Three Reasons People Fall Asleep in Meditation – and Solutions

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.

 

Fatigue

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.

Meditation is more than silence and emptiness

There is an exciting dimension to meditation, which is often ignored or even dismissed. This is the exploration of altered states of consciousness, and mystic and psychic experiences.

There are several reasons for this omission. The first is a misunderstanding of the Buddhist idea of emptiness. Western interpretations have dumbed down sunyata (Sanskrit), a complex concept that attempts to describe meditators’ calm experience of infinite unknowing. This has been inaccurately interpreted to mean a void in which there is nothing but silence and emptiness. In fact, the void of sunyata is an infinite space that harmoniously includes and contains everything.  

(Representation of the observable universe on a logarithmic scale by Unmismoobjetivo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A second reason for ignoring the spirituality and metaphysics of meditation has been a utilitarian move to present meditation as a safe secular practice that soothes and supports wellbeing. The fear in education and medicine is that the metaphysical aspects of meditation will sabotage its mainstream acceptance.

A third related reason is a cultural snobbery around spiritual and psychic experiences, which are often judged as naive or, worse, a possible symptom of mental illness. So, many meditators keep quiet about their spiritual experiences, not wanting to be the targets of unpleasant comment.

This distrust of meditation’s metaphysics is often supported by a famous story about an experienced meditation teacher and an enthusiastic student.

Enthusiastic student: My meditation was amazing! I saw angels and fantastic colours! I heard a voice and felt the vibration of liberated beings!

Teacher: Be quiet. All that will pass.

(Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand – 018 Devas in Heaven, CC BY 2.0)

This fable is often used to assert that all psychic phenomena in meditation are irrelevant figments of the imagination and distractions.

But that is not the real lesson of the story.

The actual teaching is more important: whatever the experience, meditators need to maintain a state of watchful, calm and compassionate equanimity.

Inside this composed mood, meditators can then observe all phenomena with a kind but detached curiosity, and assess the usefulness and value of whatever has arisen. Importantly they can also discern whether the phenomena are creations of their own psyches or are external realities; and if the phenomena are indeed creations of their own psyches, they can reflect on why they have arisen.

The story about the teacher and student does not tell students to dismiss all phenomena. It tells them to observe with equanimity whatever arises.

We can immediately see here the psychological value of mature meditation. Mindful curiosity allows meditators to calmly engage with their experiences. The sensations and memories, for example, of traumatic events can be witnessed as they emerge as thoughts, feelings and subtle sensations. Tranquil breath and self-care then enable a healing process of acceptance and integration.

(Francesco Botticini – The Assumption of the Virgin)

Beyond this internal psychological dimension, there are also the external spaces accessed in altered states of consciousness. This is where meditation starts to be a whole lot of fun. But I need to be crystal clear. At the risk of repetition, exploration of these psychic dimensions has to be practised with compassionate equanimity. Perceptions and experiences are always balanced with reflective and sceptical detachment. Otherwise the result can be dissociation into a psychic Disneyland.

That said, the cosmos and its subtle dimensions are full of interesting phenomena, beings and experiences. Our psyches are totally free to explore the cosmic environment. This is the greater ecosystem. Big bang. Time. Consciousness. Gaia. Christ. The Divine Feminine. These are just hints at what the meditative psyche may explore. Exploration expands consciousness and connection.

Remember that Buddhist paintings of meditation and its inner realms are not empty but filled with strange beings.

Humans are never freer than when the psyche is in meditation. Any limits are only self-imposed and do not come from external agents. (Trust meditation teachers who empower you to explore!)

In exploring these metaphysical realms it is useful for practitioners to understand their own levels of psychic sensitivity and their own psychological tendencies. I often think that the differences between the many schools of meditation come from their founders’ different levels of psychic sensitivity. For example, if practitioners are not at all psychic, then because they do not have the same experiences, they may naturally be sceptical of psychic phenomena. At the same time, those who are naturally psychic often need to discipline themselves, so as not to get lost or distracted by their perceptions. Equally meditators who possess busy minds need to calm their endless interpretations.

In my classes I often ask for a show of hands to find out where people are located on a spectrum of psychic sensitivity. We then unpack together how this influences their meditative experiences.

In a recent training for meditation teachers, there were some colleagues who were very psychic and always perceiving beings from other dimensions. Other colleagues were more oriented towards ‘melting’ into a sense of unity with all that is. The conversation between the two groups was very helpful in highlighting how these differences influence our experience of meditation. That said, there was never disagreement about the core requirement of calm equanimity, or that spiritual growth is always about compassion, connection and consciousness.

