Best Meditation for Sleep
Did I ever tell you the story about how I first started meditating? Yes? Well here it is again, and don’t answer back next time.
In around 2006 I watched a David DeAngelo DVD called, I believe, Deep Inner Game. It had a guest speaker called Dr Paul. While rather a kook, with a strange model of personality called “King, Warrior, Magician and Lover” (which somehow involved the Clintons), he did nevertheless say one thing which stuck with me forever. This was his description of something he called “observing ego”, the mechanism through which you can monitor your behaviour, thoughts, emotions, and actions in real time as they are being created. I now know this as mindfulness.
I began trying out “observing ego” immediately. I would watch everything I did, thought, felt, and all things coming through the sense doors, as much as I could, all the time. I had no sitting meditation practice at the time, so this was all “off the cushion”. This meant while talking to people I would have a separate “thought stream” going on, noticing things about the situation and narrating them back to myself. This was a lot of mental effort at first. However, I began to notice that the more I practised, the easier it got. I also found that I would notice more and more details, too. In fact, the amount of information present in any situation was quite overwhelming.
After two days of practising this non-stop everywhere I went, I found that I now could not turn it off. It had become habituated. This was a double-edged sword. On the one hand I was getting a lot more information about reality. On the other hand much of this information was distressing as it informed me how maladjusted I was and how quickly doing, saying, or even intoning the wrong thing could send a situation down a bad path. It also showed me how anxious I was, most of the time, especially around people I didn’t know. I had no sitting practice in which to sort this stuff out and generate good feelings in its place, so I was left trying to work through it just with my intellect (which isn’t really the right tool for the job). This was a rough one or two years. However, I also think it was this constant observation of the mindstream that led to my developing powerful concentration, as the skills seem to translate quite well. When later I came to formal sitting practice, I was able to stay with “objects” very easily.
So, a year or two later, in the Seduction Community there was a book doing the rounds by Michael Brown called The Presence Process, which was said to be good for inner healing. Brown had mixed Eastern and Western concepts to create his own solution for healing past trauma. The main practice was a sitting meditation with linked breathing (a controlled in and out of even ratio with no gap between them). Simultaneously one was to say a mantra, in English, of which there was a different one per chapter. These mantras could be easily described as psychobabble. I cannot remember a specific one, but it was things like, “I forgive myself as a child”. I don’t think the book was crap per se as it had some interesting insights. In hindsight though I do not think the practice is capable of producing the change it claims. One interesting thing that came from this, however, is that after the first session, I fell asleep immediately, and slept well. I had developed insomnia over the previous few years so this was a very noticeable and welcomed change.
After finishing that book, I became interested in following a more traditional meditation practice and found Shinzen Young’s The Science of Enlightenment. I continued doing 15 minutes of meditation in the morning and 15 minutes at night, the same as I had done for The Presence Process. Now, however, my meditation was a basic awareness of breath with some noting, virtually identical to the one I wrote up here: Basic Mindfulness Meditation. I found that 15 minutes of this before bed would also put me out like a light. So, my insomnia was cured. A month or so later, I noticed that a white light would begin developing in my field of vision during meditation, which would grow in intensity. I got my first taste of jhana, though it was quite “soft” at this point, since I did not know that staying with the breath and the light for longer periods would eventually turn it “hard”. It was some time later that I eventually discovered that by accident, which was a brilliant day.
Anyway, the purpose of this post, aside from being a trip down memory lane, is to review different kinds of meditation for their effects on sleep. The reason this post came about was that I recently continued reading The Direct Means to Eternal Bliss and tried the Abandon Release Method, which gave interesting results for sleep. I then decided to experiment with a different meditation each night and make notes of the results.
Mindfulness of Breath with Noting
This practice involves verbally noting in your mind thoughts and feelings as they arise, then gently returning awareness to the breath. It is one of the main types of meditation given to beginners. However, just because it is basic does not mean it is weak. It is a powerful meditation if practised regularly.
