this was harder than simply paying the cost of admission. This class began with about thirty of us, but fewer than half made it to the very end. A number of people admitted being unable to complete the homework. Some gave up completely. There were others that came for several sessions but then never returned. Everyone was looking for help with stress but not everyone was successful.

As a secular version of Buddhist mindfulness, the course does justice to the tradition. While the expensive registration fee may be off-putting for some (many?), there is tuition assistance available, which I feel is important. As I’ve written before, I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to make mindfulness available only to those rich enough to afford fancy classes.

But in the end, regardless of what type of mindfulness instruction you utilize, what matters is how much effort each student puts into the practice of being mindful.

And that is available to all.