Summary: Mindfulness and Sleep By Anna Black
Summary: Mindfulness and Sleep By Anna Black

Summary: Mindfulness and Sleep By Anna Black


The body has a built-in system called the circadian rhythm, which is responsible for regulating sleepiness and wakefulness over a 24-hour period (the time it takes for the Earth to circle the sun). The circadian rhythm usually emerges between two and six months after birth, and is controlled by the area of the brain that responds to light and receives input direct from the retina in the eye. It causes wakefulness to fluctuate through the day, and then, as darkness falls, it encourages sleepiness.



There is no “golden” number of hours that is the perfect amount of sleep, and subjective sleep quality (whether we feel we have had a good night’s sleep or not) is as significant as duration. Two people can sleep for a similar amount of time with similar periods of wakefulness, and yet perceive it very differently.

In general, eight hours is usually quoted for adults; children and young adults will need more and the elderly less. However, it is important not to get too hooked on numbers, particularly if you do have trouble sleeping, since there may be a tendency to constantly measure how you are doing and then feel disappointed if you are falling short. This may create additional anxiety about sleeping, and that is unhelpful. Mindfulness helps us to let go of particular expectations and of striving toward a particular goal, and instead helps us to be okay with the way things actually are.



Although we can feel powerless in the face of poor sleep, there are some simple changes we can make to ensure that we are supporting rather than undermining our body’s internal sleep systems.

People commonly report that implementing good sleeping habits is helpful. However, if you find your sleep does not improve despite making and maintaining lifestyle changes, it is recommended that you consult your physician. Make sleep a priority—remind yourself that it is as important as exercising and eating well.


Body temperature plays an important role in sleep. We fall asleep as our body temperature drops, and a lower body temperature also helps us to stay asleep before it begins to rise in the early hours as we waken. You can encourage a drop in body temperature deliberately by taking a hot bath or shower about an hour before bedtime and then making sure your environment is cool (about 63ºF/17ºC). As the body cools, you will begin to feel sleepy. Ideally, exercise no less than 4 hours before going to bed, to avoid elevating your core temperature.


Sleep in a cool, dark room that is free of technology and has a comfortable bed. Turn any clocks to the wall to avoid watching the minutes in the early hours.


Stabilize your circadian rhythm by going to bed and getting up at the same time—even at weekends and when on vacation.


Listen to your body, and go to bed when you are sleepy. Likewise, don’t go to bed before you are sleepy


Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and other stimulants are best avoided in the evening and perhaps even in the afternoon. Notice how you are affected. It is important to check ingredients—you may be surprised how prevalent caffeine is. It can be found in chocolate, many sodas, and even energy drinks.


Actively trying to fall asleep will only make you more awake, particularly because you may begin to feel anxious that you are not falling asleep. If you are awake, be awake. Read, get up, meditate, or do some yoga or other calming activity.


Avoid screen time (including television and cellphones) an hour before bedtime, if possible.


Notice what helps you to move from the busy-ness of the day to winding down toward bedtime. Avoid or keep to a minimum activities that keep you buzzing. However, notice if there is a sense of striving when it comes to doing particular activities or behaving in a particular way, with the expectation that they will lead to a good night’s sleep. This is unhelpful too.



Mindfulness is intentionally paying attention to your experience as it arises, without judging it.

Most of the time what we experience just feels like a big blob. However, when we start paying attention we realize that our experience is multi-layered: It is made up of inner and outer experiences, and strands within them. Our inner experience consists of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations; our outer experience is made up of the environment, behavior, and actions (our own and those of other people). All these arise individually and simultaneously, and interact with and influence one another.

How we pay attention is crucial. We want to notice whatever is arising without judging it, and actively cultivate attitudes of kindness and gentleness to what we notice. When we start practicing mindfulness, the first thing we often notice is how judgmental we are— judging situations, others, and, of course, ourselves. It is easy to fall into the trap of judging ourselves for being so judgmental! However, there is a difference between judging and discerning, and there is nothing wrong with having preferences.