I have included it in this list since it was how I cured my insomnia many years ago. Mindfulness of breath with noting is like “clearing your computer’s cache”. It clears out your queue of thoughts accumulated over the day. By doing this in a dedicated session, it means you are then not tossing and turning in bed with those thoughts running through your mind. Maintaining a regular breathing pattern also seems to have a sedating quality in itself.
Breath Concentration Meditation
The only difference between breath concentration meditation and the above is that you drop the noting, and keep a tighter awareness on the sensations of the breath for the whole session. This is a more advanced practice because the meditator will need to be comfortable dropping the “vocalization” of internal thoughts in order to point that awareness at the breath sensations instead. A computer analogy is that this is like closing your “narrative thought” program so your CPU can be fully utilized for your “watching sensations of the breath” program. Most beginners can’t do this right away which is why I recommend two months of the more basic breath awareness practice before even trying it.
I found that the easiest way to utilize breath concentration for sleep is to first attain full jhana while sitting upright. Then lie down in your sleep position (for me, it’s on my right side) and begin tuning into the breath again. It is always easier to enter jhana if jhana has already been attained that day (and the more recently, the better). This is because the jhana pathway stays “hot” for some time after activation. So, in this case, jhana should arise quite quickly. Make a formal resolution that you will allow yourself to fall asleep when jhana arises. The effect of this is that, when jhana arises, you appear to fully absorb into the breath and “disappear”. This is quite something to experience if you haven’t already.
The result of this practice was as follows. Ordinarily I am a light sleeper, have several weird dreams, and need to get up to piss a couple of times per night (I drink a lot of water). Sleeping in jhana was far different. I was unsure of the amount of time I had slept until I checked my clock and found that six hours had passed. That time had passed in a solid, uninterrupted block, during which I have no memory of existing. It was like I had been erased from existence for six hours. This is very different from my normal experience, since I am usually acutely aware of time even while sleeping and can guess what time it is within an accuracy of five minutes when I wake up.
I felt very, very good after this sleep, but also somewhat “drugged”, with a morphine-like haze. Since I’m getting quite old now (34), I have little aches and pains in my body whenever I wake up, especially in my legs. Today was no different. So, I tuned back into my breath, and found that first jhana arose very, very quickly, like it was still “primed” from the night before. White light poured upwards into my head like a liquid. The moment it hit, all pain in my body and mind instantly disappeared. (Jhana releases endogenous opioids, the brain’s own painkillers, and this is what I would imagine shooting up heroin to feel like.) I only needed a few minutes of this before I got out of bed, feeling awesome.
I went to work and found that the No-Self characteristic was coming through strongly in my experience. My actions seemed extremely autonomous. I was very sociable and friendly to everyone at work, and had good humour seemingly coming out of nowhere. Due to the perceived autonomy in these actions, I remember thinking to myself, I can’t take credit for this, which is a strange thought to have when you’re getting everything you want out of life. There was a tinge of white light around objects, which I have experienced hundreds of times before, post-jhana, and people and things had an ethereal look about them – a “there but not there”, “conscious but not conscious” feel to them. No-Self and Impermanence were shining through strongly. I remember raising a line of inquiry in my mind: Does Buddhist jhana actually cause the appearance of the Three Characteristics, rather than their being an inherent feature of reality? If that is true, it has quite profound consequences: for one, it means that Buddhist practice itself causes Buddhist worldview; for two, it means other practices (e.g. Self-Inquiry) can deliver different experiential worldviews. Then we are back to the question of whether our worldview is just the result of what goes on in our brains. So there’s an uneasy link back to materialism, too.
On this day I also noted that, while autonomous and dream-like, the world looked beautiful, and suffering had reduced markedly. At the same time, I felt continually “drugged”, like I was on a slow-drip of morphine. By the end of the day the bliss was so heavy that it was exhausting.
Abandon Release Method
Abandon Release Method immediately follows Awareness Watching Awareness in the book The Direct Means to Eternal Bliss. It is the method the reader is to use if he struggles with Awareness Watching Awareness. It involves lying down and letting go of thoughts. You can read the Abandon Release Method here. While this meditation is not supposed to be used to fall asleep, I decided to do so anyway to continue this experiment.
