When I was a young sprout there were times when my overactive and perpetually creative brain just refused to shut down and let me get to sleep. On those occasions my mother would guide me through her method for calming the mind so the body could rest. In all fairness having a calming and soothing parental presence can certainly be an aide in and of itself but her method pretty much never failed. As I grew older and learned more about meditative techniques I came to understand why.
I will first lay out and guide you through the method itself then offer a bit of explanation for why it tends to be so effective. And just as a warning I am going to write this out as though I were actually talking someone through it so there could be some danger the eyelids might start to get a bit heavy as you’re reading this.
Once you have made all your preparations for bed (brushed the teeth, gone to the bathroom, changed into the pj’s, etc.) get into bed with whatever lighting and background noises you are used to.
The most effect position for this is to lay on your back with your arms either flat at your sides or lightly folded across torso. For some, however, this position can be less than ideal for a variety of reasons so get into whatever position is the most comfortable and conducive to sleep for you.
When you are settled take a few moments to simply notice and feel your breathing. Don’t try to change the speed or depth of it simply take notice of it. Feel the air pass in and out of your lungs, feel your ribs expanding and contracting. Focus on the sensations and stay with them for a few moments.
Then take five slow and deep breaths. Draw the air in slowly filling your lungs from the bottom up with your tongue touching the roof of your mouth. Just as slowly let the air out through your mouth, relaxing your tongue. Five slow and deep breaths staying focused on the sensation of the air filling your body and then releasing. After the fifth breath allow yourself to breathe normally.
Shift your focus down to your feet. Focus on what they feel like, notice the weight of the blankets resting on them (assuming you sleep with covers). When you feel fully aware of your feet focus on relaxing them. Relax the muscles, the skin, the bones. Take your time. Feel your feet going slack, growing heavy, melting, sinking down into the mattress beneath you. Stay with the sensation until they feel like they have melted all the way down.
Now move up to your calves and shins. Take a moment to simply focus on how they feel. How warm or cool are they? Feel the covers resting on them. Continue to breathe normally, just focus on your calves and shins. Now start to relax them. Feel any tension or tightness slowly drain away. Feel them growing slack, heavy, melting, sinking down into the mattress beneath you. Stay with the sensation until they feel like they have melted all the way down.
Shift up to your thighs. Feel the sensations of them, the weight, the temperature, the feeling of covers and/or clothing. Once you feel fully aware of them start to relax them. Feel your muscles releasing any tension, softening, loosening, growing slack, heavy, melting, sinking into the mattress beneath you all the way down.
Now focus on your hips and cheeks. Take a moment to be aware of them, feel any tensions, notice the temperature and the sensation of any fabrics. Stay with it until you can sense them fully then start to relax them. Feel any tensions slowly seeping away, the muscles and the entire lower half of your body going slack, heavy, melting, sinking slowly into the mattress beneath you all the way down.
Move your focus to your tummy. Feel it shifting with your breath, if your arms are folded atop you feel the weight of them resting there. Take your time until you can feel all of it completely then, starting at your spine, slowly relax everything. Your muscles, your insides, the top of your tummy, let it all slowly ease and relax. Feel it all growing slack, heavy, melting, growing heavy, feel everything sinking down into the mattress beneath you all the way down.
Now feel your torso, your chest and shoulders. Feel your ribs expanding and contracting as you breathe, the sensation of any tensions in your muscles or the touch of any fabrics. Hold those feelings in the center of your mind for a moment sensing them all then, starting at your spine, slowly relax them. The muscles around your spine, in the center of your chest, your ribs, your shoulders. Feel it all easing, relaxing, growing slack, heavy, melting, feel it all slowly sinking into the mattress beneath you all the way down.
Focus on your arms. Feel the shape of they are resting in, the weight, notice any tensions or the touch of any fabrics. Stay with the sensations until you feel fully aware of them then, starting at the tops of your arms, slowly relax them. Feel your shoulders, your upper arms, your elbows, feel your forearms, your hands, and your fingers all slowly loosening, relaxing, growing slack, heavy, melting, slowly sinking in to the mattress beneath you all the way down.
Move your focus to your face. Your cheeks, your nose, your jaw, your forehead, your eyelids, your ears. Feel them all, notice the sensations of your breath passing and out. Focus on them all until you feel fully aware of them then, starting with your forehead, slowly relax it all. Feel your face softening, easing, going slack, melting, growing heavy. Feel it sinking and spreading and draping over the front of your skull all the way down.
Now focus on the top of your head and skull. Feel it resting against your pillow, notice the sensation of any tensions in your scalp or hair. Stay focused on the sensation until you feel fully aware of your scalp and skull then, starting at the very top of your skull, slowly relax it all. Feel the tensions easy away, feel your muscles and skin going slack, melting, growing heavy, feel it all sinking slowly into the pillow and mattress beneath you all the way down.
You can mentally guide yourself through this process and you can also talk someone else through it, children included. In that circumstance talk slowly with your voice low and calm. Give them time to feel and absorb each stage as you describe it. Don’t prompt them to respond or tell you what they are feeling. Simply make each description linger, focus on soothing description rather than any pressure or and sense of commanding.
In most cases, whether you are guiding yourself or another, you will be lucky to make it all the way to your shoulders. Sometimes you might make it to the face but most often the lights go out somewhere around the tummy. In the rare instances you make it all the way to the top and are still awake simply return to the feet and start again.
The primary gears at work are actually central mechanisms of meditation. Focused attention and measured breathing. Starting off by fixating on the sensations of breathing targets the mind on a neutral and rhythmically repetitive sensation which takes advantage of the power for physical sensation to override conscious thought. And taking the five deep controlled breaths enriches the oxygen in the bloodstream which has an instantly calming effect.
Focusing on one part of the body at a time keeps the target of our attention narrow and specific continuing to use physical sensation to overshadow any distracting or anxiety inducing thoughts, such as the frustrations over not being able to get to sleep. Deliberately relaxing them, feeling them melt and sink into the bed not only immerses us in relaxing and sedating sensations and imagery but it directs our thoughts away from the stresses and anxieties which were preventing us from falling asleep.
Slowly ascending from the feet to the head deliberately sends our thoughts and awareness away from our heads and away from the thoughts and distractions which are keeping us awake.
If someone else is guiding us through this the constant drone of a soothing and calming voice with repetitive phrasing has its own relaxing and hypnotic impact, not to mention the comforting bond of having someone close and nurturing.
And there you have it. No pills, no special apparatus to order by mail for however many installments of $19.95. A simple and slow methodology of focused attention and measured breathing, feeling it all relaxing, growing slack, heavy, melting, sinking into the mattress beneath you…..