Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years, you will have noticed that every social-media-influencer and health-and-lifestyle-guru has been espousing the benefits of meditation, but just what are those benefits?
This study concluded that mindfulness meditation had significant improvements on the health outcomes of patients who were suffering from insomnia symptoms and fatigue.
Here’s another study showing that the introduction of ‘a program of mindfulness meditation training’ led to significant improvements in patients with chronic primary insomnia.
And here’s a last one that claims that ‘use of meditation and yoga’ may lead to ‘sleep outcomes comparable to nightly use of prescription sedatives, but more durable and with minimal or no side effects.’
This corresponds with my own experience where using meditation has helped me (with a few other tricks that I’ll be explaining in this article) remove the serious problems I used to have in getting to sleep.
A decade ago, my head would hit the pillow and I could be lying there awake for 3-4 hours. Getting to sleep in 30 minutes would seem like a victory. These days, I’m asleep within 10-15 minutes practically every night.
Intrigued? Well, I’m going to do my best to give you the full lowdown of everything I did to achieve this, meditation being a key part.
How to use meditation to help you fall asleep faster
The following three steps are what is required. Please note that this is my own guidelines that I follow and may not be endorsed or advised by anyone else, I just know that this works very well for me.
1. Meditate on a regular (ideally daily) basis
2. Clear your mind as you are trying to sleep
3. If you don’t feel yourself fall asleep, get up until you are more tired
And I’m going to expand on each of these steps below.
1. Meditate on a regular (ideally daily) basis
To effectively use meditation to sleep you need to be able to meditate effectively, if you cannot clear your mind of thoughts to any degree then this is simply not going to work. Therefore, you must practice on a regular basis simply to get good at this clearing of the mind. Any technique works for this and I’ll go into some of the techniques you can use a little later in the article.
As time goes on, you start to become more proficient at clearing your mind and you are noticing a tangible difference in how long it takes you to fall asleep, you can begin to drop the regular, non-bedtime meditation.
Many people make it part of their regular schedule for its other health effects, but really you only need to learn how to keep your brain free of thought to a small degree before it becomes a very powerful sleeping aid.
Personally, I don’t meditate on a daily basis but each time my head hits the pillow I am clearing my mind to help me go to sleep.
2. Clear your mind as you are trying to sleep
When it comes time to sleep, you meditate again. Any technique is fine (again, more on that later) so long as the idea is to stop your brain thinking of thoughts.
If you are doing this effectively and your sleep hygiene is on point, you should start to feel yourself drift off.
The signs are fairly obvious but I’ll point them out anyway for completeness: losing control of your thoughts, slipping into a dreamlike state, little jolts that take you from the dreamlike state to a more awakened state (yes these are a good thing they show you are on the road to sleeping), not being cognizant of whether you are awake or not. If you do not notice any of these signs after about 10-15 minutes then go to the next part.
3. If you don’t feel yourself fall asleep, get up until you are more tired
So you’re unable to sleep. For me, this comes down to poor sleep hygiene, I’ve usually made some error, consciously or unconsciously, that is stopping my mind falling asleep. I’ll cover this in much more detail but this typically is a coffee that is drunk too late or a daytime nap that went on too long.
The important thing to realize is that you are not doing yourself any favors by staying in bed and trying to sleep when it just isn’t happening and moreover, you are associating your bed with a place of endless thoughts and not with sleep.
So get up and aim to do something productive or at the very least not counterproductive – no blue light or eating for starters. Soon enough, you’ll feel yourself tiring even more and ready to give it another shot. Try step 2 again.
What is meditation? What is mindfulness?
To those who are unaware, the word ‘meditation’ can throw up images of Indian yogis in flowing gowns sitting in half lotus chanting ‘Ohm’ in a vast temple, and that’s not all-encompassing.
The religious undertones are something that I believe drives people away from the practice, as many do not realize that meditation can (and maybe should?) be practiced in an entirely secular way.
Meditation is used to describe the act of clearing one’s mind. This can be through chanting a word over and over, paying attention to your breath or other methods. This is what people typically think of when they think about what monks spend their time doing.
The word mindfulness on the other hand is used to describe the state of being aware of your environment, experiencing without thinking, noticing and paying attention to what is going on around you without judging or reacting to it.
This is the state of mind we are trying to access by doing meditation, a kind of ‘end goal’, although you don’t necessarily need to meditate to experience it.
Most of what we know about meditation comes from ‘the East’, from the parts of Asia where Buddhism is prevalent. This religion proposes that all desire is suffering and through the use of mindfulness (or sati, as it is called in Sanskrit) we can learn to lose our desires and become more content with the eventual possibility of enlightenment.
As a result of thousands of years of Buddhist teachings and practice, much of what we know is derived from it.
Of course, knowing what these words mean is barely one thousandth of the battle. You can think of it like attempting to walk a tightrope, the objective and steps to get to that objective can be summarized in a sentence, the actual act and all the learning and practice that is required to get there may take a decade.
What are the different ways to meditate?
