A Meditation for Insomnia and Anxiety: The Positive Feedback Loop of Shamatha

By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast

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Imagine a wildebeest out in the savannah, eating grass. Everything is calm and peaceful — and then the wildebeest suddenly thinks it hears a snake rustling in the grass. So it gets spooked and starts to run, and the wildebeests around it get spooked and start to run. And the more those wildebeests run, the more the whole herd gets spooked, and before you know it you've got a stampede.

This is a classic example of a positive feedback loop.

Notice that the word positive here does not imply that the results you get from the feedback loop are desirable. Depending on who you are and where you are, a stampede may or may not be a good thing.

Here’s another example — one that’s more relevant to mindfulness. It's about a positive feedback loop that really changed my life early on in my practice. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was originally driven to practice mindfulness because of insomnia. On the rare occasion that I could fall asleep back then, I generally wasn't able to stay asleep through the night. The next day I'd feel like a zombie. But before I knew it, night rolled around again and I felt even more anxious about falling asleep. I was facing a positive feedback loop with very negative consequences for me.    

When I started a mindfulness practice, I noticed something spontaneous happen: my breath dropped. I went from experiencing anxious, shortened breathing up in the chest to feeling my breath migrate deep into my abdomen. And the more I breathed from my abdomen the more relaxed my body became. And the more relaxed my body became, the easier it was to keep breathing from my belly.

In both instances, I experienced a positive feedback loop. However, the results were far more desirable after I started practicing mindfulness. I felt so much more relaxed throughout the day, more so than I ever had in my life. I couldn't believe it. I'd discovered this thing that seemed to be a cure all for everything that ailed me. I approached the night with a totally different attitude: breathing from the belly, soft in the body, relaxed. Over time I would actually look forward to going to bed.

I'm not here to claim that mindfulness is going to take care of your insomnia or any other problem. It may or may not. What I have found, though, is that mindfulness helps everything work better. Whatever issues you're struggling with in life and whatever challenges, mindfulness generally helps us meet those challenges more optimally.

So, how can we practice with a positive feedback loop? How can we use this natural mechanism to develop our mindfulness practice?

Here's one way that people have been doing it for literally thousands of years — because they’ve found it to be incredibly effective. It goes like this: we sit still and focus on restful states in the body.

When we focus on restful states in the body, our attention amplifies the pleasant sensation. The stillness and restfulness in the body actually becomes more pleasant the more we focus on it. The more pleasant it feels the easier it is to focus. The easier it is to focus the more we’re able to focus on the pleasant sensations. The pleasant sensations then become more pleasant, and we enter nature’s feedback loop.

In the Buddhist tradition this kind of meditation is called Shamatha. Shamatha often gets translated as "calm, abiding meditation.” But the word also has connotations of high concentration because as we're in this feedback loop we become more and more concentrated. The more blissful we feel, the more rewarded we are to continue concentrating more and more. That is the basic theory.

As we get ready for practice, there are a couple of things that you can be on the lookout for.

First, know that the longer you practice, the deeper you practice. So if you'd like to really explore the depths of this Shamatha practice or the positive feedback loop practice, I'd invite you to extend the time a little bit. You might go from five minutes to ten and ten minutes to twenty and so on just to see where that takes you.

Second, know that just because we're focusing on pleasant sensation it doesn't mean for a moment that there aren't unpleasant sensations. The body may feel uncomfortable at times and the mind may be racing, and that's okay. None of those things have to go away, and none of those things have to be problems. When we do this kind of meditation we're simply focusing on the pleasant sensations and letting everything else be in the background of awareness.

Meditation Practice: Shamatha

Go ahead and find a comfortable place where you can sit still for a moment without being disturbed or interrupted.

Start by letting the body settle in to the posture — the posture that allows the spine to be naturally upright but without excessive effort. Take a moment to settle in to a posture that allows you to be both relaxed and alert. Feel the ground beneath you, supporting you and see if you're able to relax a little bit more. How can you sit in this moment with even greater ease.                         

At this point I'd like you to bring awareness to the breath, particularly the breath as it shows up through the torso, feeling the expansion and contraction of the torso and just joining your awareness with the flow of sensation. Breathing in, you can clearly sense the feeling of breathing in. Breathing out, you can be clear about the sensations of breathing out. And I want you to focus specifically now on the out-breath. Notice with each out-breath through the torso there's a natural wave of relaxation of letting go. All of the muscles that work so hard to create space for the breath to enter the lungs and enter the body, when you breath out they just soften and let go. and as you focus on this sensation of relaxation and letting go, you may notice that it wants to spread beyond the torso, out in to the limbs, through the head, through the entire body and if that's the case you can just let it do that. Let the relaxation spread. Or you may notice that this feeling of relaxation wants to remain local and concentrated in the torso. If that's the case, that's great, too. You can just stay with this area of focus in the torso sill focusing on the profound ease and restfulness, the letting go that comes with each out-breath.

Good. After doing this for a few moments you may start to notice even when you're not exhaling and letting go, there’s still a quality of softness and restfulness in the body that you can actually stay in constant contact with through your awareness. Even if the body is not one-hundred percent relaxed in this moment or the mind completely calm, you can let any discomfort, any unpleasantness in experience fade in to the background for the moment. While in the foreground you stay with this quality of rest and relaxation.

Notice that focusing on this calm and rest in the body is intrinsically rewarding. The more you focus, the more pleasant it becomes. The more pleasant it becomes, the easier it is to focus.

You can stay here as long as you would like, softening and surrendering to this natural feedback loop that is always here, always available to us.

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I hope this lesson benefits you, and I hope you were able to get a taste of Shamatha meditation: an abiding that involves deep concentration and blissful calm.