Using Thought When Drowsy.

March 7, 2015 § 4 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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§ 4 Responses to Using Thought When Drowsy.

  • smilecalm says:

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


  • 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:


    • 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.


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