Falling Asleep, Falling Awake
Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s voice isn’t precisely soothing. It’s too mater of fact for that, too straight. He isn’t in it for relaxation. Enlightenment is his end game. It ain’t pretty; it’s samsara.
If you want to relax, there’s all kinds of meditation recordings and podcasts out there delivered in a soothing, “its-all-gonna-be-all-right” tone. Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s voice brings with it a deeper reasurance, a basic understand that no, it isn’t all right, and no, it’s not gonna be all right so long as we’re caught in these rounds of suffering rebirth. He’s matter of fact about the suffering, but also matter of fact about our way out of it. I find that comforting.
Even though I walk the bodhisattva path, I go to this Theravadan monk for meditation instruction. I can accept the Mahayana doctrines of emptiness and buddhanature intellectually, but experientially I’m just struggling to calm my mind the hell down right now. I haven’t found a better teacher for that than Ajahn Geoff, as his students call him.
Of course, he doesn’t know I’m his student – not specifically. We’ve met once, briefly at his Metta Forest Monastery near Escondido, CA, in 2010, but I doubt he’d remember me. Instead of personal instruction, I rely on his voice thanks to Dhammtalks.org, a website dedicated to posting the daily teachings he gives at Metta Forest. I often listen to one of his short talks when starting meditation. They provide a three to five minute introduction and intention-setting for my thirty minute meditations. About once a week, I also try to listen to one of his longer talks and his guided meditation.
I don’t always meditate every day, but when I do, I prefer to do so at home laying down on my bed. Laying down is not the best posture for meditation. It makes it too easy to fall asleep, which I often do. However, I have a bad back. Laying down is the most, really the only, comfortable meditation posture for me. I lay on my back to meditate, which helps keep me alert because I don’t actually sleep on my back (I sleep on my side). I still tend to doze off, but I also fall asleep when I meditate sitting up, so I don’t fret about it too much.
In fact, I’ve learned some interesting things about my mind while falling asleep. For example, did you know you can meditate while sleeping? If I’ve managed to center my mind on my breathe (which I don’t always), I can maintain that attention even when asleep. Then I notice that, hey, not only am I still following my breathe, I’m also asleep. Then I think, maybe I should wake myself up a little, and I do.
When I’m awake, my mind will wander, chasing thoughts this way and that like a dog in squirrel heaven. These thoughts are mostly verbal in nature, the “inner monologue” we’ve all got going most of the time. They’re language based and constructed as discrete concepts and sentences.
But when I’m asleep, my mind will wander into dreams. My thoughts because visual, colorful, auditory, physical, and kinesthetic. Yet, I am equally aware of them, just as I would be my waking, language-based thoughts. And just like with my waking thoughts, I can take note of them, let them go, and come back to the breath. This is a kind of lucid dreaming.
I’ve had lucid dreams my entire life. The earliest one I recall happened when I was four years old. This showed me the power of my mind very early. I often pay attention to my dreams, both lucid and not, to give me important clues about my emotions. Being more cognitive than emotional in waking life, dreams provide me with an important window onto a repressed part of my psycho-social self. Stressors that I minimize in my daily life are often processed unconsciously By making part of that process conscious, through awareness of my dreams, helps me deal with them in more constructive and meaningful ways.
My dreams aren’t always pretty (though rarely nightmares). The dreamworld isn’t some magical place where I can gain transcendental insight – at least no more than in waking life. Because my dream world is still part of samsara. Dreams are just the mind doing what it does while asleep, just like thoughts are the mind doing what it does while awake. The difference is only one of perception. Are my perceptions received (as from outside stimuli) or generated (as in dreams)? Questions of ontology aside, this is really a rather minor difference as far as the mind is concerned.
So, yes, I fall asleep during meditation. Then I notice I’m sleeping. I let go of my dream. And I come back to my breath. Just like I fall into thoughts during meditation. I notice I’m thinking. I let go of my though and come back to my breath. Then I do it all over again, hoping someday I’ll fall awake like the Buddha did. Over time, it’s become easier to stay awake, even while lying down, and certainly to not stress out so much about dozing off. I no longer find it as frustrating as I used to, not since I began treating my sleepy mind just like my waking mind.
Ajahn Geoff hasn’t said anything about dreams or dozing off during meditation. Maybe he left this stage behind a long time ago. I hope some day I’ll be able to actually ask him about it.
As I lay in bed, my meditation timer chimes for thirty minutes. I might get up and go do some work. Or I might roll over, let go of my breath, and have fun flying through the galaxy.