April 18, 2011

Advice for Dealing with Sleepiness in Meditation

Sharon Salzberg, from the third talk, "The Five Hindrances: Sleepiness and Restlessness," of her Tricycle Retreat:

Sleepiness and Sluggishness, classically known as Sloth and Torpor, can be very big habits in our lives. Sometimes in meditation we get sleepy just because we're really tired and it's only when we stop, sit down, and begin to focus that we feel the incredible fatigue that we've been carrying without knowing it. Sometimes we get sleepy in our practice because we're becoming tranquil, calm, and peaceful but there isn't quite enough energy in our system to balance that out.

Sometimes we go into a state that is classically known as "Sinking Mind." I call it "the ooze." You just kind of ooze along. It's very peaceful and nice but there is not a lot of clarity in it. What we want then is not to lose the tranquility, but pick up the energy. Sometimes we get sleepy in practice and go into a very sluggish state because it's a habit of avoidance: something difficult is starting to pop up like a physical sensation or an emotional state and we recoil into a cocoon so that we don't have to face it. Sometimes we get sleepy in practice because our aim is off—we're not focusing, for example, on just this one breath, but on this breath and the next fifty and our attention is too spread out, too diffuse.  We need to sharpen. We need to coalesce. There are many more reasons as well.

What we do when strong sleepiness arises is not so much to try and analyze the cause, but to, first of all, not declare sleepiness the enemy, not hate ourselves for it, but apply all those same tools of mindfulness and compassionate awareness to the very feeling of sleepiness. What is it? How does it feel in your body? How does it feel in your mind? What are the layers? Is there hostility? Is there boredom? Then, because sleepiness is so seductive and can overcome us so quickly we try to bring some balance into our practice through raising energy. Sometimes it's very simple, we can open our eyes. Sometimes you might decide to stand up and do standing or walking meditation instead. We work with the aim— you might say to ourselves, "just this one breath. That's all. Just this one." And then again, and again. If you see in the moment that there is something you are avoiding, you can remind yourself that you have the tools, skills, and strength to actually open to it. One of the ways sleepiness is described in the Buddhist texts is "a lack of courage." This doesn't refer to ordinary sleepiness but to recoiling, these efforts to be in a cocoon of numbness.  When we see this we can remind ourselves that we have all we need this this moment's awareness, and that's all that we need.

There's a very amusing list in the Buddha's teaching of ways to deal with sleepiness, which includes everything that I mentioned here, and the last thing on the list is "take a nap." I've always appreciated this—both that it is on the list, and that it's not the first thing on the list. The case may be that you just need more rest, and that's fine too.

To take part in this retreat, please become a Tricycle Community Supporting or Sustaining Member.

 

Sharon Salzberg's new book Real Happiness is available to Tricycle Community members for the month of April with a 20% discount, free shipping in the US, and free e-book for instant download.

Image: Ganjin (Positive) by Mike + Doug Starn. Available in the Tricycle Gallery

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Dominic Gomez's picture

Legend has it that Bodhidharma solved such problems with the monks of Shaolin Temple by teaching them certain kinds of stretching excercises. In time these were developed by succeeding generations of monks into kung fu.