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Overcoming Tiredness

The Pacalayamana Sutta: “The Sutta on Being Sleepy”

Tiredness can be a huge obstacle in achieving our goals.  I find that when I am working in a cosy, dimly lit library the book in front of me is often used as a comfy pillow rather than reading material. I strain my eyes trying to focus on the text but, sure enough, my head begins to nod and before I know it I fall face first into its pages and spend the next half an hour in a world of dreams! The problem of becoming tired when you really want to get something done was discussed by the Buddha on numerous occasions. The Buddha saw tiredness as a hindrance to the spiritual path and especially to concentration. In the “Sutta on Being Sleepy” the Buddha taught eight successive steps to his disciple Moggallana that can be employed to tackle tiredness:

(1) You should try not to dwell on the thoughts that arise when you feel tired. The Buddha understood that certain streams of thought can lead us to fall asleep. This stage might be interpreted as day dreaming. If we can, when we begin to day dream we should move our attention back to the topic at hand.

(2) If you still feel tired, the Buddha recommends contemplating the dharma that has been learned. For our purposes, this object of contemplation does not have to be only dharma and might include any task so long as the mind is engaged with it and can think intensely about it.

(3) The Buddha then states that, if this doesn’t work, we should concentrate on memorising the dharma instead. This recommendation is very useful for students. Many times we are too tired to write an essay or engage in concentrated thinking. At times like this, we can turn to a less challenging activity such as memorising some notes or cleaning our desks.

(4) The next suggestion may seem unusual to a modern audience and I have no idea if it works. If we are still tired, the Buddha recommends rubbing our ears and our limbs. Perhaps this subtle stimulation of the body would increase our awareness? Next time you feel really sleepy try massaging your ears and see if it works!

(5) If massaging our ears has not invigorated us, the Buddha recommends getting up from our seats and washing our eyes. After this we should gaze upwards towards the stars. Getting away from our desks and stretching our legs is always a good idea. Gazing upwards stretches our neck muscles and the light from the sky stimulates our minds.

(6) If all the above fails to beat the drowsiness, there is an extra option for the extremely skilled meditator. The Buddha states that we should produce the perception of light (alokasanna) within our minds. The perception of light in the mind occurs upon entering first jhana, a state of intense meditative absorption. Sometimes this light appears like a moon or a cloud and can be extremely bright and dazzling. Entering into this state is said to revitalise the mind and to end tiredness. Good luck.

(7) If, like most meditators, we are unable to produce the perception of light in the mind, the Buddha states that we should walk up and down, being aware of the path before us and the path behind us. This practice of mindful walking allows us to keep active while also harnessing the mind.

(8) Finally, if all else fails, the Buddha, ever the realist, recognises that there is no other option but to go to bed. However, he states that we should sleep like a lion (sihaseyya) on our right side with one foot resting on the other. He states that we should cultivate a strong intention to get out of bed when we wake up and to remain mindful while sleeping. In a similar way, I once met a very senior monk in Thailand who swore by the method of repeating the time you want to wake up over and over in your mind (8am, 8am, 8am…) before sleeping instead of using an alarm. Sure enough he was up and active every morning without fail. It is quite possible that such strong intentions before sleep influence your first waking consciousness. Let me know if it works for you, good night!

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