Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,
Lecture 2, Part 8 of 15 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.
Student: Any suggestions or counsel on the state change of my leg falling asleep constantly?
CTT: Well you can worry about how you’re probably going to die from it. (Laughter) But I think you already know how far that gets you. You might try a better position.
Student: But I need pain to stay awake.
CTT: You could hire somebody with a stick to beat you once in awhile. (Laughter)
Student: I can do that for you. (Laughter)
CTT: In classical Zen they have this . . . . What do they call the guy with the stick who will come around and give you a good whack when you get too sleepy?
Student: The guy with the stick.
CTT: Somebody must do Zen. What do they . . . ?
Student: Your guilty conscience?
CTT: No. This guy is external. He’s got a big stick and he’s trained to know how to whack you across the shoulders in a way that causes a maximum amount of pain without any actual physical injury. You might want a somewhat more gentle way.
Try keeping your eyes open and sit up straight and let’s see what else I forgot…. Some traditional ways are to meditate sitting up straight with a pot of ice water balanced on your head so that (Laughter) if you start to fall asleep the ice water will drench you and wake you up.
Or the really desperate ones recommend that you meditate while sitting on the edge of a cliff. (Laughter) So if you fall asleep, you’re going to die. (Laughter) I don’t go for those kinds of extremes.
CTT: More sleep at night.
CTT: If you’re a typical student, you’re sleep deprived.
Student: Yeah. A little. I’m the typical . . . .
CTT: It’s much harder to stay awake when you’re sleep deprived. If the pain helps you keep awake and you can regulate the pain to a level that helps you stay awake but doesn’t distract you too much from what you’re trying to do, that’s fine. Yes.
Student: Where’s the acceptance that maybe this is what I need right now, and I’ve come to this place to be open, and what has come up is I need sleep, so go into the sleep and maybe there’s something new there. I mean, if you sleep then when you wake up, do you feel refreshed and then you can sit?
Student: Well, yeah and I’ve looked at that precise . . . I mean I’ve looked at it from the somatic sense, what is my body trying to tell me? What is my relationship to pain? Why do I have trouble staying still in this part of life? So yeah, there are all these tangents I can go on, but bottom line is my foot keeps falling asleep.
Student: If your foot falls asleep in 10 minutes, try sitting on a chair.
Student: I’m sitting up straight in a chair.
CTT: Okay. For you there’s another technique which may work, and that’s walking meditation. This is more of a Vipassana technique than a concentrative technique, but these things are actually on a continuum anyway. It is definitely harder to fall asleep when you’re walking! It could be done. But it’s harder.
I don’t normally teach it and I very seldom do it myself but it’s a good thing to do if you want to meditate but you’re going to fall asleep otherwise. The basic technique is to walk very slowly. For those who are really into it, it’s really sensing the lifting of your heel, and your foot slowly pivoting forward, your foot lifting from the ground, swinging forward, and beginning to come down, and doing this all in a very slow motion. It’s really weird to see it from the outside. You would think it was a bunch of zombies in there. (Laughter)
You do that with your eyes open. It helps to see where you’re walking, but your eyes are cast down, not looking out. You can do variations on this. If real heavy sleepiness is a real problem, there are ways to stay awake. Because, remember, you’re trying to learn to focus and calm your mind. So you can experiment around that in ways that are going to be helpful to you. Or, as one of my meditation teachers once suggested, sometimes a lot of sleepiness is nature’s way of saying you need a nap. 😉
Student: Some dynamic forms of meditation can still…. I run and that’s a great form of meditation, and I like to climb and that’s a beautiful form of meditation.
CTT: Yes. Because if you put your foot or hand in the wrong place you die.! (Laughter) Good motivation to keep you awake. Now you’re probably on a rope when climbing, but you’ll be embarrassed anyway if you fall.
Student: Yeah. So in terms of orthodoxy, Vipassana is this… I mean, I’m obviously not doing Vipassana.
CTT: I’m not a great teacher of orthodoxy. (Laughter)
Student: I didn’t know that.
CTT: If you want to be orthodox you better sit in the full lotus posture. 😉
CTT: And the pain from that will definitely keep you awake. Now I remember one study years ago using EEGs with transcendental meditators. The transcendental meditators showed a lot of sleep periods during their meditation. Now was that a success or was that a failure? Depends how you think about things. Had they learned the skill of sleeping while sitting up? Was this is a great accomplishment? Or was this just one more way to cop out of staying awake and meditating? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions.
And there are a lot of things we don’t know, but keep in mind again the overall goal. We’re trying to learn to focus our minds better, in a gentle sort of way, that still leaves us open to other things but doesn’t leave us in the usual state of our minds running away like mad, distracting us with this, that, and the other thing. We all already know how to daydream.
I’m sure everyone one of you is at Olympic levels of daydreaming skill. You know you can go on and on and on and you don’t need special instruction on that. But to be able to just come back to the present and be here, that’s a real skill.