This post is about what actions to take to stay awake if you are sleepy during a meditation period and want to remain alert. It also briefly explores the question as to whether it is advisable to sleep or work to stay awake during meditation periods.
[Photo attribution: y4why]
Drowsiness and falling asleep are common challenges for meditators. In fact, they are sometimes the most significant difficulty in our practice. Some meditators spend the initial years of their sitting mostly struggling to stay awake.
It’s a common experience: we settle in for our sitting period with great enthusiasm, intending to spend a half-hour in clarity, insight, depth, liberation, and awakening. But, as we relax, waves of heaviness start to wash over us, our eyelids droop, a smothering cloak of darkness envelops us, our awareness fades out, and – who knows how long later – we find ourselves groggily waking back up, disoriented and frustrated.
For many of us, the calm and relaxation of meditation is something that we previously had only experienced while falling asleep. Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, with correlates with a sense of peace and the same brainwaves found at the beginning of sleep. So, it is natural that we would associate calm and serene meditative ease with dozing off.
For many of us who are sleep deprived, what keeps us awake is constant low-grade stress, excitement, and mental stimulation. When we finally stop our running around, step away from computers, phones, and televisions, and sit down on our meditation cushion or chair, set our timer, relax, and close our eyes, all that stimulation and mental buzzing start to melt away, and our body’s natural need for rest reemerges. It is like a garden hose kept erect in the air by water pressure while the spigot was turned on full blast, but that collapses to the ground when the water is turned off.
This sudden drowsiness is a common phenomena. There is no need for shame or discouragement if you are struggling with it during your meditation periods; it happens to most people at some point, sometimes often. Even the Dalai Lama has said that he has fallen asleep at times while trying to meditate.
When I did long retreats at the Tassajara monastery, meditating six hours a day, the other monks and I would sometimes use the phrase “dreaming of boxing” when we talked among ourselves. The term referred to waking up from momentary sleep during a meditation period with our heads snapping like a boxer who had taken a blow. My teacher Shinzen Young also has a name for that common phenomenon; he calls it the “Zen lurch”.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STAYING AWAKE
Many people unfamiliar with mindfulness meditation do so, but it is inaccurate to think of mindfulness meditation as only a state of deep relaxation, as spacing out and tuning out, and as roughly the same thing as sleep. In sleep, we are in a relaxed state that is less conscious than our normal mindstate, but in meditation, we are working towards being in a relaxed state that is more conscious than our normal mindstate. The brain waves of deep meditation are actually those of deep, restful, peaceful, and relaxed sleep and also simultaneously those of energized full alertness as if one were focused and motivated while working on a project while under deadline. This combination is something new, unfamiliar, and perhaps paradoxical to most of us, which is one reason why it usually takes years to understand, cultivate, explore, and develop it.
It is generally understood that if we are falling asleep in meditation, we miss out on the full value and benefit of meditation, which requires us to be aware, alert, conscious, and awake. Letting ourselves nod off is counter-productive to the process. If we do, we may enjoy a restful nap and the warm fuzz of sleepiness, but we are not developing our strengths of concentration, focus, mindfulness, insight, being untangled, spaciousness, and tranquility. We may gain a temporary benefit, but we miss out on long term ones. In Buddhism and Hinduism, it is said that “enlightenment” can only happen when not asleep; spiritual awakening requires literal wakefulness.
The first step towards staying awake when meditating is to want to. A successful meditation often depends on the intentions and attitudes that we bring and set going into it, and this is specifically true for our level of alertness. Many teachers recommend cultivating a diligent determination to remain conscious and energized in our meditation and to keep our chin up when the temptation arises to nosedive down into drowsiness.
The teacher Culadasa has suggested starting a meditation period by saying out loud something like, “I want to meditate. I will remain alert and aware throughout my practice.” He has also suggested that a meditator pray before a sitting period, in order to increase aspiration and ask for assistance from Divine Spirit to stay awake. A number of my teachers have made a point that we should consider it a matter of honor and integrity to do our best not to mix up meditation and sleep. One of my teachers, Reb Anderson, has recommended making a “holy vow” and a promise to one’s sitting cushion or chair to stay awake during the time between the starting and ending bells that bookend a formal sitting period.
While on an intensive meditation retreat, it is common to sleep six or fewer hours a night. As challenging as this may be for everyone on the grounds, it is usually more workable for the people meditating eight plus hours a day than for the cooks serving the retreat. The cooks are exerting energy rather than sitting still, using mental activity rather than simplifying, unifying, and calming their minds, and, to start cooking breakfast, they may even wake up before everyone else.
I’ve sat intensive retreats in the Bodhimanda monastery in rural New Mexico where we all slept only about two to four hours a night. I respected the honor of the cooks who, after eighteen hours of labor, would come to the meditation hall at the end of the night, and, while sitting cross-legged and upright, would be fighting their evident best to stay awake. They were clearly giving it their all, even as did the Zen lurch every minute or so.
I contrast that with retreats that I have sat at another monastery, where the cooks were required to be in the meditation hall for any period when they weren’t on a shift in the kitchen. These monks would sometimes only do so seemingly under protest, and would lie down, curl up, and pull a blanket up over themselves, clearly intending to sleep without much of an effort to stay awake and actually meditate. For that, I felt less respect.
ANTIDOTES AND ACTION STEPS
The good news is, sleepiness when meditating is something that we can work with. Wakefulness is a goal that we can achieve, and there are actions that we can take to do so. I ranked the suggestions below from how useful I have found them for overcoming drowsiness, from most down to least. I invite you to give some of them a try.
SIT UP, STAND UP, OR START WALKING
The most important advice I can give someone who is falling asleep when trying to meditate is:
- If you are lying down and feeling drowsy, then sit upright.
- If you are already sitting up and still falling asleep, then stand up.
- If you are already standing and still falling asleep, then start slowly walking back and forth.
Many people think of meditation as something we practice only while sitting on a cushion or chair. But in the ancient Buddhist scriptures, The Buddha purportedly recommended four postures as most suitable for formal meditation – sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.
We could order these four postures on a continuum from most tranquil to most activating – lying down is the most relaxing of these four postures, sitting is a little more energizing, standing up is more energizing still, and walking back and forth is the most energizing. As I said above, in my experience, the most effective action that one can take when wanting to be more wakeful for meditation is to escalate up the energization scale of those four postures.
