When Is the Best Time to Meditate for Better Sleep?
A sleep expert explains why meditating yourself to sleep doesn’t work.
Posted Jan 19, 2021
If you struggle with insomnia, you’ve probably tried just about everything to fall asleep—including meditation. It seems like a reasonable solution, since meditation is known to lower stress, quiet the mind, and calm the nervous system. You might have even struggled to stay awake when practicing meditation during the day, so why not use this soporific at bedtime?
Maybe you tried meditating in bed, but for some reason it didn’t work. Or maybe it seemed to help the first night, and you hoped against hope that you’d cured your sleep troubles. But it didn’t help the next night, and now it’s helpful only occasionally, like everything else you’ve tried.
Trying Too Hard
The problem with using meditation as a sleep aid comes down to one word: effort. “One of the biggest issues with insomnia is that people are trying really hard to sleep,” clinical psychologist Dr. Jason Ong told me recently on the Think Act Be podcast. Ong is an expert in treating sleep problems, and the creator of Mindfulness-Based Therapy for Insomnia.
In most areas of our lives, “we try harder to solve problems,” said Ong, which is usually a good thing. But that approach backfires when we’re struggling with insomnia. “Sleep is one thing that the harder you try, the worse it gets,” he told me. I know from personal experience that he's right, having been through years of consistently poor sleep.
A big part of the problem, according to Ong, is that using more effort to fall asleep can lead to performance anxiety, as we see sleep as our final “task” for the day. If we're trying to use meditation to knock ourselves out, we make it just another thing to do to ensure good sleep. But effort and doing are incompatible with sleep.
Setting Your Intention
So why do we often get sleepy when meditating during the day, but it doesn't help us fall asleep at night? Ong points out that "the important thing isn’t what you do, but the intention. There may be times when you’re trying to practice a mindful meditation and you fall asleep,” he said, “but the intention should not be to use it for sleep.”
The same goes for activities we might do before bed, or if we get out of bed in the middle of the night because we can’t fall asleep. “You can read, you can watch TV, you can crochet," said Ong. "But the idea is that you shouldn't be doing something to try to fall asleep, or lull yourself to sleep. You’re just doing something for the sake of doing it.”
Rather than treating meditation as a self-administered sedative, we can use it as a way to practice mindful presence and acceptance, as we let go and do less. “We’re trained to want things on demand,” said Ong. “Mindfulness is different, and in some ways the opposite of that. It challenges us to step back from this need for something immediate.”
How Meditation Can Help
So how can meditation help with sleep? Ong described the mindful awareness that we practice through meditation as a “tool to help people let go of the grip” of trying harder to fall asleep. In his treatment approach, the focus is on “cultivating a sense of how to be mindful. That’s what the meditation practice is really about—it’s an opportunity to practice being mindful."
Ong recommends starting with a quiet sitting meditation as the easiest place to start. A common practice is to close the eyes and focus the attention on the sensations of breathing. Each time the mind wanders, as you can be sure it will, gently bring the attention back to the breath. Subsequent practices can include things like walking meditation, yoga, and tai chi.
Daytime is also the best place to start practicing meditation, according to Ong, “not when you’re trying to sleep. Because the idea here is not that you’re trying to ‘meditate yourself to sleep’”—a misconception that he said is quite common. “After someone gets a sense of how to do this during their daytime meditation practices, then they can bring it into the nighttime.”
How to Practice
So when you get in bed tonight, let go of trying to sleep, and simply do… nothing. Sleep will come on its own, not because we willed it. When you notice you’re using effort to try to sleep, deliberately let go of any sense of responsibility for how long you're awake, and just be in the moment. “When you get yourself into a calm and relaxed space,” Ong said, “then sleepiness is much more likely to emerge. And that’s what’s actually going to help you fall asleep.”
One final word: Meditation probably won't be very effective for improving sleep if we're doing other things that contribute to insomnia. Meditation and mindfulness are most helpful in the context of good sleep habits. Important ones include:
- Get up at a consistent time each day.
- Have a relaxing wind-down period for 30-60 minutes before bedtime.
- Don’t stay in bed for a lot longer than you’re able to sleep.
- Be careful not to nap too long or too late in the day.
- Avoid caffeine later in the day.
- Don’t use alcohol to fall asleep.
- Keep your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark.
A practice in mindful presence, along with these other practices, was one of the things that helped restore my own sleep. I hope you find it helpful as well.
The full interview with Dr. Jason Ong is available here: “The Most Important Principles for Good Sleep.”
Ong, J. (2016). Mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.