Meditation or sleep?

Beginner meditators often feel that they are sleeping during their meditations when in fact, they have entered the meditative state. This is quite natural because until we are familiar with meditation, we associate deep relaxation mainly with sleep.

Release of stress and fatigue

Of course, sometimes we do fall asleep in meditation, but that’s fine. It’s important not to guard against sleep during meditation strongly. Instead, it’s better to think of sleep and dullness during meditation as the release of fatigue and stress. For some of us, it’ll be necessary to go through a lot of sleep and fatigue during meditation and sometimes even after meditation. It would help to keep in mind that these signs indicate a very beneficial clearing process.

If you have an overwhelming urge to lie down and sleep during meditation, then do that (but don’t lie down unless you feel you absolutely have to!!). When you wake up, sit up and meditate for five or so additional minutes. Your system will have cleared a backlog of fatigue, so even a short meditation after waking will be very useful.

Wakefulness and sleep are like sunrise and darkness, while dreams are like the twilight in between. Meditation is like the flight to outer space, where there is no sunset, no sunrise—nothing!

Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Differences between sleep and meditation

After a few regular meditations, meditators usually realize that sleep and meditation are quite distinct states. Coming out of sleep, one feels a little dull. But emerging from the deeply settled “no mind” state, one basks in clarity and feels peaceful and often joyous.

Also, the breathing patterns during deep sleep and meditation are quite different. Deeper states of meditation are associated with very feeble breath or even suspension of breath, whereas in sleep, respiration does reduce, but less.

During your meditations, please don’t try to figure out whether you were sleeping or deeply meditating at certain times. Doing so could interfere with the innocence of the meditation process. The statement, “Whatever happens is fine,” shows the best attitude.

The key distinction between meditation and sleep is alertness in meditation and non-alertness during sleep. However, meditative alertness has a different quality than that of the waking state. To understand that distinction, and also how meditation and sleep are different, we need to consider how the four modes of consciousness—mind, intellect, memory, and ego—operate in the waking, dreaming, and sleeping states and also in the fourth state of consciousness, which is experienced in meditation, traditionally called the turiya state.

In the waking state, the mind, intellect, memory, and ego all function to some extent. In the dream state, only memory (chitta) works actively. In a deep sleep, all four disappear—the consciousness rests–devoid of any activity.

In the meditative state, the mind, which receives input from the senses, goes completely underground. The ego also becomes inactive, but the intellect and chitta function subtly. Meditation is very similar to sleep, but with a subtle idea or trace of intellect and, in turiya, we experience a spontaneous perception of our real nature.

Letting go into meditation for deeper cleansing

Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar tells us that there are two types of letting go. One is where everything drops, and you sink into an unconscious state—this is sleep, a tamasic state where knowledge is not available. The other type of letting go allows you to relax completely, but with a slight intention or feeling that subtly continues—that’s meditation.

Meditation and sleep are both hypometabolic states, where breathing and other body activities decline. Both release stress, but the rest that meditation gives is much deeper than the rest that comes from sleep. Therefore, deeper-rooted impressions, or samskaras, leave the system.

Yet meditation is completely beyond sleep. It’s consciousness, knowingly becoming conscious of itself. That same consciousness is present during waking, dreaming, and sleep and witnesses all of them.

Although in sleep, the consciousness is not active in any of its “modes,” it’s still present as the witness to sleep. This is how you know that you had a “good sleep.”

Learn powerful techniques to help you relax and sleep better in the “Art of Living Workshop to Get Rid of Anxiety & Sleep Disorder“.

Written by Chris Dale, Advanced Meditation Course teacher