A few meditation techniques are only appropriate to one of those postures. Most techniques, however, can be done in any of them. Specifically, many meditators might be surprised how many of the practices that they have been doing only seated can also be performed while standing or walking.
I have found that many people are also surprised to learn that standing up is a fine and legitimate posture for meditation. Standing meditation can sometimes be uncomfortable relative to sitting; it is at least partially because of that, though, that it is generally effective for staying awake. Again, I recommend standing up as the first option for people sitting down and finding themselves drowsy.
And although it is almost impossible to fall asleep standing, it is even more challenging to do so while walking. Walking is also a completely legitimate posture for meditation; worldwide, it is the second most common meditation posture, after sitting.
Some intensive meditation retreats that I have done have assigned walking for half the periods. And most monasteries that I visited in Asia had dedicated paths for walking path, some hundreds of years old, which was inspirational to me with their evident history of dedicated practice. At Wat Pah Nanachat, one of the most hardcore and challenging monasteries that I have visited, the devoted monks would do hours of walking meditation a day, practicing a broad spectrum of mindfulness practices as well as activities like memorizing scriptures. Some Western people do either a significant fraction or the entirety of their meditation practice while walking.
Many people feel that walking meditation lacks some of the benefits of and is generally “inferior to” sitting meditation. The analysis is that settling our body can help settle our mind, and that walking lacks the calm, stability, and simplicity of sitting. Walking can also usually involve more visual distractions, which dilutes our concentration.
But walking meditation has some benefits that sitting doesn’t. As we’ve discussed, when tired and sluggish – when sleepy, after eating a big meal, after too much sitting, or drowsy for any other reason – walking meditation can be energizing and enlivening. It is also useful when the exact opposite is the case, for when a person has too much emotion and adrenaline and feels unable to sit still. Walking meditation can help alleviate the knee pain and other various aches people sometimes feel when sitting still for too long. It can also be a great way to bring meditative awareness into a simple real-life action, which can be a bridge to developing more mindfulness in the rest of daily life.
Walking meditation is a rich subject, and there are many web pages, videos, guided meditations, and even entire books that can explain more about it to anyone interested.
Some people do walking meditation because they have injuries or other physical issues that make it difficult and painful for them to simply sit upright. And some people meditate lying down for the same reason. Lying down to meditate in general, however, is not recommended for most people without such health concerns (and that goes for lying back in a comfortable soft chair, as well). Although lying down to meditate is more relaxing and less painful for most people than sitting or standing, we are, obviously, more likely to fall asleep when doing so. There is also value in training oneself to deeply and fully relax while upright, rather than have it just “happen to you” while lying down.
Sometimes, even before they sit down to meditate, a person may recognize that they are feeling sleepy and choose to escalate up the posture hierarchy – from lying down to sitting up to standing up to walking – from what they otherwise would have done. After this happens, some people stay standing or walking for the entire period, while others begin the period of practice on their feet but, once feeling more alert, then sit down. And escalating one’s posture is also commonly done to make a change once already into a session, in response to starting to doze off. As with so much else in meditation, the best advice may be to experiment and see what works best for you.
OPEN OUR EYES AND/OR BRIGHTEN THE LIGHTS
Obviously, humans associate closed eyes with sleeping and open eyes with wakefulness, and simply closing our eyes may serve as a signal that it is time to sleep. And while there are reasons both to meditate with eyes closed and to do so with eyes open (which are explored in depth in my blog post here), being drowsy makes a choice between the two easy – it’s time to open the eyes wider.
Opening one’s eyes also stimulates us by letting more light into the visual parts of our brain. As many of us intuitively would guess, studies have found that there are parts of the human brain that respond to light with wakefulness and to dark with sleepiness. So, when meditating and trying to stay awake, one easy additional action we can take is to brighten the lights in the space we are in. (it is for a similar reason that some classic advice for people suffering from insomnia is to look for ways to darken the room that they are trying to sleep in.)
ENERGIZE THE WORDS OF OUR MEDITATION
Many mindfulness meditation techniques involve intentionally subvocalizing (saying words inside our minds). Examples of this include counting breaths, repeating a mantra, or saying labels that describe what we are aware of moment by moment. I teach many techniques that involve labeling, two examples being every couple seconds saying inside one’s mind the name of what part of the body we are currently feeling, or how active we are noticing our thinking mind to be.
When feeling sleepy, lethargic, and sluggish, some effective actions that we can take to energize and awaken our meditation include:
- Start labeling what we are aware of, if not already doing so
- Speed up the rhythm and cadence of any labels, mantras, or any other words that we use in our meditation technique
- Put more force into the meditative words as we generate them silently inside our mind
- If we are alone (or around understanding others), start to say the words out loud
- If we are listening to a guided meditation, repeat out loud what the voice says
ADJUST YOUR POSTURE – STRAIGHTEN THE SPINE AND LIFT THE CHIN
The position in which you sit for meditation can have a significant effect on your level of alertness.
Many teachers assert that, in general, a straight, extended spine is the most essential part of a meditation position. One of the main reasons for that is that slouching leads to falling asleep (by compressing our belly and reducing our breathing capacity, among other factors), while an upright spine leads to wakefulness (by allowing us to take full deep breaths, among other factors). So, one action that we can take to promote wakefulness is to ensure that we are extending and “straightening” our spines. This may feel unnatural at first, but, after putting our attention on maintaining cultivating uprightness for long enough, slouching will lessen and our default posture will improve.
My primary teacher Shinzen Young has sat many hard-core meditation retreats where he has sat late into the night, or even all night. He says that he has had good results fighting intense drowsiness with switching from whatever technique he had been doing to repeating the mantra, “Back straight – OK! Eyes open – OK!” over and over again. As he has said each part, he has ensured that his back has, indeed, been upright and not slouching (and that his eyes have, indeed, been open and not dropping shut).
There is a structure at the juncture of the spine and the brain called the reticular activation system. One of its apparent functions is to act like a carpenter’s level (that little thing with the air bubble inside water that detects if a board is level or slanted). If our head is tilted down, the RAS responds by making us more dull and sleepy, but if our chin is level to the ground, the RAS wakes the brain up more. So, another useful adjustment to our posture that we can take to fight off sleepiness is to keep our chin lifted to be parallel to the ground and not let it drop.
