The beginner’s mind for a good night’s sleep

Do you think you would sleep better if you approached bedtime without assumptions or preconceptions of how quickly it will take to fall asleep, how much sleep you’ll get or how you’ll feel in the morning? How about if you were to see that night as a new night, in isolation and independent of the day you’ve just had or the previous night’s sleep?

The “beginner’s mind” can help you view bedtime and sleep in a different way, helping to reduce the thoughts, worries and limiting beliefs you might hold about your sleeping ability, break out of unhelpful sleep routines, and allow for the possibility of a better night’s sleep.

Beginner’s mind is used within Mindfulness-Based Therapy and is a concept that comes from Zen Buddhism called Shoshin which means “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

When I first trained as a hypnotherapist, I learnt an approach which was solution focused. I had spent time, energy, effort and money in learning and understanding that approach. I had beliefs, expectations and assumptions about it’s effectiveness and how it could be used with my clients. When I first started attending Continuing Professional Development (CPD) workshops, I remember judging everything that was being discussed by my previous knowledge, experience and training. I found myself closing off to certain aspects of what was being taught and on occasions, instantly dismissing it as not being of any value to me or my clients because it did not fit in with my current approach. This mindset limited my ability to learn, make use of and benefit from the techniques which were being taught. It was detrimental to both my personal and professional development.

If instead, I had gone in to those training workshops with a beginner’s mind, I would have been more open to the teachings, learnt a thing or too and gained more from the experience as a whole. Over the years things changed and I became aware of the concept of beginner’s mind and I have been applying it to all of my trainings since and it really turned the tables on my learning.

You can see how consciously adopting the mindset of a beginner would be useful to someone learning a new subject or skill but not so obvious how it can help an insomniac. When someone has been experiencing insomnia for months or even years, their thoughts become preoccupied during the day about the quality of their previous night’s sleep and what that means for them as they go through their day, and whether they will have a repeat performance the following night. Some people start to become fearful of bedtime. Many spend time searching for ways to “cure” their insomnia. Their thoughts at night might echo those of the day in addition to the usual thoughts that run through their head which made dropping off to sleep a problem in the first place. In addition to these thoughts, people who struggle to sleep often hold a number of limiting beliefs about sleep and their ability to do it, such as the need to have 8 hours, that if they do not sleep sufficiently they will not be able to function effectively the next day and that the longer they are in bed the more chance they have at sleeping. Then we have the behaviours that they fall in to as a result of these thoughts and beliefs. They might remain in bed in the morning after they have woken up if they’ve had a poor night sleep, have a nap in the afternoon, or have an alcoholic drink to help drop off to sleep. The insomniac becomes very good at not sleeping, the master of their problem and can get set in their ways. Their thoughts, beliefs and behaviours surrounding sleep become fixed which reinforces and exacerbates the problem. Their approach to getting a good night sleep is no longer working for them and as such they would benefit from learning a new way of doing things. Applying a beginner’s mind to their problem allows the insomniac to recognise where they might have developed unhelpful thinking and behaviour patterns and be open to trying something different.

“If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” - Jessie Potter

When a person cultivates a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time, they become open to learning new ways of doing things and changing how they think about their sleep problem, how they approach bedtime, how to relax, and they can start to make changes to the quality of their sleep.

We can use hypnotherapy to help with sleeping problems and there is an increasing body of evidence to support this. With hypnotherapy, we look at all aspects of a sleeping problem. During the sessions, we look at how insomnia presents for that person as well as how it affects their life as everyone is different. I teach my clients a wide variety of relaxation techniques to help reduce stress and anxiety. We look at the thoughts, ideas and beliefs that they hold about their sleeping pattern, the quality of sleep they get and how much they think they should be getting. I encourage them to be more aware of their thoughts during the day and teach them ways to address any negative thoughts they might have about sleep and life generally so that they do not continue to run through their mind at night. We cover general sleep hygiene to ensure that they are doing everything that they can to encourage an environment that is conducive to sleep and that supports their body in its natural ability to drift off to sleep. We also look at their sleep routine and help them to change any unhelpful aspects that might be causing a problem. In addition to this, I teach my clients self hypnosis among other techniques so that they can help themselves. A beginner's mind and hypnotherapy can help the insomniac sufferer gain better quality sleep. Of course, there are some medical conditions and medication that can affect sleep so it is important to seek advice from a GP to rule out any physical causes for the insomnia.

