Meditation presents many challenges, and one of the most common ones is sleepiness. If you've ever sat a long meditation retreat, I bet you know what I'm talking about.
Every time I go on retreat, at some point -- usually through a warm afternoon -- I get the nods. My eyelids weigh ten pounds each, and no matter how hard I try to stay focused I nod off to sleep, over and over.
So, I was delighted to learn there is a sutra about the nods in the Pali Canon. It is the Capala Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya, 7.58), or the Buddha's Discourse on Nodding. Seriously.
In this sutra, the Buddha is speaking to his disciple Maudgalyayana, spelled Moggallana in Pali. Tradition says Maudgalyayana developed supernatural powers through the strength of his practice. But as a new student, he was plagued with the nods.
Maudgalyayana would go off by himself into the forests of India to sit with great determination. And the quiet afternoons would be graced by warm breezes, the scent of flowers, the soft drone of insects, sunlight dappling through the canopy of leaves -- zzzzzzzzzzz.
Dude, I know what you went through. And here is the Buddha's advice:
First, pay attention to what thoughts your mind is chasing when you nod off to sleep. Then, avoid pursuing those thoughts.
If that doesn't work, recall some teaching from a sermon, recite it to yourself, and analyze it. That might help you regain focus and energy.
If you are still sleepy, recite the teaching out loud.
If reciting a teaching doesn't wake you up, try pulling your earlobes and rubbing your limbs.
Still sleepy? Stand up and wash your eyes with water. Then look around in all directions and upward to the stars and constellations.
If the nods persist, direct your attention to the perception of light. Dwell in the night as if it were daytime, and in the daytime as if it were night.
Walking meditation is the next remedy. It's hard to nod off while you are walking.
As a last resort, take a nap. But not just any nap. Lay on your right side, with one foot on top of the other, and resolve to get up immediately as soon as you wake.
Thus I have heard. And I love it when the humanity and ordinariness of these long-ago ancestors shine through the old texts. Reading this, I could feel Maudgalyayana's frustration and could hear the Buddha telling him, look here. Try pulling your earlobes. Get up and splash water on your face. Maybe you should just take a nap.
Personally, I think monasteries and retreat centers should be stocked with espresso machines. But that's me.
Maudgalyayana would become one of the Buddha's most respected disciples. The Buddha came to depend on Maudgalyayana and his close lifelong friend Sariputra to help guide and teach the other monks. So if you are plagued with the nods, that doesn't mean there is no hope for you. Maudgalyayana realized enlightenment, after all. Next time, try pulling your earlobes.