An extended spine and level chin, of course, mutually support each other.
Sometimes when I’m sleepy in meditation, my mind just won’t work to be mindful. As I’m falling asleep, usually my posture slumps. There’s no energy in the system to hold myself upright. Then, the primary thing that I do is to focus on my posture, and sit up straight again, and then I try to be present. If I drift off, I sit up straight, and I stay there. It takes mindfulness and effort to keep good posture. It’s not like a great beautiful spiritual experience of floating on a cloud of joy or anything. It’s just like, “Gil, keep your back straight. Steady. Keep straight.” And I just keep doing it, coming back to that, and coming back again. Then, because I am doing that, at some point the energy in the system, the vitality, kicks back in, and then sleepiness and trying hard at my posture are not issues. I don’t have to make any effort anymore to hold myself upright. I’m there, and then my meditation changes. I’ve had that experience enough times that I just take it as part of the process. I don’t see it as a problem. “Yeah,that’s what’s happening now. I don’t have the energy or alertness, and I keep slumping. The best thing to do now for my meditation is just to concentrate on having good posture.” — Gil Fronsdal
DON’T MEDITATE RIGHT AFTER A MEAL
Digestion is hard work for our bodies, and, as we all know, if we have just eaten a large meal, much of our energy and blood flow heads downwards to our belly. This can often lead to feelings of lethargy and drowsiness, especially after eating a lot of carbohydrates or foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan. So, it is usually helpful to do our meditation practice some time other than the hour after eating. If this is not possible, it can helps to eat a lighter, cleaner meal before we practice.
Being hungry and having low blood sugar can also, however, dim our minds and make meditation difficult. So, when we are hungry, it can be helpful to have a light snack before meditating.
We also generally want to avoid high sugar foods for best meditation results, since the crash after an insulin blood-sugar spike can knock us out. Obviously, avoiding alcohol and other depressant chemicals before meditating will help to keep us awake and alert.
Staying hydrated – drinking enough water – is of course helpful for general health, and can also assist us to be at our best when meditating.
DON’T MEDITATE IN BED
Location plays a significant role in the quality of both our meditation and our sleep, and in determining the intersection of the two. One simple way to create more wakefulness in our meditation practice is not to mix up our meditation and sleep locations – don’t sleep where we meditate, and don’t mediate where we sleep.
We tend to develop mental associations with places. If we are consistent with what we do in a specific location, the stimulus of being there alone can evoke the state of consciousness of that activity. In general, when we go to our desk, we are more likely to be primed to work; when we used to go to Grandma’s house, we were more likely to drop right into acting extra polite; as soon as we walk into a restaurant, we’re likely to start to feel ready to eat.
One standard piece of general meditation practice advice is experimenting around your home until you find a corner or space that feels comfortable and conducive to your meditation practice. The suggestion is that you then install your cushion or chair in that spot and, as much as you can, do your training there. The idea is that you will come to associate that place with mindful openness, the same way an ancient temple or meditation hall can feel thick with calming vibes. Just sitting down there will help you to drop in and access deep meditation states more easily.
Needless to say, it is recommended that we refrain from ever intentionally sleeping in this meditation location, so as to do our best not to mix up the two. For the same reason, it is recommended that we do not meditate in bed or anywhere else where we regularly do our sleeping.
Some meditation teachers, including for example S.N. Goenka, assign students to practice a formal meditation technique in the period between climbing into bed and actually drifting off to sleep. And some people intentionally use meditation to get to sleep, since doing so can both help us to relax physically and take our minds off our worries, especially is using sleep-friendly techniques that focus on relaxation. Both of these effects obviously can increase the likelihood of us falling asleep sooner. And staying under the covers and keeping a meditation technique going during periods of insomnia might seem to be the perfect strategy – making productive use of the time that might otherwise feel wasted.
However, there are problems with doing all of that, and many recommend not doing so. Foremost among the adverse effects when we do is that our subconscious minds confuse meditation-time and sleep-time. Avoiding that is why my teacher Gil Fronsdal recommends meditating during periods of insomnia, but he also suggests getting up, turning on a light, getting out of bed, and going to our cushion or chair – and only turning off the light and lying back down after becoming drowsy.
Many people have issues around sleep. They may get sleepy when they want to be alert (i.e., during meditation practice), or they may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep when they want to (i.e., they have insomnia). Sadly, some people have both issues. — Shinzen Young
In general, one classic piece of advice for dealing with insomnia is, as much as possible, to associate bed with sleeping and not much else – don’t do work in bed, don’t read in bed, don’t watch TV from bed – as well as not meditating in bed.
One final note about location – if we keep feeling drowsy in our usual meditation spot, it may help at times to get out of the house to meditate at times. Being out in nature or in public may give us the energization we need to stay awake.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT TIME FOR MEDITATION
If you’re consistently feeling drowsy during your meditation, one suggestion is to change the time of day that you are sitting. Our bodies have their own individual natural cycles and rhythms, and it is helpful to schedule our meditation during one of the times of day when we are at our most awake, alert, and focused. We want to be working in harmony with our bodies, not fighting against them.
As I wrote in this post, a common traditional teaching is that the best time of day to engage in formal meditative practice is first thing in the morning, upon waking up from sleep, before the day gets going. I personally feel best about that as a time of day for meditating – I am usually relatively fresh, alert, and energized in the morning. Some other advantages to meditating first thing in the morning are that it clears out the grogginess and haze of the night and gets us clear for our day, it sets a context of awareness grounding and openness to the remainder of the day, and it ensures that we got our daily sitting out of the way early and don’t have to think about it from then on.
But, again, different people have different natural high energy points during the day, and not everyone is a morning person. In fact, many people find it best to meditate during the second most recommended time of day: the last thing at night right before sleeping, in the simplified reflective time when the challenges of another day on Earth wind down and slip away. Meditating then creates a momentum of unattached clarity going into the sleep state.
The third most common time for Westerns to meditate may be between the end of the workday and before dinner, as a means of releasing the entanglements of mind and energetic compulsions of the efforts of the day and transitioning to the more private time of the evening. The lunch hour may be the fourth most common time.
