Mark: Let’s chat about the whacky world of sleep! How was getting to sleep last night, Danielle?
Danielle: Last night was actually not too bad! I’ve found if I’m in bed before 11 and can keep in a relatively regular routine of doing that, falling asleep and waking up is ok. It’s when life gets in the way and an 11 pm bedtime gets ignored that I run into a lot of trouble
How about you? Do you have trouble getting to sleep?
Mark: I get to sleep pretty well. But that definitely hasn’t always been the case. I know how to make myself not get to sleep well 😀
Danielle: Haha isn’t that true. I think most of us can say that we know how to keep ourselves awake, going the other way is the problem
Mark: I do find it fascinating that sleeping is this incredibly important practice that’s central to healthy human existence but we don’t even know exactly what it is or how it works or how to control it well.
You wrote this article recently on trying to use a meditation app to help with getting to sleep: http://everybodyhasabrain.com/sleep-meditation-app-fail/ Did you learn anything from that experience?
Danielle: It’s really fascinating. Sleep is so important – we know how much trouble you run into when you don’t sleep (or don’t get enough sleep) but the jury is still out on what exactly is happening.
And of course, people have all kinds of different problems with sleep – getting to sleep, staying asleep, waking up too early. You name it…
I’ve always had more of a struggle with falling asleep, and I wanted to see how meditation might help me with that.
Of course, if you read the article, I wasn’t very successful with that. I think the hardest part for me was getting into a routine and actually navigating the world of meditation.
I know you have a lot of experience with meditation, what advice would you give to people just starting out?
Mark: I often recommend a particular meditation exercise to people when they struggle with sleep: the bodyscan.
Even when it’s the middle of the day and people do a bodyscan, they can often fall asleep. It’s useful because it gets us out of our heads. But there can also be a lot of challenges with it that just keep people awake
Did your meditation app do a bodyscan?
Danielle: That sounds like an interesting strategy! I don’t think I’ve ever done a bodyscan… The app was a little frustrating to be honest, there was a lot of breathing exercises and the sleep-specific sections that were available without an annual membership we’re mostly talking about how much meditation can help your sleep.
So I ended up doing a lot of breathing over a number of counts and trying to focus on how that felt.
Mark: Hahaha that’s like a restaurant that offers free delivery of descriptions of how nourishing their meals can be.
Danielle: Exactly! I’m here because I KNOW it’s supposed to be good. I want you to help me get there!
Mark: Ok, so here’s one of the most important things to keep in mind with this, and it’s best illustrated with a Crossfit metaphor: What would happen if you didn’t exercise for a month and then you had to do a 3000 meter row for time?
Danielle: I love Crossfit metaphors… I would probably die. Or less dramatically, it would take me a long time and be very frustrating and tiring.
Mark: Exactly. And let’s say you get to 1000m and you’re very exhausted and gasping for breath. There’s an endurance issue there. How can you solve that right then, so how can you go faster and finish without dying?
Danielle: Breathing is important, finding a good pace is also a good idea. But you might not know what a good pace is.. it’s tricky..
Mark: Yeah, you’d have to make lots of changes in that moment. The endurance just won’t be there. There’s no way to have that endurance in the moment when you notice the problem.
Sleep is very similar. When we notice the problem, it’s kinda too late to do anything about it. Being able to sleep starts in the morning, and the day before, and the day before that.
Danielle: I’ve never thought about it like that, but you’re right – not much you can do lying awake at 1 am. But you can start putting good habits in place so that doesn’t happen next week.
Mark: Exactly. I always tell people that getting ready for bed starts in the morning. Not 30 minutes before bed.
Danielle: Ok so what should we be doing first thing in the morning to help with our sleep?
Mark: The thing to look at is what’s happening in your head when you’re struggling to get to sleep.
For example, many people find themselves thinking about stuff that happened at work or stuff they need to do. If they look at what they’re doing first thing in the morning, that’s also what they’re doing in their heads.
We spend all day teaching the brain to react to uncertainty and control it, so when we get to the end of the day, our brains are AWESOME at that. But we want to go to bed and then being awesome at that sucks.
Danielle: Roll over and check your email – that’s a pretty common way to wake up. And it’s just the beginning.
Mark: Totally. The brain is like a puppy–it’ll keep doing whatever we train it to do.
Danielle: So taking some time first thing to just appreciate what you’re feeling rather than diving straight into a to-do list. And sometimes do things we don’t want it to do 🙂 puppies are cute but a handful.
Mark: Right. We’ve got that puppy with us all day. It might seem fine to be in a meeting and just check out and let that puppy in our brains wander off and start preparing the slides for a presentation we have to do later. That seems useful! We’re being more productive! But that’s how we practice mindlessness. Then it’s tougher to get the puppy to do what we want.
