The Sleepy Sit: Staying Awake While Meditating

Tea on beach

Staying Awake While Meditating

When we lived at the Mt Baldy Zen Center we began our day at 4 a.m. with a pucker-inducing dose of hot lemon tea, followed by almost an hour of chanting. Both tea and chanting helped keep everyone awake while meditating.
Monks and nuns of all types get up before dawn to meditate and pray. And for millennia they have come up with ways to work with drowsiness and stay awake while sitting for long periods of time.
The truth is, when you’re doing a lot of meditation, you don’t seem to need as much sleep. Those of you who have done a multi-day retreat know that the early wake up becomes easier after a few days. That’s in large part because you’re spending your days in meditation. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be times when you’ll struggle to stay awake or even doze off completely.
Caffeine has been used to help meditators for a very long time. Bodhidharma, the 5th century monk, is credited with the first instance of green tea growing in China.


Bodhidharma is thought to have brought Zen to China in the 5th or 6th century. For nine years he sat, meditating, near a cave. It is said that one time he fell asleep while sitting and became so fed up with his sleepiness that he cut off his eyelids to prevent himself from falling asleep. He threw his eyelids on the ground outside the cave and this is where the first green tea plants sprung up. To this day Bodhidharma is the patron saint of tea in Japan.

Tips to Help Staying Awake While Meditating

Over the years, we’ve noticed a few ways to help with drowsiness while sitting in meditation.
1. Caffeine can be helpful in moderation. Yet, it can also send your thinking mind go off to the races, so we recommend using it with care while sitting.
2. Another thing to watch for is the temperature of the room – there’s a reason Zen halls are kept cool. It may help to open a window and let in some fresh air.
3. A short walk (kinhin) outside can be refreshing and provide energy to come back to the cushion.
4. A quick nap! We feel that sometimes it’s important to work against sleep, yet sometimes you have to give a little ground. Dozing a little may make it a lot easier to come back strong.  Sometimes a sleepy sit makes way for a wakeful one.
There are a lot of ways to work with drowsiness – we hope you find your way to a clear and awake state of mind.

The mind is the root from which all things grow if you can understand the mind, everything else is included.

                                   ~ Bodhidharma

A Buddha is someone who finds freedom in good fortune and bad.

                                  ~ Bodhidharma

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