It might take some experimenting and trial and error to find what works best for you, but ultimately moving your meditation to a time of your day when you are more alert may help maintain wakefulness. As discussed above, again, it is also helpful to pick a time of day where you are likely not to be distracted by hunger, but also not be in a post-meal food coma either.
OPEN A WINDOW
One easy step to promote wakefulness in meditation is to open a window. This is because we can get drowsy from warm, still, and/or stuffy air, and can wake up by opening a window and cooling down the temperature, bringing in fresh oxygen, and creating a breeze.
If the sounds from the world outside are loud or distracting, it may work better to open a window for a while before meditating. Another helpful option is to step outside for some fresh air before our sitting.
STRETCH BEFORE MEDITATION
Some people recommend invigorating our body and mind before meditating by taking a walk or doing some stretching or yoga.
I recall that when I was living in the Tassajara monastery, every day I did ten minutes of energetic yoga before our challenging 4:20 am sitting period. Thankfully, that practice did indeed successfully perk me up. Unfortunately, however, the alertness uplift would usually fade after about half an hour, and I often then felt as sleepy as if I had not stretched.
Possibly the most common thing people all over the world do to wake themselves up when drowsy is, of course, to drink caffeine. Doing so is common among meditators, as well.
During the long retreats I did at the Tassajara monastery, the coffee/caffeinated tea area was always popular with my fellow monks, sometimes with a wait five people deep. One monk who always seemed to have a mug in her hands shocked me when she divulged that she usually drank ten to fifteen cups of coffee a day.
Drinking green tea has been a common practice in Zen monasteries for centuries. Some people recommend green tea as a caffeinated beverage of choice for meditators. Its supposed benefits including containing a relatively small amount of caffeine, a few other trace chemicals which stimulate the central nervous system, and the calming amino acid L-Theanine.
In general, though, I recommend against drinking caffeine to aid in meditation practice. The main reason is that a caffeine buzz may make us artificially optimistic and pleasantly elated, which goes against the positive effect of mindfulness that comes about when we fully open to the true, raw experience of being ourselves exactly as we are. It’s sort of like deciding that you are going to go for a jog but first calling your friend to drive over to pick you up and give you a ride over the running route – it defeats the point.
Another problem is that if we do not estimate accurately and over titrate the amount of caffeine that we ingest, it can lead to restless, anxious, and agitated jitters. A final reason is that a crash can often follow a caffeine high, so getting a buzz for meditation can be like riding on the back of a tiger – fun while it’s happening, but not so great when it comes to an end.
Bottom line, I suppose that getting a boost from a beverage now and then can at times be useful, as long as one does not make a habit out of it.
CHANGE YOUR MEDITATION TECHNIQUE TO SOMETHING THAT REQUIRES MORE TIGHT FOCUS
My favorite and most commonly done meditation technique is noticing and deeply feeling various body sensations. One of its many benefits for me is that it can be tranquilizing before bedtime. In general, I have found that that technique and other awareness practices like that that have a large, wide, broad, and open object of meditation work great late at night for tranquilizing, unraveling, and slowly relaxing into sleep. On the other hand, I find that when I want to stay awake, it is helpful to pick a technique that involves concentrating on an object that is narrow and constrained, like focusing awareness on the breath or a mantra and ignoring the rest of reality. It seems that meditation with a tight focus involves relatively more effort – working to being attention back again and again generally produces more energetic alertness.
One thing to be aware of is that the way you meditate may influence how wakeful you remain. Some techniques require a more active or focused approach. Other’s encourage you to adopt a passive or receptive stance. I find that techniques that require you to continually return your attention to some anchor, such as the breath, can help to stay awake. If you’re interested in exploring the sleepy end of the spectrum I would suggest that you let your thoughts and emotions be a part of your practice and don’t be concerned if your attention wanders a lot. — Matthew Young
A FEW FORCEFUL, DEEP, SLOW BREATHS
It’s not something that I’ve tried much, but quite a few meditation teachers seem to recommend taking some deep, controlled, and conscious breathing as a means of battling off drowsiness. Some recommend doing some from among family of technical Indian pranayama breathing practices. Some of these can be remarkably energizing, but can take specialized training to learn how to do correctly.
We can also do some more simple deep breathing practices. These can start with a deep inhalation through the nose, and then holding the inbreath as long as we can. We then breathe out slowly, forcefully, and completely through the mouth, perhaps through pursed the lips. Exhaling is a form of letting go, relaxing, and energy sinking. So, since we are trying to wake up, we instead emphasize the stimulating power of the inbreath and energy rising in the body. We repeat this exercise until sleepiness fades away.
Like standing up, we can do deep breathing before meditating if we know we will be sleepy, or once into a session when sleepiness unexpectedly hits. In my experience, it has successfully worked to wake me up, but usually only for a little while before drowsiness returns.
A REGULARLY CHIMING BELL SOUND
I once saw a recommendation to set up one’s phone or computer to play a bell sound every few minutes, so that the chime sound will bring us back awake if we doze off. I’ve never tried this, but it seems like a useful idea.
My teacher Reb Anderson has suggested that people studying with him use our Zen mudra (hand posture) as a tool to help us to stay awake when meditating. The idea is, if our hands collapse as a result of dozing off, it will alert us to wake up. This advice has never made much sense to me, however, since when I have fallen asleep on a meditation cushion, I have usually lost awareness of the positioning of my hands, as well as everything else.
SPLASH COLD WATER
Some people recommend splashing cold water on one’s face or inserting the face into a sink filled with cold water for thirty seconds as a way of waking up. I personally don’t like smacking or shocking my face – it feels disrespectful to myself – so this is not the technique for me. I feel similarly to suggestions to bite, pinch, or slap oneself in order to perk up.
I have also seen a recommendation to take a cold shower before meditating as a method of blowing away drowsiness. This is probably effective, but it seems to me like trying to regularly add a preliminary cold shower to most people’s meditation routine will probably only make it more likely that they will procrastinate and avoid doing either.
FINDING A MIDDLE WAY
All of these techniques work by stimulating our nervous systems into greater alertness. And you can tell that they’ve been successful if you can remain alert without sinking back into drowsiness. If your eyelids get heavy again, though, it may be helpful to try some of the other enlivening techniques on the list.
