One question that sometimes comes up for people who are learning how to meditate is whether it is a good idea to meditate in the period between climbing into bed and actually drifting off to sleep.
In the ancient Buddhist scriptures, The Buddha purportedly recommended four postures as most suitable for formal meditation – sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. Falling asleep in a bed is of course, one example of lying down. So, meditating before falling asleep may have The Old Man’s imprimatur. And many modern teachers, famous vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka among them, assign students to practice a formal meditation technique while lying in bed at night with the lights out.
The main motivation for this practice is for our last moments in the day to become part of a continuity of mindful awareness throughout the entire day, without breaks, which is understood as a powerful tool for clarification and liberation. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana suggested, “You should try to maintain mindfulness of every activity and perception through the day, starting with the first perception when you awake, and ending with the last thought before you fall asleep.” Being aware all day, especially in the times where one formerly went unconscious, shines a flashlight into the dark corners of the mind, and helps bring illumination, freedom, and wholeness to all of our human experience.
It is relatively easy for meditators to stay mindful during periods of formal seated practice on a cushion. And there are times in each day, of course, when beginning meditators will inevitably lose awareness, for example while watching a movie, having a conversation, or trying to figure out something technical. But there are also moments that are in between those two extremes, times during normal daily life where distracting mental demands are minimal, and these are seen as golden opportunities to engage in formal meditation practice. Examples of such times include while sweeping a floor, showering, walking on the street, and, yes, lying in bed at night.
Also, as I explained in another blog post, “Some Buddhist monastic practitioners not only sit formal meditation, but also develop a high degree of intentional mindfulness as they go about all of the various activities of their days. They are unable however to exercise volitional clarity of mind during sleeping and dreaming, and they may wake up feeling slumber-drunk, tangled in gauzy dream-webs. So, it is sometimes recommended that monks and nuns specifically meditate either first thing upon waking, so as to clear out that sleep-haze, or last thing before sleeping, so as to create a momentum of unattached clarity going into the sleep state.”
As much overnight clarity as meditating right before going to bed may provide, meditating once in bed presumably provides a bit more. And I have heard from some people who consistently meditate while falling asleep that their practice seems to correlate with deeper and more restful sleep, spiritually-themed lucid dreaming, and more alertness upon awakening in the morning.
Many people occasionally suffer from insomnia. And part of the unpleasantness of insomnia for many people is that it feels like an useless waste of precious time. Meanwhile, many folks feel like they lack enough time in their day for spiritual development. So, meditating on those nights that we are unable to sleep would appear to solve a number of problems all at once. Keeping a meditation technique going while insomniazing would seem to be the perfect strategy – lying under the covers spiritually evolving until drifting off naturally and easily whenever the Goddess of Sleep chooses to bless us with a visit. Further, meditating can both help us to physically relax and can take our minds off of our worries, both of which obviously can increase the likelihood of us falling asleep sooner.
There are problems with meditating while falling asleep, however, and there are senior teachers who recommend not doing so. Foremost among the negative effects is that our subconscious minds starts to confuse meditation-time and sleep-time, and thus we begin to think that drifting off to sleep in the middle of of a meditation session is a fine thing to do. This of course is not what we want at other times, as we sit cross-legged and upright. Avoiding such confusion is why my teacher Gil Fronsdal practices and recommends, during periods of insomnia, to get up, turn on a light, and meditate in formal seated posture – and only upon becoming drowsy to turn off the light and lie back down.
My teacher Shinzen Young prescription for insomnia is to notice the fear and anxiety that comes with the common thought, “I need to get a good night’s sleep or I will feel horrible tomorrow and not be able to perform”, and to do one’s best to untangle from such thoughts and feelings. He recommends taking on the conceptual reframing of saying, “I need a good night’s rest, and I can also get that through relaxing my body and meditating”. He then recommends lying down, keeping the body still and loose, and then intentionally focusing on, deeply feeling, and riding into the pleasant waves of sensation that come from such relaxation.
When meditating during periods of nighttime insomnia, I personally have found that a broad and open awareness practice of noticing and deeply feeling various body sensations is best for tranquilizing, unraveling, and slowly relaxing into sleep. I find that it is helpful to pick a technique that has a large and wide object of awareness more than a meditation that involves concentrating on an object that is narrow and constrained; concentration meditation – like focusing awareness on the breath or on a mantra – seems to me to involve relatively more effort as one works to being attention back and focus the mind, and it can produce an energetic alertness that is the opposite of drifting off to sleep.
Also, all meditation can be defined as an encounter with what is deeply true, beyond the conscious mind, and what is deeply true can sometimes be disturbing, difficult, or agitating. Any experienced meditator knows that meditation practice sometimes makes life more difficult and unpleasant before it sorts out the tangles and life becomes easier and more pleasant. Thus, attempting any type of meditation while falling asleep can sometimes create an episode of anxious insomnia where there hadn’t previously been one. Imagine, for example, turning off the TV or computer last thing at night, and climbing into bed with a buzzy mind full of pleasantly fun distractions and irrelevancy, then, once in bed, tuning in to the breath, body sensations, or mind, and suddenly encountering rushing emotions as one’s deeper mind remembers a forgotten incompletion in the area of work, romance, finances, health, or whatever.
In the end, as with so much else in spiritual practice, I recommend that meditators experiment for themselves with meditating while falling asleep, and see what sort of results they get. If you hit on something positive, I recommend continuing to practice it.
There is something that I can unequivocally recommend on the subject of meditating in bed: having one’s spine extended (i.e. “straight”) is the most crucial aspect of any meditation posture, for a number of reasons, including but not limited to allowing for a smooth flow of energy through the body. And this injunction is true for beditating as much as it is for any sitting meditation posture. Thus, I would recommend lying on your back (and not on your sides or belly) while beditating, and having your neck extended flat along the bed (and not on a pillow). I recommend only placing your pillow under your head and flipping into your favorite sleeping posture in the last moments, once already tranquilized and drifting off.