The Indian sage Patanjali (500-400 BC) described the subtle phenomena of meditation as coming from an ‘over-shadowing cloud of spiritual knowledge’ or a ‘raincloud of knowable things.’

When meditators start to describe their metaphysical experiences, it can be problematic for sceptics, triggering warnings of naivete, delusion and possible mental illness. This is understandable. There are indeed delusions.

My response is to be reassuring to that caution.

Meditation is not an empty void but an expansive ocean. Therefore practitioners are continuously developing the skills of perception, discernment and interpretation.

Cosmic curiosity — exploring metaphysical dimensions — is healthy, positive and developmental. 

(For a relevant online workshop on this theme click here)

Evolutionary psychology may explain the anti-vaccine conflict – benevolence versus terror

Evolutionary psychology provides an interesting perspective on the extreme attitudes around covid and vaccination. In my hometown of Glastonbury, the refuge of many hippies and escapees from mainstream culture, there has been uncomfortable tension in the High Street.

When old friends meet there is a pause as they tentatively wait to hear where the other stands. Almost without exception if one friend supports vaccination and the reality of covid, and the other does not, there will be unpleasant conflict. Tight-lipped passive aggressive or openly hostile. Personally I have been nervous sometimes to share that I have been vaccinated. I lose friends.

This conflict between two opposing worldviews is personal and political. It is a clash between trust and suspicion.

From a political and democratic perspective anti-vaxxers must be heard. It is always appropriate to be reminded of dangerous government and commercial manipulation. There has been so much of this in the past. (When I wrote the piece I did not know that ‘anti-vaxxer’ was considered a term of abuse. I meant  and mean it completely neutrally and with respect.)

From the perspective of friendship they also must be heard. Anti-vaxxers have strong and authentic emotions. Whether what they assert is factual or opinion, their words clearly articulate strong feelings.

It is respectful to acknowledge what they say and, even if we think their rationales are inaccurate, seek to understand.

Perhaps the perspective of anti-vaxxers is based in a legitimate instinct, a presentiment about the world and its state.

Remember the wise elephants and other animals who can feel the coming of an earthquake or tsunami and move to higher ground. We are all creatures and capable of instincts and intuitions that ensure survival.

Evolutionary and archetypal psychology suggest that the way we think, feel and behave is often guided by the history of our species. This is clear in how we act in relation to food, territory, status and connection with others.

More than that, there are evolutionary templates that guide our social behaviours and how we interpret life around us. These are archetypal patterns of action, thought and emotion. They can be recognised in their repetition and how often they are played out. They are activated for example when people fall in love. They exist archetypically between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, fans and charismatic leaders, and when people move in clans and crowds, in music festivals and marching to war.

There are also archetypal patterns related to the existential realities of survival.

From the earliest days of humanity we were never far away from the harsh realities of competition and conflict for food, shelter and partners. We were also never far away from herd mentality and cruel, bullying sociopathic behaviour. Charismatic leaders and clans often wielded brutal power. The totalitarian cruelties, pogroms and genocides of the last one hundred years bear testimony to the ongoing reality of these group pathologies.

No wonder then that many of us react archetypically to the covid pandemic and the vaccine programme. It is archetypically logical to perceive covid and its medical solutions as a horrific totalitarian plot to manipulate and enslave us. This is an understandable response. We can see awful parallels in genocides and Nazi experiments.

But not all of us have this suspicious response. Many of us have a more philosophical, patient and trusting reaction.

I want to understand why folk separate into these two camps — those who fear totalitarian oppression and those who trust all will be well.

My intuition is that anti-vaxxers are influenced by an evolutionary and psychological inheritance of trauma and suffering. They understandably and reasonably perceive government and vaccine programmes as symbols of terror and oppression. I do not know why they carry this history. Perhaps it is genetically embedded. Perhaps it is inherited trauma. Or from a more Eastern perspective, past life trauma.

And then there are those of us who accept the reality of covid, welcome vaccination and trust the systems at work here. Perhaps we are naïve. Certainly we would have seemed that way if we had had the same attitude to the holocaust or pogroms. But we assess this situation and feel and think differently to the anti-vaxxers.

My intuition here is that vaxxers are influenced by a more benevolent evolutionary history and carry less inherited trauma. Their feelings and thoughts are influenced by how families, clans and tribes care for each other, and how government and healthcare can work for the good of all.

This is a simple binary model. On one side, understandable fear about the abuse of power. On the other side, trust in humanity’s ability to organise for the public benefit. And of course there are many positions in between.