As mentioned above, what we seek in mindfulness meditation is a simultaneous combination of both energized focused alertness and calm, peaceful relaxation. Our minds can go too far in either direction, and we seek a middle way between the extremes. There is a famous ancient story where the Buddha explained that a meditative mind is like a string on a musical instrument – to get it tuned most usefully, we want it not too slack and loose, but not too tight either.
So, it is also helpful to not to do much of these energizing techniques when they are not needed, as they can take a normal state of mind and amplify it into being overly simulated, speedy, and agitated. If we do find ourselves too wound up, there are steps that we can take to chill out and calm back down. In some cases, these calming antidotes are the opposite of those in the enlivening list above – for example, to close the eyes or turn down the lights in the room, to slow down labeling and lessen its energy, or to take deep breaths but emphasize the letting go factor of the exhalation.
Some people think meditation is about becoming calm, and so they use meditation to soothe themselves and get calm. It’s not a bad thing to do. But if that’s all that they think meditation is, at some point, it can get overdone. A person can get too calm and relaxed, and they can soothe themselves right to sleep. They can feel “It’s all OK”, get complacent, and stop making an effort.
When you’re sleepy in meditation, it’s often useful to bring more energy into the system. Sleepiness can mean there’s an imbalance within us, an imbalance between effort and calm. But if you have too much effort and energy, then you might get agitated. So, it’s important to have the right balance of calm relaxation and energetic effort. You don’t want too much of either.— Gil Fronsdal
DROWSINESS AS A MENTAL PHENOMENON
One of the classic ancient teachings in the mindfulness tradition lists five common unhealthy mental factors that all of us have. These negative energies of the mind block us from having a clear, concentrated, and balanced meditative mind, and they also sabotage happiness in daily life. When they are active, these five factors mix in with our consciousness and affect everything we are aware of in a distorted way.
Four of the blockages that are relatively less important to this post are:
- Grabbing onto and getting lost in pleasant thoughts and experiences
- Getting negative, avoidant, and hateful with unpleasant thoughts and experiences
- Spinning around with worry, restlessness, and anxiety
- Doubting the value of, losing enthusiasm for, and lacking conviction about the spiritual path in general and meditation in specific
The remaining mental factor – the one that is relevant to this discussion – consists of a family of related phenomena, ranging in degree from subtle fuzziness all the way to a strong pull into a deep sleep. It has a name in many Asian languages, and is translated into English as “sinking”, “dullness”, “drowsiness”, “heaviness”, ”depression”, “lethargy”, “torpor”, “sloth”, “sluggishness”, and “sleepiness”. From here on, I’ll call it “mental dullness”.
So far, this post has discussed dealing with sleepiness mostly in terms of physical factors – physical energy levels, posture, light levels, temperature, and nervous system arousal level. Mental dullness, while often mutually co-created with physical tiredness, is however something different. And when we deal with sleepiness in meditation, we also almost always have to work with mental dullness – the emotional, psychological, and spiritual side of tiredness.
Some of the manifestations of mental dullness are:
- A lack of energy or vigor
- A feeling of being caught in mental quicksand
- Feeling unmotivated to engage in meditation or any other positive activity, or dropping out altogether
- Feeling the mind to draw inward and feeling the external senses grow faint
- Drooping, feeling smothered, feeling things slipping away, physical feelings of heaviness, weakness, tiredness, and mental darkness
Here are two famous mindfulness teachers talking about this mental factor [with some slight edits for clarity]:
Mental dullness comes in various grades and intensities, ranging from slight drowsiness to total torpor. We are talking about a mental state here, not a physical one. Sleepiness or physical fatigue is quite different from mental dullness and, in the mindfulness system of classification, would be categorized as a physical feeling. Dullness, on the other hand, is one of the mind’s clever little ways of avoiding those issues it finds unpleasant. It is a sort of turn-off of the mental apparatus, a deadening of sensory and cognitive acuity, an enforced stupidity pretending to be sleep.
This can be a tough one to deal with, because its presence is directly contrary to and nearly the reverse of mindfulness. You have got to get it right at its beginning and apply large doses of pure awareness right away. If you let it get a start, its growth probably will outpace your mindfulness power. When dullness wins, the result is the sinking mind and/or sleep. — Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Mental dullness in meditation comes in many different degrees, from subtler forms like feeling a bit “spaced out” to strong dullness such as drowsiness. Just like distractedness, dullness is another form of scattered attention. But while distractedness scatters attention to other objects of awareness, dullness scatters attention to a void in which nothing is perceived at all. If you’re well-rested and have taken other factors into account, but still find yourself getting drowsy, you’ll know you’re dealing with mental dullness.
If you are experiencing a comfortable state where you can still follow your meditation object, though, without the same intensity or vividness or clarity as before, this is called “subtle dullness”. It often eventually leads to strong dullness, in which attention still tracks the object of meditation, but the focus is weak and diffuse, and the object is vaguely perceived. The drowsiness that precedes falling asleep feels like trying to see through dense fog. The object of meditation often becomes distorted, transformed by dreamlike imagery, and nonsensical thoughts start drifting through the mind. Eventually, you do fall asleep.
Try to keep track of your alertness level while you meditate. Do sudden sounds startle you? Do you feel groggy and dazed when you open your eyes and take a look around? Those are early signs of dullness. When you notice those, set an intention to maximize the clarity of your meditation. At some point during your sit, usually after many interventions, dullness may even disappear entirely. When this happens, you’ll notice your mind feels light and alert.— Culadasa
We sometimes get drowsy not because we are underslept or for any other physical reason, but because we are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually uncomfortable, overwhelmed, and unwilling to tolerate our current experience.
