Thursday, November 1, 2012


I'm a pretty good sleeper, in normal circumstances.  As Ellie says, I'm usually asleep before my head hits the pillow.  At my age, of course, nature tends to call at least once, sometimes twice and, on rare occasions, more often in the course of the night but unless I have something on my mind I have little trouble getting back to sleep.  As I learned on the trip to Europe from which we have just returned, that "unless" can be a big one.  What was on my mind?  Packing up to move on to our next destination, making plans for the next day, getting to the train station and carting the bags about, adjusting to an unfamiliar environment, the discomfort of heavy food at unusual times, sometimes late (for us) in the evening, a distress call from our daughter with news of little Luka's visit to the emergency room, and generally being out of touch.  A million things, it seemed.  I resorted, I confess, to sleeping pills--first in the middle of the night when I couldn't fall back asleep; and then as a preventative measure, before going to bed.  Half an Ambien, I told myself, can't be that bad.

Joseph Emet, unsurprisingly, disapproves of the sleeping pill option.  (I'm happy to report that I managed to kick the habit soon after my return.)  Emet is the author of  Buddha's Book of Sleep: Sleep Better in Seven Weeks with Mindfulness Meditation, due out in January 2013 from Tarcher/Penguin, a book which those who do have trouble sleeping will find eminently useful--if they approach it with patience and a willingness to do the necessary work.  Sensibly, Emet does not offer a quick fix, nor does he suggest that "mindfulness meditation" is something that can be learned overnight.  His seven week program is, I think, entirely feasible, but will need to be followed up for months and years if the results are to be maintained.  What he proposes is a change of life, and most immediately a change of mind.

It's Emet's argument that, if we have difficulty sleeping, it is we ourselves who stand in the way.  Those familiar with breath meditation practice will recognize the busy mind he writes about--a mind that is obsessed with worries about the future or attachment to the past.  They will have experienced the simple pleasure of being in the moment, a place where sleep comes naturally and unhindered by the mind's activity.  The "mindfulness meditation" he advocates has proved an invaluable tool to address a variety of ills, from depression and anxiety to addictions and other self-destructive behaviors.  It's a way of bringing mind and body to a place of calm detachment, a perch from which one can observe the brain's reactive patterns and learn to be at peace with them.  Giving up the battle with sleep, Emet writes, is more than half the battle.

Roughly the last third of his book is devoted to that seven-week program referred to in his subtitle.  He walks us though a series of seven basic meditation exercises, proposing a week's practice to learn each of them in turn.  (An ebook version is available, which will usefully allow people to listen to the instructions, rather than attempt to follow and read them at the same time.)  The exercises focus on the breath as a means to calm the mind, the body scan, the metta practice of sending out goodwill, and so on.  They are spelled out in easy-to-follow detail, and in language that is at once engaging and soothing in rhythm and intent.  Emet writes, I imagine, as he speaks: the reader can hear the dharma teacher's gentle voice of guidance throughout.

There are many portals that lead us to the dharma, and this is certainly one of them.  While modulated particularly to a single purpose, Emet's book serves also as a fine introduction to the Buddha's teachings, as well as to their application to the art of sleeping well.  Readers may come to it attracted by its primary purpose.  If they read attentively and follow the program of exercises with due patience, they will come away not only with changed sleeping habits, but changed lives.


Faith said...

I've had nights where my brain was running away from me, but I have learned a non-moving qigong form that I can do while lying in bed that pretty much guarantees I'll be asleep in about 20 minutes. It's very meditative, very focused...

CHI SPHERE said...

Sleep is a friend I've not found easily since my boys were born. I hear every sound in the house as well as their voices and can even hear their phones set on vibrate day or night. I've always had exceptional hearing that was further sharpened bt combat conditions in the Nam. As a doc there I could hear each soldiers moans and was always listening for Charlie at night or in the day especially in the bush during black ops. Now my teenage boys keep me up during weekend sleepovers with their friends who have the teenage circadian clock that keeps them up till 2 and lets them sleep in till 11. I found Paramahansa Yogananda's work on meditation and sleep in the 60's ten years after his death. It has served me well most nights. I confess to have repressed anger about the upcoming election like Ellie which keeps me up more recently that any worries about money or relationships. I'm working the Obama phone banks a few days this weekend to get that negative energy worked out through action.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, both, for these comment. And thank you, Gary, for the phone bank work. A good way to process all that negative energy and worry!