And that moment like a leaf on a stream unaware of the place behind that stone where the water suddenly speeds up. Like falling, gently and inevitably, on a cloud.
It’s been a while since I started a “formal” practice of Mindfulness. I remember those first weeks, those first meditations, as a time of awake exploration and mostly, well, thrill. Even in the midst of a stressful life and little time, I don’t recall feeling particularly sleepy while, for instance, going through a body scan, that very tough test for our alertedness. But that was soon to change.
In case you’re not familiar with it, a body scan is a formal mindfulness practice where one tries to focus the attention on different parts of the body, usually starting on the left big toe and moving up and down as in, well, a scan of the body. Only without expensive equipment. Unless your mat or bed is quite expensive… Yes, the luxurious mat or bed; that brings me to the point. The body scan was designed to be practiced while laying. The usual suggestions include being comfortable. Often blankets and cushions are offered, so that our body, unaccustomed to lay on hard surfaces or to feel cold, doesn’t spend 40 or so minutes in pain. Which is a very good thing. And also quite conducive to sleep. After those initial very awake body scans, something changed, and most of the times I tried, I would not be able to notice anything after my left knee—that’s like only five minutes into the practice. Sometimes I went only as far as the left heel, only to be woken up by the bell that signals the end of the practice.
Since then, I have practiced a wide array of meditations, including not focussing on anything in particular. Some times for hours. And I have blissfully fallen asleep not only laying, but sitting and even standing! I’m not a particularly sleepy person, nor do I suffer from fatigue. And I’m not unique in sleeping during meditation either. If you’ve tried meditating for a relatively long period of time, chances are you’ve also fallen asleep, or fought with sleepiness. It is one of the most common “complaints” of people who start meditating. And something that experienced meditators aren’t free of.
Still, it can be very frustrating! In Mindfulness practice we’re told time and again that whatever we are feeling at any moment is just that and part of the practice is to accept it without judgment, that it is not wrong to be sleepy, fall asleep, get distracted by fighting sleep, and even snore (that might wake you up, or at least your neighbour meditators). That those are all opportunities to practice our awareness and see how our mind and our body function. But one would still like to practice other things, like feeling the different parts of the body. Or actually coming back to the breath when one notices one is asleep. And that frustration is not just the beginner’s. Legend tells that the monk who brought Zen Budhism to China, frustrated by falling asleep during meditation, cut his eyelids off. And that the first tea plant sprouted where the still-bleeding skin and eyelash melée hit the ground.
Keeping the eyes open is a very good practice. I’m not sure why most Mindfulness guided meditations recommend to close them (my lovely teacher didn’t, thank you!). Some particular types of meditation might indeed benefit from closing the eyes (perhaps Transcendental or Vipassana?), but in my experience, I can focus much better on the here and now if my eyes are open, the gaze lowered some 45 degrees, softly hovering about a metre in front of me. This not only helps me no to feel sleepy, but greatly reduces the “mind cinema”, that is, my mind projecting all sort of images. Also, we are practicing Mindfulness to bring it to our daily activities, to our lives. So I reckon that it is better to do it in the way we spend most of our awake time, and that, for me, is with open eyes. It may take a while to get used to it if you have learned meditating with closed eyes, but I deeply recommend to try it out for a while.
Avoiding comfort, especially in the form of warmth, has been key in preventing my drowsiness. A cool environment, just warm enough that one will not get sick, is ideal, in my view. Unless you’re attempting a meditation to relax the body, or you’re suffering from pain, try not to lay all padded and comfortably. Sometimes that edge of discomfort from bone laying on hard surface is what you need to keep you in the here and now!
Some things I’ve found quite useful include drinking green or black tea. Even coffee, although it tends to make my mind all jittery. Adding lavender and cardamom reduces the hyperactivity (lavender infusions, contrary to popular belief, don’t induce sleep). If you do try this: do it at least half an hour before starting. And it is probably best not to make it a habit, since it will alter the state of your mind (and knowing your mind, unaltered, is a central part of Mindfulness).
Some advice I often find and doesn’t work for me is splashing my face with cold water before starting. After some minutes, I can very well be off. But maybe it helps you. Or having a brisk walk, or any energising movement. Walking or moving meditations are also great options, but not always possible.
The best thing for me has been to actually use the sleepiness as a “study object”, turning my attention toward the sensations and feelings of falling asleep instead of fighting it or trying to ignore it. And often it has even kept me awake, it was so rich.
I start by investigating where in my body I feel the signs of sleepiness. My forehead feels like there is something fizzy behind it. I try to sense the pressure or lack thereof in my lips. How is my neck? Is there a relaxation of the usual shoulder-grip? It feels as if I’m accelerating down a water-slide. Then like stepping into a different mind-reality, one where dreams start unfolding. And as if I’m cloning myself, being “here” and “there”, wherever those places are. And then: am I breathing? How do my hands feel? Is my body feeling physical or am I in dreamland. It can be quite an experience. When it happens, when I can let go of my frustration and fight, and just accept my sleepiness, I feel I become Awareness.
I of course still try to not make myself so comfortable that I will have this experience every time I meditate. But I would even say, try it! It’s been quite the revelation!