If sleepiness during meditation is a regular, ongoing thing, we can see it as a form of resistance, or a reaction to something. Boredom, aversion, and fear can all lead to sleepiness. The subconscious says, “I don’t want to deal with this. I don’t want to look at this.” Being overly stimulated by our inner landscape can cause people to fall asleep. It’s like little babies who fall asleep if they are overstimulated. Put them in a very loud environment, and they will fall asleep. You see it in meditators sometimes when they have strong emotional releases or repressed memories suddenly coming up. It can be too much for the psyche to handle, and they just fall asleep. Sometimes turning around, looking at the sleepiness, and asking, “What am I avoiding here?” might reveal what you are avoiding. You see, “Oh! This is what I’m avoiding!” And then you might actually turn and look at it directly, rather than avoiding it. — Gil Fronsdal
I remember one day, thirty years ago, when I had a first hand lesson about the mental factor of dullness. I had been awake and alert all day just fine, and was during the first half of a therapy appointment too. But once the therapist and I started talking about something especially challenging and uncomfortable, suddenly I couldn’t keep my eyes open. And a few months later, I again noticed myself awake and alert all day until a coworker was trying to teach me some complicated computer programming concepts. At that point, the pull of dozing off was, to my embarrassment, hard to resist. In both cases, once the uncomfortable challenge was over, I was alert again for the rest of the day.
WORKING WITH THE MENTAL SIDE OF SLEEPINESS
The mental factor of mental dullness usually arises because there is something about our experience that we do not feel able to tolerate. So, one antidote to dullness is finding ways to make “being ourselves” more of a comfortable and tolerable experience.
To help us to be less sleepy in meditation, it can be helpful to work in our everyday life and make it more of an enjoyable experience to be ourselves. There is a saying, “There is one way to lose – stay in a situation you don’t like. There are two ways to win – change the situation, or accept it the way it is”. We can feel more comfortable in our own skin by making changes and taking steps to feel on top of things – handling whatever we need to, putting in the work that life requires, going to therapy or support groups, setting boundaries with people, and stopping addictions. Another possible step is to be more accepting – to bring more spacious, open, and friendly mindful awareness to our daily actions such as eating, folding laundry, walking, driving, chores, being on computers, and interacting with others.
During actual meditation sessions, our practice can bring uncomfortable energies to the surface as it helps us to release old patterns, and these hard-to-tolerate feelings can be challenging such that some people fall asleep to avoid them. We can lessen the degree to which experiences like this are confronting by easing up. When meditation feels intolerable, it may be helpful to try changing techniques to find one that may feel less confronting, and/or to reduce the length of our meditation sessions and slowly work our way back up as things get more easeful.
In the end, though, what we want out of our meditation practice is to fully face and open to who we are, exactly as we are. So, the best course is often to keep sitting and work through whatever it is that creates discomfort for us. And the way to do that with ease is to intentionally bring more mindful acceptance, patience, welcoming, and friendliness to whatever it is that we are aware of.
MINDFULLY EXPERIENCING THE UNPLEASANT SENSATIONS OF SLEEPINESS
Often the best spiritual way to work specifically with the physical, emotional, and psychological experiences of both physical sleepiness and mental dullness is to accept, turn towards, open to, and make friends with them. We can to become an expert in what sleepy and drowsy sensations are all about, making contact with them, and noticing what is happening where, when, and how. It is helpful to fully, deeply, and lovingly feel the heaviness in eyelids and/or over the whole body, experience the tension over cheeks, chest, neck, and shoulders, notice evaluative thoughts like “this should not be”, and focus on the mental screen where short-duration dreams are taking place. We can warm-heartedly investigate the state of drowsiness as it arises, get curious about how it develops, become aware of its extent, notice how long it lasts, explore the effectiveness of different antidotes that we try, and clearly see what happens as it passes away.
In mindfulness practice, we don’t do anything about sleepiness, but rather we turn our attention around, and make it the focal point of attention. What is it like to be sleepy? What happens around your eyes? Your cheeks? What kind of fog brain do you have? Energetically, what’s going on? What’s happening to your posture? What kind of thinking do you have? Explore the whole phenomenon of sleepiness. Be mindful of it. Sometimes when you bring mindfulness to sleepiness, you wake up and get clear. And even if you don’t wake more up, you are at least learning something.— Gil Fronsdal
There’s no way around it, it is often unpleasant and painful to try to stay awake when drowsiness is pulling us towards sleep. Much of the miserable fatigue from tiredness comes from fighting its objective sensations, which leaves us even more tired. And we often have all sorts of baggage and negative reactivity around being sleepy, much of it first formed from a young age.
Like with any other painful experience in life, though, the more we fully and mindfully experience them exactly as they are, the more spaciousness and ease we eventually develop with them. As the classic saying goes, “Pain is inevitable in life, but suffering is optional.”
With regards to the unpleasant sensory side of the experience of sleepiness, try to accept the uncomfortable sensations in the body: greet them and infuse them with concentration and focus, vivid clear awareness, and spacious open equanimity until they break up into flowing energy, cause less suffering, and liberate. Maybe you have already experienced physical pain or an itch breaking up into flow when experienced with mindfulness. It’s hard to believe, but the same thing can happen with uncomfortable sleepy sensations. You can “watch them to death.” At that point, they simply turn into a kind of energy that circulates around your body, inflating you with vitality.— Shinzen Young
I remember years ago listen to an audio recording of a talk by the self-help/spiritual teacher Wayne Dyer. It was recorded while he was giving a keynote address at a personal growth conference. As he spoke, he revealed that he had stayed up late the night before talking with the many people who had wanted his attention and advice. He said that when other people heard that he had only slept three or four hours before his big talk, they said something like, “Oh Wayne, that’s terrible. You must be so tired. You should have turned those selfish people away so that you could take care of yourself and be ready for your talk.”
He replied, however, “I’m glad I talked to those people last night. Helping people is what I’m here for, and those connections were magical. Yes, today, I notice some heaviness in my eyelids and in my body, and I notice my mind is slower than usual. But to give a label of ‘exhaustion’ to those phenomena and to say ‘something is wrong’ or ‘something about this should not be’ is a choice, and it’s a choice I am not making. It just is what it is, no better or worse than anything else.”
