Falling asleep during meditation is very common and if it happens to you every once a while, you really don’t need to be too concerned. When we’re learning to meditate, we are looking for a balance between focus and relaxation. In that process, it’s inevitable that from time to time we’ll drift a little too far in either direction, sometimes feeling too tense and at other times falling asleep.
Learning how to apply just the right amount of effort is a very subtle thing and requires practice. And, of course, every day is different, so this process of learning is ongoing. There are, however, a number of things we can do to make it less likely to occur. Here are a few practical tips for staying alert:
Meditate sitting up rather than lying down. It sounds obvious, but lying down encourages a more sleepy state of mind.
Avoid meditating on the bed, in the bed or around the bed. For most people, the bed means only one thing (well, OK, maybe two), so find a more wakeful environment if you can.
Try meditating first thing in the morning when the mind is a little brighter, rather than last thing at night when you’re already sleepy.
Open a nearby window if it’s not too chilly. The fresh air and additional flow of oxygen will help you feel more awake.
Avoid eating a big meal beforehand, as this tends to make the body feel very heavy and naturally leads to sleep.
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. If you’re not, take the appropriate action to get enough rest.
Once you’ve created the right environment and given yourself the very best chance of staying awake...well, you still might fall asleep. Once again, this is nothing to worry about. You may find that focusing on the very top of your head helps the mind feel a little lighter and more alert. In fact, even the simple act of imagining the sun directly above your head can ward off sleep.
We’ve been asked whether it’s helpful to drink coffee beforehand, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it does somewhat go against the basic premise of meditation, which is to witness the mind as it is, right now, and find a fundamental place of ease with that state. By artificially stimulating the system, some would say that we are moving away from this basic notion. We’re also making it far more difficult to relax, as both body and mind are likely to be agitated afterwards. Each person is different though, so find out what works best for you.
The basic rule of thumb is that if sleep during meditation continues for weeks on end, you probably need to tweak the exercise a little. But more often than not, it will simply be some residual tiredness coming to the surface when you first begin and that will fade over time.