Does this sound like you?
You lay down at night, close your eyes and find a deep restful slumber that lasts till morning. Then, you awake feeling refreshed and enlivened, ready to greet a radiant new day, happy to be alive. Probably not. There is an epidemic of insomnia in this country as evidenced by the huge pharmaceutical industry for prescription and OTC sleep aids. If you prefer a natural method to quiet your racing insomniac mind and body you will like the remedy I turn to during a sleepless night, when other practices have failed me. It is a Buddhist Counting practice I call Seven Counts of Seven and it works like a charm.
This is a wonderful practice for clearing your mind when it is racing and needs to cool down. I have found it helpful when I wake up agitated, thinking of all kinds of things not conducive to sleep. Sometimes I don’t make it through the whole thing before I fall back into slumber. Other times I have to do it twice or more, however, it always leaves me calmer than when I started. I also like it as a short meditation that helps me shift from my mind flitting from one thought to the next to focused attention.
I don’t want to give the impression that I advocate jumping over difficult feelings and somehow numbing ourselves with “mind controlling” practices. I suggest that when we wake up with difficult feelings we make an effort to stay with them and see where they lead us. Discover if you can, what in your present circumstances is triggering these emotions and notice how they may connect to your past. This is important work on the path of self-knowledge and I encourage you to do it. The reason these feelings may be waking you up is because they “need to be heard”. Listening to them can be very liberating. Sometimes after that process you will feel so soothed that you relax and go back to sleep with no other technique being necessary. I love the times when that happens.
However, it is often the case that charged with old feelings of fear, shame or anguish of any sort our minds will race around looking for things to glom onto in an effort to hide from difficult feelings. Focuses that seem common for this kind of thinking are all the things that we’ve done wrong lately, or the things that have gone wrong or may go wrong, or more mundanely what we have to do tomorrow that may of course go wrong. Regardless of where the mind is trying to escape to avoid feeling uncomfortable, it is rarely what you want to be focusing on at 3AM. It serves no purpose and will only make you groggy the next day. So I suggest you spend a few minutes closely focused on the energy you wake up with and what it represents, but don’t let it lead you far afield in ways that feed your agitation and make it hard to sleep. When you are done exploring your feelings and ready to slow the mind down, begin this practice.
Evidently, in the Far East, where this practice originated, they think of breathing as beginning with exhalation. As a result, the way I learned this practice was starting with the out breath. For us Westerners, since it is counter to habit, this makes it harder to do but easier to concentrate on. We really have to think to begin with expiration. Since wandering mind is a big obstacle, any help is welcome. Doing this the Eastern way makes sense to me for this reason.
So when you are ready, seated or lying comfortably, take a final inhalation, then exhale through the nose counting mentally, “out 1.” Inhale through the nose and count mentally, “in one.” Exhale, “out 2,” inhale “in 2,” exhale, “out 3” and so on. Unless your nose is stuffed up all breaths are through the nose. Try to breathe naturally, more observing the breaths and counting than directing them. After completing 7 breaths, start at one again. Do 7 rounds of 7 breaths. This is way harder than it sounds.
The first few times you do this your mind may wander, making it difficult to keep counting or to remember to stop after 7 breaths and start again, or to remember how many rounds you have done. Tradition has it that if you lose track in any of these ways, you are to start again from the beginning. If this was the approach I took when I first learned this practice, I might still be doing it, since I’ve made all the “mistakes” many times, especially when I originally tried it. Lucky for you, it is not necessary to continually take it from the top to derive the calming effect. My philosophy is that since it is the softening we are after, a nurturing and supportive approach is best. When you get lost just make your best guess as to where you left off and pick up again. Applaud your stick to attentiveness and keep going. If your goal is to go back to sleep, anytime that feels possible, go with it, let go and drift off, otherwise strive to do your seven rounds of seven. After a bit more commentary, I will give you some tips, which might be frowned on in certain settings, that make getting through this easier. I won’t tell the sensei if you don’t.
Since there are so many details and such specific instructions it may sound like this is a stressful process not a relaxant. For some people it might be, but after a while the rhythm of the counts and focus on the breath become a soothing vacation from whatever was bothering you. This exercise can also be used as a transitioning meditation done for 5-10 minutes at the beginning of a longer sit, just to clear your mind and come into a state of relaxation before pursuing some other practice. If you really like it a lot you could try doing 7 rounds of 7 rounds of 7 breaths. This would be a full half hour sit. Some people say meditation practices should not be used to induce sleep and sleep inducing practices should not be used for meditation. I don’t agree. I find practices charged with healing, relaxed energy during meditation are just what I need when agitation keeps me awake. Furthermore, if I am sleepy in meditation it doesn’t so much matter what practice I am doing, wakefulness will be elusive.
This 7 counts of 7 practice will take between 5 and 10 minutes depending on the length of your breaths. Along the way your mind may try to wander off. Here are some tips, born from my experience, that make it easier to stay focused on the breathing and counting.
The first thing I discovered is that if I say, “out one” real quick in my mind, I may forget what number I am at before the next breath, so now I elongate the mental saying of the count to match the length of the breath. This makes it much easier to retain the counts.
The next thing that is hard to do is holding onto what round you are on. To help here, I have chosen a simple expedient. I use my fingers. Figure out a system for curling or uncurling one digit each time you start or complete a round of seven. This way you will know where you are all the time with the rounds. I mostly do this mentally now, but at one time I never would have gotten through to the end without this trick.
The final helpful tip is perhaps the hardest to learn. Don’t worry so much about doing it right. Just do it your way and it will be perfect. Sweet dreams.
If you try this and have any questions or thoughts to share, I’d love to hear from you.
Ray has been a yoga practitioner since 1969. An honors graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, his livelihood has been based on television production, art publishing and now yoga supply manufacturing and sales at YogaLifeStyle.com. Until 1997, Ray only shared his yoga practice with friends and relatives. Then he started teaching a class in his hometown of New Paltz,NY and soon after was offered the opportunity to participate in the inaugural teacher training program of well-known master Sri Yogi Dharma Mittra. Ray received his certification and his Sanskrit name , in September of 2000. In the lineage of Swami Gupta, our main credo is simply, “Be Nice.” According to Ray ” Through love and good intentions, discipline, hard work and faith, progress is assured.” More musings and yoga instruction like this can be found at Ray’s blog Everyday Yoga.