We have tens of thousands of thoughts each day. These thoughts range from mundane to creative, silly to productive, and funny to serious. While we can sometimes feel overwhelmed by our constant thoughts, the brain is designed to think and it is how we get things accomplished. Thinking is a good thing. But as the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing.
The problem is that at the pace we live, thoughts happen at lightning speed, and often more than one at a time. This treadmill of constant mental activity and chatter can create physical and emotional problems, not the least of which is finding a way to stop thinking long enough to have a restful, rejuvenating sleep.
It is essential to interrupt the thought process consciously several times a day. This "interruption" can take the form of a meditative practice designed to focus your attention inward to a place of stillness. This place will not be a thought-free zone and shouldn't be judged negatively if thoughts do occur, which they will. But because it is conscious, you are creating the space, the stillness, that you feel when you choose to interrupt unconscious thoughts.
To be still is to be conscious without thought. You are never more essentially, more deeply, yourself than when you are still. When you are still, you are who you were before you temporarily assumed this physical and mental form called a person. -- Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
How can we train ourselves to access this ever-present place routinely?
- Use everyday triggers as a reminder
Identify things you do each day that can become associated with a quick mental rest break. Every time you wash your hands, or take that first sip of a cup of hot coffee, close your eyes and engage your senses. Enjoy the warm water and soap as you rub your hands together, lingering longer than usual. Take a deep inhale over the steam of your coffee or tea to enjoy the aroma and then savor those first few sips. Or maybe build it into your schedule so that you always take a few quiet moments before or after a certain class or on a break at work to breathe consciously and reset for the remainder of the day.
- Master a simple breathing exercise
Try a few simple breathing exercises and choose one that helps you settle, rest and reset your mind. Here are two of my favorites:
Counting Breaths Inhale slowly and comfortably and on the exhale, say silently to yourself the number one. Inhale again, and on the exhale, say silently to yourself the number two. Continue until you have reached the number 5. Then repeat. Depending on how much time you have, the counting may begin to naturally subside as relaxation takes over.
Mantra Breathing As you slowly and gently inhale, say silently to yourself, "I am". On the exhale, say silently to yourself, "relaxed". Make sure you release all the air from your lungs and give yourself an instant of complete physical release at the bottom of the exhale. Continue. Your mantra may naturally subside as you become relaxed.
These exercises can be done anywhere and are effective even if only practiced for a moment or two. If you don't have the opportunity to establish your counting or your relaxation mantra, then just try three conscious breaths, fully in and fully out.
If you commit to weaving this simple practice into your waking life, these exercises will become incredibly valuable to you when it is time to sleep. Because you engage in conscious interruptions in your thoughts during the day, you are sending a message to your brain when it is time to stop thinking and move into a state of mental rest. That same breathing exercise will set the tone at night to power down and enjoy the beauty of sleep.
Don't let thoughts hijack your precious sleep time. Get to know your place of stillness and mental rest. Visit it often. And fall asleep each night... on purpose.