Another helpful extract from Dr Guy Meadows'The Sleep Book: How to Sleep Well Every Night on how to use mindfulness to overcome insomnia.

Noticing Your Breath

The regularity of our breath makes it an excellent anchor to the present moment, and the fact we can do it at any time and it’s free makes it a great mindfulness tool, and a great tool in using mindfulness to overcome insomnia. It’s also one of the most easily observable bodily sensations, which is why meditators, new and experienced, practise it.

Exercise: Noticing Your Breath

In this exercise you will practise noticing your breath and using it as an anchor to the present moment.

  • Find a comfortable chair in a quiet area and sit in a relaxed position with your eyes closed or looking down at the floor.
  • Focus your awareness on your breath to observe the physical sensations that occur as you breathe in and out. For example, you might notice movement in your chest or abdominal walls, or you might be able to feel the air rushing in and out of your nose. All you are doing here is noticing what there is to notice when you breathe normally. Aim to settle on noticing one area that you find the easiest to focus on. If it helps, you can also count your breaths, such as saying, ‘One,’ on the in-breath and, ‘Two,’ on the out-breath all the way to ten and then starting from one again.
  • Resist the urge to change your breath, breathe deeply or see how long you can remain focused on your breath: this is not the aim here.
  • As you notice your breath, you may find that your mind has wandered off onto a thought, image, sound or memory that just popped in and momentarily distracted you. When that happens, acknowledge your distraction with a friendly greeting such as ‘Hello, Thought’ or ‘Thank you, Mind’ and then gently let go of it by returning your awareness back to your breath.
  • Every time your mind wanders off, just keep bringing it back. The aim is to cultivate a gentle relationship with whatever shows up in your mind, even if it is really unhelpful thoughts in the middle of the night.

When to Use?

While practice can be done anywhere or for any length of time, when you first start, find three periods of three minutes in your day: so once in the morning, midday and during the evening. As you progress, you can begin to increase the length of your practice up to ten minutes or more per session, but only if you want to. Your practice can also be performed lying awake at night in bed.

Helpful Tips:

Keeping on track. To help you remember to practise, put a note to yourself and stick it somewhere where you will see it or set an alarm on your watch or phone. You can now also download smartphone apps that remind you and log your practice. No need to compare. Mindful breathing allows you to observe what is present at that moment in time, so comparison between sessions is not necessary and nor does it matter. If your mind starts to judge your sessions, such as ‘I was so much better this morning’ or ‘I am doing really well today because I have no thoughts’, then acknowledge these thoughts by thanking your mind for them and then return to your breath. Self-blame. On first attempts, it is easy to find your ‘judging mind’ telling you that you are ‘doing it all wrong’ or that you ‘should be feeling more’. If this happens, it is likely that you are actually doing it right because all you are doing is noticing your breath. You are not trying to do special breathing that will enable you to become super relaxed or enter into deep sleep! Blank canvas. To begin with, you may notice yourself trying to create some form of blank canvas or empty mind because if you could just shut up your mind, then you would be able to sleep. While this may sound like a good idea, it is obviously just falling into the controlling trap again and often just promotes further thoughts. What you are aiming to do is the opposite, meaning that you want to open up your mind, allow a thought to come in, greet it and then gently let go of it and return to your breath. Letting go. The words ‘letting go’ can often be misinterpreted as getting rid of your thoughts. It means the same as ‘letting be’ which is when you choose to allow them to occupy the same space as you and yet you are no longer struggling with them or focused on them. This is why I say that you should ‘let go’ and then gently return your focus to your breath. Best intentions. Before starting each practice, take a few moments to notice any intentions that may be lurking in your mind, such as ‘I am doing this to relax so that I will fall asleep’ or ‘I am doing this to get my life back on track.’ If such intentions exist in your mind, gently acknowledge them and let them go by focusing on your breath. It is very easy for the judging mind to perceive mindfulness as a tool to help you get to sleep, but it is not. There is no agenda. Panic feelings. For some of you, even just the thought of focusing on your breath can make you feel breathless. Countless nights of doing deep breathing to get you to sleep or to rid yourself of anxious feelings has left the act of focusing on your breath anchored to feelings of alertness and anxiety! If this is the case for you, then for the time being I would suggest focusing your attention on some other area of your body, such as your heartbeat.