Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies
How to Stay Awake in Meditation
By George A. Boyd © 2003
Many beginning meditators find themselves falling asleep when they attempt to meditate. This commonly is because they have not learned to tease out the inner alert focus of meditation from the relaxation response that occurs prior to sleep.
When we compare the journey through the Conscious, Subconscious, Metaconscious, and Superconscious bands of the mind for sleep, meditation and hypnosis, we find common themes of relaxation of the body, withdrawal of energy from the external senses, and focus within on inner imagery. This is shown in the table below.
Seven Helpful Factors
If the inner focus of alertness is not maintained in meditation, the meditator drifts either into a sleep state, or into a passive state of trance. Since little or no useful personal or spiritual development occurs in either liminal state, it is important for the meditator to learn how to stay inwardly alert while going on the inner journey of meditation.
First, you should meditate when you are awake and alert. Meditation for this reason may be most vital upon arising in the morning, as opposed to evenings when you may be tired from your work or other activities of the day.
Second, if you meditate with a full stomach, much of your energy will be diverted to digestion and less will be available for meditation. You are more prone to fall asleep when you meditate right after eating. If you have eaten, you will likely have better results if you wait two to three hours after a meal.
Third, if you take alcohol or other drug within a 24 to 48 hour period before meditating, they may distort your meditation experience, increase your chances of entering either a sleep state or passive trance state, and often deaden or dull your inner sensitivity. Since meditation is supposed to be under your control, we do not advocate meditating while under the influence of intoxicants, and strongly recommend that if you are serious about meditation that you eliminate the use of these substances from your lifestyle altogether. Long term use of intoxicants may damage your brain, moreover, and make you less sensitive to the subtle sensory experiences of meditation.
Fourth, if you meditate lying down or in a reclining chair, your established association with the prone state and sleep may make it more likely for you to nod off during meditation. You may get better results if you sit upright in a cross-legged pose, in a straight-backed chair or a sofa. If you have back problems, it is all right to support your back against a chair or wall when you meditate.
Fifth, if you do hatha yoga or martial arts poses, followed by some breathing exercises before meditate, you may find you are able to better concentrate your mind and stay alert longer.
Sixth, make sure you take care of your basic needs before sitting down to meditation. If you don't get sufficient rest, you will be more prone to fall asleep. If you aren't getting enough to eat, your meditations will be about food. If you aren't meeting your sexual needs, your meditation sessions may be rich encounters with your sexual fantasies.
Seventh, how you meditate may determine whether you will tend to drift off into sleep or a trance state. Following a thought bubble mantra with your attention, repeating a mantra mentally (japa), focusing within and listening for inner guidance (receptive meditation), absorbing your attention in the breath, or following inner light and sound may more likely to promote dozing off than forms of meditation that involve concentration or inner alertness (mindfulness).
The Hansa Method
The Sanskrit word, hansa, means swan. This is a style of breathing that will help you concentrate and remain alert in meditation. You can use it to bring yourself back to focus when you start to drift off, and progressively deepen your awareness in meditation. Here's how you do it:
To begin to be aware of this breath, make a sniffing noise with your nostrils. You should be bringing air into your nostrils no further than one fingerbreadth, about 3/4 to one inch.
When you have the urge to breathe, breathe normally, and then go back to this little sniffing breath. (Note: you should not be making a full inhalation as you sniff, as this will induce a state of hyperventilation. If feel dizziness or tingling, stop: you are sniffing too deeply. The sniff breath should not pass into your lungs at all.)
The first phase of the hansa breath is to help you concentrate your attention. Here you sniff into the focus of your concentration to help you sharpen your focus. When your mind has become finely concentrated, you move to the second phase, which is the shift of awareness.
In the shift of awareness phase, you will silently think han as you sniff in, and sa as you sniff out, then watch the shift of awareness. You will simply witness whatever comes into your awareness as you shift this focus. Gradually, you will progressively deepen your awareness, remaining inwardly alert as you move to deeper bands of your mind. Notice you control the degree of your deepening.
In the third phase, you will bring your attention back, doing little sniff breaths with the sound of huhout onlyand watch the change of awareness as you lower your attention back to your grounded state of awareness.
If you start to drift off, do a quick sniff breath. This will bring you back to the state of inner alertness.
As you progress in meditation, you will be able to actively concentrate your attention wherever you chose. You can then use the sniff breath to keep you alert within.
If you can control your inner alertness in meditation, you will avoid falling asleep and wasting your valuable meditation time. You may also find yourself less likely to fall asleep if you observe the seven helpful factors, and use the hansa method to help you stay awake.