Mindfulness meditation 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 meditation, 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 meditation 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. More about mindfulness meditation down below.
Mindfulness Meditation Music
THE ORIGINS OF MINDFULNESS MEDITATION
The recent popularity of mindfulness meditation may lead you to think that it is something new, but it is quite the opposite. Mindfulness is a quality within us all, but it can be cultivated consciously through meditation, and this has been practiced for thousands of years. The secular form of mindfulness meditation that we discuss here came to the West more than 30 years ago and was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Hospital as a way of helping patients with chronic medical conditions learn to live with them. Since then its use has spread, and adapted mindfulness-based approaches are being used for medical disorders such as depression, anxiety, addiction, cancer, and pain, among many others, as well as in mainstream contexts such as schools, prisons, government, the workplace, and the sports arena. One reason that it has been accepted into such a diverse range of areas is the strong evidence for its efficacy. This is growing all the time, particularly in new areas, and mindfulness and sleep is one of those.
MINDFULNESS MEDITATION PRACTICE
When we practice mindfulness meditation, we are focusing our attention on something in particular (such as the breath, physical sensations, sounds, or thoughts) for a certain amount of time. The regularity of the practice is more important than the duration, so try to do it a few times a week if you can’t do it every day. It is better to sit for a shorter time, perhaps 5 minutes to begin with, and build it up, rather than struggle to sit for 30 minutes and feel that you have failed. When we meditate, our mind will wander sooner rather than later, and at some point we notice that. This is a moment of pure awareness—we are in the present moment and we know that we are thinking. We acknowledge that we are “thinking” and bring our attention back to the focus, whatever that is. If we practice mindfulness meditation regularly, we end up doing this thousands of times. Every time we bring the attention back we are practicing letting go of a distraction, encouraging the unconscious mind to notice mind-wandering (which is why it is important not to beat ourselves up about it), practicing deliberately placing our attention where we want it to be, and cultivating attitudes of kindness, gentleness, curiosity, patience, letting go, acceptance, and non-striving. Therefore every time we exercise this muscle of awareness, we lay down new neural pathways in the brain: We change our brain and the way it works. Much of our day-to-day stress is caused by trying to control our experience, and particularly by things not being as we would like them to be, and the same thing happens at night if we are not sleeping as we think we should. When we practice mindfulness meditation regularly, we notice how our experience is always changing. We become more comfortable with change and realize that we can’t control our experience. When we struggle with not sleeping, we can get into a vicious cycle of trying to control all the elements that may influence sleep; but actually, this undermines it. As we meditate, every state of mind will arise at some point: physical discomfort, boredom, restlessness, irritation, calm, peace, ease … Learning to explore these different states “on the mat” in a safe environment gives us the opportunity to practice being with them. Through noticing how they manifest in the body and how we habitually react to them, and through meeting them, we learn a different way to respond to them. Thus, when the same states of mind arise in everyday life, we are already familiar with them. There is also an important element of showing up to practice. If we establish a regular mindfulness meditation practice (maybe just 10–15 minutes a day), we do it regardless of whether we are in the mood. This is important: It cultivates a willingness to be with whatever shows up, however we are, and it can be helpful when we experience a bout of insomnia or face unexpected events. We often find it easier to pay attention to our experience if we make a specific time to do so, without any distractions, and setting aside a time to meditate allows this.
HOW DOES MINDFULNESS HELP?
According to Mindful Nation UK, mindfulness meditation training teaches people to become more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, as well as being less reactive and judgmental toward them. They start recognizing thoughts as mental events rather than facts, and discover ways of dealing with automatic reactions to stress. They also become able to notice pleasant events and enjoy them, and develop a greater overall attitude of unconditional kindness, both toward themselves and others. The result of this is that they respond to their own experience, and to events in their lives and the people around them, in a healthier and more compassionate way. Whatever brings us to mindfulness meditation—anxiety, pain, sleeplessness, or something else—we never actually try to “fix” that particular problem. Instead, we learn to relate to our “suffering”—whether physical or psychological—in a different way. Forcing ourselves to fall asleep (or resisting being awake) is a non-starter. Learning how to move from a place of resisting or not wanting our experience to one of allowing it to be (since it’s already here) is at the heart of mindfulness meditation practice. Paradoxically, by letting go of the need to fall asleep you may find that your sleep improves. Regardless of this, however, acceptance involves letting go of the mental struggle that can be so exhausting, and therefore you may feel less tired even if you are not actually sleeping more.