Firstly, Abandon Release Method is a highly relaxing meditation. It causes rapid relaxation and noticeable myofascial unwinding on a deep level, especially in the legs. In fact, this was so profound for me that it caused an immediate dream in which my legs were drawn up towards my body, mimicking a computer sitting pose. This implied to me that the meditation was helping to let go of tension in the legs accumulated from computer use. That bizarre experience aside, the Abandon Release Method caused sleep that was characterized by the following progression:
- Rapid relaxation with a real sense of falling away from the world.
- Strange hypnagogic imagery which is clearly linked to the body’s own relaxation processes (including the above “leg dream”).
- Deeper dreams that appear “far away”.
Both the hypnagogic and deeper dream imagery appears to be “benign”. It is also decidedly “causal”, in that it has the feeling of simply being an “unwinding” of something that was previously “wound”. That’s difficult to explain, but in short it means it feels like your body is just resetting, and your mind does not attach properties like “sentience” or “ill-intent” to any dream imagery that arises. Sleep is more like a data dump. It’s very refreshing in this sense.
This was a good sleep and I would be happy to recommend it as a general purpose, no-special-effects sleep.
“Do Nothing” Meditation
This is a nondirective meditation. “Do nothing” means “do nothing to control the meditation”. This means you are allowed to think and let your mind go where it wants. The interesting thing about this (which beginners don’t expect) is that you find your mind actually wants to gravitate towards stillness after some time. So, things can happen such as your mind realizing it’s on a thought loop and spontaneously dropping that thought loop (which can in fact result in spontaneous jhana-like states arising). My only instruction in this meditation is: stay absolutely still.
For sleep, this meditation involves simply lying on your back and staying absolutely still. Your mind will run through many thoughts, and attempt to have your body “twitch” and shift around in response. The twitch is the physical counterpart to the mental thought. By resisting the urge to twitch, the thought itself dissipates. Those with high body awareness will notice myofascial unwinding on the micro level at each moment a thought dissipates. This is part of the strange relationship between the mental world and the physical body.
The result of this meditation on sleep is very similar to Abandon Release. The main difference is that it is harder to get into Do Nothing initially due to the strong inclination for body twitching and fidgeting (whereas in Abandon Release you would consciously let such impulses go, leading to a faster relaxation). I would suggest that Do Nothing however gives the deeper sleep once this phase passes (after which sleep onset is extremely rapid).
If you are capable of meditation that is this nondirective, Do Nothing is superior for general-purpose sleep, and provides something I would consider to be “biologically-correct sleep”. This is how I will be falling asleep each night from now on, unless I desire something special like a jhana-sleep.
Kasina Concentration Meditation
Concentrating upon the afterimage of an LED can create a euphoric “light show” followed by psychedelic visuals worthy of a DMT trip if one’s skills are advanced.
Kasina practice, in my experience, is elating, rapturous and mind-blowing, and tends more towards the dopamine side of the spectrum. It is therefore energizing rather than sedating. Sleep following kasina practice tends to be disturbed by bizarre dreams and visions, and is not very restorative.
Kundalini / Energy Work / Kriya Yoga
Energy practice is the worst meditation possible for sleep. Following energy practice you can expect your sleep to be characterized by intense visuals and bizarre trip-like dreams. During an experiment I once fell asleep meditating on the base of my spine. This resulted in a nimitta that became so bright, my mind dreamed I was staring at the sun and multicoloured fractals began pouring out of its centre. This then led into dreams where I was eating LSD and flying between different realms. The dream was not blissful and the sleep was not at all restorative. However, it is a fairly easy way to gain a psychedelic experience without actually taking any drugs (the presumption being that the brain dumps mountains of DMT to create such intense dreams).
For the best regular sleep, choose Do Nothing if you can manage it. Otherwise, choose Abandon Release Method.
For valium-like sedation and erasure from existence, with a glowing drugged-up start to the day, choose breath jhana.