"Sloth-and-torpor" is the third of the Five Hindrances to successfully meditating and cultivating concentration.
Stop falling asleep while you try to meditate.
Do you find yourself getting drowsy or falling asleep when you are trying to meditate? Unfortunately this affects many people. In this brief teaching, we will review the value of meditating with purpose and how to address the common complaint of "I keep falling asleep when I meditate, what can I do to stay awake?" And what to do if your attempts to stay alert fail.
INTRODUCTION: MEDITATION VS THE FIVE HINDRANCES
It is beneficial to always remember that meditation is a mind-training exercise. It's very much like taking your mind to the gym for a workout; and while it's not technically difficult, it is a lot of effort, and you should be far too busy meditating to possibly get drowsy (or bored) while doing it.
Yet, most people aren't familiar with that perspective of the practice; and instead, they are instructed to "just be" or to just "let it go." Unfortunately for many, that is a recipe for boredom, and eventually, for drowsiness. So when you find yourself feeling bored or sleepy, these are signs that you aren't actually "meditating," but rather that you're just sitting still...trying to "just be" and that can become pretty boring and rote, which leads many practitioners toward various degrees of drowsiness while on the cushion.
Meditation is so much more than just trying to be peaceful. Meditation is intended to be used to prepare the mind, to develop strong mental strength, and to create the foundation for Buddhist enlightenment to take place. If you are dedicated enough in your practice and exert skilful effort to bear this in mind, it becomes much easier to stay focused and maintain the energy levels required to stick with the object of your meditation, retarding drowsiness and boredom, and make actual progress toward the experience and bliss of proper meditative attainments.
Most people are entirely unaware that by focusing on the breath, that they are practicing a technique (ānāpānasati) that is used to stabilise their attention so that they can start the process of learning and re-enforcing how to develop Concentration (samādhi), as opposed to cultivating relaxation, and that by applying sustained concentration, they will naturally enter into the first of many deep states of consciousness called jhāna (absorption). But they will not be able to enter into any deep and blissful states of concentration until they can develop their ability to hold the object of their meditation (e.g., the breath) with stability, clarity, and ease; and without possessing unshakeable focus, and the understanding that comes only through knowledge, trying to do this by just sitting with eyes-closed can get pretty boring pretty quickly, and boredom can lead to sloth, torpor, and falling asleep.
However, all is not lost!
Being vigilantly aware of the state of your mind and body will alert you to your pending hindrances. Practicing and getting good at applying the antidotes that follow will go a long way toward laying the foundation for your spiritual success.
ANTIDOTES TO THE THIRD HINDRANCE
The purpose of these techniques is to remain strong and continue to meditate! If we stop meditating every time we experience the challenges presented to us by the Five Hindrances, say to splash water on our face or to take a break, then we will never grow beyond our limitations nor develop our meditative abilities. The Five Hindrances aren't to be avoided, they are to be overcome!
So, when sloth or dullness come into play, it is critical to have a battle plan on how you will address them before you take your seat on the cushion. Here are five proven techniques that I suggest adding to your practice:
1. The most basic and traditional instruction is to start by doubling-down on your concentration and really plant it firmly in-place. This is what is meant when we strive to find, hold, and cultivate the habit of Right Concentration (sammā samādhi). But for many who lack the strength, experience, or skill to do so, that technique unfortunately isn't good enough.
So, if that fails...
2. Make the object of your meditation the most interesting thing present in your sense sphere. Briefly shift your mind toward analytical meditation and really understand why you wanted to take the time to meditate right now. When you deeply contemplate and consider the long-term and desirable results of cultivating proper concentration by holding your focus on the object, it becomes much easier to do so. Be interested in what you are focusing on... and it will be much easier to do so; we have a natural tendency to be able to hold focus on the things that interest us.
If that fails...
3. Open your eyes, lift your head, and temporarily redirect the focus of your visual attention upward and outward; taking a few long, deep breaths as you redirect your attention briefly toward being mindful of your body and to the feelings and sensations of the rising and falling of your abdomen or chest (e.g., moving your focus away from the subtleness of your nostrils or nose to the more conspicuous feeling of your belly or chest).
If that fails...
4. It's time to skilfully accept that you are losing the battle and starting to genuinely fall asleep. With gratitude and appreciation of the mindful awareness that you have of your mind and body, take a few deep breaths, slowly and mindfully stand up, and transition into a short period of walking meditation, keeping your breath the object of your walking meditation, before returning to seated meditation only after you've come to feel more alert and present. It makes no sense to keep pushing if you are only going to fall asleep anyway, so stand up and revitalise your mind!
Beyond that, here are some general tips to be aware of that a surprising number of people don't pay much attention to:
5. It's best not to meditate in bed; or, when it's too late at night; or, when you are already feeling tired or sleepy; or, after large or heavy meals. Any of these will significantly stack the deck against you. Be savvy. :)
And those are some of my tips for navigating sloth and torpor during meditation. I sincerely hope these tips will be of benefit to you and I wish you strong focus and diligence in your practice. You are welcome to contact me if you have any questions or if you would like to discuss any of the other hindrances in more detail.
Anagārika Michael Turner
Pre-monastic Buddhist Teacher
Advanced Applied-Dharma Trainer
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by Anagārika Pasannacitta
Pasannacitta is a pre-monastic ariya-puggala and a full-time Buddhist anagārika; and he is also a deeply accomplished streamentry mentor and applied-dharma teacher. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of the Buddha's teachings in our everyday lives to overcome our human problems that stand in the way of making measurable progress toward Buddhist enlightenment and he is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the views and techniques that generate indestructible resilience, inner-strength, and direct experience for almost 30 years and has helped countless numbers of students and peers enhance and course-correct their practice to make veritable progress along the path toward Nibbāna.
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