Mindful sleeping and waking


Dr Elise Bialylew

Every morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most. Training our attention through mindfulness and developing focus also requires that we look after our general wellbeing. Getting enough sleep is crucial to our capacity to focus, think clearly and generally be well. Sleep deprivation can significantly impair our mental performance and, in some situations, put us at risk of accidents. Investigations into the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl revealed that sleep deprivation was a significant factor in both accidents. Even if you’re not dealing with radioactive material, chances are there are many moments in your day when alertness and awareness are crucial. As a doctor working on-call, often in a sleep-deprived state, I would worry about my own impaired mental performance. A colleague once told me that one night during her shift she found herself writing the contents of her dreams into a patient’s file. Although at first the story made me laugh, it was a frightening reminder of the very real impact of sleep deprivation. Even without working night shifts, many of us are suffering sleep deprivation thanks to our mobile phones. Given that the last thing many of us do before we try to sleep is check our phones, or collapse into bed directly from a computer screen, it͛s not surprising insomnia is an increasing problem. At night, the light from our devices throws our circadian rhythm completely out of whack, and science has proven that blue light – the light emitted from our devices – actually suppresses melatonin (a hormone that influences our circadian rhythm and supports sleep).


Try to reduce your exposure to blue light at least an hour before bed (mobile phone, computer and tablet screens). If your work requires you to be near screens at night, you can try out blue-light blocker glasses. If you are prone to thinking and planning while trying to go to sleep, take five minutes to “brain-dump” in the evening. Write down all of the things that are on your mind and the things you need to do the next day. This won’t get rid of all your to-dos, as the mind is a brilliant thought generator, but at least it will give you a finite time and space to create some lists for yourself and get your thoughts out of your head and down on paper. Do the breath meditation (or one of the other guided meditations in my book) just before you are planning to go to sleep. This time, if you fall asleep while you are doing the practice, it’s an added benefit. You can also bring mindfulness to the moment you wake up in the morning. Next morning as soon as you wake up, take a moment to reflect on these questions:

  • What is the first thing you do immediately after you wake up?
  • What kinds of thoughts are you thinking, and how do these colour the way you feel and move into your day? Rather than wallowing in thoughts about how tired you are, which can exhaust you before you’ve even started your day, the moment you wake up, actively shift your attention to things you can be grateful for. To help myself wake up more mindfully, I created a morning practice called the “Ten-By-Three Wake-Up”, and I quickly noticed how powerfully it affected the rest of my day. It shifted my attention in a way that made my body feel lighter and helped me step into the day with more energy.

As I brought more conscious awareness to how I felt each morning, it also became more obvious that I needed to start getting to bed earlier at night to avoid always waking up feeling exhausted. Mindfulness makes our patterns more obvious and gives us more insight into our own lives. This practice takes less than a minute, but can have a big impact on your mood.


The Ten-By-Three Wake-Up. This mindful morning practice is a quick and powerful energy shifter, and an easy way to start your day with presence and gratitude.

  1. When you first wake up in the morning, take a moment to sense how you are feeling: Rested? Tired? Lazy? Energetic?
  2. Bring awareness to your body, and more specifically to the feeling of your breath.
  3. Before you do anything else (like check your phone!), count ten breaths as they move in and out of the body and make sure that as you are counting, you actually feel the sensations of the breath in your body, allowing your mind to be free from any concerns about the day to come. If you lose count and get distracted, simply begin again when you notice you’ve lost count.
  4. After counting the breaths, drop the counting and bring to mind three things you are grateful for.
  5. Get out of bed and start your day with a positive, appreciative attitude.


What does your morning routine look like? Take a few moments to reflect on any changes you’d like to make. How could you start your morning in a more conscious way by engaging in an activity that improves your sense of wellbeing and mindfulness? Perhaps you could connect with your body through a short stretching session, or allow yourself time to sit and eat breakfast rather than rushing out the door? Notice how these small adjustments affect you.

This is an edited extract from Dr Elise Bialylew’s new book, The Happiness Plan (Affirm Press), a one-month mindfulness guide to reduce stress, improve wellbeing and transform your life.

Available now at all good bookstores and online, $24.99.


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