Falling asleep during meditation is a very common occurrence and if it happens to you once a while you needn’t be too concerned at all. When we are learning to meditate we are looking for a balance between focus and relaxation and, in that process of learning, it’s inevitable that from time to time we’ll drift a little too far in either direction, sometimes feeling too tense and at other times falling asleep. Learning how to apply just the right amount of effort is a very subtle thing and requires practice. And of course every day is different, so this process of learning is ongoing. There are however a number of things we can do to make it less likely to occur.
Here are a few practical tips for staying alert:
1. Meditate sitting up rather than lying down. It sounds obvious, but lying down encourages a more sleepy state of mind.
2. Avoid meditating on the bed, in the bed, or around the bed. For most people the bed means only one thing, so find a more wakeful environment if you can.
3. Try meditating first thing in the morning when the mind is a little brighter, rather than last thing at night when you are already feeling sleepy before you even begin.
4. Open a nearby window if it’s not too chilly. The fresh air and additional flow of oxygen will help you feel more awake.
5. Avoid eating a big meal beforehand, as this tends to make the body feel very heavy and naturally leads to sleep.
6. It might sound like another obvious one, but make sure you get enough sleep and if you’re not, then take the appropriate action to get enough rest.
Once you’ve created the right environment and given yourself the very best chance of staying awake, you may nonetheless find yourself falling asleep. Once again, this is quite ok and nothing to worry about. You may find that focusing on the very top of your head helps the mind feel a little lighter and more alert. In fact even the simple act of imagining the sun directly above your head can ward off sleep. Some people have asked whether it’s helpful to drink coffee beforehand, as a way of preventing sleep. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it does somewhat go against the basic premiss of meditation, which is to witness the mind as it is, right now, and find a fundamental place of ease with that state. So, some would say that by artificially stimulating the system we are actually moving away from this basic notion. We are also making it far more difficult to relax, as both body and mind are likely to be quite agitated afterwards.
Each person is different though, so find out what works best for you. The basic rule of thumb is that if sleep continues for weeks on end, there is probably a need to tweak the exercise a little. If that’s the case, then feel free to let us know and ask for some additional tips. But more often than not, it will simply be some residual tiredness coming to the surface when you first begin and that will fade over time.
Click here to view Andy's thoughts on falling asleep during meditation.