Using Thought When Drowsy.

March 7, 2015 § 11 Comments

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In the past few weeks I had been troubled by drowsiness when meditating. My first impulse was to use the drowsiness as the object of my meditation, a method recommended by the Buddha as told in  “Ask a Monk: Falling Asleep While Meditating.”  (Thanks to a spiritual friend for this site.)

Using drowsiness as the object of my meditation provided insight into the mental goings on when becoming drowsy. I could see that my attempts to only focus attention quickly led instead to following whatever subtle thought that arose in the background of my mind. I found that dozing off is like sinking into the ocean when you stop treading water, or like a bird that stops flapping its wings and falls into the sea. It became evident that I had to find a way to prop up my attention when meditating or I would continue to sink into unconsciousness.

In the above link, the monk made it plain that meditation is a practice that requires effort and not simply one of entering a calm, relaxed state. In the opening of The Gateless Gate we are directed to channel thought and feeling to one purpose. It’s asked, “Has this art of turning on one’s light been lost? It needn’t be if you put your mind—and all else you have—to it.” And in his work, Fukanzazengi, Dogen writes, “If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is negotiating the Way.” The direction from all points is therefore clear. We must apply effort if we hope to progress along the path and we can use all we have to develop that effort, even thought.

Meditation is not a matter of denying the mind’s functions. These go on vividly with thoughts and feelings arising and falling as we meditate. But if we do not apply effort in our practice we will continue to falsely identify and fall sway to our thoughts and feelings, with sleep oft-times ensuing.

Patanjali, the composer of some famous yoga aphorisms, taught that over prolonged periods of time when the waves of thought are continually pushed by the winds of mind, our thoughts become habitual. To counteract this he recommended raising thought waves that opposed our habitual thoughts. For instance, to overcome selfishness we would generate waves of compassion and loving-kindness. Likewise, we can use directed thought to focus the awareness to overcome habitual drowsiness.

Directed thought differs from following thought in that the later requires no effort. Following thought is simply a matter of habitually thinking the same old thoughts you’ve followed all your life. Directed thought, on the other hand, requires effort and it is that effort that keeps the mind from becoming drowsy and falling asleep.

To be clear, directed thought is not a matter of thinking new or more thoughts.  It is the use of thought to focus the attention while meditating.  One takes a truth learned through self-observation or Buddhist study and holds it in the awareness with the expectation that a deeper meaning will evolve naturally and of its own accord.  This is not done mindlessly or by rote but with an active interest that raises your level of awareness.

For best results, the truth will be one that is dear to your heart or involve some problem that has been bothering you.  If, for example, you feel unworthy you might attend to the truth of your own goodness.  Or, if you are plagued with catastrophic expectations you might focus on the unreality of thought.  Holding these in the awareness you actively attempt to realize the truth of your goodness or the unreality of thought.  In one sense this is like trying to solve a koan in that you are not trying to generate thoughts about your self but seeking an insight into your own true nature.

I have found it best to use more than one truth as sometimes one will give more energy than another.  And I have found that while doing this I am able to drop all but the essence of the thought as my awareness becomes more focused.  In this way, I have been able to use thought to deepen my practice, instead of just mindlessly following it into unconsciousness.

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§ 11 Responses to Using Thought When Drowsy.

  • smilecalm says:

    insightful technique!
    i’ve found getting enough sleep
    cured me of drowsiness 🙂

    Like

  • arpanrox says:

    I chanced upon this technique on my own and fully concur with this.
    Can you tell me what meditation technique do you use in general (when not drowsy)?
    I got the impression that you use what Shinzen Young calls Do Nothing:

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    • In the video Shinzen Young is addressing the subject of ‘not following thought’ with specific regard to dropping the intention not to follow thought.

      Meditation starts with the aim, or intention, of not following thought. As this practice develops it gains a certain amount of momentum that kicks in on its own when a fresh meditation session starts. Young points out that desirable as this is, it is still following thought, that is, thought disguised as ‘intention’.

      Dropping the intention to not follow thought is the next logical next step in the overall process of not following thought. Young refers to this step as ‘do nothing’. At the start of the video also he calls it just sitting, which is another name for Shikantaza. However, Shikantaza is not just dropping intention. I say this because Young may not have made that clear.

      Having said that, the meditation I aspire to is Shikantaza, which to me is just being awake in the present moment. Shikantaza is not easy because most of the time we are not awake but lost in our heads, telling our selves stories, dreaming or just being distracted by thought. So it may be more accurate to describe my actual practice as an on-going attempt to wake up from distracting thought.

      Liked by 1 person

      • arpanrox says:

        Sorry, the notification for your comment got buried in my mail box.

