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.

Making Peace with Street Noise

Is it possible to re-imagine annoying city noises?

At the least, living in an urban area with a high level of noise pollution is annoying. At worst, being subjected to car alarms and emergency vehicle sirens at any time of the day and night is very jarring and stressful. And I’m speaking from personal experience here, as following our last move, we ended up with a bedroom overlooking a very busy Southern California street.

The stretch of road outside our apartment unit is one of those that give cars enough distance between traffic lights to really accelerate as they blast by. It also leads to one of the major hospitals in the area (hello, ambulance traffic), and this being a big city with big city issues, there’s no shortage of opportunities for the police to be called out, sirens blaring.

There are many days that I wish I weren’t where I am. But wishing doesn’t change anything.

Drawing on mindfulness helps, however, and this is how:

Re-interpreting noise as different sound elements turns an “idiot street racer” into a thunder-like rumble. Much less annoying.

Much of the stress I experience from these various car noises is due in part because I know what they mean. I know that the sounds are the constant stream of cars going down the street or a high-pitched siren wail. But what if I were to accept that I’m living in a noisy city and to define the street noises as simply various sounds?

What if I were to break down the sounds into their characteristics? Would it be easier to handle the noise if I stopped judging and explored each sound as if I were hearing it for the first time?

This is far more doable than one might imagine. Yes, alarms and loud tail pipes are decidedly unpleasant, but they don’t punctuate my soundscape nearly as frequently as do the regular cars driving by. The cars speed through with whooshes of different pitches depending on the vehicle and how quickly it passes.

Sounds of passing cars transform into soothing waves – with the occasional jarring reminder that things are not entirely pleasant.

These sounds rise up and pass away like waves on the ocean – in fact, that whoosh can be soothing, just like the sounds of the ocean can lull you to sleep. Even noisier cars and motorcycles take on a rumbling quality, like thunder. Allowing oneself to re-interpret these sounds, to let go of annoyance, makes even the more jarring noises easier to handle.

When you can’t run away from the noise, make space for it, invite it in and accept that this is what’s happening now. Inevitably, it will pass, to be replaced by another noise and another opportunity to re-imagine it.

How Mindfulness Helps with Exercise Motivation

Exercise has been an integral and indispensable part of my cancer recovery and my life as a whole. I’ve maintained a personal trainer certification (ACSM-CPT) for over a decade and even though I don’t train professionally, I keep abreast of new research and love a challenging workout.

Still, there are days that even I find myself dreading the session I have planned. For those times, I engage in mental calisthenics and rely on a mindful attitude. If you’re struggling to find motivation to exercise, this may help you too.

Note, motivation is something you generate yourself. It is inside you, but you have to coax it out. Be gentle. Hiring a personal trainer to beat you with a stick when you’re not up to a workout is not going to make you look forward to exercising more. But the following concepts might help:

Consider that a workout is made up of a series of movements.

Stop looking at a workout as a massive monolithic thing. Doing so can be overwhelming and make it more likely that you’ll talk yourself out of it before you even begin. Instead, consider that it’s made up of distinct parts, steps that you take one at a time.

Stay in the moment and keep each movement fresh.

Stay present and focus on the part of the movement that you’re doing at the moment, truly feeling into it. If you’re on a rowing machine, concentrate on each individual stroke making sure that you’re using proper form as you reach, push with your legs, and pull the handle. If you’re lifting weights, focus on where your body is in space, on contracting the muscle as you lift, on exhaling as you do so, keeping your body properly aligned. If your exercise is a brisk walk, be aware of how you’re stepping, pushing forward, swinging your arms. These movements become a meditation in and of themselves.

What matters is the here and now.

Release thoughts of how much longer you have until you’re done. Focus on the stroke, step or rep that you’re taking at this very moment. And then when you’ve completed it, consider the next movement with the same fresh attitude. Just as you would if you were focusing on each breath during meditation.

If you can’t finish your workout, that okay. You can try again tomorrow.

Practice self-care.

Do not force yourself to finish an entire workout if you *really* don’t have the energy to–but that means truly listening to your body’s limitations, not discouraging voices in your head. You are better off making a concerted effort at doing, say, half your distance or only one set per weight lifting exercise and doing it well, instead of making yourself so miserable that you don’t exercise again for another week and a half.

