Part of the problem that those with insomnia experience is that once awake, even if there wasn't initially intrusive thinking or rumination, the mere thought, "oh no, I'm losing sleep" can be enough to begin a cascade of disruptive thinking that results in prolonged wakefulness. This progression of thinking and worrying becomes a ruminative pattern that worsens the sleeplessness.
How meditation works for those of us who have insomnia is that it helps to stop the thinking that can prolong the episode of sleeplessness by allowing the mind to settle. It also can help to reduce the anxiety associated with losing sleep. I've heard other insomnia sufferers say that the worry about sleeplessness can be as bad as the actual event of not sleeping.
How do we begin, then, to work with the mind that can either prevent us from falling asleep in the first place, or awaken us once we've settled down into a nice and cozy night's rest?
We begin by practicing meditation during our waking hours. While that may seem obvious, it's amazing how many of us don't think about fixing the broken sink until it's really broken, or going to the doctor until our symptoms are out of control. In the same way, if we wait until we're bug-eyed awake during the middle of the night, trying to practice at that point might be ineffective at best. So, begin practicing meditation during your waking hours. You may even find that if you're tired enough, you'll get drowsy while practicing. If this occurs, go lie down and take a nap.
As we become familiar with meditation practice, it's important to apply our practice to as many different situations as possible, sharpening our ability to practice under less than perfect circumstances. So, we practice under all circumstances, getting used to working with our mind informally.
As you're falling asleep, turn this process into meditation practice. After you've settled down, begin your meditation practice and continue until you fall asleep. If you haven't fallen asleep after 30 minutes, get out of bed, and do whatever it is that you do when you can't sleep, for example read a book, watch TV, have some hot milk. Then, when you come back to bed, begin your practice again.
If you wake up in the middle of the night, like I do, begin meditation practice immediately. Sometimes this can result in your falling asleep almost immediately. But if this doesn't happen, then do what you did at bedtime; practice meditating until you fall asleep or until 30 minutes have passed.
Insomnia is no fun! I have been visited by this "unwelcome guest" for the better part of my life. I can't say that meditation practice always gets me back to sleep. What I can say is that by practicing meditation during periods of insomnia, my meditation practice gets stronger during other parts of my day and my life. So, sometimes insomnia is a bonus - I get to practice!
For tips on how to get started with a meditation practice and other handy tips, check out some of the other posts and handy links on this site. You'll find information on how to learn to meditate, integrate meditation into your daily life, and even some of the great research being done on meditation. Enjoy!