        That is almost exactly how I describe meditation. I agree about the momentum thing. The kind of meditation(the way we were applying our attention) defines the kind of momentum too, IME. Eg. After doing a concentration-oriented meditation, the mind seems to gain a tendency to “narrow down and rush through” reading material with no loss of understanding. While a more open awareness session makes the mind a “super-receptive vaccum” into which the words of a text rush by themselves and get imprinted deeply.

        About Shikantaza: You state that Shikantaza is not about “just dropping intention”. In my experience, we can only do something about being distracted/dull once we become aware of it. While day dreaming, we have micro moments of awareness where we tend to give small intentional nudges in favour of continuing or somehow manipulating the thought stream we were lost in. In meditation, it is precisely those micro moments that matter, where instead of favouring the momentum of past thought stream we favour our object(an entity in mental space and time). In Do Nothing the object is Present Moment itself(i.e. an object with no defined extension in space, but just the time component) . Thus when that moment of awareness occurs in Do Nothing, we do nothing(cz awareness itself is the goal here). Because we are not intentionally giving support to the thought stream when we become aware, it tends to lose its steam. Also, I tend to become aware of more and more newer layers of “tensions” in the mind-body complex, that I am intentionally holding(like how one would realize after a fit of anger that he is holding his fist tight and release it). The trick is to not constantly be on a lookout for these tensions, but allow the awareness about them arise by itself. I believe that this is not a difficult process, it is just that it is too simple of the complexity ingrained human mind to accept. As these stresses at resolved, awareness and bliss bloom in the entire being.

        So, in the light of what I wrote, what more do you consider a part of your shikantaza practice apart from “letting go intentions” ? There are many varuing deginitions of Shikantaza online. Eg many define “just sitting” as a deliberate focus on posture..using it as a meditation object.

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      • When I said, “Shikantaza is not just dropping intention” it was in reference to the video you supplied. I had the impression that some readers may come away from viewing it thinking that it was okay to just nod off or daydream when doing Shikantaza.

        I’ve not really found any clear descriptions of Shikantaza and over the years have come to believe that it is something you have to teach yourself. (Once you’ve gotten past the kindergarten and elementary grades then the literature on it becomes clearer.)

        Your experience in meditation is familiar. In my practice I sit. My attention falls away from the present moment into thinking and imagining. I want to turn my attention back to the present moment only to feel the mind resisting in an attempt to continue thinking. I persist in turning my attention back to the present moment. Most of my sitting is like that.

        At some point during some sittings, my attention turns to just being aware of the present moment. This usually doesn’t last long and, from what I’ve read, that it happens at all is rare in most meditations. You see, over the course of many lives we’ve all gotten a lot of momentum going in favor of thinking. So it’d be silly to think that in just one life time we can change that all around.

        In my sitting there is an on-going awareness of a thought or image of the self, or ‘me’. It’s there even when I’m in one of those rare moments when I’m experiencing the present moment. So even at those times I’m still thinking. Is there a time when this thought of self flickers out and all that’s left is awareness? Not me being aware but just awareness? Is that Shikantaza? And is that what Zen Master Dogen meant when he said practice is enlightenment?

        I continue on teaching myself Shikantaza knowing that when I do sit questions like those just asked are merely a hindrance. But that’s not to say that it isn’t a good motivator to continue sitting.

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      • arpanrox says:

        ” I want to turn my attention back to the present moment only to feel the mind resisting in an attempt to continue thinking. I persist in turning my attention back to the present moment. ”

        This is perhaps the only point where I think I differ from most Shikantaza practitioners and the one I would like to really delve in. For me “wanting” to turn my attention to the present moment is just another thought/desire. That “wanting” itself is a part of Present Moment. The experience of Presence/Stillness is great and the mind does crave it, but I merely give up any intention to do anything about it. When I become aware that I am imagining/emoting, I just do nothing except resting in the awareness that these fantasies/emotions are running. Dullness seems to be the Achilles Heel of this technique. Well, it is also a hindrance that tends to “burn out” and return less frequently or never atall with only a little practice. In my case, an awareness if dullness arose in certain sittings and I realised how Dullness is Not stillness/silence, it us just a stealthy /heavy movement of mind back into itself. Once I identified these sensations in body and mind I tended to become aware of them more and more quickly before getting drowsy. I could see the point where the “choice” between “participating” in the movement of dullness and just being aware of it arises. Thus, unlike many shikantaza practitioners, I don’t “try” to wakeup from dullness, i just tend to remain aware of it when the awareness arises(now dullness us almost totally gone excelp in very subtle forms occasionally…definitely not enough to make me fall asleep).
        What do you think about the method I stated above ?

