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Practicing with Sleep During Retreats

by Gil Fronsdal from the Fall 2014 IRC Newsletter

Meditation retreats are wonderful opportunities to bring mindfulness to all aspects of our daily routines. As a large part of every 24 hours is spent sleeping, retreat practice includes being mindful and intentional about our sleep. This is particularly relevant because people’s sleep patterns and needs often change in this setting.  With these changes, our relationship to sleep may shift as well. Approached with mindfulness and wisdom, our relationship with sleep can be an important arena for discovering freedom.

First days—settling in

It is not uncommon for people to be tired the first day or so of a retreat. Sometimes this is because they have not been getting enough sleep in their daily lives. Sometimes it is because preparing for and traveling to the retreat can be taxing, especially if it means being busier than usual in the days preceding the retreat. For these reasons, it is wise to simply recognize first-day tiredness as just first-day tiredness. Sleeping in during the first morning or taking a nap after lunch can be appropriate. It is particularly useful to learn how to avoid being angry, frustrated, or discouraged for being tired. There is no need to fight against this tiredness.

Occasionally people do not sleep well the first night or two on retreat. There are many reasons for this. It can be from uneasiness from being with many strangers or it can be from sleeping in a new place. Sometimes it can be from enthusiasm or nervousness about being on retreat. If sleeplessness is caused by anxiety, it is best to try to avoid being anxious about the anxiousness. Rather it is helpful to bring simple, equanimous mindfulness to the anxiety. It may also be reassuring to know that retreats generally are some of the safest places to be. Fellow retreatants’ intention to be mindful and free of obsessions on retreat brings forth kindness and goodwill and creates an environment of openness and harmlessness. It is also helpful to know that when the wake-up bell rings, it is fine to sleep longer if this is clearly what is needed.

Changing sleep patterns

It is fairly common to experience different sleep on retreat than at home. Some people find they sleep more deeply; others sleep more lightly. Some will dream more vividly, others dream less – perhaps with no memory of dreaming at all. Some retreatants will discover they need more sleep while others will find they need less. “Morning people” may discover they do very well getting up to start meditating before the wake-up bell and then going to bed before the last evening sitting. “Evening people” may prefer to stay up late, practicing well beyond the last scheduled meditation.

Given the many individual variations in how sleep is experienced, it is best to avoid having a fixed idea about how sleep should be on retreat.  Retreats are a good place to experiment with sleep, learning from the consequences.  Too much sleep may cause grogginess; more importantly, too long of a nighttime gap without meditation may interrupt the momentum of the practice. Too little sleep may leave us with less energy to practice through the day. As we learn from these experiments we can adjust accordingly in subsequent days.

Sometimes more sleep is needed on retreats than at home. This may be particularly true when important psychological, emotional, and interpersonal issues become part of the retreat experience.  If these experiences are exhausting, sleep may provide both needed rest and a chance for subconscious processing or sorting.

On one week or longer retreats some participants discover that their need for sleep decreases.  This may be because retreat life is simpler and less taxing than their daily life. Or it may be that meditation provides a deep rest which substitutes for sleep. Sometimes strong states of concentration are energizing enough to allow for less sleep.

Working mindfully with sleep and dreams

Going to sleep and waking up are important periods on retreats. These are times many people are not mindful, giving in to old attitudes and thought patterns instead. It can be very supportive to one’s practice to be mindful and intentional just before falling asleep and when first waking up. Prior to falling asleep can be a time to check in with oneself and take stock of how one is, and then to consciously bring to mind whatever wisdom, understanding, or intention that may contribute to an inspired and contented state of mind. Sometimes doing a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation while lying in bed can be meaningful, perhaps helping in getting deeper sleep.

How we fall asleep may also affect how we wake up. Spending a few minutes meditating in bed before going to sleep may make it more likely that we begin to be mindful as we wake up. Similarly, when waking up in the morning, spending even a few minutes meditating while still lying down or sitting up in bed can create a good foundation for meditation throughout the day.

When dreams are strong enough or seem significant enough to warrant attention, on mindfulness retreats the approach is to bring mindfulness to the emotions and body sensations that linger after the dream, rather than analyze the content of the dreams. Just as we don’t get involved in stories and interpretations of what is happening while we meditate, while on retreat, we don’t do this with dreams. But we don’t ignore the impact of strong dreams. Because in Insight meditation, the “royal road to the unconscious” is through the body, practicing mindfulness of the body with the emotions that remain from a dream is an effective way for our inner life to unfold.

Persistent sleepiness

Even if one has a sufficient amount of sleep, there are many reasons for tiredness during meditation retreats, each with its own antidote. Tiredness during the day may be a sign of sinking into calmness or complacency. While calmness is usually helpful, it needs to be balanced with the appropriate energy and effort. Therefore applying more physical or mental effort can be useful when feeling tired. This might be, for example, sitting up straighter or doing walking meditation, perhaps even fast walking. Other times tiredness is a product of boredom, discouragement, or resistance. In such cases, patient perseverance and/or investigation of these states can be helpful. If emotional overwhelm is the reason for tiredness, it is sometimes best to take a break and do something comforting such as walking outside looking at nature or having a cup of tea.

Some people find it helpful to have a short nap every day during a retreat. The usual advice is to keep such naps short. The longer the nap, the more we interrupt the continuity and momentum of our meditation practice. For those who like to nap, it is recommended they experiment with one ten to fifteen minute nap per day. This may be long enough to be rejuvenating while also maintaining the benefits of continuity of practice.

It is important to learn to practice with tiredness and sleepiness and to develop the skill to keep meditating in spite of being tired. It can be very helpful to learn to not struggle while at the same time continuing with the meditation practice the best we can. Times of dullness, lethargy, lack of focus, and the drifting mind associated with drowsiness can all be seen as times for strengthening equanimity and the capacity to repeatedly start over with mindfulness – maybe every few seconds.  Sometimes a bit of sleepiness can even be helpful for meditation because there is less energy available for being distracted.

Because sleep is an aspect of the retreat, it can be important to tell a retreat teacher about your sleep, especially if your sleep patterns or experiences change significantly from your usual pattern.  It may also be helpful to discuss with a teacher any persistent tiredness that appears during the retreat.

A meditation retreat is meant to be a safe, meaningful, and supportive environment to engage in a practice and a path of meditation, liberation and compassion. Hopefully it is also a supportive environment in which to sleep deeply and contentedly.