Late at night on retreats, sitting up late, my meditation sometimes hasn’t been the best – my mind has been wandering and I’ve been drowsy. I used to get judgmental of myself, treating it as a terrible thing, and thinking that I was a terrible person. It can be a problem if you have an idea that your meditation is always supposed to be pristinely clear and alert. A better idea is that we can practice the best effort we have available with what’s happening in the moment, which might be that learning to be patient and equanimous about being sleepy. I’ve had to learn that lesson – eventually I learned, ‘I’m just sleepy. That’s all. When I sit there late at night, my mind wanders, I’m not so present, and my meditation hasn’t been working as well as it was earlier in the day. But it’s not a problem; it’s just what it is. I will try to be mindful and present for it the best I can.’ I have became more relaxed about it. Even when the best available effort hasn’t looked so good, it has still been the best effort available. That’s what counts–not that you have to always be perfectly awake and clear. — Gil Fronsdal
As difficult and painful as they can be to sit with and open to, learning how to be comfortable staying awake and fully feeling the uncomfortable sensations of sleepiness is actually excellent training for the rest of our life. Drowsy sensations are milder than what many of the most challenging things that we may face in the rest of our lives, events like dislocating a shoulder, being fired, divorce, serious illness, or the death of a loved one. Being open and untangled with exhaustion helps us have a more spacious mindful experience when more serious horrible events happen. Sitting with sleepiness is like a vaccination – it’s a manageable dose of a serious disease that helps our body learn how to deal with it, so we can less fear exposure to the full force.
MINDFULLY EXPERIENCING THE PLEASANT SENSATIONS OF SLEEPINESS
It is also helpful to have a full, mindful experience of the pleasant side of sleepiness. We can feel the waves of drowsiness as an invitation to feel peace and restfulness in our bodies. Sleepiness can make it easier to get deep and to feel mystical, enjoying the lessened pull of the thinking mind. As long as we can stay awake and aware, with our spine upright, chin up, and eyes open, we can surrender to the relaxation of the subjective, internal aspects and enjoy riding the waves of rest. Some of the most beneficial and even pleasant meditative states can be accessed on the cusp of sleep.
Some of the pleasant aspects of sleepiness are the restful states that come with it – peaceful visual blankness, tranquil silence in hearing, and especially bodily, muscular relaxation. Try to notice that sleepiness comes in waves. Each wave of drowsiness carries two things:
- a wave of unconsciousness which we should resist, and
- a wave of restfulness which we can simply detect and enjoy.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Try to notice that at the onset of each wave of sleepiness, there is a tendency for the whole body to relax – that’s why people lurch. But if you tangibly detect that relaxation with an upright spine, you won’t lurch—you’ll just drop a notch into more profound repose. So each new wave of sleepiness becomes a new wave of settledness. Wave by wave, second by second, you drop deeper and deeper. It’s attentional jujitsu. Detecting the pleasure of sleepiness clearly and enjoying it without craving allows you to re-engineer the experience of sleepiness into the experience of a deeply peaceful and concentrated mind.
Finding, opening to, and enjoying the pleasant aspects of drowsiness when meditating is excellent training towards having the more subtle but agreeable sides of all sorts of other life experiences.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist teaching that the way to get free about any human experience is to both clearly perceive and experience both its unpleasant aspects and its pleasant aspects. One place where this is true is sleepiness and drowsiness during meditation.
SUBJECTIVE MINDFULNESS LEADS TO POSITIVE OBJECTIVE PHYSICAL CHANGES
During the ninety-day retreats I did at the Tassajara Zen monastery, I usually slept six hours every night, often did not get enough food to be satiated, and often spent much of the day in air that was somewhere between chilly and freezing. So, I spent much of my time there sleepy, hungry, and cold. During my first time there, when I told some of the senior priests about my uncomfortable states, however, rather than try to let me sleep more, give me more food, or allow me to be in a warm room, they would simply instruct me to fully and mindfully open to my current experience as it was.
And what I found is, the more that I was mindful, accepting, and open with feeling sleepy, hungry, and cold, the less I felt those things. The less I fought with my experience and with reality, the less energy I was wasting, the more my mental and physical mechanisms ran cleaner and more efficiently – and the less sleep, calories, and comfort I needed. To my surprise, I found that my skillfulness with my subjective experiences made positive changes in my objective needs.
An even more extreme experience of that for me was during at the Bodhimanda monastery during the most intensely mystical, “spiritual”, “enlightened” experience of my life, where I was fully awake and alert on two to four hours of sleep for a week straight. But it was such a profound experience that it is difficult to put into words how my subjective spiritual openness there lead to such an unusual objective physical transformation. Even more far out, I have heard reputable stories of meditation masters who have apparently aligned and integrated themselves that they have mostly transcended the need ever to sleep, and remain fit and healthy through it all. Not something for most of us to emulate, but it can serve as an inspiration to open to and fully experience our sensations of sleepiness.
STRANGE ANCIENT RECOMMENDATIONS
Traditional ancient meditation manuals, and modern teachers who teach in their lineage, sometimes have suggestions for handling drowsiness and increasing wakefulness that seems relatively convoluted and ineffectual to me. Among their instructions:
- visualize a blindingly bright light
- imagine yourself being a blindingly bright light
- visualize yourself sitting at the edge of a pit, where, if you nod off, you will fall in
- visualize yourself sitting on top of a pillar or pole, where, if you nod off, you will fall off
- ponder how precious it is to be born a human
- ponder how great it is to meditate
- visualize a Buddha and contemplate his wonderful qualities
- ponder on the preciousness of human life
- “Imagine your mind enclosed within a tiny seed in the central channel at the level of your navel … imagine that the seed shoots up the central channel and out the crown of your head. The seed opens, and your mind merges with vast, empty space. Concentrate on this experience for a while, and then return to your meditation.” (from this book)
I am listing those suggestions in case someone reading this finds them useful. And, although I have not tried them much, I can imagine that they might work and might be spiritually healthy. But, in general, to me, they all seem strange and impractical. They seem to me like suspending our mindfulness meditation – our encounter with what actually is – to imagine a fantasy or to think a bunch. We’re stopping getting the value of our meditation so that we make sure to stay awake to be sure to get the value of meditation – like selling a home to raise the money to try to pay the mortgage on the home that was just sold.
GET MORE SLEEP
I am tickled that one ancient meditation manual, after going through a list of convoluted recommended sleepiness antidotes like those, had one final one suggestion at the end. In an ancient Indian language, at the end of the scripture, it said something like, “If none of those other wake-up techniques work for you, go take a nap, Dummy.”
