Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sleep Derived

Sleeping the Body-Mind with Sensation

Looking for enlightenment, I found sleep instead.  It all started when a friend of mine recommended Yoga Nidra.  In this lying down meditation, you progressively relax your body over 30 minutes to prepare for a 15 minute enlightened, fully aware state.  But it took me fifteen tries before I could make it through the 30-minute body relaxation without waking up in a pile of drool.  And that's weird for me, as I always choose to sleep before it actually happens.  Even then, it usually takes half an hour on a good day, more if I'm excited about something (like a blog post).  Why did I instantly fall asleep?  And why do some people fall asleep immediately, and others toss and turn their uncertain way to slumber?

Busy mind
Most insomniacs will guess that their mind is conspiring against their body to keep them awake.  Why such an overactive mind?  For decades we've practiced how to remember more, how to plan for the future, and how to be thoughtful about the past.  So our powerful analytical minds navigate dozens of memories, concepts, and relationships even in answering one email.  We multitask like a banshee, fragmenting our time.  Our anxieties feels left out, so they obsessively repeat internal dialogue ("WHY did I do THAT?" or "I should do X tomorrow").  Even our breaks from work, like facebook, are information and anxiety intensive.  We dredge up nostalgia, curiosity, libido, jealousy and other powerful forces, sometimes just before we hit the sack.  It's no wonder our mind can't turn off.

It's all in the toes
Several years ago, I told my mom she had cursed me by talking about her (temporary) barrier to sleep.  While her feet and toes were cold, she couldn't fall asleep.  Just hearing her say that once made me think about it each time I went to sleep, blaming insomnia on my cold toes.  More recently a friend mentioned that warming (or cooling, he couldn't remember) the toes just before bed made you more likely to fall asleep.  Why does this work?  I'm going to think through it physiologically and metaphorically with you.  In the toes, we are going to find an answer to insomnia.

When you are cold, your body naturally moves warm blood away from your toes and fingers into the torso and head, nourishing your vital organs.  Anxiousness exacerbates this natural response, causing blood to pool in vessels in your neck and head.  This contributes to stress and can cause migraine headaches.  Is there a way out?  As it turns out, the dilation of your blood vessels is under semi-conscious control (mediated by vasoconstrictors serotonin and adrenalin).  So you can learn to influence your blood vessels, literally moving blood out of your headache into your hands and feet.  As blood moves out, the pressure reduces, and the pain goes away.  Meditation that focuses attention on raising hand temperature is a common treatment for migraines.

And this is just what the healer ordered for insomnia -- disciplined attention to body sensation.  Far from a curse, my mother had handed me a cure.  Over time, just by attending to your body, your tiredness will become sleep.  That's what your body was meant to do, you just have to remember how to do it.  Even you insomniacs probably have an easier time sleeping after a good massage, because you feel relaxed.  What is relaxation, anyway?  It's awareness, at a deep body level, of how tired you really are.  It's less blood in your brain to fuel the repetitive, intrusive thoughts of mania or anxiety.  Learning to attend to body sensation takes a curious, gentle, and disciplined approach.  And while you may not learn to fall asleep on your first try, you will learn to relax.  Curiosity and anxiety have a hard time coexisting.

Many of us don't know our body at all.  There are pieces and parts that have never been touched by anyone, even our selves.  Think of this meditation as a mental massage, a way to rediscover your anatomy.  Next time you are annoyed and awake, start with your big toe, and realize the world within it.  How warm is it?  Can you feel the sensations under your nail?  The joint that bends?  The tendon that connects it all the way back to the ankle?  How does the skin feel?  Move through the toes one by one, and treat the muscles, bones, and tendons in your poor feet with the same attention.  You should be able to feel your arches, each one of the muscles and tendons attaching to the ankle, the heel.  You might notice your foot temperature rising.  Your complete curiosity in the present movement is love.  From this loving space, your foot will tell you about the pain it's holding, the tiredness it feels, and the thousands of miles of wisdom it has danced.  Remember to go slow and take your time.  Often just spending 10 minutes in my feet and hands is enough for me to fall asleep, but there's a lot more body to explore too.

Without much effort, you may notice that muscles in your head, neck, and back relax on their own.  This could be because you are focusing on them.  It could also be because you are NOT focusing on them.  Anxious thoughts stored as tension can dissolve when you focus your entire heart somewhere else.  The purer your curiosity, the less space there is for anxiety or resultant tension.  Pay attention as your muscles let go, this is your tension pattern.  You will likely revisit this exact tension times of stress.  Becoming conscious of it, over time, you can dissolve it permanently.

Toeing the line
Any meditation requires patience with yourself.  When your mind wanders to that annoying thing your boss said, don't yell at yourself, proclaim failure, and give up.  When you feel bored, or convince yourself it's not working,  think about if being alone with your repetitive thoughts is really all that much better.  Gently acknowledge the thought is human, and ask yourself if you can allow this thought while also having an awareness of your body.  You don't need to tell your mind to "Shut up!"  As you already know, that doesn't work.  Just give it something additional to focus on -- your body.  You could go further even and ask your body about the anxiety -- What part of the body is my anxiety felt in?  Is it a tensing of my shoulders, a queasy feeling in my tummy, a tightening of my fists?  The bodily answer will give you fundamental insight on your motivations.

Areas where body weight
contacts the ground
p. 23 of Yoga Anatomy
Continue to weight
Halfway through Feldenkrais meditation, I snored myself awake.  The therapist had started my attention on my feet, as above, focusing on weight and angle.  She asked me to compare the weight of my heels to each other.  Was one pushing more than the other one?  Was one foot angled a different way than the other one?  We moved up gradually to my knees, asking the same questions.  Then my butt.  What part of the butt was touching the ground on the right, versus the left?  Were my hips aligned, right to left?  What angle was my tailbone touching the ground? Don't change anything, she said, just notice it.  Halfway up my back, I was gone.  When I awoke, she continued having me focus on feeling the weight of every point where my body touched the ground, ending at my head.  This is one of the most relaxing meditations I practice.

It's alot easier to learn/do body meditation with a guided recording playing.  Your mind can surrender and just follow the instructions.  You might try the Yoga Nidra meditation I mentioned before, record yourself reading a script, or use this Scottish Buddhist dude's mp3.  And for a free, limited-time only, I'm willing to lead this meditation through your insomnia, over the phone.  I think you will likely feel relaxed, but I don't guarantee you will fall asleep.  Email me if you are interested.

Sensational healing
You may have guessed I'm after something a bigger than just sleep.  We can remember our body at any moment, sitting at a desk at work, on the subway, in a stressful situation with our family, in traffic, on a date.  In our body sensation, we will discover empathy, wisdom, and a propensity heal physical and emotional trauma.  More to come.


zoe lunch said...

mindfulness exercises aside, parade magazine (the one that comes w/the sunday paper) had an article this past sunday by dr. oz about sleeping better, which said to both a)lower your room temp 10 degrees + b)wear socks. so there you have it.

eudae said...

@zoe - BAM, Now I got Doc Oz on me side.