If you’re thinking, “I’m not up to doing the entire workout”, ask yourself, “Well, how much can I do?” and at least start. Consistency is key.

Let go of expectations.

Release preconceived notions of how your workout will go and how tired, miserable or sore you’ve already decided that you will feel. Look at each movement with fresh eyes. Employ a beginner’s mind. Get curious about how everything feels.

While it’s true that you’re exercising your body, your mind has a lot of influence on what will happen. The kind of exercise session you have is up to you. Decide to use your best form, draw on as much energy as you have in the moment, and exercise as much as you have planned. And if you cannot go as long you anticipated and have to stop earlier, let that be okay. No matter how much exercise you do, you are still better off than having done nothing. No one can take that accomplishment away from you.

And tomorrow, experience it anew again.

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.

Pulling Back for a Broader View

The World Is Too Much with Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

William Wordsworth

At times, the manufactured world feels like it’s closing in on me. Admittedly, that’s not what Wordsworth meant when he wrote his famous sonnet, although his poem, written to protest the spiritual collateral of the Industrial Revolution, is sharply appropriate for describing our current relationship with Nature and how we’re mucking it up.

But I’m going to sidestep that for a second and draw a different parallel. Because as I get drawn into day-to-day worries, when I wallow through the weeds of common stressors, I miss the overall beauty of this Earth and the fact that I get to walk on it.

My anxieties seem all-encompassing and fill my field of view, although the reality is that I’m just a speck. That’s not to minimize the significance of what I’m feeling while I’m feeling it and how it affects me, but once in a while I need some perspective. When I pull back to take a wider view of things (say, like from the height of the International Space Station!), things look different.

It’s so much quieter up here. I think I’ll stay for a bit.

Away from the noisy hum of machines and the incessant jabbering of humans, Earth seems pretty peaceful and quiet, which I never get in a large city. There’s always some whirring or buzzing here, traffic on the street and planes overhead. Not even earplugs provide complete relief.

In the same way, there’s a lot of chatter in my head. It gets so overwhelming at times so I need to apply “mental earplugs”: a grounded seat, darkness, lengthened breaths.

Suddenly, I’m no longer dragged by the runaway freight train crashing about in the space between my ears. For a moment, on a small cushion, those things that seemed important float away in imaginary bubbles and, if only for a moment, everything is still.

Stepping Off and Slowing Down

During a recent mindfulness retreat, we did a walking meditation outside.

The idea was simple: walk slowly, as if taking steps for the very first time. Sense how it feels to shift all your weight onto one foot as you lift the other, then extend that lifted leg, place that foot down and shift weight onto it as you lift the other leg. Rarely do we slow down enough and realize how complex a movement that is, we’ve been doing it for so long.

As I walked along the paved path, I moved fluidly. There was nothing in my way and the pavement was flat. Perfect to move me along even though I was taking extra care with my steps.

But as I came up to the lawn and stepped off the path onto the grass, I sensed a change in my movement. The lawn was bumpier, clover blossoms all around with honeybees that I wanted to avoid. My steps slowed even more as I trod gingerly.

The living, growing lawn required more balance and called for increased attention to what I was doing.

Ah, those man-made paths…getting us to where we need to be.

As I made my way through this walking meditation, I was intrigued by how my experience differed between the two surfaces. Our human-constructed paths are designed to get us places and purposefully point us in the direction that we must go. The hard pavement requires less thought about balance and it is usually clear of hidden obstructions. As a result, we pay less attention to what we’re doing in the moment and more to replaying scenes from the past or what’s to come in the future. We whiz through, perhaps arriving at our destination with little memory of how we got there.

Once in a while, get off the path, enjoy the journey and see where you end up.

But the grassy blanket laid down by nature gently commands us to observe the journey. That path has many possibilities and sometimes we don’t know exactly how we will travel when we set out. We give it more thought as we progress, perhaps changing direction several times, but being aware of the reasons for doing so. We may arrive at our destination with a fresh mind and greater appreciation of the journey.

Certainly, we cannot always leave the paved path. We have responsibilities that must be met and those may require efficient travel in the shortest time possible. But what a shame if we never take the opportunity to wander off and slow down our pace, delighting in where we are right now.

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.