Meditation and Insomnia

I started to try meditation sometime last year. I wasn’t sleeping well then because of a lot of stress at work that I was going through and at the same time I was experiencing much emotional anxiety from relationship problems. I was close to exhausting all my options I knew of. I had tried all sorts of exercise, oral aids and medications, changes in diet and sleep hygiene habits, massages and a whole plethora of things you could think of that you have heard of. Most of them worked temporarily, but none had a lasting effect on its own. These things I had already tried culled only the “symptoms” but not the cause of my poor sleep. They were not enduring solutions.
So yes, I was very, very desperate for sleep. I was medically termed an insomniac. I needed it so badly because my physical and mental health were already gravely affected. I was falling sick frequently, I was terrible with my anger management and my mood pinged like a pinball in a neverending game. I snapped easily, I became an extremely unpleasant person and I knew it. This was affecting me in every way possible.
So then, I heard that “meditation” might help. A friend of mine had suggested to me the Headspace app (which appears to be quite popular). I was told it would only take 10 minutes it involved the practice of “mindfulness” etc. Sounded easy enough, so I decided to give it a try since I had already tried everything else and was kind of desperate. I was skeptical at best, and I had this preconception that meditation was just being able to sit cross-legged and falling asleep while sitting upright or something like that. But there was no harm in trying anyway, if it worked, hurrah, pretty cool if I could learn how to sleep sitting upright! If not…I would just have another one to add to that long list of “been there done that and it doesn’t work”.
Anyways, so I went ahead and tried the app. The first time I had tried it, I was surprised to have experienced the most amazing and relaxed 10 minutes I’ve had in several months at that time. It wasn’t easy for a full 10 minutes to not get distracted, I must admit. But for what I had managed – it was a sure improvement to my mental state. I was so thankful to have discovered this so I continued practising this for the next 10 days (and more) with the app.
During the 10 minutes of the app, you get verbally guided through focusing on what your sense of touch was feeling in various parts of the body, then to what your ears were hearing, and then to the smells and then to being aware of the thoughts that were in your head, and then eventually to counting your breaths while not being engaged in any particular thought but being aware of them being present. Towards the end, you have about 10-20 seconds to allow your mind to let loose and engage in whatever thought it wishes to.
I learnt from using the guided 10 minutes of the app that getting into a meditative state was really about the practice of daily mindfulness, being aware of the presence of the thoughts in your head, be it happy, sad, angry or whatever emotion it creates, and simply acknowledging its presence, AND choosing not to engage in any particular one thought or emotion. You reach past these thoughts (grey clouds) into the blue sky above it. This is definitely much easier said than done! I’ve realised that meditation is NOT about cutting out thoughts and shutting out your mental processes, which is the popular and common misconception of meditation. It is actually, more about making peace with whatever is up in there, and being ok with knowing these thoughts in your mind are there – be it bad, good, sad, happy, evil or great. Again, you acknowledge the existence of them, but you do not engage them, sort of like giving a familiar faced neighbour, the little nod saying “hi, hello, I see you there, good morning” when you see them in the morning. Achieving this peace is also perhaps like how people can choose to agree to disagree.
During the 200hr YTT, we also learnt that meditation or Dhyana is a state, and not something you can “practice” or simply just “do”. You can however, “practice” concentration or Dharana, which is the focus and attention on a single thing, like a candle flame (or on the what the individual senses are perceiving through touch, hearing and smelling or even focusing on your breaths). And it is only from the practice of this, you will gradually let your mind move fluidly into a meditative state of being in Dhyana. Moving into Dhyana is surely not an easy feat, and as Master Paalu had described it in class, being in Dhyana is like being aware of all of the fish in the river of thoughts but not concentrating or paying attention to any particular one of the fish in that river of thoughts. Master Paalu had also described that even though most people can achieve it, Dhyana is a state that is difficult to maintain because a lot of people fall right asleep.
Haha this is where I’ll jump in and say that it is because being in a meditative state is certainly extremely relaxing and I can vouch for this personally! This is almost surely why meditation has definitely helped and worked to negate my sleep problems. It puts me in such a state of relaxation that, my body at the time, which was intensely exhausted and worn out, would slip into sleep- or shut-down mode to give it the much-needed repair and rejuvenation. It was and is still the most enduring solution to my sleep problems which I try to get into before I sleep, up till today.
Through the repeated use of the app and self-practice of learning to quiet the mind, I have learnt and realised that the root cause of my sleep problems was my inability to quiet or still my mind of the war that was going on up there before going to bed. Mental preoccupation keeps your mind engaged and operating, much like a CPU of a computer, which if left on, would still keep running the computer even if lets say, the monitors, are switched off. And trying to “sleep” with the CPU still running would be exactly like switching off the computer’s monitor without switching the CPU off. At some point the computer is going to run into a whole plethora of problems and break down or overheat if you never give it a break or let it rest. Learning to make peace with the thoughts in my head is therefore like learning to discipline the mind, via regular training, to achieve stillness and peace up in your CPU-brain to allow it to “switch-off” and also direct the rest of the body to relax for rest.
Meditation has not only helped to improve my sleep problems since I started on it. It has helped me to calm and still my mind in stressful situations which I face daily and in my line of work. I also believe that it will eventually help to expand the function of my mind and also my control over it. While I have been weaned off the external “solutions” to my problems for one that works from the inside and directly at the root cause of the problem, I believe this will be an ongoing journey to discover what else meditation can do for me.
-Mel (200hr TTC weekend batch)

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