Day 5: Dealing with Dullness and Sleepiness

When you meditate, you dramatically reduce the amount of sensory input that your brain receives. As a result, the energy level of the mind naturally decreases (because you’re processing much less incoming sense data), and you may start feeling kind of spacey and sleepy.

Although this is very common and very normal, and often feels quite pleasant, it’s not a good situation if you want to develop mindfulness, because it’s basically the opposite of being alert.

There are two strategies to use in order to prevent this kind of drowsiness during meditation, a short-term strategy and a long-term strategy.

In the short-term, you basically do whatever it takes to wake up and be more alert!

My personal experience, and the experience of many of my students, is that it’s often easier to stay alert in a sitting posture, rather than a lying down posture. Try to sit with your back upright and not leaning against anything.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t meditate while lying down, or that you’ve been doing it all wrong if you have been?

Not at all!

In fact, with some practice, you’ll be able to stay alert and meditate successfully in any posture. Sitting, standing, lying down, running, it doesn’t matter. 🙂

What it does mean is that, if you’re able to use a sitting posture, you’ll probably find it easier to maintain a higher level of alertness in your meditation.

However, if you can’t use a sitting posture because of physical issues, pain, and so on (I’ve been there, so I understand what it’s like), not to worry! There’s lots of other ways to help yourself achieve an excellent level of alertness during your practice, and I’m going to cover a bunch of them for you in this post.

Now, whether you use a sitting posture, a lying down posture, or something else, if you find yourself getting dull or sleepy at any point during your meditation session, you can apply one or more of the following remedies to help you regain your alertness. If you aren’t feeling dull or sleepy, then just carry on with your meditation as usual. Only apply these countermeasures when you need to.

I’ll describe them in order from the most gentle to the most forceful.

You want to apply the gentlest remedy that gets you alert and keeps you alert for at least several minutes after you use the remedy.

If you find that after applying a remedy, you get drowsy again in a minute or less, then you should probably try a stronger remedy, otherwise, your practice won’t be very productive.

Short Term Remedies for Sleepiness During Meditation

  1. have the conscious intention to be more alert. This usually only works well for the more subtle kinds of drowsiness or spaceyness
  2. engage more fully with the meditation object.

    So, if you’re meditating on the physical sensations of breathing, you want to observe those sensations more carefully and more closely to more fully engage your attention. For example, see if you can notice, with equal clarity, the sensations at the beginning and end of each inhale and exhale, and also the gap in between the inhale and exhale

  3. I find that I tend to get sleepier when I allow my eyes to be downcast, so keeping your eyes at about mid-level or even a little above mid-level may be helpful
  4. periodically check your posture and if you find you’re starting to slouch, adjust it slowly to be more upright
  5. if you currently meditate with your eyes closed, doing it with your eyes slightly open and unfocused can help you stay more alert.

    There are various schools of thought on this one and different meditation traditions tend to emphasize eyes closed, while others emphasize eyes open.

    My take on it is: use whatever works for you.

    Personally, I usually meditate with my eyes closed. But, if I’m feeling particularly drowsy, and the gentler remedies in this list aren’t doing the job, then I’ll meditate for a few minutes with eyes open to regain my alertness.

    Feel free to experiment with the difference between eyes open and eyes closed – there’s no one right way 🙂

  6. try periodically raising both your arms above your head and meditate like that for 20 to 30 seconds

If you’ve tried the above remedies, but the drowsiness returns pretty quickly, then you need to take more drastic action!

Try one or more of the following:

  1. do some forceful breathing. After the inhale, hold your breath and contract as many muscles as you can, holding that position for a few seconds, then exhale through pursed lips, making the exhale forceful, yet keeping it silent and drawn out
  2. switch to meditating using a standing posture (if you’re physically able to)
  3. stop meditating for a minute, go splash cold water on your face and neck, and then sit down and try again

The idea with the short term strategy is to apply the minimal remedy that does the job.

What you don’t want to do is keep meditating in a spaced-out stupor. Not only will that be pretty useless for developing mindfulness, but if you do it enough, you’ll just feed the habit of getting sleepy when you sit down to do your practice.

Longer-Term Strategy for Dealing with Sleepiness

The longer-term strategy involves training your awareness to alert you whenever you detect a subtle haziness to your attention. What this feels like is the meditation object starts to become slightly less distinct, less clear, than it normally is. When you detect this change, you hold the intention to be more alert and you consciously engage your attention more with the meditation object in order to raise the level of energy of the mind.

I can’t really get more into the specifics of this strategy in the 7DMK because I’d need to go into a lot more detail about the difference between attention and awareness and how to balance them properly during meditation. This is something my students explore much more deeply in the 30 Days of Mindfulness program.