If I told you I was Christian you might wonder whether I was Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant or Anglican. You may ask further questions to find out if I belonged to a subgroup such as Presbyterian or the Church of Latter Day Saints or Methodism or one of the 43,000 other Christian denominations.
The same is true of Buddhism, there are thousands of different strands that all follow the same path, Theravada Buddhism being the most popular one and Zen Buddhism being the one you’ve probably heard of. This leaves us with many different ways to practice mindfulness, I am going to focus on
Anapanasanti – this form of meditation involves concentrating on your breath, putting all your focus on following the inhalation and exhalation of your body and to feel the sensations of the movement that come from it.
Vipassana – the general idea with this form of meditation is to observe the world around you, while free of thought. More formally stated as aiming to discover true insight into the nature of existence, Vipassana meditation is one of the traditions that has attained popularity in the west.
Shikantaza – literally translated as ‘do nothing but sit’, this form of Zen Buddhist meditation promotes simply sitting down and not thinking.
So hopefully from these few examples you get the general idea of how to clear your mind. I’m next going to put this in practical terms for doing this as a… let’s say American or European dude/dudette who has zero experience of meditation and just wants to get to sleep quicker. So I won’t be referring to each style of meditation by their Buddhist or technical name, but if you choose to practice meditation at a center or a retreat it’s likely they will use those names.
Method 1: Watch Your Breathing
This is the most common technique I’ve seen used to introduce beginners to meditation, simply watching the inhalation and exhalation of your body. The more you can focus on every little change in your body, every little detail of your breath, the better.
Personally, I find this one boring. I’m not sure that’s the right word given that meditation is hardly designed to entertain but it’s what I think. On the other hand, it is what seems to be suggested in every introductory course to mindfulness as the most expedient first step, so your mileage may vary.
Method 2: Guided Meditation
If you’re thinking that it must be easy to get distracted while meditating, you’d be right on the money. You can spend 2 full minutes dedicated to the art of watching your breathing only to suddenly realize that the next 4 minutes are spent thinking about something totally useless. Enter the idea of ‘guided meditation’ which can help alleviate this problem.
The idea behind this is an audio track that typically begins by explaining the basics of what you are aiming to do and walks you through the first few steps.
It will give periods of silence in which you meditate and practice mindfulness, then the audio will come back in to guide you back on course in case you got off track. Here’s a link to an example, spoken by Sam Harris which I believe was taken from his excellent book on secular meditation ‘Waking Up’. That’s a 9-minute video although there are others on Youtube that are longer if you want a longer session.
Other options along these lines are to use apps that fulfill a similar purpose. There are two that I know of that seem to be effective.
The first, Calm, is a very beautiful app that has loads of features and even many sections that are devoted to helping you use guided meditation to help you sleep. I do have this downloaded it on my phone but I can’t vouch for it as I’d just rather do it myself.
There’s another one called Headspace which you may have heard of that fulfills a similar purpose, I know at least 2 people who have raved about that one.
Method 3: Be Mindful Without Thoughts
This is what I have found to be most effective for me and is kind of a hodgepodge of whatever I have learned about mindfulness distilled to its core. Essentially, you aim to not think while still noticing what is going on. So, you may sit down in your garden and just observe what you can observe.
Feel the breeze hit your face, listen to the noise of the insects, watch the leaves shift forward and backward, whatever you feel drawn towards. All with the idea that you simply observe, not think.
I’ve found that not only is this the most interesting of the types of meditation, it also mimics what I’m aiming to do when I go to sleep the most as well.
As I’m aiming to fall asleep I will try to feel the softness of the pillow under my head, the warmth of the comforter over me, the darkness of the room I’m in. A few minutes of that and I will invariably feel myself nodding off.
I can’t overstate how much this technique, practiced in the day and at nighttime, has changed my ability to fall asleep.
I would say that this practice, along with cutting out the stupid stuff like 9pm bottles of Coca-Cola (more on this soon) have been the catalyst for me being 80-90% happy with my sleeping life despite terrible sleep genetics.
A few things to bear in mind
1. I am not an expert. Let me be very clear, these types of ‘meditation’ are simply the extent of my knowledge and what I have found useful during many, many years of trying this stuff out and finding what works.
I am by no means an expert on the subject and have no formal training, I’m just a guy trying to help others sleep better by sharing his experience.
If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness or meditation from a source with real expertise then there are many excellent books you can dive into. I’ll share a couple of the ones I’ve found helpful here:
Waking Up by Sam Harris – This is an attempt at a guide on secular mindfulness, that is, all the benefits of meditation without the religious stuff. I think this is a great place to start because Sam detail quite clearly how to practice meditation along with the history of it, the benefits, all along with being quite wonderfully written.
The Power Of Now by Echkhart Tolle – This is a famous book and an old one, like ‘Waking Up’ it is designed at introducing the practice of mindfulness and Eastern philosophy to a Western audience. It’s been many years since I read it but it had quite an effect on me at the time despite having some dubious ideas. I could never get over the fact that the author would write about how he spent two unemployed years in a ‘deliriously happy’ state just sitting on park benches.
