During the meditation retreat I was not entirely well for several days. In fact I lost my voice. Given that it was a silent retreat this hardly mattered of course! And I suspect that I had lost it for a couple of days before I even noticed. It was only when the meditation teacher asked for some brief feedback to ascertain whether the technique was being properly practiced that I suddenly found I was voiceless, and had to whisper instead to make myself understood. Its quite funny really.
But one of the symptoms of the illness, apart from loss of voice, was some fatigue and tiredness. I could tell that it was not quite the same tiredness that comes from lack of sleep, and despite the draconian course schedule, I never had any trouble waking up or getting up promptly at 4am each day.
The tiredness, when it did come, seemed to occur mainly late mornings and then again early to mid afternoons – and almost always during a meditation session. Hence I had plenty of opportunity to experience the transition between normal wakefulness and drowsiness/sleep whilst in meditation. And these are my observations on it.
My first observation was that the transition is quite rapid, and there are no obvious early warning signs. One minute I was mentally alert, then next I was on the verge of sleep, and could easily have nodded off there and then I had let myself, and had I also not been in an upright sitting position, of course. However, very quickly I saw a pattern to the process.
- The first sign was that I would start to see vague imagery. This was a clear distinction from being in meditation because this particular technique does not involve any visualisation at all – instead it is all about sensation and bodily awareness. And although I can’t be sure (because my eyes were closed) I got the impression that the imagery always occurred in the right eye only.
- The second sign was that I would get a flckering of that imagery on and off quite rapidly, between vague white and black/nothingness – multiple times per second.
- There third sign was that I would suddenly realise that I had lost my place in the meditation, and could not immediately recall where I had been and where I was intending to go next. In fact I suspect that this may have indicated that I had already fallen into sleep, even if perhaps only a very, very brief (micro?) sleep.
- A fourth sign, although it very rarely got to that stage, was the experience of a jolt in posture to effect a recovery from a slumping head.
Having recognised this process and these signs, I was able to be on the lookout for it, and as soon as I noticed any sign of imagery forming I would deliberately labour my breathing slightly. This would normally cause the imagery to disappear again within 3 or 4 breaths, although during the worst of my tired periods I would have to do this repeatedly over a period of 10 to 20 minutes before I naturally seemed to pass through that tiredness phase, and return to normal wakeful alertness again.
However, I must also admit, that on a few of the occasions that this happened when I was meditating alone in my room, I did succumb to the urge to just lie down and have a brief sleep. But that only after having made a conscious decision that it would be in my best interest to do, rather than just allowing myself to doze off by default.
So all this may seem utterly trivial to some. But for me, it is all about a fascination I have with consciousness, and the changes and transitions in it that we experience. What causes them? Can we control them? After all, this is what dictates the entirety of our experience of life!
In various spiritual/mystical texts there are references to a state referred to as “continuity of consciousness”. Supposedly, this state can be attained as a yogic skill, along with various others, by advanced practitioners of meditation. The defining characteristic of this state is to be able to maintain consciousness not only during normal waking hours, but also during sleep. Those who have this skill are able to observe, interpret and query their own dreams, and have perfect recall of the dream state and its content.
So perhaps my observations on my own wake/sleep are my first baby steps towards discovering just how to prevent the loss of consciousness that we normally experience when we fall into sleep. At least I would like to think so. 🙂