We have all done this at least once in our life. Tossing and turning trying to find the exact position for the ideal sleep, closing our eyes tighter and more tight again, putting socks on and then off again, one leg in, one leg out. Becoming increasingly irritated by the other human in the bed who seems to be peacefully snoring away. Eye mask on, eye mask off again. All desperate measures are used, finally a body scan brings some sort of stillness: focusing the energy on your toes, ankles, heels, calves, knees and then…… a bloody mozzie in the room.
Sound familiar? If you have not experienced this then you are in the small percentage of fortunate people – or you have become enlightened.
We can experience between 2,500 – 3,000 thoughts in an hour, this equates to around 50 thoughts a minute. So it makes sense that when there are no other distractions in the quietness of the room we become victim to these thoughts.
That seems pretty exhausting, but how do we pacify these thoughts and give them less emotion and meaning? The first thing to know is that we can’t stop them – as such much as we would like – this is not the answer.
However, we can separate ourselves from them by learning two methods that have helped many of my patients over the years. I use these in combination with acupuncture and herbal medicine to addressing the root cause of the mental chaos.
The first method is to become the observer of the thoughts rather than being entangled in them with emotion and feelings. This can sound a little strange for newcomers to this method. However, stick to it as it can have some profound results. Initially this exercise should last about 30 seconds. Once you master this length of time then you can indulge in longer.
Begin with this: Imagine you are sitting in a movie theatre with all your thoughts on the screen and you are the observer sitting in the chair watching them. The idea of the exercise is to create distance between you and your thoughts. Rather than them controlling you, just simply look at them darting from one to the other and try not to get involved. Observe that it is happening in your head and you can sit back and watch it play out. Initially, your mind will trick you and say “I’m not thinking of anything” so you can’t watch me. Then before you know it, BOOM, off it goes. Just remember to reflect them on to the screen and not get stuck with the thoughts in your head.
So the benefit of this exercise is that after the 30 seconds of observation, you may feel some stillness, and space which has been created between you and your thoughts. This is often referred to as “the gap” in meditation.
With this space, there is also a feeling of inner peace. There’s not as much busyness, and a space opens up where the mind feels so relaxed that it feels a little sleepy and tired. We can use this opportunity to fall asleep.
This second exercise seems almost too simple, but remember that oftentimes less is more. It’s an exercise to be done in bed before you fall asleep or in between waking up frequently.
So if you find yourself awake when you would rather be asleep. Practise a form of appreciation, or gratitude using all the senses. If you hear a noise, like a cat outside, feel lucky or grateful that you may possibly be the only person who heard it. Feel the cotton sheets under your feet, notice how nice it feels on bare skin. Sense how warm and cosy your doona is, and what a privilege it is to feel this. Observe how dark it is, and how you can see the edge of the moon through your window.
Although these observations seem so basic, it’s an incredibly simple way to change the state of the brain. Rather than feeling agitated and increasingly frustrated with not sleeping, it puts the brain in a state of gratitude. The fact is you can be angry or you can be grateful but you cant be both at the same time.
So choose to feel gratitude, it helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and relaxation) where as anger, irritability and jealousy all up regulates our sympathetic (fight and flight) nervous system. So that being said the antidote to fear, anger, irritability and jealousy is gratitude.
As cliche as this may sound, there is strength and potential in such a basic mindset shift. If we find ourselves awake in the middle of the night, take the time to lie there and observe things from all your senses. Find pleasure and appreciation in what you once would have taken for granted, ignored or perhaps even disliked.
As previously mentioned this is just two methods we use amongst other therapies to help create long lasting changes in the brain.