A Gradual Awakening ~ breathe yourself to sleep.

It’s tempting to make a big thing of this, tie it into other spiritual work, but it’s just a simple technique for overcoming insomnia I’ve shared with dozens of people. No drugs. No warm milk. No visits to a sleep clinic. There are side benefits, and it’s based on an ancient spiritual practice, but you don’t need to know all that if all you want is to simply, finally, fall asleep. So let’s just get on with it.

First, make your bedroom and bed comfortable. Clean sheets are nice. A glass of water on the bedside table. Some fresh flowers in the room. Some gentle, light music — preferably, instrumental — playing softly. Best if it’s a short playlist, or you can set the playback device to ‘sleep’ in a half hour, just so music won’t wake you 3 hours into sleep. Posted above is the playlist I’ve been using for nearly a year now.

Or none of that. It’s not necessary. All that is necessary is to breathe, and to hold a simple conversation with your mind.

Lie comfortably on your bed. On your back may be best, but if you’re more comfortable on your side, that’s next best.

Close your eyes. Relax. Let some of the tension out. As much as you can. Be aware of your body. Where is the tension? How is your posture? Are you truly comfortable?

Take some deep, slow breaths, relax, adjust your body for comfort.

OK. Now, one last deep but gentle breath in and, rather than expel it, just let the breath flow out of you.

Breathe again. This time, with regular breaths.

As you breathe in, say softly in your mind, “breathing in“.
As you exhale, say softly in your mind, “breathing out“.

Repeat until slumber overtakes you.

Most nights, I’m asleep before White Mustang II’s trumpet fades to silence. It’s a rare thing to get through all five of the playlist’s songs before sleep befalls my consciousness.

You might ask — most do — “Why do I need to speak aloud in my mind, breathing in, breathing out?”

Because it occupies the mind, gives it something to do.

Inner dialog, the ongoing conversation in your mind, is what’s keeping you up.

Tom French ~ Sleepless Sunrise 4

Sleepless Sunrise 4

Image by Tom French

The content of that inner conversation has emotional repercussions. We don’t keep ourselves up at night with mind chatter about how perfect the day was, or how easy tomorrow will be. When we are sleepless, we are chattering about the day’s pain and suffering, or anxiously turning over tomorrow’s big event. Anxiety, fear, remorse, anger, depression: cycling the inner dialogue amplifies these emotions, works us up, drives the cyclone of mind chatter like warm ocean water drives a hurricane.

It’s difficult for your mind to ‘say’ more than one thing to itself at a time. Setting your mind to the simple task of observing your breath with a thought pattern displaces the other conversations. You’re minding your breath, not your anxiety, your fear, your remorse, pain or anguish by putting them into words. Without the storm of thoughts driving them, these emotions begin to dissipate, and with them goes the tension in your body. And with that goes your emotional and physical resistance to sleep.

Those thoughts will still try to barge in on your breathing. Don’t get frustrated by that. It will happen. Instead, acknowledge the thought, then let it go. Return to observing your breath, and speaking in your mind…

“breathing in, breathing out.”

Back in the rhythm of the breath, you will likely not even realize how drowsy you’ve become. You won’t see sleep creeping up on you. Your mind is occupied, but quiet. There is only your breath and the words, breathing in, breathing out. And then there is nothingness.
Some of you will have recognized this for what it is. Others… well, if you begin to use this nightly as a gentle technique for soothing the day away toward blissful sleep, then you’ll have inadvertently setup a daily meditation practice. OK. It only lasts so long as it takes to fall asleep — for me, usually just a couple minutes — but that’s still a couple minutes of meditation.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

A Gradual Awakening ~ Stephen Levine

A Gradual Awakening
Stephen Levine

This method is one I stumbled onto one night a few years ago. It simplifies a mindfulness meditation practice I encountered sometime in the ’80s via Stephen Levine’s masterful introduction to awareness, A Gradual Awakening. I’ve never managed to maintain a meditation practice for very long, aside from this “sleeping practice”, and I wasn’t practicing when, one stressed-out sleepless night, I tried using my breath to quiet the mind chatter. It worked. Most people I share this with find success on the first attempt.

Sometimes, especially during particularly stressful times, it’s not quite enough.

If you’re noticing that one particular thought is consistently disturbing your breathing, or a simple internal acknowledgement of the thought isn’t enough to quell it so you can return to monitoring your breath, then stop for a moment. Write the thought down. If you can, phrase it as an action item, a promise to address the thought’s central concern. I keep an activity journal on my bedside table during periods of high personal or professional stress. I use it in morning meetings to develop action plans for myself and people I’m working with. Once a disturbing thought is written down as an action item, I re-settle myself in bed, relax, and begin “breathing in, breathing out.” For more personal issues, I prefer my journal. It’s rare for a thought to remain so obtrusive once it’s been acknowledged in writing, and a promise made to take action on it.

Of course, it’s important to take that action the next day or the thought will return the next night. And the night after, until action is taken. Other thoughts will recognize the ruse if you never act on your promises. All the breathing in the world won’t settle your emotions if you’re failing to acknowledge and resolve them.

Hmmmmm… this is beginning to sound more like a practice of personal growth than a technique for simply getting to sleep. Now that you’ve slept, don’t you feel a little more awakened? <smile>

One Response to “A Gradual Awakening ~ breathe yourself to sleep.”

Read below or add a comment...


  1. […] ‘works’. I’ve personally glimpsed the benefits ~ and often use a meditative breathing exercise to overcome insomnia, or calm my nerves or anxiety during the day. But that’s not 20 minutes of wakeful […]

Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.