August 1, 2013

From Fuzz to Buzz: Suggestions for Breaking Through Sleepiness During Meditation Practice

Many people have issues around sleep. They may get sleepy when they want to be alert (i.e., during meditation practice) or they may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep when they want to (i.e., they have insomnia). Sadly, some people have both issues. I plan to address the insomnia piece in a future blogpost. In this blog, I’d like to offer some practical suggestions around the sleepiness piece.
sleepy meditator
illustration by M.Zittel

In the Buddhist tradition, there’s a term that translates into English as “sinking.” (In Japanese, it’s called konjin; in Tibetan it’s called chingwa). This term is quite generic, covering the whole range from subtle fuzziness to complete loss of consciousness. The remarks below are applicable to any point on that range. 

There’s an objective side to sleepiness and there’s a sensory side to sleepiness.

The objective side involves two things:

1.    One’s body posture.
2.    One’s degree of alertness.

The sensory side also involves two things:

1.    Pleasant states associated with being sleepy.
2.    Unpleasant states associated with being sleepy.

That gives a total of four components (two objective and two sensory). The trick in dealing with sleepiness is to work optimally with these four components.

On the objective side:

1.    With regards to posture: one has to fight over and over to re-establish good posture:
·       Straighten the spine.
·       Force the eyes open if need be.
·       Stand up.
·       Etc., etc.

2.    With regards to alertness, one has to fight against its loss:
·       The posture piece can help;
·       Forcing yourself to speak labels out loud can also help;
·       But basically, it’s a function of time and practice, and will.

On the sensory side:

1.    With regards to the unpleasant sensory side of the experience, try to accept the uncomfortable sensations of sleepiness in the body: Greet them with equanimity until they turn into a flowing energy. You may have had the experience of a pain or an itch breaking up into flow. It’s hard to believe, but the same thing can happen with uncomfortable sleepy sensations. You can “watch them to death.” At that point, they turn into a kind of energy that circulates around your body, inflating you with vitality.

2.    The pleasant sensory aspect of sleepiness are the restful states (See Rest, Hear Rest, and especially Feel Rest in the form of muscle relaxation). Try to notice that sleepiness comes in waves. Each wave of sleepiness carries two things:

·       a wave of unconsciousness which we should fight with, and
·       a wave of restfulness which we can detect and enjoy.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Try to notice that at the onset of each wave of sleepiness, there is a tendency for the whole body to relax (that’s why people lurch). But if you tangibly detect that relaxation, you won’t lurch—you’ll just drop a notch into deeper repose. So each new wave of sleepiness becomes a new wave of settledness. Wave by wave, second by second, you drop deeper and deeper. It’s attentional jujitsu. Objective unconsciousness is your opponent. With this trick, you use his weight to your advantage!

Detecting the pleasure of sleepiness clearly and enjoying it without craving allows you to re-engineer the experience of sleepiness into the experience of jhānic absorption.


  1. I've done quite a few serious retreats, and have never understood the emphasis in Zen and Theravada on sleep deprivation (Tibetan not so much). Modern research is clear that building up a sleep debt adversely affects our brain's functioning. That's why the CIA uses it in interrogations. I also understand that advanced meditaters can get most of the benefits of sleep from their actual meditation. But why not just let meditaters on retreat get the sleep they need (up to 8 hrs max) and not create an unnecessary problem for them (particularly for beginners)?

    1. Hi Anonymous,
      I don't think this advice is necessarily for sleepiness due to sleep deprivation. Sleepiness is just an issue that comes up for a lot of people during meditation even after a good 8 hour rest.

