Marilyn is a Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) instructor in the US. Meditation is one of the central elements of the OMS Recovery Program, alongside diet and supplements, exercise, vitamin D and, if need be, medication.
Eyes wide open all night
In the daytime, it is so important to find a way to hold the head up and keep the eyes open to the world around us. Night-time is another story.
That’s when, more than anything, I for one just want to drift into sweet dreams and claim my birthright of a good night’s sleep. When I couldn’t sleep, it felt like such an insult; it felt so wrong.
When I first came down with Multiple Sclerosis, the vigilant night watchman of insomnia took up residence in my head and would not budge.
He kept the lights on in my brain all night long, and together we watched out for trouble, hour after hour. It was so exhausting. Once my diagnosis was confirmed, I wanted to dial back the tension that ruled my days and ruined my nights. Before I found a good stress reduction course, I dabbled my way solo into meditation.
In retrospect, one limitation of the do-it-yourself learning mode is not having anyone to ask if what you are doing is OK. Always the good student, I strived to follow the guidance I found in books and magazines.
Getting the meditation posture right
First instructions in meditation tend to be about posture: sit up straight, with the chin tucked in slightly, the neck in alignment with the spine. Meditators are warned against sloth and torpor, the drowsiness that can come over you from the effort of bringing attention, again and again, to just one thing.
I began to enjoy practicing mindfulness of breath, to enjoy focusing my attention on slow and easy breathing. I just didn’t want to do it sitting up all the time.
In fact, it made me want to lie down. It made me drowsy. Being in the present moment meant feeling the deepness of my exhaustion and fatigue, and I keeled over. Bad student, I thought; slacker. Now I am sorry I wasted a single moment worried I was doing something wrong. Have you seen the TED talk about neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight? At around the video’s two and a half minute mark, her assistant brings out a brain on a plate, with something I had never seen before, the long ropey ponytail of a spinal cord hanging off a brain like the thick braid of a peasant maiden or a native American warrior.
Taylor wasn’t going to pretend that her affliction was about something that happened just in her head, and neither should we.
Brain and spinal cord work in consort to make up our central nervous system, and we really ought to take care of it as well as we can.
Long hours spent slumped on the couch or curled in bed in a fetal position are not optimal. Meditation posture, with a relaxed neck linking head and torso, offers the best possible opportunity for the free and unobstructed flow of blood and oxygen and all the other good things that travel up and down our main thoroughfare.
We can approximate this posture well enough lying down on our side, or on our back, maybe elevated as in a hospital bed. Resting like that, and breathing easy, was the true beginning of my meditation practice.
"So what," I would think, this feels good enough. And it was good enough. It was what I could manage at the time. I measured progress by how easily I could fall asleep – and fall asleep again when insomnia woke me up and wanted to engage.
Night-time self defence
To my night-time self-defense kit I steadily added mindfulness skills, like the one where you meticulously scan through the parts of your body, touching them with nothing more than your steady attention, beginning perhaps with the face, or the big toe of the left foot.
The night is long. At first, to focus my attention and wrench it rather forcefully from the fretful night watchman’s control, for some reason I took to re-learning poems I memorized in school.
I put the text of a poem and a flashlight on the night stand, and worked my way through everything from A Child’s Garden of Verses to Wordsworth and Robert Frost. I lulled the night watchman to sleep reciting The Cremation of Sam McGee.
How long before I vanquished insomnia entirely? It took a long time, but I don’t mind. From the very first, I slept longer stretches at night (and felt better in the day). This meditation adaptation was working for my purposes. At night, in intervals between sleep, I called up (mostly) beautiful images behind my eyelids, along with the words of songs and poems I love.
Give into sleep, mindfully
If I messed up, I took it from the top once more. I like to think the old advice to “count sheep” comes from the days of our agricultural forebears, when the sweetest image a poor farmer could invoke was that of baby lambs hopping over the stile in the spring pasture.
Have you ever tried to count to ten slowly, over and over – only to startle and discover you’re way up there on auto-pilot? (“75, 76...”)
More effective is to imagine something within, something that requires more of you than just counting or just listening. If it is quietly rhythmic, and repetitive, it is bound to soothe you from the inside out.
By day or by night, if you are so tired you can’t lift a finger, I say give in to it, mindfully. If it feels right, it may be that the way out of fatigue is through it. Marilyn McArthur
Associate Professor Craig Hassed, Mindfulness Coordinator at the Monash University, Australia has just drawn our attention to a free online mindfulness course that is a collaboration between FutureLearn in the UK and Monash University. This practical six-week course explores the science, practice and philosophy of mindfulness. It is a really good resource for people interested in mindfulness, who perhaps don't have ready access to a face-to-face course.