“Is it OK to fall asleep when I meditate?” I get this question a lot, and the answer is… yes, and no.
In some respects, the fact that you fall asleep is good because you obviously need the rest. If you feel that you are dozing off and you’ve been lacking sleep, go for it. Sleep is important and if you’re mindful of the times of day you meditate (at higher energy times) and you’re still falling asleep, you’re in sleep debt and it’s good to catch up. BUT… don’t call it meditation. Call it a nap.
Meditation and sleep are closely related – sometimes too closely.
There are three states of consciousness: sleep (subconscious); alert (waking consciousness) and meditation (superconsciousness). They are not exactly linear, as one might imagine. Meditation and sleep – at the opposite ends of the consciousness spectrum – share some common characteristics including no awareness of sensory input, no physical movement, and little or no mental activity (unless you’re in the dreaming state of sleep).
The interesting difference is that when you go to sleep, there’s a decrease in energy and yet when you enter the superconscious state, there’s actually an increase in energy through intense concentration. So when you start to feel the decrease in energy (drowsiness), there are some things you can do right away:
- Intensify your focus and concentration…
- Or give in and go to sleep
To prevent drowsiness, you can:
Decrease the temperature where you’re meditating.
Listen to your body’s natural rhythms and meditate when your energy is up; if you routinely fall asleep, avoid meditating just before bed when you’re naturally sleepier anyway. Instead, try meditating first thing in the morning.
Exercise before you meditate, preferably outdoors.
Sit by an open window and let the breeze in.
Meditate on a meditation cushion or chair, instead of your bed (which your brain associates with sleep).
Avoid eating a large meal before meditation – eat only enough to prevent hunger pangs.
Drink a small amount of water before meditating, so you’re not thirsty but don’t have to go to the bathroom, either.
Try chanting a mantra out loud.
Do moving meditation such as yoga, tai chi or walking.
Meditate in small increments throughout your day. A 10-15 minute meditation will go by quickly and you’ll be less likely to doze off than if you were to meditate for 30 minutes. This can include various mindfulness practices like mindful eating, brushing your teeth, household chores, etc.
Holding a smile for more than a few seconds requires focus, and gives you something physical that you can feel, to focus on.
To intensify your focus and concentration, one tip is to make what you’re doing “louder”. If you’re doing breath meditation, breathe a little louder than normal. Squeeze your eyes shut a couple of times if you meditate with your eyes open, instead of blinking normally. Tense one muscle group at a time, and use that as a point of focus.
Enjoy this story about sleeping during meditation:
Once there was an old Zen monk who constantly fell asleep during meditation. He would sleep so soundly that nobody could wake him up, so the Master suggested he meditate at the riverbank where the sound of the water and the cooler air could help him stay awake.
The old monk sat down at the riverbank to meditate, but was quickly lulled to sleep by the sounds of water, chirping birds and the gentle breeze through the leaves. But instead of remaining upright, he fell into the river. He was in such a deep slumber that he didn’t wake up… just bobbed along on his back, snoring and floating downstream with the current.
Some younger monks happened by, and burst into laughter upon seeing the old monk floating downstream, still fast asleep. They decided he should stay in the river and wake up soaking wet – maybe that would teach him not to fall asleep during meditation! They told the story to the Master, still laughing.
The Master said, “The old sleeping monk will soon discover that first there is a river, then there is no river, then finally it is again a river! If only you fools had learned this by now!”
The monks bowed deeply. “We see now that laughing at the old monk’s problem was unkind. Thank you for the lesson.”
“No, you fools,” the Master said. “What I mean is, there’s a waterfall downstream. Go fish the old monk out before he goes over it!”
Every meditator falls asleep at some time and its normal – don’t beat yourself up for this but don’t class it as your meditation either.
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