Maybe this model is way too simple. Nevertheless I hope that it provides a framework for exploratory conversations, so that people involved in this conflict of worldviews may be able to step back and look more dispassionately and compassionately at their differences.

NOW CLOSED FOR COMMENTS.

 

I was Prince Phillip’s Body Double

Just to change things up here is a bit of random autobiography.

In 1963 when I was fifteen years old I visited Buckingham Palace three times in order to pose as Prince Phillip’s body.

One of my mother’s best friends was the portrait painter, June Mendoza. I cannot recall who had commissioned her, but it was an unusually relaxed portrait compared to the usual ones in which he wore a uniform.

He did not have enough time to sit for his body, so my being a similar shape June asked if I would do her the favour of coming to the palace, putting on his clothes and posing for his body.  

I have enjoyable memories of this event.

The first is that of entertaining myself on the walk of fifty metres from the main gateway, where the tourists all stand, across the forecourt to the palace. I experimented with walking slowly, walking dignified and walking with a swagger. I knew that I was being watched. I knew that the tourists were asking Who is this important man? For a fifteen-year old with a sense of the theatrical and self-importance this was such a treat.

On the second visit, before entering, I first loitered amongst the tourists, irritating many of them. I then swaggered through the gateway. The policemen acknowledged me with a salute and I walked the fifty yards to the palace very slowly. Was I a prince of the realm?

Inside the palace I was ushered up into the Duke’s private office where I put on his jumper and sat quietly in his chair for an hour while June painted.

Another good memory is of meeting all the Queen’s corgis in one of the long corridors and then a frantic hustle as the ushers quickly shifted me into a side room so that her majesty did not encounter a stranger.

I mused that I might have By Royal Appointment tattooed on my chest.

*

Several years later, when I was 23, I was riding a very beautiful chopped motorcycle across London. I came from Trafalgar Square up The Mall and then to the roundabout of the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace.

Unfortunately there was oil on the tarmac and I was possibly riding too fast.

My bike slipped and fell.

Fortunately I managed to jump off and avoid any danger, but the bike continued to slide across the road towards the crowd of tourists waiting for the changing of the guard. I froze watching this horrible scene, but the bike stopped before hitting any of them.

In a strange way it was graceful — the way I had jumped off and not fallen; the way the bike had slid to a gentle halt.

Two bored policemen were watching this whole pantomime. I looked at them wondering how they would react, but they had a sense of humour, laughed and applauded. No one was hurt.  

I pulled the bike back up and rode away.

*

More poignantly years later I was told by a friend that they had seen Princess Diana coming out of a bookshop holding a copy of my book ‘Psychic Protection.’

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It is a small world.

How Mystics Manage Isolation

Isolation can be a recipe for anxiety and depression. Left alone people may wither.

But what about hermits and mystic loners who enjoy solitude? What is their secret?

Mystics have always had a simple answer. They experience companionship in nature. From a grain of sand, the touch of air on their skin, out to the infinity of the cosmos, mystics sense a connectedness with all that is. They also sense an invisible and benevolent presence.

 _________________________

Mystic: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect. (Oxford Dictionary)

 _________________________

Yet mystics are not cut off from cruelty and suffering. In fact, because of their deep connection with the wonder and energy of life, they can meet pain with courage, compassion and dignity.

This is one of the assets of great spiritual leaders: they model a deep connection with the wonder and energy of life yet are simultaneously fully present to suffering.

*

Mystics also do not need the companionship of other people. They may enjoy the company of others, but they do not need it.

But infants and children absolutely need people around them. Without other people the infant brain simply does not grow. (See Sue Gerhardt: Why Love Matters – How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain.)

Children then mature. As part of their development they gradually detach from their families and carers. They need to explore, expand and become independent.

Adults, even though independent, still experience instinctive biological needs, including those for company and touch. At its most physical there is a DNA programmed biological response. Being in a crowd can feel great. Like most animals we like being stroked. Massage and lovemaking can even be blissful.

Unhappily natural instincts can become habitual, addictive and self-harming.

We see this in cravings, from food to sex. We see it too when the instinct for human company and touch becomes needy.

So here is a stark question. In this context of the pandemic and lockdowns, how much of the current concern about solitude and restriction is based in neediness rather than necessity?

We know that children absolutely require human company and affection. But do we adults really need it too or is it just the desire to satisfy a habitual craving and not a necessity?

That may seem an unnecessarily harsh enquiry. Certainly our first awareness should always be compassion and the relief of suffering. But when the suffering is based in addiction, we may need tough love.

