Working with sleepy mind

One of the most effective (but definitely under the category of ‘don’t try this at home’!) strategies for combating sleepy mind must be sitting on the edge of a deep well during meditation, as apparently practised by some monks in Thailand. This would certainly sharpen the mind and keep us alert, but fortunately we also have less drastic (and less dangerous) approaches we can use if we find ourselves repeatedly nodding off during meditation.

The first one, which I already touched on in last week’s reflection, is to simply accept that we’re tired. Sometimes during meditation we encounter busy mind, or anxious mind, or planning mind. At other times it might be sleepy mind. Just going with the flow of this state, rather than fighting it, can be helpful at times.

Another approach, which I use a lot and find very effective, is to lift our gaze to straight ahead and open our eyes wide, while still meditating. Doing this for a few minutes, and then returning to our traditional posture of eyes closed or half open with a soft gaze downward, can really bring renewed energy to our meditation and can lift it from ‘sloth and torpor’ to a more awake, present sense of being. Sometimes doing this once is enough, at other times I might repeat it several times.

Practising some mindful movement before sitting meditation can also be very helpful. It stretches and revitalises our body, allowing the energy to flow more freely, and this can help us feel more alert when we then sit down to meditate. This could be yoga, Tai Chi, slow walking meditation, or even a brisk walk around the block.

We can also alternate between sitting and standing meditation. There is nothing wrong, if we’re feeling really sleepy, with standing up for a while, and then returning to the sitting posture when we feel ready. This is perhaps a safer variation of sitting on the edge of a well – we’re less likely to fall asleep standing up, and don’t want to fall over, so standing meditation can also be very useful.

Finally, if sleepy mind is an ongoing problem in our meditation, we can ask ourselves – is this perhaps my way of avoiding being present with life? Do I generally have a tendency to switch off when things become unpleasant, and am I using this same strategy during meditation? If this is the case, we might ask ourselves – ‘why am I meditating? Is this important to me?’ Sometimes recognising some of our behavioural patterns can help us to become more resolved in not giving in to sleepy mind when it arises.

Weekly practice idea:

If you meditate regularly, experiment this week with some movement practices beforehand, standing meditation, or meditating with the eyes wide open. Do they change your meditation in any way?

Anja Tanhane

Sleepy mind

Most people who meditate would be very familiar with ‘sleepy mind’ – this feeling that you’re drifting in and out of meditation, perhaps even asleep for significant chunks of it. Or you might be ambling along in a dreamy haze which has little to do with mindful awareness of the present moment. In Buddhism this is known as the third hindrance to meditation, often described with the wonderfully evocative words ‘sloth and torpor’. These old-fashioned words really seem to sum up what meditation can be at times, when I feel more like a sloth draped almost comatose across a branch than a bright little meditator. And as for torpor – that is the perfect description of the state of my mind on the first afternoon of an extended meditation retreat. The mind feels sticky and heavy, like a steamy jungle just before a downpour, and there are all kinds of noises and movements in the undergrowth but you can barely rouse yourself to notice them, you’re so sleepy, just really really sleepy… The meditation becomes a desperate battle to stay awake, to not fall asleep and keel over on your meditation cushion onto someone else’s lap. And you’re probably not the only one in the meditation room who is struggling – sleepy mind is a very common phenomena.

Sometimes, the reason why we feel so sleepy is simply because we are just really tired. We might have been stressed, run off our feet, rushing from one commitment to the next for so long, the moment we stop, all we notice is exhaustion. While we don’t want to fall asleep during meditation if we can help it, we may just need to accept ‘sleepy mind’ for a while, and not struggle too hard against it. We may also be used to associating relaxation with sleepiness, and it might take us a while to learn how to relax, but also be alert and present at the same time. This is very common when people first begin to meditate, and is part of the normal process.

However, sleepy mind can also be a way of avoiding ‘life as it is’, in the sense of zoning out rather than tuning in. Next week, we will look at some tips and strategies for working with this sleepy mind of ours.

Weekly practice idea:

Notice your patterns of sleepiness and alertness during the day. How does it feel to be sleepy during the day, and how do you usually respond?

Anja Tanhane