        “I had the impression that some readers may come away from viewing it thinking that it was okay to just nod off or daydream when doing Shikantaza.”

        People mistaking this tech for Daydreaming is a really common thing, and they have a hard time accepting my explaination at the level of heartbeven if their logic grasps it. How could it be so simple, how can I give up on bliss of jhanas etc lol

        “In my sitting there is an on-going awareness of a thought or image of the self, or ‘me’. It’s there even when I’m in one of those rare moments when I’m experiencing the present moment. So even at those times I’m still thinking. Is there a time when this thought of self flickers out and all that’s left is awareness?”

        I believe yes, I have experienced it in rare moments. But when u “return: You just “know” you had hit it, but can’t conceptualize it in your mind. It feels like a “cessation” of personality. I almost always return from it due to a terrible fear rising and disturbing me. Some other meditators with diverse backgrounds in techniques who have felt it, confirm my suspicion: It is the fear of Death..of Non-Existence.

        “I’ve not really found any clear descriptions of Shikantaza and over the years have come to believe that it is something you have to teach yourself.
        …..
        I continue on teaching myself Shikantaza knowing that when I do sit questions like those just asked are merely a hindrance. But that’s not to say that it isn’t a good motivator to continue sitting.”
        Yup!. As i mentioned about how i overcame dullness, most of the progress seems to happen by how we become aware of our personal issues in the practice, and the awareness gravitates in the next session/attempt to heal them naturally and then move to newer layers of hindrances. I don’t need any instant gratification, always up for the long game.

        Btw, did you ever have any jazzy experiences with Shikantaza ? Eg you mention White Lightening vision in a post of yours(i think, you mentioned a different method for that)

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      • A Zen dialogure about zazen involves Master Chao Jo (Zhaoruo). When a student asked him, “What is zazen?” he replied, “It is non-zazen.” The student said, “How can zazen be non-zazen?” Chao Jo replied, “It’s alive.”

        That’s a good way to look at Shikantaza. It’s alive. Whatever arises in Shikantaza is part of life so we do not try to bury it. Nor do we favor some parts of it over others but look at it all with equal interest and love. We do not look for big experiences because if we did then we’d be saying that some part of life is more important than another, that one person is more important than another. So we just sit. And when we forget, we remind ourselves and come back. To do anything else would make us corpses sitting in front of a blank wall.

        The ego-self doesn’t like this sitting because it doesn’t favor the ego. Ego wants to be special. It wants to say, “Aha! Now I know. I’ve had a big experience.” Just sitting doesn’t do that. It’s just sitting. Nothing important. Nothing special. When the ego just sits and touches this ‘nothing special’ it feels like death and non-existence, so it recoils in fear.

        The trick, if there is a trick, is to not identify with the ego. It is, after all, just another part of life that you need neither favor nor bury. Not identifying with the ego your identity merges with all life. But that was your identity all along.

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      • arpanrox says:

        Excerpt from Shinzen Young’s Five Ways:

        Here are some guidelines and encouragements I give when I lead people in Do Nothing practice.
        • If you have an intention to get focused or settled, drop that intention.
        • If you have an intention to get centered or meditate, drop that intention. • If you have an intention to stay with a good state or fix a bad one, drop that intention.
        • If you have the intention to be clear or concentrated or in equanimity, drop that intention.
        • If you drop into equanimity, good. If you notice you’re trying to find or maintain equanimity, drop that intention.
        • If you drop into clarity, good. If you notice you’re trying to find or maintain clarity, drop that intention.
        • If you drop into concentrated space, good. If you notice you’re trying to find or maintain concentration, drop that intention.
        • If for a while you have no intentions to control attention, good, just hang out for as long or short as that may last.
        • If you get dissociated or confused, let go of any intention to do something about that.
        • If an intention to make sense of things arises, drop that intention.
        • Remember, if you cannot drop an intention, it’s not really voluntary by our definition so you don’t need to drop it.
        • Remember, by definition, dropping does not require any struggle. If you have to struggle to drop it, you don’t need to drop it.
        • If you find this centering, good, that’s a sign you’re doing it right.
        • If you find this decentering, good, that’s a sign you’re doing it right.

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      • arpanrox says:

        That is indeed a beautiful description of Shikantaza. I have found many jhana practitioners have a strong aversion for the honest evaluation of why they hate Just Sitting lol.
        One such jhana inclined forum(which i like very much btw) is:

        http://www.personalpowermeditation.com/category/blog/

        Btw i had asked if you had some jazzy/mystical experiences with shikantaza ? Like you mentioned this one using some other technique:

        https://augustmeditations.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/the-clear-light/

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      • All experiences are ‘jazzy’ experiences.

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