Desire is the memory of things that have given us pleasure in the past — Patanjali 200 BC

This is where mystics have useful strategies.

They are content in solitude and isolation because they are nurtured by a felt, benevolent presence. But to achieve that state they conduct regular spiritual practice.

Their ongoing experience of the wonder and energy of life is not serendipitous. It does not just happen. Its foundation is in commitment, perseverance when times are tough and self-discipline. Mystics have robust rhythms of taking long periods of time to give full awareness to their spiritual connection.

Self-discipline however is a sensitive subject.

When someone is vulnerable and in pain, stoic willpower can be irrelevant, insulting and harmful.  

On the other hand the stoic willpower of daily spiritual practice can be beautiful, nurturing and liberating.  What is better for us than a deepening experience of the wonder and energy of life?

*

Although entangled in the web and habits of biology, instinct and human relationships, we are still independent beings.

Solitude, even restriction, can be enjoyed. Even the poignancy of feeling alone whilst also being spiritually connected can be appreciated. The choice is ours.

Blessings and love to all.

Past Lives, Trauma and Autism

Past Lives, Trauma and Autism

Reincarnation and past lives are a natural part of Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Gnostic Christian, Jewish Kabbalah, some Sufism and most Pagan cultures.
Even if you do not believe in it, it can provide an interesting way of thinking about and understanding people. Often, when I do not understand why someone is behaving in a certain way, I contemplate them through the prism of reincarnation. Is there a deeper and longer back story?
Logically, I also believe in life after death. This belief is based in experience, mainly from a near-fatal illness in my twenties when I had a sequence of out-of-the-body happenings.

In this context of past lives and life after death, I think about my mother who died a few years back. Usually, when someone I love dies, I feel their presence or some kind of communication from them over the coming weeks and months. But I felt nothing from my mum. It was as if, once out of her body, she moved away from Earth as fast and as far as she possibly could.

Then in meditation a few weeks ago I found myself contemplating her again and wondering if she would reincarnate and where. Tuning into her soul I felt a great reluctance on her part to reincarnate. This was understandable because her last life had contained much traumatic tragedy. At the centre of this tragedy was her time in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. The secret police had decided that she was a spy and troublemaker because of her interest in braille — and they treated her with great cruelty.
As a result of her deprivations her first child, my sister, was born deaf. This led my mother into pioneering charitable work for deaf children.
My mum, Freddy Bloom, was well known for her courage. A book was written about her. She was an early subject of the television programme This Is Your Life. And she had a difficult relationship with my father.

So she did not fancy reincarnating. I felt her saying to me:
If I reincarnate, I do not want to feel all that pain again. I do not want to be so involved with people. I want my sensitivity allowed and protected. I will need to be very introvert. I won’t understand relationships.

Sensing this from her, I was reminded of all the presentations of autism. The NHS describes autism in this way. Autistic people may:
— Find it hard to communicate and interact with other people
— Find it hard to understand how other people think or feel
— Find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable
— Get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events
— Take longer to understand information
— Do or think the same things over and over
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/autism/what-is-autism/

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Over the years in my work as an educator and carer, I have often wondered about autism and its relationship with past life trauma. I often have conversations with psychologists who also believe in past lives and contemplate whether autism might have its source in past life trauma. Imagine survivors of concentration camps — prisoners and guards; imagine folk killed or tortured in conflict; and so on — how might these souls choose to incarnate? What circumstances would provide the context for expressing their trauma and allow recovery?


Following my experience in meditation with my mother and her reluctance to reincarnate, I started to think about writing this blog. I hesitated. Would people believe it or accept it? Would it seem too weird?
As part of my preparation I googled ‘reincarnation and trauma. Google immediately responded with this academic paper: ‘Reincarnation Type Presentations of Children with High-Functioning Autism in Sri Lanka.’

The abstract for this paper reads as follows:

Here we describe three children from Sri Lanka claiming memories of their past lives and later diagnosed to have high-functioning autism. The first, a seven-year-old Buddhist believes he was killed by terrorists as a soldier in his previous life and attributed his birthmark to be an injury which caused death. The second, a five-year-old Catholic girl suffering from asthma claiming she died of breathing difficulties in her previous life where she was a Buddhist grandmother. The third, an eight-year-old academically superior child claims he was a monk in his previous life and demands parents to allow him to enter the priesthood. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29602719/

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Whether you believe in past lives or not, this way of looking at autism may be positive and useful. It provides a framework that reinforces acceptance, careful safety, space and time to be.