In mindfulness practice, like most things, we are looking for balance.
Too drowsy, and our mind will be prone to daydreaming, a kind of zombie-state. If we are too alert, we will find our minds busy, agitated and even anxious.
There’s a traditional story of a musician who is frustrated in his meditation practice. He either falls asleep or concentrates so hard he gives himself a headache. So he goes to visit the Buddha and asks for his advice.
The Buddha says, “Well, weren’t you a vinaya player before you started meditating? A vinaya is a stringed instrument, like a guitar.
“Yes,” said the musician.
“And how did you get the best sound out of your vinaya?” asked the Buddha, “When the strings were very tight or when they were very loose?”
“Neither,” said the vinaya player, “When they had just the right tension —neither too tight or too loose.”
“Well,” said the Buddha, “It’s the same with your mind.”
And the musician understood.
Sounds like good advice for most things in life, neither too tight or too loose, doesn’t it?
So how do we balance these two, practically?
1. Create the conditions to support us feeling both relaxed and awake.
In the morning, if we wake up feeling sleepy, we might need to stretch, take a shower and have a coffee before we practice. Personally, I enjoy qi gong (like tai chi) as a way to get my body, breath and energy flowing before I sit.
In the evening, some people find that after 9pm, they feel drowsy and don’t concentrate so well. So it might be better to reschedule practice to earlier in the day, maybe when we get home from home, for instance.
Going outside in the fresh air can also help. Some practitioners I know drive to the park for a practice, on the way home.
2. Exploring the feelings of sleepiness or alertness. Rather than resisting, we can bring a kind attention and a spirit of inquiry into our experience.
Where in the body do you feel sleepy or alert? Is it warm or cold? Heavy or light? Moving or still? Tense or relaxed? Pleasant or unpleasant? Do these sensations change or stay the same?
What thoughts do you notice about these feelings?
Noticing what is actually happening and its component parts can help us engage with the feelings, without fusing with them.
3. Adjusting the breath, posture and eye gaze in practice can also help.
As we practise mindfulness meditation, it can be good to check in with ourselves and ask if we feel too relaxed or too alert.
If we feel dull or sleepy, opening the eyes, or even lifting the gaze can help. As well as straightening the spine and increasing the sense of uprightness in the posture. It can also help to focus slightly more attention on the in-breath. The heart rate accelerates as we breathe in, so this is naturally energising. You might also like to breathe in through the nostrils, which can have the affect of alerting us.
If we feel anxious or agitated, closing the eyes or lowering the gaze can help. As well as checking that the posture is comfortable and relaxed. You might like to ‘ground’ yourself, spending a few minutes feeling into sensations of contact between yourself and your seat or the floor. Focusing slightly more attention on the out-breath can also help, as well as exhaling through the mouth, with a sense of letting go.
Like everything, to find what feels natural can involve a little trial-and-error.
Here’s a guided practice of Relaxed and Alert to help you, on my Aura channel.