May 30, 2012

Middle-of-the-Night Mindfulness Meditation: Better Than Any of My Pills

One of my best times of the day occurs in the middle of the night. I almost always need to get out of bed for a bathroom visit sometime between 3 and 5am. As I've done for about a year, I then sit in a straight-backed chair I keep in the bedroom, put a pillow on my lap, join my hands in the "secret handshake" I learned a few years ago, and... just sit there. Usually I sit for at least 30 minutes. Often it's an hour. I've even gone 90 minutes.

Mindfulness Meditation -- Background 
I've been interested in meditation for years, dating back 15 or more years to my reading -- and re-reading -- the book, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zin. The book became my bible for a while, and I've followed Kabat-Zin's work ever since. Here's how Wikipedia summarizes his career:
Kabat-Zinn is the founder and former Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also the founder (1979) and former director of its renowned Stress Reduction Clinic and Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. 
Kabat-Zinn began teaching the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979. MBSR is an eight week course which combines meditation and Hatha yoga to help patients cope with stress, pain, and illness by using moment-to-moment awareness. Kabat-Zinn and colleagues have studied the effects of practising moment-to-moment awareness on the brain, and how it processes emotions, particularly under stress, and on the immune system. Over 200 medical centers and clinics in the US and elsewhere now use the MBSR model. 
In 1993, Kabat-Zinn’s work in the Stress Reduction Clinic was featured in Bill Moyers's PBS special Healing and the Mind and in the book by Moyers of the same title . . .
Kabat-Zinn conducts annual mindfulness retreats for business leaders and innovators, and with his colleagues at the Center For Mindfulness, conducts training retreats for health professionals in MBSR.
As you can see, Kabat-Zin is not just another "New Age" nut.

Mindfulness Meditation and Me
Kabat-Zinn sold me on the idea of mindfulness meditation. But for years --hard as I tried to get into the practice of setting aside time for meditating during the day -- I'd give up on it after awhile. I diagnose myself as having OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One of the things I'm obsessive-compulsive about is keeping busy all the time. So, when I used to sit down sit to meditate, I'd inevitably start thinking, "Don't just sit there! Do something!"

But now I find the middle-of-the-night meditation perfect for me. I've adopted the mindset that time spent in meditation is just as beneficial as time spent in bed sleeping. So I'm fully relaxed regardless of  how long I sit. The house is quiet, and I can easily go back to sleep after meditating.

I've also learned to not beat up on myself when, as inevitably happens, my minds wanders from the intended focus on my breathing -- the centerpiece of meditation. Often, at least half the time I'm sitting quietly, I'll be thinking of something other than "breathing in, breathing out." So what? Some of my best new ideas -- and solutions to problems -- come to me during this quiet time.

A Guide to Mindfulness Meditation
There are many ways to engage in mindfulness meditation. Here's one consistent with my practice:
  1. Find a quiet and comfortable place. Sit in a chair or on the floor with your head, neck and back straight but not stiff.
  2. Try to put aside all thoughts of the past and the future and stay in the present. 
  3. Become aware of your breathing, focusing on the sensation of air moving in and out of your body as you breathe. Feel your belly rise and fall, the air enter your nostrils and leave your mouth. Pay attention to the way each breath changes and is different..
  4. Watch every thought come and go, whether it be a worry, fear, anxiety, or hope. When thoughts come up in your mind, don't ignore or suppress them but simply note them, remain calm and use your breathing as an anchor.
  5. If you find yourself getting carried away in your thoughts, observe where your mind went off to, without judging, and simply return to your breathing. Remember not to be hard on yourself if this happens.
  6. As the time comes to a close, sit for a minute or two, becoming aware of where you are. Get up gradually.
My Added App: The "Secret Handshake"
Several years ago, I went through a terrible bout of  insomnia. Different medical providers tried a variety of meds and techniques. Nothing worked until I came across a book, Michael Krugman's The Insomnia Solution, that recommended a form of meditation involving the "secret handshake." Yes, I know; it sounds awfully hokey. But the technique broke the insomnia siege, and I've used it with good results ever since. So I use it now when meditating. Here's the "secret" to the "handshake":
  • Put your hands out palms down. With one hand, grab the thumb of the other hand between the forefinger and the thumb of the grasping hand.
  • Then extend the forefinger of the grasping hand and wrap it in the fingers of the other hand.

This ritual really helps my grasshopper mind focus on my breathing. If you want to try it:

  • Rest your "secret handshake" on the pillow that's on your lap. 
  • While breathing naturally, squeeze the captured thumb on the in-breath, relax on the out-breath. 
  • On the next breath, squeeze the captured forefinger on the in-breath and relax on the out-breath. 
  • Keep alternating -- squeezing/relaxing the thumb on one in-breath/out-breath and squeezing/relaxing the forefinger on the next in-breath/out-breath. 


Lexie said...

I agree with you John.  I also do meditation - counting my breaths so my focus is only on the breathing as I count and then I go back to the top of my head and start "scanning" down my body - starting with the top of my head, forehead, eyebrows, eye balls, cheeks, mouth, chin, back of head, etc., etc.  During this exercise I imagine each part of my body that I am focusing on "melting" like wax into my pillow and bed.  It is the best technique I know of to get rid of tremors - when I am finished they are always gone.  Thanks for mentioning this.  It could be of great help to all of us with PD.  It takes a little practice for the mind not to wander, but I found that I was a quick learner on this one.  It is my favorite time of the day or night if I am feeling stressed!!  It is amazing how quieting the body can have such a profound effect on our symptoms and our general health.

Steve said...

I also agree!! The Mayo intorduced me to meditaion knowing that I have chronic pain. Instead of taking RX pain pills, I meditate to relieve it. It was difficult at first, but now I have found it an easy way to help.

Quiltie said...

You may enjoy reading The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Davidson. He has done a lot of research on meditation.

Mindfulness Meditation said...

Mindfulness meditation has really helped me to learn how to live in the present moment more and let go of past regrets and future apprehensions! I feel much more at peace with myself. I had never heard of the secret handshake before! That's wonderful. 

Kathy said...

A quick note to let you know that your blog is now being read by -- and inspiring -- my yoga instructor's students with Parkinson's disease and by my own Kripalu Yoga classmates.   Nancy holds classes the local Medical Center's alternative care programs for patients with Parkinson's and similar disorders, and she was thoroughly taken with your blog when I sent her the link to your piece on nightly meditation.  Not only that, but we practiced your secret handshake during our meditation session this morning. And by golly, it works. 

Enrico Galard said...

Amazing post. thanks for sharing this meditation information with us. Keep posting!