Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lie back and think of...your breath

Ricky, from Not Done Living, wrote a long response to my post on Simple Breath Meditation saying that she has problems staying awake while she's meditating.  Falling asleep isn't so much of a problem for people who sit or stand during meditation becuase the meditation posture pretty much ensures you stay awake, but it's much harder for those of us who, becuase of illness and/or disability, have to lie down to meditate.

It's good to know that even totally able-bodied people usually experience period of sleepiness during their meditations. The US meditation teacher Jack Kornfield tells a funny story of going through months of sleepiness during meditation when he was at a Thai monastery.  His teacher finally got him to sit and meditate on the side of a well, which pretty much cured his sleepiness!

(Sleepiness is called 'sloth and torpor' in the Buddhist texts and is known as one of the five common hindrances to meditation.  The others are sensual lust, ill will, agitation, and distraction and doubting. It's fun to try to aim to hit all five of these during one meditation session - I usually have no trouble.  I blame 'sensual lust' on Adrian Grenier from Entourage...damn those intense green eyes and...woah...that hair! I'm hitting sensual lust, agitation and distraction all at the same time...focus Emma...focus...)

A few deep breaths later...

Sleepiness is, of course, a much greater hindrance to meditation if you're lying down to begin with.  In her book Turning Suffering Inside Out (A Zen approach to living with physical and emotional pain), Darlene Cohen writes about her own experiences as a Zen teacher and sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis.  She's developed some lying down postures that can be used to meditate.

"Lying on the back  Lie on your back with your knees bent and lighty touching each other, your feet firmly on the floor, and the insides of your feet lightly touching each other.  The tension in this posture is just this - keeping the knees and feet together.  If you start to drift, the knees will part.  ... Feel free to place a small pillow (not one so soft it would encourage dozing) under your head or neck...your eyes should remain open."

Cohen's idea is that we should be comfortable, but maintain some kind of musclular tension, so that if we start to fall alseep we'll fall out of our posture.  She suggests keeping the eyes open, but I have a lot of pain if I do that, so I meditate with my eyes closed.  (Falling asleep isn't much of a problem for me though, becuase I have insomnia. Lucky me...)  This is Cohen's other lying down position -

"Lying on the Side Lie on your side (either side) with your legs as straight as you can make them and the top leg completely on top of, and supported by, the bottom leg.  This, you will notice, is a hard posture to maintain without alterness; if you fall asleep, you will topple over. ... The arm underneath can be bent under you or lie out straight on the floor underneath or in front of you."

I like Cohen's methods becuase they encourage creativity.  She meditated before she got sick, so once her muscles started stiffening, she just experimented with different postures.  I subscribe to her 'work with what you've got' model of meditation.

I meditate lying in bed, not on the floor, as Cohen suggests.  Becuase I'm lying in bed I find it's useful to give my body some kind of slight signal that 'this is meditation time' (as opposed to my usual 'this is time for lolling in bed day-dreaming about meeting Adrian Grenier on a beach in Thailand.') The little signals I use are to put my hands in a certain position - for me it's linking my hands together over my belly.  If my arm muscles are sore and that hurts, I just place them straight down by my sides.

I met a trainee nun in a Buddhist monastery last year.  She'd been in hospital for an operation and becuase she couldn't sit up or get out of bed, her little 'this is meditation time' signal was to adjust the sheet over her so that it ran straight across her chest.  These are just tiny little signals, but once your body learns them, it can really help to flick you over into meditation-mode.

If none of these suggestions work and you still fall asleep 10 minutes after starting meditation - well, don't worry about it.  You've still done 10 minutes of meditation which is an awful lot better than 0 minutes! I don't think the Dharma police will be knocking at your door to arrest you for infirngements of the meditation code.

Now...they might just come a-knocking at my door to suggest I spend a little more time concentrating on my breath and a little less time planning my fantasy wedding to Mr Grenier.  (Ceremony on Thai beach, me in Vera Wang, Aidy in white...if you're wondering.)


  1. Thanks for the fantastic and useful post!

    sensual lust, ill will, agitation, and distraction and doubting

    I'm not so much with the problem with sensual lust, but I make up for it by doubting myself extra much I think :/

    I'll definitely be trying to get hold of Darlene Cohen's book, it sounds perfect for me. I can't actually use either of the postures you suggested because of various complications and the severity of my ME/CFS and EDS, but the "meditation ritual" idea is very very sensible. Actually I can't really believe I didn't think of it before! A ritual "getting set up" I think would help my mindset, even if it doesn't help stop me falling asleep.

    I don't think the Dharma police will be knocking at your door to arrest you for infirngements of the meditation code.

    This made me laugh a lot more than it probably should have! But it's so right - "relax into it, stop beating yourself up, and just do your best" is almost always good advice come to think of it.

    Now I'm wanting to get you to do an "introduction to meditation" post for Four Walls No Limits. Which reminds me, is it OK if I add you to the list of homebound bloggers on there?


  2. Hi Ricky,

    I'm glad at least some of that information was useful - I guess it just takes a bit of fiddling around to see what's works for you.

    I enjoy listening to Darlene Cohen's podcasts - she's got some listed on her website.

    Her primary work for the past few decades has been working with people in pain, as a massage therapist and zen teacher. She's really down-to-earth and very funny.

    I wouldn't recommend the above book to be used as a stand-alone guide to meditation for people with illness as it doesn't have a lot of meditation instruction in it. But, it's a very interesting read.

    I'd be interested in writing something for your site - just let me know a general outline of what you want covered and work length etc. And yes, happy to be added to blogger list.

  3. I e-mailed Darlene Cohen to tell her I'd mentioned her book on this blog and she wrote back about a new book she's working on about meditation postures...

    "A student of mine, Beata Chapman, and I
    have just written a book specifically on alternative postures expanding
    on that chapter from "Turning Suff inside Out" you mention. Its called "Alternative Meditation Postures: Ease and Joy." We hope to get it
    published in 2010. We'll distribute it free to meditation centers."

    Something to look out for!

    Thank you so much for yr comments on blog! best, darlene cohen


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