There’s nothing quite like the feeling of slowly sliding down your chair during meditation practice or waking up with a jolt when the bell rings, to make you realise the potency of this hindrance. Sleepiness is a regular visitor of anyone practicing mindfulness and will be naturally seen as a problem to be solved, perhaps by self-reprimand, or ‘trying harder’. But in that moment when we jolt awake, or feel the head nodding, if we recognise sleepiness not as something to ‘fix’ but rather as something interesting to investigate, we are – all of a sudden – paying attention again.
How might we investigate sleepiness? Get curious about what it’s like. Note what its sensations are – fogginess in the head, heaviness in the limbs. Note if there are any emotions around: sometimes the body is tired from exercise or lack of rest, but strong or chronic emotions, like grief or fear, also exhaust us. Note what happened right before the sleepiness: was there a train of thoughts, a worry or a fear, that preceded it? Sometimes sleepiness is the mind’s way of saying, I’m getting out of here.
Sleepiness, when we notice it, is already happening – it can’t be undone by telling ourselves off. When we treat it honourably, with some interest, we discover all sorts of things. Perhaps the body is simply tired, and we need an early night. Perhaps life is challenging right now, and it is ok, and even important, to fall asleep for a moment’s rest. Or perhaps there is something recurring in mind or body that we don’t wish to attend to, and sleepiness, while a pleasant escape, is denying us the chance to notice what’s going on.
Discerning what flavour of sleepiness we are experiencing is a matter of practice. If we get curious about it over and over again, we see sleepiness in all its seasons, with all our patterns. We spot: when sleepiness is like this, I need to go to bed early. When it’s like this, I need to revitalise my mind in some way.
This brings us to boredom. ‘How long will this last?’ chatters the mind. ‘How can we still be on the left leg?’ ‘Why aren’t I calm yet?’ What can boredom teach us, when we get curious about it? Often feelings of boredom during mindfulness can be a fear of nothingness. When we start to investigate our own experiences of boredom – as the mind wanders off into planning, fantasising, or resentment that the bell has not yet rung – we may notice that behind the mind’s search for something more interesting than the present moment, there is a question: who am I if I’m not doing something?
The pull of the ‘doing’ can be all kinds of things. Boredom and lethargy do not necessarily mean there is a lack of interest or energy. On the contrary, it can show that your attention is not actually on what is happening, but what could be happening, how you should be feeling, and how things should be happening. This could be achieving something at work or at home; it could even be ‘being a great meditator’. When the experience of meditating is not transcendent or blissful – and it can’t always be, on an ordinary rainy Friday, with a to-do list as long as your arm – sometimes boredom is the mind’s response to not having a brilliant time doing meditation.
For those who have experienced trauma, there may be protective reasons for the mind to recoil at the prospect of sitting quietly, attending to nothing more than the sensations of the breath, the body, the soundscape, and the phenomena of thoughts passing through the mind. If you think this may be happening for you, it’s best to seek support and guidance from someone who could provide trauma-sensitive mindfulness (I would be able to get more info for you).
But know, too, that the mind’s objection to quiet and stillness are universal in human experience. So this week, look out for sleepiness and boredom – in mindfulness practice; in daily life – and get curious about them: what happens if I treat my mid-meeting nap, or disappearance into Facebook scrolling, neither as something right nor wrong, but as a process of mind, with something to tell me?