2. It’s hard, especially at first. I’d like to point out that meditation is an extremely difficult exercise that can be maddening if you go in with the wrong mindset. You will lose focus. That is guaranteed.
Even lifelong devotees to the practice of mindfulness will find their minds wander on a regular basis, people who are just starting to learn this are going to have serious trouble. This is one of the reasons why a guided meditation is recommended for newbies, you can only get so far off track before the audio will get you back on course. Anyone who’s tried meditation will know it’s very easy to sit there thinking about nothing until you realize you’ve spent the last 10 minutes thinking about why you haven’t had a reply from the tax office yet!
3. Results take time. If you’re looking at this as a quick fix then you need to realize that outside of prescription strength sedatives which you absolutely should not be taking on a regular basis, there is no quick fix.
There are Buddhist devotees all across Asia that spend their days, weeks and lives meditating in an attempt to unravel the benefits of mindfulness practice. You can think of it like learning to play chess for the first time, it may be many years before you become proficient, but you can make progress each time you play and see the results of each little bit of progress that you make.
4. Practice good sleep hygiene. Maybe you’re the kind of guy or gal who gets in from a hard day and relaxes by chugging a few mountain dews and some high-carb snacks in front of your favorite blue light emitting device for a few hours.
Well, there are a number of things that affect your sleep quality that it is inadvisable to do, particularly near bedtime, and in that little scenario, I painted a picture of three big mistakes that are going to make it tough to get to sleep, meditative practice or not.
Think about it, you wouldn’t chug a big coffee (hopefully) a few minutes before bed. That is not the right time for caffeine and will obviously affect your falling asleep and your sleep quality. That’s what we’re getting at with sleep hygiene.
This is such an important area and underpins the rest of what we’re trying to do with the meditation that I’ve included lots more information in the next section.
Why does meditation help you sleep?
One of the more common causes of insomnia or sleeping issues is an inability to “switch off” when the entire goal of mindfulness and meditative practice is to “switch off”.
Those who practice it for health purposes generally state that their desired goal is to stop the constant incessant monologue of distracting thoughts, often filled with worry, stress, regret, anxiety or other negativity. And we do know that meditation has been proven to ease anxiety and mental stress.
On the other side of the spectrum is thoughts that are not necessarily negative. Take the example of trying to sleep the night before a job interview.
I think anyone who’s been through this situation, and I imagine we all have numerous times, can relate to the idea of not being able to sleep because the brain is more interested in playing out certain situations or dialogues, regardless of how well prepared you feel.
While the science is becoming more and more conclusive on the benefits of mindfulness practice with regards to falling asleep, we have not definitively answered the ‘why’ of how this comes about.
But to allow myself a little speculation, I believe that the powerful ability to clear thoughts that comes with an experienced mindfulness practitioner and avoiding the traps of constantly thinking about worrisome or stressful situations and lets us rest.
Sleep Hygiene Tips
This article is about 3000 words up to this point, so well done you on embracing a long read with the lofty goal of falling asleep more easily. However, everything you’ve read up to now can and will be undone by a few deleterious habits that may seem obvious or may be a revelation to you.
This is what we call sleep hygiene, taking sensible precautions to ensure you sleep better. Think about having a big cup of coffee ten minutes before bed, that’s bad sleep hygiene.
This is a big topic that I’ve covered in more depth in this (big!) article here which you may want to open or bookmark, I am also going to cover the most important aspects to help you be able to meditate yourself to sleep here.
1. Avoid caffeine after 1pm. Caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant, a drug that, among other things, forces your body to release stress hormones. It might seem obvious to avoid caffeine to help sleep but I don’t think most people fully understand how insidious its effects are.
Caffeine takes a long time to leave the system, even 12 hours after you drink a coffee you still have 1/4 of the caffeine kicking around.
This is why I recommend you don’t even touch any caffeine after 1pm and ideally after 9am if you’re serious about sleeping better. Oh, and you also need to kick out the sneaky sources of caffeine like Coke, Diet Coke, chocolate, tea, energy drinks. If you can do both those things then you will find meditating easier and hopefully falling asleep will come more quickly to you.
2. Eat fewer carbs + don’t eat close to bedtime. Carbs are your body’s preferred energy source, when they are available you will use them to spike your blood sugar and give energy to your muscles and brain. As such, do not eat them before bedtime!
The more sugary the carbs the worse, as these are more quickly digested and used by the body. Avoiding desserts and candy and even starchier carbs like bread or rice in the evening or at the very least 4+ hours before bedtime can help your body be in a better state for meditating and for sleeping.
3. Remove sources of light and noise. Did you know that 30% of sleep problems can be accounted to issues with noise or light?
We humans like quiet and the dark when we sleep, it makes sense, we are nocturnal creatures. Unfortunately, this amazing modern world we live in contains myriad hazardous sources for these even very late at night. You know what you need to cut out, you may find earplugs or blackout curtains will help you (check out my recommended products page) and above all make sure you are not staring at blue light all evening.
Blue light is the light that our brain uses as a trigger for waking up, our main source should be the blue light from the sun, so use a filter on your phone or computer to cut this stuff out.