Mindfulness and other meditation techniques can result in a big confusion when it brings the closing of the eyes. It happened to me at the very beginning of my journey. I felt life binary, awaken with open eyes and sleeping with close eyes. It took some practice to enter also in the middle state of meditation which means awaken with closed eyes. Of course, I slept a lot during my first meditation practices as sleeping fall into me with all its weight.
Nowadays, after more than 10 years meditating and lots of practice, I understand better the relationships between mindfulness and sleeping.
Fully backed with scientific research, Matthew Walker makes some key declarations in his “Why we sleep” book. The important one comes in two flavors. First, Mat writes that “sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body each day”. From a different perspective, he offers this complementary view: “sleep truly is a remarkable Swiss Army knife of health and wellness”.
On the other hand, Matthew Walker lists “an abundant constellation of nighttime benefits that service both our brains and our bodies” and states that “it is difficult to imagine any other state – natural or medically manipulated – that affords a more powerful redressing of physical and mental health at every level of analysis”.
With Walker’s words in my mind, there are some important things to reflect about when matching sleeping and mindfulness.
First and foremost, sleepiness is a key “distraction” when we meditate. It is an important symptom of sleep deprivation. When it feels hard to keep awaken when closing the eyes with calm, the body is talking loudly about the need to sleep more and sleep better. So, it maybe will help better to sleep than to meditate.
Second, attention training fully depends on healthy sleep. Some numbers can help to understand this. One day sleeping 1 hour, or 6 days sleeping 4 hours, or 10 days sleeping 6 hours, all have the same negative impact on sustained attention (or concentration): a +400 % lapses in concentration.
Third, emotional regulation fully depends on healthy sleep. More numbers here. One night of sleep deprivation or 5 nights sleeping 5 hours, both have an astonishing negative impact: + 60% of amygdala amplification and decoupling of amygdala from the prefrontal cortex.
Lastly, our emotional and mental health fully depends on REM dreaming, so much that REM dreaming can be considered an “overnight therapy”, like a cleaning, smoothing, and nursing process of everything emotional that happened before. REM dreaming is key for empathy and compassion, this “turning better within the emotional decoding of others” using Matthew’s words.
So, it looks like than to fully enter into the benefits of meditation, it is better to practice after a good night of sleep. Otherwise, meditation will only put a band-aid on the open wound of sleep deprivation.
But what is healthy sleep?
First and most important, quantity is key. The advice is organizing to enjoy the recommended seven to nine hours of nightly sleep. It could be seven, eight or nine depending on each individual. A key finding will be to know how much sleeping time each of us needs.
On top of that comes quality. To begin with, quality is about cleaning our lifestyle of habits that fully worsen sleep quality:
- regularity is king, so go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Just in case, no difference at all for weekends or holidays.
- fully clean the body from caffeine, alcohol and sugar before going to bed. This sounds extremely unpopular, but science is very clear. All three highly worsen the quality of the sleep.
- have dinner at least three hours before bedtime.
- prepare landing into the bed with easiness: no screens, and soft and low lightening at least 1 hour before bed, full darkness at night.
- help the body get colder: it can be a shower, it can be room temperature at 18º C, or even better, both of them. Also, avoid overheating the body with too thick pajamas and too many blankets
- do not stay in bed unless you are sleeping. If you wake up and stay awaken for more than 15 minutes, go out of the bed and engage in slow, calm activities before restarting the sleeping process.
- lastly but most important, make your best to match your lifestyle with your chronotype, your circadian rhythm. Life is fully different if it happens that you go against your biological nature, either being an early lark or a night owl.
On the other hand, quality is also about embracing new habits that will fully help and improve quality sleep:
- no alarm clocks.
- phones outside the bedroom.
- do as possible to breathe through the nose and avoid mouth breathing, as mouth breathing is at the root of snoring and a dry mouth (which will evolve in the need to drink and pee).
- help to body to stay cold by warming only feet and hands, if needed.
- nap only at afternoon, with regularity, but only if sleeping at night is enough and good.
- adopt any practice that will help to empty the mind of any activity (specially worries).
- learn about sleeping, its cycles and elements, its benefits and risks, to be able to self-care appropriately.
This last habit brings us back to meditation. Mindfulness and journaling before going to bed can result in a key activity to calm down the mind and enter the more relaxed state which is recommended for a healthy sleep. Additionally, mindfulness is a recommended activity to engage with when going out to bed to avoid laying while awaken for longer than 15 minutes. Of course, the benefits of a long, healthy sleep reach all corners of our being, from relieving cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, weight gain and obesity, Alzheimer, cancer, and immune system up to releasing our potential in reproductive health, memory, creativity and social well-being.