The Dalai Lama himself has said that “sleep is the best meditation”. My teacher Gil Fronsdal, someone who has dedicated his life to encouraging people’s meditation practice, has observed that “we are a sleep-deprived culture, and many people need to sleep more than they need to meditate”.
If we are not getting enough sleep at night or are exhausted by hard work or illness, it is understandable that we will be sleepy during meditation. Our bodies and minds have a simple biological need for sleep that is generally built into being human. For almost all of us, we need a certain amount of sleep each night, often eight hours, to stay healthy and awake.
I wrote earlier about monks on retreat staying alert meditating sixteen hours a day while sleeping just two hours a night. But just because a top powerlifter can bench press 1,000 pounds – just because a human body is capable of doing such a thing – does not mean that an untrained person can do so or could even try without hurting themselves. Like extreme weight lifting, it’s not something ordinary people should compare themselves against and feel upset about not being able to do, and probably not a useful goal for most people to try for in light of their other life priorities.
In general, it’s helpful for us to consider getting a good night’s rest – sleep in good quality and enough quantity – as an important part of our meditation practice. There may be times when taking a nap before meditating (or instead of meditating) may overall be the best thing for our meditation practice.
SLEEPING DURING A MEDITATION PERIOD
I also consider it an open question if just letting oneself fall asleep during a meditation period is necessarily a “bad” thing, or if it is something that we can consider OK. It’s something I certainly have done enough in my life; I seem to be “blessed” with a capacity to sleep forty minutes straight during a formal meditation period – from right after the starting bell goes until the ending bell – while sitting bolt upright and still in half-lotus posture while surrounded by a room full of other meditators. My upright sleeping posture is in contrast with that of my teacher Paul Haller, the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, who, while practicing as a young man at Tassajara monastery in the early seventies, was apparently so flexible that he would spend some entire meditation periods fast asleep and cross-legged but bent neatly at the waist, such that his shoulders rested on his knees and his forehead rested on the dais in front of him.
There have indeed been many situations where I have fallen asleep while trying to meditate and have later regretted doing so; I have felt like I was not in integrity with my spiritual aspirations and had missed out on an opportunity to gain the benefits of meditation. But there have also been other times when I have felt fine about having asleep. The nap had felt refreshing and delicious. At times, I have even felt like I gotten much of the benefit of meditation even while sleeping.
The great enlightened teacher Sri Ramana Maharshi once said, “If you slip into sleep while meditating, the meditation will continue even during and after sleep”. My friend Kokyo Henkle, abbot of the Santa Cruz Zen Center, put it more poetically: “The night train takes you along to your destination, even as you are sleeping in your bunk”.
Falling asleep in meditation is permissible. If our practice has broken down some of the defenses we have built up to protect us from an ongoing state of tiredness interfering with our daily lives, then we will feel tired. We feel tired because we need to rest and sleep. So, sleep. Don’t fight with your condition, nurture it, and you will nourish and heal yourself. After a while, your practice will break down the defenses, while at the same time teaching you to be more relaxed and sensitive to yourself in the way that you live your life. You will then be able to stay more awake and alert during meditation.— Godfrey Devereux
Will forcing yourself to stay awake really help? Is that the kind of attitude that’s beneficial? Taking a cold shower, visualizing bright lights and emphasizing the in-breath may help to keep you awake, but at what cost? These strategies might just reinforce the habits and attitudes that lead to stress, overwhelm and burnout.
In my experience, more than denial, force, or willpower, what helps is learning to listen to and respect the needs of your body. If you are legitimately tired and underslept, sometimes it is wiser and kinder to acknowledge the need for rest, and to let your meditation be nap-like and drowsy. If, instead of fighting to stay awake, you do permit yourself to rest, you may find that you emerge feeling unusually rested, refreshed, and joyous, and that your energy returns sooner. — Matthew Young
In general, sleep within the container of a formal meditation period also often has a different feeling than it does otherwise; for example, dreams often feel more vivid and emotionally deep. Many of the mindfulness meditation lineages recommend ignoring the pull of such experiences and doing our best to stay awake and focused on the breath, body, or whatever else is our meditation object. But there are other lineages of religious practice – say, Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, or traditional shamanism – that value, explore, and intentionally cultivate the intense trippy trance-like experience that happens in drowsy meditative half-wakefulness – dream imagery, bliss sensations, archetypal visionary or paranormal experiences, “brilliant” insights and creative ideas, memories or emotions that float up in order to be released, other material that’s usually locked away in the subconscious, and an overall feeling that something profound is occurring.
To be honest, although it goes against some of the advice that I have given earlier in this post, something that I have sometimes done when I have known that I have been underslept and have been avoiding my daily meditation is to lie down and say to my body and mind, “OK, let’s see which I need more, sleep or meditation”. If I have stayed awake, I have continued my meditation technique for the time that I had intended. And but if I had fallen asleep, what I have usually done after waking up is to sit upright and done my allotted meditation practice then, with a more clear mind. Mixing up meditation and sleep like that is not something that I would do when on retreat or living in a monastery, because of the intensity of practice, purity of mind, and holy intention that I have when there. But, in everyday life, with all of its messiness, contradictions, and fatigues, that imperfect action has often seemed like the best choice.
PERSISTENCE OF EFFORT
As a general rule, however, I recommend usually using the techniques listed in this post to do our best to stay awake during our meditation periods. As this post has listed, there are a whole host of useful, healthy techniques that we can try to prevent falling asleep or drowsiness during meditation.
It is normal to find sleepiness during meditation times a difficult, reoccurring, confusing, and sometimes painful challenge. But it is not helpful to give up. Saying, “I can’t meditate because I’m sleepy” is like saying, “I can’t go for a run because there is a hill”. It is also not helpful to be hard on yourself or beat yourself up for having the challenge or not dealing with it perfectly. Again, the problem of sleepiness is a common one and is not something that we can overcome in one day. We can congratulate ourselves for having the courage to face it and take on a healthy but difficult challenge. And we can eventually even learn to welcome the presence of drowsiness as an opportunity to work with it and strengthen our practice.
In general, like so much of meditation practice, turning a drooping mind into bright mindful alertness takes intention, motivation, persistence, effort, energy, dedication, time, patience, practice, willpower, and experimentation. If we are willing to cultivate them, eventually it is a challenge that we can overcome.