In 2020, beginning shortly after the onset of the COVID pandemic, I started an online meditation group at Spirit of the Lake (recordings available here). Those 30-minute meetings ended up being a lot like episodes of Pretty Good Meditation, with me talking to people and not a lot of discussion. So when we decided to (re)start the Spirit of the Lake meditation group, it was important to me that this group would provide a space not just to practice meditation, but also an environment where each of us in the group could learn from and support each other.
Last night was the first meeting of the new Spirit of the Lake meditation group, and when we were going around the (virtual) circle, many people expressed their desire to use meditation to improve their sleep. Last night I offered some ideas on this topic and here I will expand on a few of the things I said.
The Sleep Problem
Organizations such as the CDC and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine agree that adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night. Unsurprisingly, many people are not getting enough sleep.
Sleep disorders generally fall under three broad categories, including parasomnias (night terrors, nightmares, etc.), excessive daytime sleepiness, and insomnia (inability to initiate or maintain sleep). Conditions such as insomnia can lead to all kinds of problems, such as cognitive impairment, reduced quality of life, increased accident risk, and more. It probably comes as no surprise to you that sleep is important and that many people do not get enough sleep.
Nobody has figured out a magic sleep formula that works for everyone, and yet there is no shortage of suggestions, gimmicks, and pills available. You've likely heard about some of the many suggested behavioral treatments for insomnia including stimulus control (e.g. "only sleep in your bed"), therapy (e.g. talk to someone because "it's all in your head"), and sleep restriction (e.g. "no lying around in bed").
Meditation is another potential behavioral intervention. While statements such as "meditation can help people sleep" are true, that's a little bit like saying "pills can help people sleep." There are at least as many different ways to practice meditation as their are different kinds of pills. It's not true that "meditation alone will help everyone sleep." Different kinds of meditation will help different people in different ways, so — I'm sorry to say — much of the responsibility for figuring out how to improve your sleep falls on you.
In order to get those hours in, we need to create conditions that allow us to fall asleep, including reduced light exposure and a settled mind. It's clear that meditation helps a lot of folks in a lot of different ways and that consistent meditation practice can lower the heart rate, reduce stress, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, all of which theoretically should help create the conditions for quality sleep.
The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the foundational Buddhist discourse on meditation practice, recommends falling asleep with awareness (mindfully) in order to improve quality of sleep and prevent bad dreams (Anālayo, pp. 140-1). When we are more aware of the present moment and less obsessed by our thoughts, we sleep better. The problem for many people is that when they finally lie down in bed at the end of a busy day their minds are still racing. Practicing meditation during the day can help us learn to let go of those thoughts that keep us up at night.
Each person needs to find out what works for them, examining cause and effect, and that can require a significant investment in time. It might be much easier to instead commit to a meditation practice, let go of any expectations, and simply keep track of how a consistent meditation practice affects your sleep (or not). Sitting down to meditate with a goal can be a useful motivator to practice each day, but once you are on the cushion the practice is to focus on the moment and let go of those goals, fears, concerns, motivations, and instead focus on your "meditation object," such as your breath, bodily sensations, mantra, inner light, etc.
Does It Work?
One study conducted through the Center for Healthy Minds (Madison, Wisconsin) published last year found that police officers who participated in an 8-week mindfulness course experienced improvements in sleep quality, as well as reduced stress and anxiety. Those effects continued five months after the training period. This is consistent with the results of a 2019 meta-analysis (a study of studies) that found "mindfulness meditation may be effective in treating some aspects of sleep disturbance." The bottom line here is that, yes, meditation has helped many people improve both the quality and quantity of their sleep.
The number of scientific studies of meditation has skyrocketed in recent decades. One of the best, and most often cited books on the science of meditation is Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson (Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds). They don't talk a lot about sleep in their book, but they do offer science-based recommendations about how to derive the greatest benefits from meditation, which for many people includes improved sleep quality.
How Do I Start?
Last night our Spirit of the Lake Meditation group practiced mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati), and some of us set an intention to practice mindfulness of breathing for at least a few minutes each day, for the next week, and then report back to the group with our joys, difficulties, and questions.
If you would like to join us in practicing breath meditation this week, you might start with one of my breath-focused meditations:
If you'd rather listen to other voices (I won't be offended), there are countless breath meditations on the Web, each with their own style. Some of the places where I have found inspiration include dharmaseed.org, insighttimer.com, tarabrach.org, and mindful.org. Other people like to use apps on their phone, and the editors of Tricycle Magazine review many of them on their website.
Next week (March 15, 2022) we will meet in-person at Spirit of the Lake and you are welcome to join us. Space is limited, so please register here.