Addressing the challenges of sleepiness and boredom during meditative practice

Written by Shaila and Reviewed by V

Meditators have to face and overcome various kinds of physical and mental challenges during practice. A key aspect of meditation is to accept ourselves as we are! 

In this article we address two very common challenges that both novices and adepts face, Sleepiness and Boredom. Both phenomena are very common challenges on our path back to ourselves! Having the right strategy to work with them can make them into key accelerators for one’s growth as a meditator and the acceptance of oneself wholly.

Under my teacher’s guidance, I implemented certain techniques to investigate their true nature and researched ways to deal with them. Facing these issues was quite challenging but with time and regular practice I was able to understand and get through them gradually. 

Understanding The Challenge
The mind is conditioned to always stay busy. It enjoys thinking and analysing constantly. But during meditation, where we sit simply and observe rather than getting engaged with these thoughts, mind may begin to generate the feeling of boredom or sleepiness! The mind prefers being occupied instead of staying quiet as it is conditioned to behave that way from a very early age by the times we live in. Instead of getting into judgemental perception about these feelings, be gentle and kind. Gently breathe in with love and patience and consciously remind yourself of the intentions of your practice.

Mechanism of Sleepiness
In order to work with Sleepiness, we must try to understand and analyse the primary reason for its cause. When we meditate, we intentionally turn our mind inward and we may feel way too relaxed and sleepy because in our entire life we have been conditioned to associate turning inward with going to sleep. When the mind becomes free from agitation and restlessness, the overall energy drops and its natural tendency to seek stimulation gets restrained resulting in sleepiness.

Lets analyse the reasons why we may feel sleepy.  Sometimes external stimuli like physical or mental stress, lack of sleep, dull environment, illness etc. might make one feel sleepy during the practice. An ideal sleep cycle and healthy lifestyle is important for an efficient and better practice. If you still feel sleepy after considering these factors, then it might be the mind’s resistance towards practice. It tries to use sleepiness as a defence mechanism when it finds it hard to adapt to the changes brought about by the meditative practice. Understand and analyse what generates feelings of sleepiness, it can be for varied reasons like a dull mind failing to see any progress, sitting to meditate after a heavy meal, not maintaining a good posture etc. If you find out the source for your sleepiness, then you are half-way through to overcoming this already.

Coming out of drowsiness feels quite unpleasant. When you realise that you dozed off, do whatever is necessary to energize and rouse your mind back to the state of active alertness. For instance, half open the eyes and meditate for a while, practice walking meditation, deepen each breath, etc. Find a balance that allows for stable awareness while at the same time marginalising the feeling of sleepiness.  With time and practice, we learn to apply the right amount of effort to balance the scale on focus and relaxation.

Mechanism of Boredom
Boredom is defined as an aversive experience of wanting, but being unable to engage in a satisfying activity. One might feel bored when their expectations and desires aren’t met at that time, resulting in frustration. We may experience boredom also due to monotony. If we explore the nature of Boredom beyond our surface-level perception, it encourages one to seek greater experience and challenge oneself to learn and grow.

In meditation, Boredom is nothing but Dull judgement of how you feel, a label you give when your mind sees nothing much happening. Boredom has the ability to drive our focus towards adaptation and accomplishment.  When Boredom hits, instead of getting agitated; consider it as an opportunity to discover and learn more about yourself. Think of boredom as another thought and try to analyse why this thought has arisen. It could be a random thought, any discomfort caused by the posture, silent surroundings or it can also be a strong psychological resistance. Sometimes, the mind might feel dull and tired because not enough is happening. It might ponder upon things that need to get done or the deadlines and the chores that you are missing out on. Get to know what is making you experience feelings of boredom. Mindfully observing the mental processes also provides a more efficient, useful and satisfying way to achieve stable attention.  It is wiser this way as you gain a better understanding of how the mind behaves, and therefore you can work effectively.

Here are a few things to try when dealing with sleepiness and/or boredom during your meditative practice:

1. Why be so hard on yourself?
Do not force yourself to sit idle and inactive for a longer duration if you feel uncomfortable. Incorporate short mindful breaks in between the practice and move around a little from where you are seated. It increases focus and mindfulness.  But these breaks must be mindful and observant. Avoid using mobiles or engaging with the outer world. Take this time to observe how you feel now compared to the start of the practice, take a glance at your surroundings without judging, feel free to walk around and notice any detail that is visible to you.

2. Take a moment to appreciate the efforts
Journal your observations of the practice each day and go through it after some days, so that you can compare and get to know how much you have progressed.  This gives us the motivation to stay regular and consistent in our practice. There is nothing that is more encouraging than to see oneself growing and progressing.

3. To judge is also a thought
Meditation is all about observing but not judging. If you start to judge, then you get into thinking. So instead of trying to analyse or validate how you feel, try to take a step back and start to observe the momentary thoughts and feelings that arise. Let them come and go in awareness, without giving much attention or energy to them.

4. Mix up the routine
Trying to implement different styles of meditation occasionally by mixing up our regular practice with variations occasionally, keeps the mind engaged and even enthusiastic. However, if you are okay with the usual routine, then it is well and good. Sitting down to practice with a set intention in mind or recollecting why you wanted to meditate in the first place, will help you stay focused and dedicated.

5. Relaxed body leads to a relaxed mind
Doing yoga or mindful exercises like pranayama and mild cardio before practice helps relax the body and mind. Later, when you sit to meditate, you can see the mind gets slowed down significantly and more focused. Also, make sure these exercises are not too strenuous to drain your energy and feel sleepy again.

Experimenting and learning to deal with these challenges in ones unique way is important. The challenges while common in essence, present themselves uniquely to each person and therefore the appropriate solution may differ for each individual. With determination and consistent practice, these challenges will just be like any other thought and they too shall pass.

I encourage you to implement these solutions and observe how your mind behaves. Instead of thinking of them as a challenge or hindrance, consider them as an opportunity to evolve and explore more about yourself and practice by making Boredom and Sleepiness as objects to meditate upon.  

These challenges have no power unless you give it to them! Re-establish the intentions for why you got involved into meditation in the first place. Take your time learning and exploring yourself with love and compassion. You will then realise that all these challenges are merely an obstacle on your path to the Divine!