In addition to being open to new ways of thinking and behaving when it comes to sleep, the principle of beginner’s mind can also be used to approach each night as an independent event. Bringing a beginner’s mind to each night is something that I have found incredibly useful. Each night is a new night and is different to every other night you’ve had and every night you will have in the future. Every night is different. Just because you couldn’t fall asleep easily last night, doesn’t mean you will struggle to fall asleep tonight.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” - Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

We base everything on our previous experience. When we have had a problem with something we find it incredibly difficult to view it with objectivity. We lose perspective on the situation. Let’s use the example of an ex-smoker who hasn’t smoked for the last 10 years. They go out, have a drink and have a cigarette. Because they’ve had a problem with the habit in the past, they instantly assume they’ve failed, that they are now a smoker again and quite often continue to smoke. Whereas if someone who has never smoked goes out, has a drink and a cigarette, they can see it for what it is – they got drunk and had a cigarette. It’s an isolated incident. That one cigarette does not make them a smoker and they think nothing of it. We all have the occasional bad night's sleep but when we do not have a problem generally with sleep, we can see it as a one off and do not become anxious or worried about it.

A poor night sleep last night does not mean a poor night’s sleep tonight. Nor does it mean you are always going to be stuck with this problem. So treat each night as a single entity, an isolated incident. Avoid already “knowing” how you are going to sleep that night. Don’t let past experiences of bad night’s sleep influence your sleep tonight. Let go of those thoughts about how you couldn’t sleep last night and how tonight might compare to then or what it might mean for your day at work tomorrow. The past is the past and you cannot do anything about it. But you can change your experience of sleep tonight and in the future by viewing each night as a one off experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have the perfect night’s sleep straight away, but persevere with this way of seeing things and you’ll start to feel the benefit of it.

Approaching each evening with curiosity and an open mind allows for the possibility of a good night’s sleep, makes you more comfortable with not knowing what is going to happen (whether you’ll sleep or not and how that will effect you or not), and helps you to be more objective about your ability to sleep and the quality that you get.

Seeing each night in isolation also allows you to avoid the temptation of making changes to your behaviour when it comes to sleep based upon contingencies from the day or previous night. (Ong, 2017) So for example, you might stay in bed in the morning after you’ve woken up after a poor night’s sleep. I know this is something that I have done many times over the years. It is a common strategy that people often employ when they’ve not slept well thinking that they might just be able to drop off and get some more sleep but it very rarely provides good quality sleep if any at all. Carrying out ineffective sleep related contingencies like this just compounds the problem. (Ong, Ulmer & Manber, 2012)

I’m not saying that applying a beginner’s mind to sleep is easy. I know that it is something that I struggled to do at first but it does get easier and you can really start to see things for what they are. I have also found that thinking in this way stops insomnia becoming a thing that you carry around with you, that you own, that becomes part of your identity. If you see each night separately, you’re just a person who has had lots of isolated incidences of not sleeping well but tonight could be different. So go, be open to the possibilities of sleep tonight.

If you are suffering with sleep problems in Bristol and would like to find out more about how Hypnotherapy can help you, please visit my dedicated Insomnia webpage.

Related Articles:
Guided Visualisation Helps Reduce Nightmares
REM Sleep Helps Process Negative Thoughts and Memories

Ong, J.C., Ulmer, C.S., & Manber, R. (2012) Improving Sleep with Mindfulness and Acceptance: A Metacognitive Model of Insomnia. Behav. Res. Ther. Nov; 50(11): 651-660
- Ong, J.C. (2017) Mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia

Photo Credit: by el7bara