May 28, 2023
Martin Goodson

Enter Sandman

Exercises in Mindfulness

What can we do about sleepiness during mediation?



One of the problems recounted by regular meditators is how to counter sleepiness whilst sitting Zazen.

A Roshi once remarked that the monks in a training monastery are deliberately worked hard and given little sleep, as well as spartan food, so as to cause desire to be limited to just those two things. In a way, that is a useful method because it is easier just to deal with a desire for sleep and a desire for food as they are so basic to life. To be able to manage those and keep functioning develops strong resilience.

However, feeling ‘tired’ during Zazen may not just be down to fatigue; if it was then there is a simple remedy for it! Some sitters find keeping their eyes open and staying upright a difficulty that nearly always appears once they take a meditation seat. It would seem in this case to be something other than lack of sleep or ‘overwork’ at play here.

There are some who may wonder if it matters at all that one falls asleep or is in a constant state of head nodding whilst perched on one’s cushion or chair? Perhaps they have read about Master Bankei, the 17th century Japanese Zen Master, who, when criticised by a temple priest for not using the keisaku (a wooden stick used in the meditation hall for slapping or prodding sleepy monks) on his monks. replied that sleeping or awake they are all buddhas anyway.

There is also a method known as ‘Zazen sleep’, which is a sneaky way of catching forty winks and refreshing the system without drawing attention from the jiki jitsu. However, this is something that needs proficiency in maintaining a strong physical form whilst sitting and an ability to hover between consciousness and unconsciousness without slumping or keeling over. If you can negotiate this knife edge then you will find this can quickly energise the body and mind even more than deep sleep.

Some have argued that this tendency to fall asleep on every occasion that one sits down for Zazen is a result of psychological avoidance. Falling asleep becomes the ultimate act of denial or escape from something unpleasant - that is, sitting quietly with oneself. It is pointed out that this is probably why we seek endless stimulation in order to stave off boredom. It is quite likely that episodes of fainting may be down to this as a way of avoiding stress or horror by simply checking out of conscious awareness.

It could also be that such sleepiness is the result of something less psychodynamic and just that the body, when not doing anything, takes this as a signal that it must be time for sleep. Certainly, this is a common enough phenomenon amongst animals. A dog or cat may be active when their owners are around because there is sufficient stimulation if attention is being paid to them. However, if the owner goes out then they will settle down and sleep. The same can be said of their wilder counterparts who when not hunting or engaging in some kind of social behaviour will sleep under a tree. After all, why waste expensive calories by indulging in pointless activities?

So, what to do if you happen to be someone who is regularly assailed by the Sandman during Zazen? If you know that this happens to you, then a couple of handfuls of cold water in the face just before sitting can produce sufficient stimulation for a period of meditation. If sleepiness happens during the period and you cannot get up and splash water on your face, then open the eyes wide. After all, it is difficult to fall asleep with the eyes wide open. Once a level of alertness is regained then the eyes can be returned to the partly open position by looking down. Some may recommend holding a pin and jabbing it into the fleshy part of the hand using pain as a stimulant. As someone who did try this once, I would not particularly recommend it. I’m a bit squeamish about pain and couldn’t muster the will to use it properly. I’m also not keen on practices that could be misconstrued as a form of self-harming.

What is important is not to give up on Zazen because of feeling sleepy. As Daito Kokushi once said, we should be able to sit Zazen in all circumstances, in adversity as well as in the good times. I have known people who went through periods of sleepiness whilst sitting for months and years and then of itself this tendency to fall asleep cleared up, no longer bothering them. If they had not persisted with their sitting practice, they would never have reached this point.

Whilst is may be true that sleeping or awake we are all buddhas anyway, it is important to keep up the practice otherwise the transformation of the heart will not be able to take place.

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