18 May

by Justin Standfield

During a mindfulness and wellbeing course I’ve been running recently, a participant highlighted a recurring obstacle to practising meditation which they’d encountered: namely, sleepiness.

Experiencing different levels of drowsiness while meditating is completely normal and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong! However, as Jon Kabat-Zinn (the originator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) says, the aim of mindfulness is “to fall awake”… not to fall asleep. Meditation is meant to heighten awareness, while sleep allows awareness to rest at a low level of consciousness; you might want to picture these as two ends of a continuum in your mind’s eye. The regular level of consciousness that you experience as you go about your daily activities would be somewhere in the middle of this continuum.

Here are some tips that should help your mind (and, therefore, you) stay awake during meditation:

Recognise the sensation without judging

The feeling of tiredness arising is actually part of our present moment experience when it happens. Therefore, the act of noticing sleepiness is a moment of mindfulness in itself; it can help the mind refocus when you then bring your attention back to the original subject of your awareness, e.g. your breath. If drowsiness continues to arise now and then during your mindfulness meditations, don’t worry about it too much – it happens to all of us. When sleepiness shows up, treat it as an opportunity to be OK with your body’s reaction, without the need to criticise yourself. Remind yourself to adopt the observing state of mind when it occurs.

Adjust the time of your meditation session

This might take a few days to work out, but try to experiment with meditating at various times of the day. You might be someone who’s naturally more alert in the morning, for example, and this means you’re less likely to nod off if you meditate first thing; other people are more awake in the evenings and will find the latter part of the day is better for them. Try meditating at different points in the day and just see what feels right for you.

Try having a small snack beforehand (and have cold water nearby)

This can be linked to the previous point; depending on what time of day you’re meditating, you could have a full stomach and be suffering from some post-eating drowsiness. If you notice that you’re really hungry before your chosen meditation time, try giving yourself a small snack instead of a full meal. It can sometimes be helpful to take a few sips of cold water during a longer meditation session, too (aim to drink consciously so that this pause is still a part of your mindfulness practice).

Change your posture

If sleepiness is an issue during longer meditation sessions, you might want to include a short break from sitting or lying down by practising a few mindful stretching movements, a little bit of yoga (if you’re able to) or a brief interlude of mindful walking. If these suggestions aren’t possible or would break up your mindfulness session too much, then simply try mindfully shifting your posture (e.g. gently shrugging/lowering your shoulders a few times, turning your head from left to right a few times) before continuing.

Open your eyes

Although a lot of the pictures you’ll see on social media and in books show people meditating with their eyes closed, this isn’t a deal-breaker in my opinion. Opening your eyes during meditation can help ground you back into the present moment and stay alert, although it’s still recommended to do this with an attitude of mindfulness (i.e. be conscious of what you’re doing as you do it). If you do spend a period of time meditating with your eyes open, my advice would be to use a ‘relaxed gaze’ so that you’re not visually distracted by your surroundings. A relaxed gaze typically means having your eyes two-thirds closed rather than wide open; it lets enough light come in to prevent sleep, but it minimises distractions. If you’re doing some seated mindfulness with an upright back, you could also try fixing your eyeline diagonally down towards the floor in front of you as well.

Set a timer

If you’ve ever fallen asleep during a meditation exercise or while listening to a guided mindfulness recording, this might have caused you to wake up some time later than planned. A simple way to guard against this is to set a timer at the start of your session for the chosen duration; many MP3s of guided mindfulness activities have a sound at the end to signal that the exercise has completed (it’s not designed as an alarm clock to wake you up, but nonetheless you might end up using it like this!). I wouldn’t recommend using a kitchen timer, because the traditional type makes a constant ticking sound and this is likely to be distracting, plus when the bell goes off you might need a clean set of underwear if you’re not expecting it! Many of the mindfulness and wellbeing apps have meditation timers built into them, but you could simply set a gentle alarm on your phone as an alternative.