I have a lot of friends that, for various reasons, get by with only a couple hours sleep a night due to worry. In this hyper-speed hyper-linked culture, this seems to be endemic. One could take all kinds of medications with some really, really strange potential side effects (“strange violent dreams?” “anal leakage?” ) to get to sleep. However, there are also methods from the Buddhist tradition that I’ve found useful for myself that could be an alternative to drugs that may make you wake up in the middle of the street outside your home holding a bloody knife with bile flowing out of your bum and no idea how you got there. I am presenting some of these now in hopes that it might be of benefit.
I should also mention that these methods below can bring all kinds of benefits potentially much more profound than a good night’s sleep if done after one’s first cup of coffee during waking hours.
Step one: focus your mind
Rather than let it get filled by all kinds of worries, you can focus your mind by counting. A version of this is the well-known in the West notion of ‘counting sheep.’ But Instead of counting sheep (why sheep, anyway? ), try to count your breaths from 1 to 21 and repeat. There is no need at this point to do any kind of special breath, just any old normal breath will do. Just keep very close attention on your breath for a while. If you mind is focused on one thing, then it is much less likely to be distracted by other thoughts. If you fall asleep during this phase, you are welcome.
Step two: Think about others
If you haven’t fallen asleep from doing that due to worries, random thoughts, and the like, then turn your mind outwards. If you really look at it, what is keeping you awake is worrying about yourself, which is also known from the point of view of the Buddhas as self-grasping. This should not be seen as a “you are bad! You should feel guilty for worrying! Sin!” sort of thing. To a great extent, we are –all- sort of conditioned to worry so much about ourselves. While some self-concern is of course necessary to survive, it can quickly become problematic through no fault of your own.
There are many ways to work with this, but perhaps the easiest is to change the object of your focus away from yourself. As my teacher Garchen Rinpoche likes to say often, “If you think about others, self-grasping naturally lessens.” There are a few ways to do so.
The simplest is to start mentally repeating to yourself, “May all beings be happy and free from suffering.” This replaces thinking about your worries with a vague feeling of altruism.
That may be enough. Or, you can take it further by mentally reciting these lines (taken from the Buddha’s Metta Sutra):
May all beings be happy. Weak or strong, without exception, small or great, seen or unseen, nearby or far away, alive or still to be born, may all being be entirely happy.
May nobody lie to anybody or despise anyone anywhere, may nobody wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred (or jealousy).
May we cherish all creatures as a mother would her only child. May we have a boundless good will to the whole world, free of hostility.
What I did to take them into sleep was keep them printed up by my bed so I was looking at them with my head on the pillow, reading them over and over. This served to 1) tire my mind out in a non-worrying way so I fell asleep and 2) memorize them, so I could mentally recite them with eyes closed.
There are other more involved ways to put your mind into an altruistic mindset, but this is enough for now. Because it’s time to go on to the next step.
Step three, ‘rest in what remains’
After all these, the next step is to drop all the methods and just rest. When your mind gets to a certain point, either with the counting breaths or the ‘may all beings be happy,’ you just stop and let the mind stay there without using any effort to ‘do’ anything. Thoughts will arise, but you can simply let them be. Again, the Buddhist tradition says to, instead of looking at the CONTENT of those thoughts, just see the thoughts themselves. They will arise, abide, and cease. You can just watch that process, without paying attention to what is in the thoughts. After that, just let your mind be, and you should be able to fall asleep unperturbed by worries.
This is also, by the way, said to be one of the best ways to prepare for ‘The Big Sleep.’ Remaining in that state is how to die. This was conveyed in the TV series ‘Twin Peaks’ when the main story arc was ended with the death of Leland Palmer.
“You are now about to experience it in all its reality, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like a transparent vacuum, without circumference or center. Leland, in this moment, know yourself, and abide in that state.”
Supplemental: The Dream yoga stuff
There are other methods available: the ‘dream yoga’ practices that the Vajrayana Buddhist lineages are celebrated for teaching. They come in various levels of detail. However, I suck at being able to accomplish the actual detailed versions I’ve been taught. Just totally, totally crappy. 🙂 So, I’ll explain simpler versions that I have had some good results to get to sleep. (Can’t say I’ve had any ‘lasting experiences of Clear Light’ or anything, though.)
If you want to take it further, one can visualize a light at your heart center spreading out all over the universe. To get to sleep, think of it like the light of a black light spreading out.
Last (and certainly least), there is a totally non-profound method presented here to relax by those evil salt shakers from ‘Doctor Who,’ The Daleks. 🙂