We can cultivate the quality of mindfulness through practicing meditation, both formal (a regular practice that might include sitting practice, movement—yoga, walking, tai chi, qiqong—or a body scan) and informal, when we pay attention to what we are doing while we are doing it as we go about our day. Both types of practice are valuable and support each other.



Research into mindfulness and sleep specifically is still in its infancy, but, since difficulties with sleeping are so often tied to physical and psychological problems, sleep has often been measured as part of studies into mindfulness and conditions such as stress, depression, anxiety, and cancer.

This research suggests that people’s subjective sleep quality improves through practicing mindfulness meditation. Subjective sleep quality is acknowledged as an important factor in our perceived quality of life and overall health.

subjective sleep quality is people’s perception of how quickly they have fallen asleep, its duration, and how rested they feel on awakening, rather than objective measurements taken in laboratory conditions while the subject cycles through the proper stages of n-REM and REM sleep.

Two people can have sleep of similar duration with a similar number and length of awakenings, yet rate their sleep quality very differently. This suggests that if we can change the way we relate to our sleep, we can change our perception of it—and that may in turn improve our subjective sleep quality. Mindfulness can help us to do this.

People who experience insomnia often relate to it in a particular way. Understandably, they become absorbed in it as a problem to be fixed, focusing on specific nighttime routines and feeling that they need a specific number of hours’ sleep (usually the “official” 8 hours). This lack of flexibility can feed anxiety about sleep. Mindfulness can help us to let go of needing things to be a particular way, and, paradoxically, this willingness to be with things as they are (in this instance awake, or not asleep) creates the right conditions for us to get to where we want to be: a reduction in the anxiety that fuels the wakefulness and that makes us feel miserable and frustrated while we are awake.


Mindful Sleep Practice #1 Breath

The breath is a great object to focus our attention on: It is accessible and, because it is a moving target, we must exert some effort to keep paying attention to it. The breath also changes according to our frame of mind. If we are anxious or scared, we may find ourselves breathing faster and shallower or perhaps even holding the breath, whereas when we are relaxed we usually breathe more slowly and deeply.

How is your breath right now? Simply drop your attention into the chest or belly and begin to notice it, becoming aware of its characteristics. There is no need to change it or breathe in a particular way (such as inhaling and exhaling through the nose instead of the mouth, or vice versa). By tuning into the breath regularly, we can become familiar with our “normal” state and any patterns that may arise according to how we are feeling.

1 Find a place where you won’t be disturbed and check your posture. Begin by becoming aware of the breath. Where are you feeling it most strongly? This may be in the belly, in the chest, or around the nostrils or upper lip. It doesn’t matter where it is, but make a clear intention to place your attention there. You may want to place a hand on the belly to help connect with the felt sense of breathing.

2 Continue following the breath. Be curious about it. What does it feel like physically in the body? Notice the in-breath, stay with it, and then notice the transition to an out-breath, and then back to an in-breath.

3 Sooner rather than later you will find that your attention is somewhere else—maybe thinking about what you have to do, about a vacation, or about another person. It is the nature of the mind to wander, and all you have to do is acknowledge it and redirect your attention back to the breath. You will find yourself doing this over and over again, and that’s okay.

4 Every time you realize your attention has wandered, you are experiencing a moment of awareness. Every time you bring your attention back with an attitude of kindness and gentleness, you are cultivating those qualities toward yourself. It is also helpful to notice what is on your mind, simply as feedback. What is grabbing your attention?

5 Begin by doing this for 5 minutes or so, then gradually extend the time if you can.


Mindful Sleep Practice #2 BODY SCAN

The Body Scan is a lying-down practice, and although the intention is “to fall awake,” people often find themselves falling asleep while doing it—which can be helpful if you are having trouble sleeping.

If you tend to fall asleep while doing it and want to encourage that, Jon Kabat-Zinn (author of Full Catastrophe Living, 1990) recommends doing this practice at bedtime or during the night, but also at another time during the day and at that time making a clear intention to stay awake. However, if you are doing it in bed, it is always best to let go of any expectations of a particular outcome. Even if the practice helps you to fall asleep one night, it may have a very different effect the next, and that is normal.

