Falling asleep during meditation is a very common occurrence and if it happens to you once a while you needn’t be too concerned. 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 the right amount of effort is a very subtle thing and requires practice. And of course every day will be 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 may sound 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 at night when you are already sleepy before you begin.
4. Open a nearby window if it’s not too cold out. The fresh air and additional 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. This may also sound obvious, but make sure you get enough sleep and if you haven't, be sure to take the appropriate steps to get enough rest.
Once you’ve created the right environment and given yourself the very best chance of staying awake, you may still find yourself falling asleep. Once again, this is quite ok and you needn't worry. 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 premise 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, so find out what works best for you. The basic rule of thumb is that if sleep continues for weeks, there is probably a need to alter the exercise a little. If you're still having trouble, feel free to let us know and ask for some additional tips. However, it is likely it could simply be some residual tiredness you experience when you first begin and that may change over time.
Click here to view Andy's thoughts on falling asleep during meditation.