Sleep meditation is almost a contraction of terms - while the definition of meditation is debated, most people agree that meditation is a formalized practice of paying attention. Meditation generally does not include the 'unconsciousness' that is sleep.
In fact, I spent the first few years of teaching meditation, trying hard to keep my students and clients awake (without much success). However, I started to embrace the sleep when I finally realized people were significantly sleep deprived and needed the rest more than they needed the meditation. This led me on a deep dive into different meditation practices that are supportive of deep relaxation and sleep (a longer story for another time).
Meditation for Sleep
There are two main ways meditation can help prepare the body and mind for sleep;
1) to help train your body and mind to wind down from an activated state to a calm state, generally used at points throughout the day. Essentially practicing deep relaxation as a skill and reducing residual daytime stress that can inhibit sleep at night; and
2) as a way to help you ‘downshift’ into a state of deep relaxation, from which your body can drift off to sleep, used as you are in bed, falling asleep.
Both uses of meditation for sleep are helpful and I encourage many people I work with to do both - practice during the day and as a “sleep aid” to help fall asleep at night.
The most common ways people use meditation for sleep is to help them in the falling-asleep process at night and as such, below are some tips on how to best use meditation to help you fall asleep at night.
Tips for Using Meditation to Fall Asleep
Choose a guided meditation that is designed to help activate the relaxation response rather than one designed to increase alertness or attention. Not all meditations are designed to be calming, so it is important to select a meditation that has the intention to help calm the body and quiet the mind. For instance, certain breathing techniques will increase alertness, which are helpful for that 3pm slump but not falling asleep.
Set the intention that this meditation is supporting you in activating the relaxation response, rather than trying to fall asleep. For a lot of people who have struggled with sleep, having the intention to fall asleep can be frustrating or associated with anxiety. By taking the pressure off of falling asleep, and shifting the focus to activating the relaxation response or resting, one allows the mind to settle, and thereby making sleep more likely.
Set up the environment to be sleep supportive. Make sure all the blinds are closed, an alarm is set for the time you wish to wake up in the morning (even if you don’t normally use an alarm), notifications on your phone and devices are turned off (or to Do Not Disturb) etc. so distractions are limited.
Use a product like SleepPhones (use code SLEEPWELL for 10% off) for so you don’t get tangled up in chords, have the earbuds hurt the ear from side sleeping or disturb a bed partner.
Experiment with different types of meditation that help activate the relaxation response; try different meditation teachers, practices, some with background music, some without etc until you find the meditations that really help you.
If you feel up to the challenge, ditch the guided meditation and do your own meditation practice for sleep (which is often much harder, especially at night). This can include focusing on your breath, repeating a calming mantra, focusing on bodily sensations, imagery or progressive muscle relaxation.
Just like people, meditations are not a one-size-fits-all, so I encourage you to keep searching for different meditations, teachers and styles until you find some that work for you.