1 Lie on your back with your legs outstretched and arms by your side. Your eyes can be open or closed. Take a moment to notice the different parts of the body in contact with the bed or floor. Perhaps take a deep breath and then exhale loudly, letting the body soften into the surface.

2 Take your attention to the breath in the belly. You can place one hand on the belly to help connect with the sensations of breathing:The rise and fall of the belly. This is your home base. At any point in the practice, if you lose your place or things feel a bit tricky, just bring your attention back to the breath in the belly and stay there for as long as you wish.

3 Place your hand back at your side and move your attention from the torso down through the left leg into the left foot. Pay attention to the toes on your left foot. Is there anything to notice? Any numbness, tingling, itchiness, textile touching skin, warmth or coolness …? We are not looking for anything in particular, but rather noticing what is present (or absent). If you don’t feel anything at all, that’s okay.

4 Move your attention from the toes to the sole of the left foot, the heel, the top of the foot, and then the foot as a whole, all the time noticing whatever is arising or present. Be curious about what your experience is right now.

5 Take your attention to your breath, and in your mind’s eye imagine that you are directing the breath into and out of the left foot, as if the left foot were breathing. Continue for a few moments.

6 Let go of the left foot, move your attention to the lower left leg, and explore this in the same way.

7 Move up through the left leg and then, taking your attention to the breath, imagine that you are breathing in and out, up and down the length of the left leg.

8 Continue in this way round the whole body. You can do individual elements such as fingers, or divide the body into sections. Explore the back of the torso and the front, as well as the neck (and internal throat) and the head, including the skull, individual features, and the face as a whole.

9 When you have finished scanning the whole body, take your attention to the breath once more and imagine that you are breathing in through the soles of the feet and out through the top of the head. Let the breath sweep from one end of the body to the other for a couple of minutes.

10 End by becoming aware of the body as a whole in contact with the surface.


Mindful Sleep Practice #3 JUST THREE THINGS

When we begin practicing mindfulness, we soon learn how helpful it is to turn our attention to the body. By cultivating an attitude of curiosity about what is arising physically in the body, we are able to shift our attention from our head, which is often busy overthinking the latest drama in our lives. There are many body-focused practices to explore; this one is particularly simple and therefore ideal if you are lying awake in bed. Just accept whatever happens. You may fall asleep, and you may not. The intention is simply to be present to whatever arises moment by moment.

1 Lie flat on your back with your legs outstretched, your feet falling away, and your arms at your side a little away from the body. Turn your hands palm up.

2TEMPERATURE: Notice any part of the body that feels warm, whether externally or internally, and explore what the felt sensation of warmth is like. Can you notice different degrees of warmth? Is there a point at which warm becomes hot? Notice how you are responding to what you find—does it feel positive, negative, or neutral (we are not looking for a specific response, simply noticing the fact that we always judge our experience to some degree).

3 Let go of warmth, and now notice any part of the body that feels cool or cold. Explore internally and externally in the same way as for warmth and heat, again noticing how you respond.

4TOUCH: Letting go of temperature, turn your attention to touch. Notice any points of contact with the mattress (the heels, the backs of the calves, the thighs, the buttocks …). Notice how the contact actually feels (hard, soft, welcoming, resisting …). What else is touching: Fabric in contact with skin, skin on skin … how many different types of contact can you identify? Explore touch.

5BREATH: Letting go of touch, narrow your attention to focus solely on your breathing. Notice where you feel it most strongly. Perhaps notice if it is slow and deep, or short and shallow, or if it varies. There is no need to change your breathing or try to breathe in a particular way; simply allow the breath to breathe itself. Become aware of your breathing. You might begin by focusing on the part of the body where you feel the breath most strongly (the chest or belly), but as your attention becomes focused, notice where else in the body you are experiencing breathing. Become aware of movement, rhythm, rising, falling, expanding, contracting …

6 When you are ready, expand your attention to include the whole body, noticing the temperature, any sensations of touch, and the breath entering and leaving this body.