You will know how your sleep is adversely affected when you have something on your mind. Your sub-conscious is at work even when you are asleep. When there are problems or difficulties affecting you, your sleep will be shallower, more disturbed and less restful than when your mind is clearer. It is all the more important, therefore, to clear your mind in your waking hours.
My subconscious reminds to wake up – regularly!
One day a week I teach an early-morning yoga class. The class starts at 6:15 am and I need to be at the studio by 5:45 am. My usual getting up time is 7:15 am. The difference between normal waking time and Monday mornings when my alarm is set for shortly before 5 am is considerable. I am committed to being at the studio on time and to being ready and alert. I get to bed appropriately early on Sunday evening to give myself a good sleep before my early start.
When I go to bed I read a book which relaxes me and helps me shut down mentally for the night. I tell myself before I go to sleep that my alarm is set – for two times, five minutes apart, before 5 am to wake me. My alarm never fails and I remind myself of that fact. I tell myself to sleep solidly for the night.
Through the night I find I routinely wake up several times and check my phone – what is the time? I have dreams. This is very different from my normal night’s sleep. It seems that I sleep at a more shallow level than on other nights when I have my regular wake-up time of 7:15 am. Last Sunday night I even had a dream that I had woken up at 5:55 am and was supposed to have been at the studio ten minutes before then.
My sub-conscious is sabotaging my sleep rather than aiding me to get a good rest. One interpretation is that my subconscious is helping by ensuring I do not sleep past the time I need to get up. Another is that my subconscious is just playing out my fear of not waking in time. By entertaining my fear my subconscious is keeping me in a stressed state when I ought to be in an utterly relaxed state.
The fact that I need to be up earlier than normal is on my mind and that concern speaks sub-consciously throughout the night. It serves its purpose – I never fail to get up on time for that early class. It also works to my detriment. The poor quality of my sleep leaves me feeling sluggish later in the day and I take longer to get over the early wake-up time than ought to be the case.
If a clear mind is not guaranteed in sleep, create that state when awake.
I have reflected on the phenomenon of one’s mind gnawing away, even when one is sleeping – or trying to – and it reinforces for me the tremendous importance of taking time to clear one’s head when awake!
Meditation is not sleep. Meditation is an experience had when awake. In fact, when fully awake and present to the tendrils of thought that seek to grab your awareness and carry you away. In meditation, the work is to notice and disengage oneself from the temptations of thought. Meditation begins with inner awareness, single-pointed focus and then the state of undistracted focus without one’s mind attaching to any object.
Those new to meditation often experience frustration at how intrusive their thoughts are when they try to focus their minds. They sit to meditate and, unbidden, any number of thoughts suggest themselves and distract the meditator from their purpose. Instead of gazing at an empty catwalk, the meditator’s mind sends models sashaying down the catwalk. “Look at this fashion!” it says. “What about this attractive person?” “Check out those colours!”
If your mind has that power to distract you when you are awake and have the power of conscious control over what you choose to think about, it shows how much you can be a victim of your own mind, thought processes and sub-conscious when you are trying to, or are, sleeping. Use your conscious mind when awake to clear your mind of the unwanted and unnecessary thoughts and doubts.
Some find sitting to meditate uncomfortable and want to lie down to meditate. Beware the temptation of lying down. You may find yourself asleep instead. Meditation and sleep are not synonymous. There are some yoga practices called yoga nidra. Nidra means sleep. However, the practice of yoga nidra is intended to be a waking experience. The intention is to induce a deep state of relaxation, a slowing of the frequency of the practitioner’s brain waves and a conscious state of tremendous inner calm.
A problem that arises is that students in yoga nidra classes are positioned lying down on their backs – supine. Supine means, literally, in the attitude of sleep. It takes a certain level of experience to enter the state of calm sought to be created by yoga nidra without actually slipping into sleep.
When my wife and I both used to practice the law, she shared with me that she had a recurring “late for court” dream. We were both litigators. Being in the right court at the right time and properly prepared were essentials in our work and the consequences of not being so were serious. My wife found that, especially when she was in the middle of a hearing or had some important deadline looming, she would have a dream in which she was late for court. She would be held up by a series of events that meant she was not ready, was late and was facing the ire of the judge before whom she was appearing.
I did not have such a dream – and was pleased not to be affected in that way. That was so until I was playing in a weekend long golf tournament for lawyers. On Saturday night the draw for the following day’s groups was posted. I was drawn to play in the group of a senior judge who had a somewhat fearsome reputation. That night I had the “late for court” dream. Guess which judge I was late to appear before in the dream. Damn my sub-conscious!
