When I lie in bed, waiting to fall asleep, it often seems like a war breaks out between my mind and my breath. In the last moments of consciousness, my brain often races, seemingly desperate to manufacture thoughts that solve my problems. As I try to bring my attention back to each relaxing breath, I mentally talk to my mind stream, as if helping a buddy see the sensible side of things, “Hey mind, you’ve helped me all day. You did a great job with your ideas for Lani’s next step in her divorce. And Emma really appreciated the recipe you’d memorized. Thanks for all your help today. Now, it’s time to rest and enjoy each breath.”
Instead of mentally saying, Shut up, blabbermouth, so I can get some sleep, I actively strive to befriend my overworked cranium. When thoughts intrude, I gently thank them again for all they do for me each day, and let them go. When a mental buzz persists, I have three more tricks. I ask myself if the issue I’m contemplating, such as what to report to my doctor at tomorrow’s appointment, is really helping me more than sleep would. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer is No and I can stop the thinking process. If I’m caught up in emotions, such as rehashing an argument, I ask myself if my ego must remain attached to the issue right now. Again, almost all of the time, my pride admits it doesn’t need to clamp on to the stimulus.
My meditation teachers, two Tibetan lamas, taught me another way to stop thoughts: physically, but gently, push my eyeballs upward and inward as if they looked at my “third eye,” the space between my two eyes. This requires muscle conditioning and can be uncomfortable the first few times, but it’s worth it. In this area, a “No Thought Zone,” I see moving colors: usually magenta and navy blues. I feel rested and safe in this mental region. Some persistent thoughts want to intrude and I can’t always stop them. But the inner silence is precious while it lasts. Soon a thought zaps through and I give in to the temptation to follow it, starting the thinking process over again. My mind seems to find comfort in its usual frenetic activity and begins to feel insecure when it stops. As the lamas say, it’s a matter of habitual tendencies and I try, over and over again to condition myself to choose spacious contemplations.
In addition, when I’ve finally wiggled into my favorite sleeping position on my left side, I try to wean myself away from stimulating mental commotion by focusing on each breath. I discovered that counting breaths with numbers or sheep flashing on my inner mental screen encourages wakefulness. To keep my attention on the breath, I gently flex each finger in turn as I breathe. This subtle physical component seems to keep me grounded and limit the impulse to follow thoughts.
Breathing sounds boring but it is a wonderland. The variety of breaths astounds me. Some whisper so subtly that I almost overlook their soft existence. The “normal” breath easily slides in and out. At times, the exhale pushes out longer than the inhale, resulting in a sigh. When feelings arise, my breaths become deeper, sometimes rasping. Every ten minutes or so, I nervously gulp air and then swallow, as if forcing the nourishing oxygen to stay down. Yawns, burps and hiccups intrude as an extreme and uncontrollable part of the breath cycle.
For as long as I remain aware of each inhalation and exhalation, my judgments relax and fade. Not entirely disappearing, they seem to orbit like a dimly seen planet on the periphery of my consciousness. I feel content to leave them alone and often slip into sleep this way.
However, at other times, thoughts insist on puffing up their importance. Like operatic divas, they force their way into the limelight of my mental stage. I get caught up in the drama: who said what to whom and why. My ego-based opinions escalate along with my emotions and I no longer feel my lungs at work. It’s difficult to be aware of both thinking processes and respiratory rhythms at the same time.
If I encourage my rampaging brain to pause for a moment, I can view my mental mechanics objectively, apply one of the several remedies I’ve mentioned and become calm once more. It’s possible to subdue my mind, allow awareness of breath and bring peace.
For decent sleep, the other choice is Ambien. Once or twice a year, I tire of the inner struggle, say “Oh, what the heck” and pop a pill.
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.