    2. Some great tips Shinzen. Thanks for sharing! I tend to be quite gentle with my meditations when it comes to sleepiness. If I am having a hard time maintaining an erect posture due to tiredness. I don't fight it. I often will recline on my back on the ground with my knees bent and my feet flat on the group, either with my arms to the sides or overlapping on my lower belly. I then allow myself to go into a deep relaxing lull, while maintaining some degree of mindfulness--in the spirit of Yoga Nidra, a deep relaxation yogic meditation practice done supine. I tend to not sleep very deeply at night, so I like to encourage myself to go into these rejuvenating states of deep relaxation during the day. However, I am aware that there are some people who constantly nod off when meditating even when they sleep deeply at night. They are chronic dozers. In these cases, "fighting" the sleepiness may be more appropriate then giving in to it during meditation--at least for a period of time.

    3. I agree. I posted Aug 1. I just thought that this blogger might have some thoughts on the subject. Evidently not. I have done several long retreats at Theravadan monasteries where we have been allowed only 4 hours of sleep. Some places allow even less. Larry Rosenberg has an interesting description in one of his books of doing a long retreat at a Korean Zen monastery where for the last week (!) they had to go completely without sleep. Not eating after noon is an austerity one can easily adapt to and I think heightens one's level of meditation. But sleep deprivation, I question.

    4. Hi Anon poster from Aug 1,
      I agree with you. I just spent a few months at a Zen temple and couldn't understand the lack of serious consideration some had when people (many people) mentioned being tired all the time. Given that it's a bodily requirement to sleep enough, and that science has shown that people simply don't get used to sleeping less than their individual setpoints, this lack of consideration actually had me questioning the sustainability of true Zen practice as something I can do. And I'm not a lazy slacker, either, nor were the others who had similar concerns.
      Thank you.

    5. Hi Everyone,

      I had exactly the same questions and concerns when I began my practice in Japan. My academic study of Buddhism told me that Buddhist practice is the Middle Way, a balance point between self indulgence and self torture. It seemed to me that the sleep deprivation piece that I experienced in Japanese monasteries was way valenced toward torture. It made no sense to me at the time. In retrospect, I realize that the schedule was designed to FORCE people to discover the things that I mentioned in this blogpost. Unfortunately no one ever explained that explicitly, neither did anyone give a clear description of how to go about doing so. That’s why I wrote this blogpost. I think people should have the *choice* of working with challenges like pain, sleepiness, and so forth. I agree, it may not be optimal to force people to face these things--especially if they’re not given a clear explanation of Why and the How. At my retreats, people have the *option* to do yaza (all night sitting, and adhiṭṭhāna (strong-determination sitting, but are not required to do so. On the other hand, they’re also allowed to sleep as much as they want whenever they want – especially if they are relative beginners. That’s how I like to deal with this issue.

      FYI, the Tibetans do sometimes really get into sleep deprivation and such. I know an American woman who became a “Dark retreat” master ( At one point in her training, her body was locked into a tiny box, barely large enough to accommodate it but with her head sticking out of the top, making it of course impossible to lie down. The box was placed in a completely darkened room for a month during which time she did not eat or drink, or get out of the box (although she was “steamed off” which apparently resulted in enough hydration to prevent death). Insanely beyond the parameters of the Geneva Conventions! All of this, of course, was with total informed consent.

      Your question inspired me to do some more writing which will appear in a week or two on this blog.

  2. Perfect timing for this post - I was just (for the first time actually) battling sleepiness when I sat yesterday... Thanks!

  3. This post is really clear and useful, i find that this way to work with sleepiness is really good not only during a formal meditation, but also a lot during day-to-day life!!

    I always love your style of analyazing problems, Shinzen!

  4. Shinzen Young's Five Ways Manual
    is really great!
    Also, I use Shinzen's guided meditations. They work for many purposes including falling into restful sleep. Lie flat and open comfortably, breating with a guided meditation. If you do not fall asleep you will be resting. Either way is refreshing.
    First rate materials for opening doors to new worlds, in and out.
    Many thanks to Shinzen Young!

    1. p.s. The comment above thanking Shinzen Young for his Five Ways Manual and his guided meditations is from me, breathing ;-) Logan.

  5. Hi Shinzen, Does my Absolute Mathematics make any sense to you?? Few people understand. Kind Regards, David Nicolas Tate


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.