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Barbara O'Brien

Nodding Off, Waking Up

By May 31, 2012

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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.

May 31, 2012 at 7:34 am
(1) won says:

I used to try the pulling-the-earlobes trick. I think my body adapted to it and it became less effective over time. What I tend to do is a bit more selfish and not meditate when I’m sleepy. Which is cheating, I know, but otherwise it feel like a waste. Obviously one doesn’t have this luxury on a meditation retreat.

What I have found somewhat effective is watching, as closely as possible, the physical signs of falling asleep (or even just the mind beginning to wander). I can tell when my mind starts wandering if I happen to notice the beginnings of a particular but subtle tightness in my face, near the top of the nose, just below and between the eyes. If I consciously relax that area, my distraction is subverted and I’m back in the present for a while.

It can be quite fun for the easily amused :-)

May 31, 2012 at 9:24 am
(2) Mila says:

Monks in Japanese Zen monasteries cultivated the habit of drinking matcha — which not only kept them awake, but also — via its capacity to generate alpha brain-waves — had the added benefit of simultaneously deepening their meditation, which is pretty cool.

(though for some, of course, going straight for the espresso machine will still be the preferred option :) )

I tend to apply the walking meditation strategy, if possible … find the toggling back and forth between moving and sitting forms of practice to be quite sweet.

May 31, 2012 at 9:26 am
(3) Franko says:

i’m with you on the espresso machines. it drives me crazy that at retreats, if there is tea, it’s most usually decaf tea, when what i really need is a bit of caffeine. thank you for this article — we were just talking about sleepiness this week in our sangha, and i have long found sleepiness to be my personal Mara. i’m going to bring your article to share next week.

May 31, 2012 at 10:23 am
(4) Petteri Sulonen says:

We have coffee on retreats. It’s good coffee, too, although not espresso. Also green tea, and rooibos for those who don’t do caffeine.

May 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm
(5) Mila says:

somewhat tangentially:

Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of saying, during his retreats, that he’d rather have people fall asleep during his Dharma talks, than take notes — since when we’re asleep, some of the Dharma talk still is able to enter; but when we take notes, we’re likely erecting conceptual blockades, which prevent us from being penetrated by its essence.

So interesting, this resistance to being deeply relaxed & wide awake, at the same time ….

May 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm
(6) Charlie Martin says:

“A sleeping Buddha is still a Buddha.”

May 31, 2012 at 4:19 pm
(7) Hein says:

Mila – i agree about the alternating between walking and sittting meditation. In the ch’an tradition we, however, mostly do vigourious walking and not kinhin. Good for blood circulation and keeping you awake. Arriving home sfter a tiring day i find s half and hour of chanting much more energising than trying to do zazen.
And then the choice of ‘practice drink’. Green tea in the mornings and after lunch during retreats. Rooibos – ‘red bush’ the tea that originatrd from my country – in the evenings because of zero caffeine. BTW i find rooibos’ taste (we have in adddition to the tea bags also the loose twigs) much better if it was cooked. Unlike regular tea rooibos become ‘sweeter’ if you boil the twigs. Slthough i love espresso i avoid coffee totally during retreats…energy of coffee too hectic for me.
Doing a ‘tea meditation’ Taiwanese-style after work is another great way for me to combine my two passions; tea and meditation.

May 31, 2012 at 4:39 pm
(8) Matthew Cheyne says:

I’m with you totally on the espresso machines. I did a 10 day silent vipassana retreat back in 2008 and felt like a complete idiot when one of the teacher’s assistants woke me up and told me I was snoring in the middle of a one hour sitting. It’s heartwarming to know that these ancient masters went through the same issues as we do today.

May 31, 2012 at 7:40 pm
(9) Dennis de Keyzer says:

To be honest I have practiced meditation in the “corpse position” for a while. Because I believ you should be able to meditate in almost every position. And now I can concentrate and meditate lying in my back. Of course you should not do this right before your sleep or as a regular practice. But now I feel quit comfortable doing certain meditations lying on my back.
Sometimes I start with a self-reiki treatment lying flat on a matress, and immediately after the reiki session is finished ( 30 minutes or so) I go into a meditation. I am already in a very relaxed state and I don’t fall asleep. But it took some practice.

May 31, 2012 at 10:01 pm
(10) rdowens says:

I read that Green Tea has more caffeine than coffee so a nice strong cup of that might help.

May 31, 2012 at 10:07 pm
(11) Pat Burns says:

All nice ideas but a lot of rigamarole in the zendo is frowned upon…even though you can’t see anyone frowing when we are all facing the wall…lol

June 1, 2012 at 6:07 am
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

Pat Burns — that’s why I want espresso shots available during kinhin. :-)

June 1, 2012 at 2:38 am
(13) Mayuram V.Sankaran says:

While meditating if I doze off, I inform the others that I have been on ‘turiya’ state before returning to my normal self!

June 1, 2012 at 10:29 am
(14) cinykal says:

Falling asleep was almost unavoidable in my situation until I opted for STANDING meditation and imagining my heels extending into the ground like roots (tree).
That has helped a LOT…

June 6, 2012 at 10:47 am
(15) Paul UK says:

LOL, oh yeah, am familiar with this one !

July 23, 2012 at 11:11 am
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