There seems to be a lot written about mindfulness lately, and so I’ve sort of steered away from the topic. But I was reminded again recently about how important a topic it really is: how one simple practice can make such a difference to one’s well-being.
I have a friend who has been having trouble sleeping due to stress and ruminating at night, and when I had suggested mindfulness mediation her response reminded me how many people tend to see this practice as new-age ‘hocus pocus’. The fact is, though, that this practice has been used for thousands of years; long before the western ‘new-agers’ ever got ahold of it.
Mindfulness is a simple concept; although not always easy to employ. It simply means (according to at least one definition) just being here right now. Non-judgmentally being with this moment. And this moment. And this moment…
Our bodies do not easily differentiate fantasy from reality, so when we’re ruminating about the days’ events or about what’s going to play out tomorrow, or bodies respond as if the mental scenario we’re playing out is really happening. The body then goes into its stress response and we can’t sleep. Or digest well. Or relax. Or think clearly.
So during the day it helps to remind ourselves to just be right here right now. If we take a moment, use the breath as an anchor to just be really present (just observing the breath going all the way in and all the way out, without trying to control it in any way), we realize that literally nothing is really going on at this particular moment: the stress we feel is purely a manifestation of what’s going on in our head at that moment.
There are many ways to cultivate mindfulness in daily life (and it does take ongoing practice), but I won’t get into them for the purposes of this article. I will, however, go back to the topic of sleep and share a mindfulness-based exercise for calming the mind at night (when ordinary problems appear much bigger), so that we can get the rest and repair we need.
I had been giving a workshop sometime ago about sleep, when one of the participants shared a great strategy. It’s something I continue to use regularly, and I wish I knew who he was so that I could give him proper credit. He did not call it mindfulness meditation, but as he explained the simple technique I knew that that was exactly what it was:
The next time you have a hard time sleeping, particularly because you’re ruminating, the first rule is to remember that just by lying there you’re getting most of the metabolic rest you need. So don’t stress about trying to sleep. Don’t even try to sleep – that only makes things worse. Rather, try slowly and persistently saying ‘Goodnight’ to every little piece of your body: “Goodnight toes. Goodnight balls of the feet. Good night tops of the feet. Goodnight ankles. Goodnight calf muscles…” You get the picture. And when you start to drift off or wander, force yourself to continue with the exercise.
This exercise may sound silly, but it’s very powerful in its simplicity. What you’re doing is automatically relaxing every part of your body simply by focusing on it. And when the body is relaxed, rest comes more easily. The other thing you’re doing – and this is where the mindfulness comes in – is stilling the mind. When you’re focused on each part of your body, you’re not thinking about the day or about what’s in store tomorrow. And when the mind is calm, rest comes more easily.
So if you find yourself stressed from time to time (as we all do), try cultivating more mindfulness during the day: just stop and be present with whatever you’re doing, so that you can make clearer choices. And if you find yourself carrying it with you to bed, try this simple exercise before reaching for the sleeping pills or the bottle of wine!