Meditate Through Tiredness
YES! YOU’VE MADE it to the cushion, or propped yourself up in a chair, or have settled yourself lying down. That’s a feat in itself that you carved the time out for your meditation practice and are ready and set, only...
...as you close your eyes and turn inward, hearing your breath or the soothing tone of your meditation app, you’re consumed by fatigue. Sometimes you manage to reset and reawaken, other times you only realise you dozed off once the bell, bowl or app timer has struck, signalling the end of the meditation.
If this sounds familiar to you, rest assured that falling into a ‘power-nap’, semi-dose or actual sleep is a very common experience; especially among new meditators.
One of the main causes for this occurrence is simple: people are tired. The tech-fuelled, over-stimulated age we live in these days means that we are sleeping less or having more interrupted sleep, that more people are commuting or spending greater time on work or projects, or they are simply more wired due to the virtual connected world we inhabit. Instant communication and access has affected the energy of us all, from retired pensioner to school child.
It’s no coincidence that the ancient art of meditation has had a resurgence in the 21st century, especially in the West. One of the main reasons people cite for trying meditation is that they are seeking to alleviate stress or anxiety.
But I would suggest that tiredness is not a modern affliction but a timeless trait. In what era of civilisation can you imagine humans ever not experiencing tiredness? Whatever the cause – be it emotional suffering, sleep deprivation, hard labour, mental weariness, discomfort, having too much to do or too little engagement in life – tiredness appears in the lives of us all.
Which brings us to the next reason why sleepiness or a similar response often creeps into a practice. This relates to what actually happens in our brains and bodies when we try to meditate.
There are umpteen ‘definitions’ and ‘goals’ of meditation (depending on what tradition, school, teacher, faith or none, that you approach it from), though it is generally agreed that ‘to meditate’ involves the practice of both focus and relaxation in the mind. In modern day secular mindfulness meditation, we say we are practising to be present with what is, inside of us and around us, from moment to moment, bringing an attitude of open curiosity to this exploration. Typically with beginners and with those who may have not received specific instruction, it’s tricky finding that balance between bringing attention to the present moment and relaxing our mental and physical hold on life. If we are tired, tense, wired or sleep-deprived, in the space of meditation practice, where we are invited to ‘let go’, it’s no wonder the mind and nervous system might veer heavily towards the relaxation end of the scale, often resulting in a semi-conscious or sleep state.
It’s not that experienced meditators are any less tired or susceptible to life’s ebbs and flows and demands, or that they are such courageous beings who are always able to sit with the truth of existence. It’s more that in practising meditation regularly and over time, ideally with some guidance from a teacher who knows how to navigate the challenges that arise, including mental or physical fatigue, we can learn how to formulate a meditation habit where we are less likely to fall asleep or into a drowsy state.
Whether that’s finding the mental and physical techniques to support that, or working out optimal times of day to practise, we can arm ourselves with the necessary knowledge on how to navigate tiredness when it arises.
Plus there is ample evidence showing that regular meditation can help you sleep better and make wise(r) lifestyle choices; both of which culminate in making energy-deficit less frequent.
But beginner or sage, there is no accounting for what lies around the corner in life and we are all at the mercy of having our minds and hearts worn or tested.
There are classical meditation traditions that strongly advise against ‘giving in’ to tiredness, asserting that the practitioner must work on themselves and persist with singularity of focus in their practice to overcome the mind-body succumbing to fatigue.
‘Fatigue was a chronic problem for me,’ recalls the renowned spiritual teacher and meditator Ram Dass. In his essay ‘Distractions and Hindrances’, he refers to tiredness as ‘one of the major unhelpful states that is a danger to meditation practice’, before going on to share an experience that presents tiredness
in a different light: ‘I remember propping myself up with piles of cushions so that I would not fall over into sleep. I often went to meditation courses because I was afraid that alone I would drift off into sleep. I’ve since learned to handle drowsy states with breathing techniques. What I experienced as fatigue often was actually a state of deep stillness that I misinterpreted. Instead of taking the feeling of fatigue as an invitation for a nap, I now regard it as a passing state.’
While it’s true eastern classical ways of meditating ask we be awake during our practice, in the reality of modern day life it’s also true that certain ways of meditating and at a certain time, for example a guided relaxation just before bed, may mean you get the sleep you need or help settle an anxious heart. This is a positive and worthy outcome. Guided meditations specifically to help people sleep are the most popular downloads on Insight Timer, currently the world’s most-accessed meditation app.
In the more modern secular form of mindfulness meditation, we would give the advice to bring compassionate mindfulness to our very ‘tiredness’. If you do fall ‘out of focus’ and into a semi or unconscious state, bringing a kind attitude to that is a practice of self-compassion.
Tiredness can also give valuable feedback from your mind and body, signalling what in your life you may need more or less of. Former Buddhist nun and Insight Meditation senior teacher, Martine Batchelor, goes one step further with this self-care advice: ‘If you are tired, just rest. Don’t meditate, take rest instead.’