Just like the disturbed sleep I have when I am needed to get up early, the “late for court” dream was quite unnecessary. On the day, the judge was pleasant, friendly and urbane. He just wanted to have a nice round of golf! He and I were partners in our group of four. We both played well and the fears of the night before were proven to be entirely unjustified.
Sleep is a disturbance or distraction of mind
The best time to clear your head of thought is when you are awake. Yes, Shakespeare says that sleep “knits up the ravelled sleeve of care”. The rest we get from sleep is essential. But, as we cannot trust our sub-conscious to collaborate with us to get rest, we need to meditate while awake.
We need to use conscious awareness to disengage from thought. Meditation removes from consciousness the stress factors that otherwise drain our nervous systems and allows a state of inner peace to prevail.
This certainly aligns with yoga philosophy. Approximately two millennia ago a document known as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali was written/compiled. The Sutras constitute a concise enunciation of the practice of yoga. They define “yoga” as being the process of stilling the disturbances and distractions of mind (“citta vritti”). The “disturbances and distractions of mind” are further defined as being in five categories.
The first is right knowledge. The second is incorrect knowledge or mis-perception. The third is mis-conception or delusion. A fourth is memory. The fifth category of distraction and disturbance of mind is sleep. Yes, thousands of years ago it was understood that sleep was part of the experience of distraction and disturbance. The Sutras go on to advocate for meditation – as a means to clear your mind.
How to meditate?
Meditation is the process of observation of what is present right here. Hear the sounds in the moment. See what is right in front of you. Even with your eyes closed, gaze simply at the inner side of your eyelids. Feel the sensations of the floor beneath you, your joints and your breath, your emotions and energy. Become aware of any thought that your mind offers up. Notice it, without judgment. Let it go. As often as a new thought is offered up, commit to letting the thought go. In the beginning, the frequency of thoughts appearing and the strength of hold they have over you and their power to pull you into a stream of thought may be strong.
The more you practice the exercise of letting go the more proficient you will become. Initially, have a reference point to which to return. In my case it is my breath. I begin with the intention of meditating upon my breath. As often as I realise I have been distracted, I return to a focus upon my breath.
When first I started meditating, I counted my breaths as an anchor for my mind. The sequence of numbers, sometimes counting upwards, sometimes counting down, helped to hold my focus. As I improved I used the counting method less often and focussed upon my breath without counting. Later still, I started to pause my breath between the completion of my exhale and the commencement of my inhale. I gaze into the space. It is very still there. There is no threat or bleakness about the emptiness between breaths. It is just still and peaceful. That is my meditative focus most of the time now.
It works too. As short a time as five or ten minutes can be sufficient to properly relax you, clear your head and make you calm, present and relaxed. That is the state I want to be in when I sleep. The lesson for me on the nights preceding an early get-up time is not to fill myself with reminders of the importance of being up early. Instead, if I set my alarm and get to bed early enough and read to relax as I do every other night but supplement those steps with meditation before bed, I may have a truer, more restful sleep.
Sleep therapists advocate for meditation
The process of clearing distractions of mind before sleep through waking meditation may aid in sleeping. The steps taken in meditation to dispel the hold of thought will feed into a more thought-free sleeping experience – no dreams, no sleep interruptions to check the time. In order to sleep well I need to be fully awake and present first. Many sleep therapists advocate for meditation prior to going to bed for some clients who suffer from sleep disturbances or an inability to get to sleep due to a feeling of being overactive in their minds, stressed or overwhelmed.
If you suffer from the intrusion of sub-conscious thoughts when you want to sleep, meditate and be awake to the thoughts that are calling for your attention. With conscious awareness, let those thoughts go. If you feel pressed in upon by care and concern throughout the day, stop to meditate. Filter out the inessential cares and worries. Use meditation to clear your mind and eliminate the thoughts that are not necessary.
The sleep process is fundamental. Indeed, it is one of seven essential functions that distinguish members of the animal kingdom, including our species. So much happens in sleep to attend to digestion, cell reproduction, healing, energy renewal and so on that it is a shame when the concerns of our sub-conscious minds adversely affect that part of our lives. To make sleep better, meditate when awake to clear a space in your mind, to set your thoughts in their place and get critical distance from the activities of your mind. Invest in the waking process of meditation to still the distractions and disturbances of your mind.
Knit up the ravelled sleeve of care while awake
You cannot trust sleep to be “the soft embalmer of the still midnight” as Keats asserts. There are times when you must assume conscious responsibility for the activity of your mind. Do not leave that function to the unconsciousness of sleep because the subconscious may not respect your nocturnal rest. In your waking hours, take time every day to clear the slate of your mind with meditation.
Read more on Substack.