Over the decades that I have been teaching and leading meditation there is a common problem that arises. People fall asleep when meditating.
Here are three possible causes and their solutions.
The first challenge is straightforward. People are tired and when they give their bodies the opportunity to be still and at ease, their bodies follow a natural instinct and slip into slumber.
There are two solutions. The simple one is do not meditate when you are tired. Timing will vary. For instance, some people have energy after eating, but others need a nap. Some people can easily meditate when they get home from work; others need a meal and a rest. Some people also need to make adjustments according to the time of year and seasons. You need to understand what works best for you in terms of timing and your circadian rhythms.
The other solution is less straightforward. Many people experience a general fatigue due to their lifestyle. Too much work. Too much fun. Too much family. Whatever the reason, falling asleep in meditation is a prompt to tweak how you are living. Your body is dropping into sleep in order to make up for the stress from the rest of your life. The solution here may be troubling or a very useful nudge: change your lifestyle.
Dissociation and Avoidance
A second reason for why people fall asleep in meditation is more subtle and sensitive. When people meditate and drop into a sense of calm and being at ease, they may start to experience bodily sensations that are due to muscle and cellular memory. These sensations, which may be very subtle, are often related to trauma and injury. So it is natural that people will want to avoid these negative feelings and reliving the unpleasant experience. Falling asleep is a good strategy to avoid the pain.
In worst case examples, people who were abused as children may, during their abuse, have dissociated from their bodies. This is a poignant but effective escape and survival mechanism. It is as if their consciousness absented itself from their bodies and the traumatic experience. So later in life, in meditation, as old memories surface, they follow the same survival pattern that they used in childhood. They dissociate and fall asleep.
This is obviously tender material and requires careful compassionate attention. If people feel that this may be their case, then there are two ways forward. The first is to recognise what is happening and use the meditative practice of deep self-compassion to address the painful history. This strategy only works if the meditator is strong, balanced and able to turn up the volume on self-compassion.
The second method is to engage with a therapist or meditation teacher who understands how histories of trauma are held in the body. In the last two decades there has been a useful growth in body-based psychotherapy.
Stodgy and Inert Energy
A third reason why people may fall asleep in meditation is that their mind, emotions and body are stodgy and not in flow. This can be an understandably uncomfortable realisation.
Especially as people sink into being at ease or, practice techniques in which they connect down into the Earth, then it can feel as if their energy and vitality clog up like slow treacle. This is like taking a sleeping pill or sedative. The brain feels heavy. Morpheus and Hypnos, the gods of sleep, magnetically attract people into slumber.
The solution to this problem is systemic. The whole system needs to be freed up into a more fluid state of movement.
Inside meditation this can be achieved by doing exercises frequently taught, for example, in Qi Gung and Kabballah. Sense and guide energy up and down, through and around the body, varying the circulation and speed.
At the same time people can review their diets and general exercise regimes. Reduce foods that sedate instead of vitalise. Move your body in expansive movements. Check that you are flexible in your emotional and mental stances.