The third hindrance to meditation: lethargy and drowsiness

Last week’s essay addressed the hindrance of sensual desire, which is said to be like boiling water – the mind is stired up in a fury of excitement, bubbling and burning hot. This week the analogy with water is of a pot of water that is stagnant, slimy and full of algae. When the resistance to resting in the mind’s clear state does not turn to desire, it can go to its energetic opposite, a state of sluggish lack of focus where we feel sleepy and dull. Trying to watch one more breath just feels like too much effort, and it seems as if it would be easier to stop meditating and have a good sleep instead.

As we rest attention on the breath it shifts our nervous system from the active fight or flight mode to the calming rest and digest mode. This can be felt to be very soothing but may lead to feeling sleepy. What is needed is the ability to rest in this calm state whilst staying alert and focused on the experiences of the present moment. When we do this it is felt as a state that is both calm and full of a subtle joy of heart and vibrancy in our body.

What then if we find ourselves feeling sleepy as we meditate? In  Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, the author, Bhante Gunaratana, gives 9 suggestions:

1. Mindful reflection—Conduct a silent monologue to rouse yourself, giving yourself encouragement and motivation. You may reflect on the benefit of this time of mindful sitting and how getting up now will impact on your day, or that mind states are fluid and that by staying with this feeling of sleepiness it may pass and in turn a state of alertness may arise.

2. Open your eyes—Open your eyes and roll your eyeballs around for a few seconds. Close them and go back to your sitting mindfulness exercise. Or you may open your eyes and focus on an object for a short time  – a candle flame is ideal as it is bright and energising.

3. Visualize a bright light—Visualize a very bright light and focus your mind on it for a few seconds. As you are visualizing bright light, the sleepiness often fades away. You may simply imagine you are looking at a bright light, or for a more Tantric energy approach you can imagine a yellow light at your solar plexus (naval, number 3 in the diagram below), the light intensifying and slowly expanding to fill your body. Or you can imagine a root going down into the core of the earth from the base chakra (number 1). Visualise yourself drawing this red energy up form the core of the earth into your body. You can combine this with doing pelvic floor muscle contractions, tensing as you breathe in, relaxing as you breath out. To locate this muscle feel how you need to clench to stop yourself form peeing. The aim is not to tighten the anus but only this muscle.

4.  Hold your breath—Take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can. Then slowly breathe out. Repeat this several times until your body warms up and perspires. Then return to your sitting practice.

5. Pinch your earlobes—Pinch your earlobes hard with thumbs and index fingers. Really feel the pinch. Surprisingly, this can help.

6. Standing—Stand up very slowly and very quietly. Try to do it so that even a person sitting next to you will not know. Do standing meditation for a few minutes until the sleepiness goes away. Once it is gone, return quietly to your sitting mindfulness practice.

7. Walking—Do walking meditation for a few minutes until sleepiness disappears. Then return to your sitting practice.

8. Splash water—Go and wash your face with cold water.

9. And finally…..if the sleepiness persists, go and take a nap for a few minutes. Sometimes sleepiness actually is a sign we may need sleep. I find there is a natural rhythm to my energy during the day and in the afternoon I need to have 20 minutes laying down to rest. After this I feel alert again and ready to continue, but without it the whole afternoon can feel lethargic.  Even in the monastery where we were encouraged to have little sleep, waking at 4am to goto the morning meditation, it was part of the days routine to go and rest for a short while in the afternoon.

If you find you feel sleepy a lot when you meditate it may be a sign of sleep deprivation. In the time of the Buddha and until about 200 years ago sleep was largely determined by the setting of the sun. Once dark poor families would not have access to candles and people would follow their bodies natural rhythm, sleeping early and waking with the dawn. There is a lot of evidence that our current habit of sleeping 8 hours is not a natural rhythm for us but something brought in with the industrial age when it became necessary to get people in to work in factories.

In the pre-industrial era it was common for people to have two phases of sleep, waking for a few hours in the night between these two phases. People would get up and pray, do some simple work, have sex, and there are even example from the 18th century of dream discussion groups in London where people would go and discuss the dreams they had just had before returning to their second phase of sleep.

With the invention of artificial light – first gas, but then even more so with electric lighting, it became easier to push the darkness away and stay awake. Now that we have computers, tablets, ‘phones, laptops and televisions which all emit a blue light that stimulates the brain into thinking it is still day light the tendency is to stay awake long beyond the point our bodies would naturally drift into sleep. The light from these devices prevents the production melatonin, the hormone that tells our body to sleep. It’s a bit like when you hear a bird singing at night – the street lamps have confused their brains and they think it is dawn. Add to that consumption of coffee to get us through our tiredness and the fact stress impacts on sleep and it is little wonder we live in a society that runs on sleep deficit.

If you do find yourself feeling sleepy every time you meditate you may want to reflect on your sleep patterns. How much sleep do you get each night? What time do you go to bed? Do you find yourself falling asleep when ever you stop: watching a film, sitting in a quiet warm room, listening to relaxing music? All of this can indicate sleep deficit. We all vary in how much sleep we need, but we all need a certain amount to feel fully charged. If you are constantly getting one or more hours too little, then like a bank account that does not receive enough funds you will go into deficit. The only way to rectify this is to sleep! Hence the tendency to  lie in at weekends or find that we sleep for hours when we go on holiday.