We've all been there – feeling exhausted and can't wait to get into bed after a long and stressful day. Finally, we lay our head down and instead of drifting off into a restful sleep; we lie awake consumed with thoughts from the day, to-do lists and planning for the coming day. It seems as if the head isn't going to allow the weary body the rest it deserves. There's nothing to do but hope for sleep to eventually come, or is there?
What if there was in fact a switch to turn the mind off, or at least turn it down a few notches so that we can relax and let go? Wouldn't this be a welcome relief from the worrying and processing? Unfortunately, our minds are so active and over stimulated during our waking hours that we simply don't know how to switch them off. Some might think that relaxing in front of the TV before bed is a good way to "switch off" but it is in fact stimulating the mind.
Luckily, we can train the mind to quiet down and with a little practice; we can bring ourselves into a relaxed state at will. However, practice is the key. Don't wait until lying in bed at night wide-awake to try these meditation practices. Practice for a few minutes each day and notice the benefits. Some might even find that they drift off to sleep without having to practice again in bed, as they'll already be reaping the benefits of a more relaxed mind.
Some tips before starting:
1. Pick a regular time each day to practice. People are more likely to continue the practice if they can form a habit.
2. Use a trigger as a reminder to meditate. Something done without fail each day such as brushing your teeth for example. Let this be the reminder needed to remember to meditate each time the activity is carried out.
3. Start off slowly. It’s better to spend one minute in meditation than none at all. Some people launch into their practice starting with fifty minutes, and may well be discouraged from trying again.
4. Enjoy the practice and have fun. When we feel rushed we don't relax fully, so let go and trust that for the next few minutes the world won't fall apart without our active engagement!
Using the Breath
The breath is such a powerful tool to help us relax and let go. The simple act of tuning into our breathing and taking a few deep, restorative breaths can be very relaxing in itself. When teaching meditation students often ask how long they need to follow the breath for? Quite simply, taking three slow, deep mindful breaths is enough. It takes less than a minute and can be done anywhere. Of course, the longer spent the better, but don't get caught up in how long one "should" be meditating for.
Take a few deep breaths and allow the body to relax. Use the out breath to let go of tension on the exhale. Now imagine the breath coming into the body through the crown at the top of the head. Visualise the breath being funneled through the body and breathe out through the feet. Repeat this process for as many breaths as desired. Try also reversing the breath and breathe in through the feet and funnel the breath up through the body and out through the crown.
Focus on Space
It is known that our minds relax with greater ease if we focus on nothing - space. No, not outer space rather, inner space! Tara Brach writes about an interesting study of brainwaves during meditation. When participants were asked to focus on the space between their eyes, their Alpha brain waves soared. (Alpha being a relaxed state of mind). When asked to focus on the space between their ears, their Alpha waves once again increased. The key is to let go of fixed focus - to-do lists for example, and open up to nonobjective focus.
Take a few deep breaths and feel the body relaxing more and more with each breath. Tell the mind that it is going to take a short break. Breathing normally, shift focus away from thoughts and bring attention to the space between the eyes. Rest here for a few breaths. Many will become aware of thoughts coming up, just breathe and let go, refocusing attention on the space between the eyes. Next, bring the focus to the space between the ears. Again, rest here for a few breaths. Continue to breathe normally, remaining relaxed and resting in an open state of awareness.
Practice Letting Go
We often find it difficult to quiet the mind because we believe if we think about something enough that we'll come up with a solution. However, the reverse is often true. As soon as we stop thinking and let go, the solution we have been looking for pops up, as if out of nowhere. When we try to think of a phone number for example, no matter how hard we try, it won't come to us. As soon as we stop thinking about it however, it spontaneously comes back!
Take a few deep breaths and close the eyes. In the minds eye, imagine standing on a cliff top, facing out to the sea. Picture holding a bunch of balloons.
Place inside each balloon something that is of worry, anything big or small that has been a burden and needs to be released.
Holding a hand up, let go of the balloons and see the breeze take them high up into the sky and out towards the ocean. Watch as the balloons drift off and with them all the worries drift away also.