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Meditation and Sleep: Finding Space Between Thoughts

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Recently I spoke to David Less, CalmCircleCollege meditation director, about the relationship between meditation and sleep.

What is the difference between the awake and asleep state?

When awake, our consciousness is bounded by the experience of the senses. When asleep, our consciousness is free to experience its natural state and we wake up feeling alive. All distractions take us away from our natural state.

How is meditation connected to sleep?

The mind continually jumps from one thought, impulse or stimulus to another. Meditation quiets the mind and creates increasingly long periods of space between thoughts. Once you begin experiencing space between thoughts, sleep improves.

But how can you find this "space" between thoughts when your brain is so busy thinking?

With meditation, the lens of the brain begins to relax. Think of the brain like a muscle. If it focuses too tightly for too long, the muscle has trouble releasing and can feel cramped. A cramped muscle prevents restful sleep. Meditation brings intent and consciousness to the brain by sending the message that it is now time to relax, release and experience that restful "space." If the brain stays in a conscious state of attention without experiencing a release, sleep quality is negatively affected.

When meditation becomes a practice, the brain becomes familiar with the restful state and no longer resists it. Thus it is easier and more comfortable to fall into a truly restful sleep.

Do you teach particular guidelines for those interested in establishing a meditation practice?

Meditation is a very personal experience and is different for everyone. I have students who meditate for long periods of time in one sitting and others who meditate in much shorter sessions quite effectively. It can be a function of personality, lifestyle, or simple preference. Some love to meditate lying down while others just fall asleep if they are not sitting up. Some like to meditate in the same place every day and others meditate whenever and wherever they can. The important thing is to train the brain to rest and it gets easier with repetition. Soon all the benefits begin to engage, including restful and regenerative sleep.

How does stress factor into all of this?

The breath, a key component of meditation, is your ally in the battle against the negative impact of stress on health, sleep, emotional state and overall well-being. It sounds overly simple but developing a conscious awareness of breath is key to learning how to relax in the face of overwhelming stress. It is nearly impossible to be out of control or upset if your breathing is conscious and measured. It is important to know what situations are likely to cause stress in advance, including the inability to sleep. Knowing how to access that quiet, calm place of stillness that is always inside you can help you become more familiar with, and have more control over stressors. Practicing conscious awareness of breath when not under stress will make it easier to access when the stress level escalates.

What do you say to those who don't think meditation is for them but know they could probably benefit from it?

My job as a teacher is to demystify meditation and help people believe they can do it. It takes a 25- to 30-day commitment to create a new habit but it is hard to imagine any other habit that could be worth more in terms of enhanced quality of life, sleep and health. It is a form of self-compassion. It enhances and develops the relationship to self and others. If you believe change is possible, as little as 10 minutes a day can truly change you and your relationship to stress. And help you sleep like a baby.

David Less has been teaching meditation and inner practice for more than 45 years and is recognized globally for his inspirational work in the fields of harmonious living, health, and personal transformation. He travels the world hosting workshops and retreats. His latest book is Universal Meditations: A Program for Quieting the Mind.