This is why a mindfulness practice is so useful and important throughout our lives.
Danielle: Not to mention the puppy might be needed in the meeting!
Mark: Haha that’s entirely possible. Some meetings are useful.
Danielle: So how does a bodyscan tie into this? What makes it a useful place to start?
Mark: Great question. The bodyscan is useful because it’s all about taking that brain puppy and shoving it into furthest extremities of your body.
If I want to go to sleep, I just throw myself in my left foot. I don’t even do the entire bodyscan. I’m asleep before I get past my ankle
Danielle: That’s a pretty powerful foot. What do you look at when you’re down there?
Mark: It’s all about being present with how it feels. And you can do this with any body part. You don’t need feet.
An important component of this is approaching all of our senses as being of equal importance. We can move our awareness around all of our equal senses. I’d see meditation as the practice that builds up the mental muscles that help us focus and move our awareness.
Thoughts are one of the things we can sense, just like physical touch. What I’m doing with the body scan is the equivalent of plugging my ears to sound, but I’m plugging the part of my brain that senses thoughts and instead giving that chunk of awareness to a different sense: physical contact
I could stay up and give my awareness to thoughts. And there are so many great thoughts I can have. Or I can give my awareness to how a body part feels right now. It’s a choice but it takes practice to make that choice after decades of always choosing the thoughts.
Danielle: Ok, so feeling my foot on the floor, the little bit of extra pressure on my heel and at the base of my big toe, and the itch at the back of my ankle
And trying not to get distracted by the thought that I should maybe get my gait checked because that pressure loading feels a little weird and I really want to scratch the back of my ankle
Mark: 😀 Precisely. And just notice right now how you can move your awareness around your body
You can notice your foot. You can bring your awareness back to your hands on the keyboard and notice how they feel. Awareness of other things fades into the background. Or you can move your awareness to sounds outside right now. And you might forget what your feet feel like.
Danielle: There’s a squirrel on my porch messing around with something – I feel like that’s a fitting metaphor: Constant squirrel distractions for the puppy.
Mark: That’s somebody’s mind messing around on your porch!
Danielle: So if I wanted to re-start my experiment today, on the Mark program: I’d work on starting my day in a more present way (let myself wake up before checking Instagram or my email), checking in during the day (not letting the puppy run all over the place), and trying bodyscans periodically or maybe just in the evening to help unwind. Does that sound like a realistic plan? Or am I biting off more than I can chew?
Mark: I find that’s a great way to get started. Changing the first thing we do in the morning is such an interesting way to explore change and the types of default habits are brains love to get their noses into. And then throughout the day, simply being aware of awareness is very useful. Through practice, we develop that skill to move awareness around. Maybe I should have used a weightlifting metaphor instead of rowing…
You’ll just get stronger and stronger at it.
Danielle: Start light and get the movement pattern right and add weight as you go
Mark: Like deadlifts. And be aware that always paying attention to thoughts and giving them your awareness is also a skill or a strength. If you do that all day, you get so strong at it, your brain just wants to default to it
So start building up that skill to put your awareness wherever you find it most useful.
Danielle: What about the people who say they’re too busy, or don’t know if they can be consistent? Is a body scan once or twice a week still useful? Or is this something you need to do daily?
Mark: Once or twice a week could be fun, but it would be like going for a run once or twice a week. And then we have to look at what that person is practicing the rest of the time Like if they’re on their phone constantly, ruminating constantly, reacting to every uncertainty throughout the day… that’s practice, too. So 30 minutes of meditation practice is going to do nothing against 5 hours of daily mindlessness practice. It can sound a bit overwhelming to say that people have to CHANGE EVERYTHING but…
…you have to CHANGE EVERYTHING :D!
I like to reduce this into a simple question to ask any moment: What do I want to practice right now?
Danielle: Aha thats the part that’s intimidating! Changing everything isn’t an easy way to ease in!
Mark: Yeah, so here’s a starter exercise that I like: I set aside one time during the day when I’m going to walk mindfully. It’s a great way to work on being present in our bodies.
Danielle: Oh I love that! You get fresh air and a mindfulness check in.
Mark: It’s useful to be mindfully throughout the day, but setting aside one situation that’s always about mindfulness practice can be a useful anchor. So I always make the walk to the gym a mindful walk. I’m just in my body moving, not tuning out the world with music or podcasts, not eating up that time with thinking about stuff. I’m there, right then.
Is there something you could set aside just be present with everything except your thoughts?
Danielle: I have a 30 ish minute walk to the gym that could be dedicated to a thought-free zone. I generally listen to podcasts, but I’d be open to an experiment!
Mark: Yeah, try it out and see what happens. It can be very challenging at first if we’re accustomed to giving our brains that extra stimulation. Report back on what you discover!
Danielle: Sounds like a plan!