Many people report falling asleep while meditating or practicing mindfulness, but there are worse problems to have.
Sleep is very important, and it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of life. Research suggests that getting quality sleep on a regular basis helps sharpen the brain, as well as improving your mood and strengthening your heart. It helps us exercise better, steady our blood sugar, fight infection and control our weight.
But even medical research implies that sleeping more than nine hours a night may do more harm than good. So it can be interesting to learn that historically, Buddhism suggests that we limit our sleep, but why?
Edward Conze’s 1959 translation of Buddhist Scriptures states:
“For what wise man would not regret sleeping away his life uselessly? In fact, a wise man, who wants to be saved from great danger, would not want to go to sleep while ignoring his faults, which are like vicious snakes that have crept into a house. Who would think of lying down to sleep(?)”
One of the central tenets of Buddhism is detachment. And while it is still recommended that we enjoy our lives, comfort and bliss can be as much a barrier to detachment as agony and sorrow. Sleep becomes one of the most interesting attachments to look at, because it is necessary for our well-being.
I don’t know if forgoing sleep and worrying for our souls instead is the right thing to do, but we can all learn a lot from the historical teachings on sleep.
Don’t be fond of sleeping
The Buddha told his lay disciples that sleeping after daybreak and being up all night would have a negative impact on their lives. He also realized that, because monks and nuns do not have to work and have ample free time, they can all too easily slip into the habit of sleeping rather than meditating or studying. Hence, we have his frequent reminder to them that they should not be “fond of sleeping.”
While the Buddha cautions against sleep for all, the rules are particularly strict for monks. He says that monks should sleep four to six hours a night. He instructs them to spend the first and last third of the night in the ‘strenuous activity’ of meditation. Monks are supposed to “repeat long passages from the Scriptures which (they) know by heart… In order to keep awake all the time.”
Since ancient times, it has been suggested that being drowsy after a big meal is a common problem for meditators. And this certainly is something that happens to me.
A Taiwanese doctor of Chinese medicine told me that if you fall asleep around 8 or 9 p.m. and wake up at 2 or 3 a.m., you will feel smarter and more productive. I have never been disciplined enough to try this, but I find it fascinating. And it is a routine I would one day like to try. The Buddha himself was said to take an afternoon nap, but most likely only in his old age.
4 tips to help you stay awake
“Fear, zest, and grief keep sleepiness away; therefore cultivate these three when you feel drowsy. Fear is best fostered by the thought of death coming upon you, zest by thinking of the blessings of the Dharma, and grief by dwelling on the boundless ills which result from birth.”
“Fear is best fostered by the thought of death coming upon you.”
It is interesting to me that cultivating negative emotions could be useful. Before coming across this passage, I never thought of fear as a tool. But if we do not fear fear, then we can make use of it. To cultivate fear, we must dwell and ruminate on what is bothering us. Instead of using mindfulness to subdue this, we must give in to these deep concerns.
In a way, all fears are the fear of death. We fear that people do not like us. We fear we will not get promoted or get enough money. We fear the same for the people around us. If people stop loving us, or we can’t take care of ourselves and others, we will die. Our fears of failure are directly connected to our fear of death.
If you are falling asleep during meditation, remind yourself specifically what you are afraid of, and then work through it.
“Zest by thinking of the blessings of the Dharma.”
On the flip side, there is much in life to be excited about. These good things are the blessings of the Dharma. Remember the good in life or believe things can get better.
For me, some of my happiest memories are meals with my whole family, talking and enjoying great food. There are many things to feel grateful for, and this enthusiasm can help us stay awake. It is also an enthusiasm for our inner life, the idea that we get to cultivate ourselves and become better and more mindful people. There is beauty in that.
“And grief by dwelling on the boundless ills which result from birth.”
While fear is more future-oriented, grief is about the past. We think about all the things that have gone wrong—the things that may have motivated you to take a mindfulness practice seriously. The scriptures say that thinking of the bad times can help keep you alert and awake.
All of us have struggled to get to sleep because we are remembering some dumb thing we did last week or last year. Once you are in your meditation session, the goal is to calm down, but grief can jolt us to stay up.
Splash your face with water
“Wet your face with water, look round in all directions and fix your eyes on the stars […] In the third watch you should get up, and, either walking or sitting, with a pure mind and well-guarded senses, continue your practice of [meditation]. Full awareness of the postures, etc.”
This advice seems to be the most obvious. Often, when I am tired, I wet a towel and wipe my face, or drink a big glass of water. Both are good for opening the pores and sinuses and helping you feel more focused. All of us have felt more alert after a shower.
Similarly, awareness of your posture is important. Slouching makes it much easier to doze off and feel tired. Straightening your back really can help, as can getting up and walking back and forth. Even a little motion can help us stay awake. Don’t feel fully locked into sitting down, just because you have decided to meditate.
“If having done this the drowsiness does not go you should pull both ear lobes and rub your limbs with your hands.”
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