How I gained enlightenment by being tired?

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 3, Part 4 of 13 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: I have a question.

CTT: Yes. Good. Ask a question.

Student: Well not a question, I guess an observation about the relaxing. I find it really difficult not to fall asleep when I’m doing this meditation because my body starts relaxing so quickly. And then I find my attention on keeping myself awake.

CTT: Do you get enough sleep at night?

Student: I think I do. I’m like an 8, 10 hours sleeper.

CTT: Oh. That’s pretty good. Do you sit up when you meditate so you have to put a little attention into keeping your body upright?

Student: Yeah. I sit in a chair and upright.

CTT: And then what happens as you fall asleep? Does your head start to fall?

Student: I start to fall forward.

CTT: Okay. Now see, this is your very own biofeedback mechanism, right? You have a little “meter” here and as it starts to point in this direction it indicates you’re falling deeper asleep and then you just wake yourself back up. Try it with your eyes open too. I assume you’re meditating with eyes closed?

Student: Yeah.

CTT: Yeah. Park them somewhere, but keep your eyes open. That’ll probably keep you more awake. And, if worse comes to worse, as happened to me some years ago when I began to get very sleepy when I meditated, you can eventually take the sensation of sleepiness as the focus of your meditation and bring to explore precisely what that’s like. And you will get to amaze your friends by telling them – I always get a kick when I tell people this – that you’re meditation is an exploration of the bhavanga! Doesn’t that sound exotic?

That’s a Sanskrit word for that state where you’re going into sleep. It actually has a theoretical or philosophical meaning of a kind of state of continuous mental flux out of which reality coalesces and arises. It’s possible to learn to sort of hover in that and watch a continuous flow of stuff that’s never quite anything, except it starts concretizing once in awhile, but you can let it go and watch it flow. But meanwhile you might want to keep your eyes open and try to stay awake. Master that part first, okay?


  1. You described that interesting phenomena very accurately. I observed that flow several times before falling asleep, but never out of nodding in meditation. When I doze off in meditation it seams almost impossible for me not to get hypnotized by hypnogogic content. Very usually some book pages with highlighted sentences appear on the periphery of my vision which I almost always lay my eyes on. Or counting the breath suddenly becomes sowing the wood which I continue to perform “mindfully”. And every once in a while I menage to see through that trick and all the weird stuff continues but I “secretly smile” cause dream “thinks he is having me” …. but on the contrary (lol)

  2. “I find it really difficult not to fall asleep when I’m doing this meditation because my body starts relaxing so quickly.”

    The rate of breathing can help control the state of alertness during meditation.

    Breathing slowly can be relaxing and if the mind is turbulent, breathing slowly can help calm the mind down. However it can also lead to drowsiness. In that case, breathing faster may help reduce drowsiness. I don’t know if this is due to changing CO2 levels in the blood or just the activity of breathing faster is enough to keep one awake.

    If you start off the meditation session with a turbulent mind, you can calm it down with slower breathing and then speed up a bit if you get too drowsy.

    If you start off drowsy you can try breathing a little more rapidly and that can help fend off drowsiness.

    This allows one to maintain a state that is relaxed, awake, tranquil and alert.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *