My mind is so busy and restless; how could I ever meditate?

If someone had a perfectly silent mind they would have no need for meditation. A healthy person doesn’t need to take medicine. In truth we all have busy minds, for an ordinary human mind is nothing other than awareness rippling in thought waves. So you are not alone. Everyone is in the boat called a restless mind. In fact, by definition a mind is filled with thoughts. When all thoughts disappear, that is the state of “no mind” (or pure mind, pure consciousness). Cultivating that silence is what meditation is about.

Fortunately, meditating is actually very easy, because the mind naturally tends towards greater charm and satisfaction. We all wish for more happiness. That is the mind’s very nature. Ironically, this natural tendency of the mind is often characterized as an obstacle to meditation. It is seen as making the mind wander, and so many try to force against this tendency, try to force the mind into submission. This is like trying to hold a large, buoyant log under water. It just can’t be done. Better to put this natural tendency of the mind to good use.

We can do that once we recognize that the peace, creative energy, and intelligence in the silent depths of the mind are intrinsically blissful to experience. Effective meditation amounts to simply letting the mind taste that intrinsic charm; then the mind will settle into the subtler levels of mental activity naturally, effortlessly. The mind will follow that charm of its own accord. Then meditation becomes the quintessence of effortlessness.

So don’t worry. You can meditate. It’s so easy and natural that even a child can do it. But it’s also a delicate process, and the slightest misstep in attitude, the slightest grasping at an experience or making some effort can spoil it. This is where good instruction is indispensable.

Will meditation reduce my need for sleep?

Over time, yes. But keep in mind that though the rest and relaxation of meditation is far deeper than sleep, and wonderfully rejuvenating and restorative, it is not precisely the same quality of rest provided by the sleep and dream cycles. We need those states too.

In meditation, though restful, one is also ordinarily completely alert. Further, the brainwave activity during meditation varies from either sleep or dreaming patterns. In a word, meditation and sleep are different states of consciousness, and they serve different functions. Sleep cannot provide the benefits of meditation, and meditation does not entirely replace sleep.

But over time, as meditation purifies and refines your mind and body, you will need less and less sleep. Long-term meditators find this happens spontaneously, as body and mind are infused with profound spiritual energy and begin to function more and more efficiently. (For a more complete answer to this question, see FAQ from Long-Term Meditators.)

I sometimes feel intensely restless during meditation. When this happens, I can’t wait to get up. Should I just stop meditating?

Here is a great secret: Embrace the restlessness. Continue to meditate and know the restlessness to be purification (see Meditation: A Purifying Fire). This restlessness is in fact a subconscious pattern coming up to be released. Think about it. What else could it be? If you are meditating correctly, then it is just what is coming up, to be released. This purification is necessary; the impressions of past experience need to be cleansed for the Self to shine in our heart and mind. During periods of purification, our meditations may not seem so deep, clear, alert, or blissful. But once the clouds of purification clear, they’ll be deeper than ever.

These subconscious conditioned patterns that must be released through spiritual practices are called vasanas in Sanskrit. Up until now, we have simply identified with our vasanas, “Oh, I’m bored; I can’t wait to get up; I could be making much better use of this time.” By simply identifying with these thoughts, giving them full credence, we have allowed the vasana to continue to grip our mind and plague our meditations (and our life). Our attitude and belief that these thoughts are true, that our time is wasted, is thus a self-fulfilling prophesy. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, “As is your faith, so is your life.” This is a powerful principle, but it can also be used to our advantage.

To release this vasana once and for all requires a simple adjustment in our attitude, in our faith. If we take the attitude that these thoughts are indeed purification of a deep vasana, if we therefore embrace the sense of restlessness for the sake of burning through it with our intention to realize our spiritual goal, and if we see our restlessness as a tapas (austerity) for purification, then we are no longer identifying with what the vasana is telling us. Thanks to an adjustment in understanding and faith, the vasana loses its grip on us. In fact, instantly we are liberated from the vasana, and it will begin to weaken and dissolve in short order. It may happen in a single meditation, or it may take a few weeks of regular meditation, but it will happen. We will break through to a whole new level of experience. It cannot be otherwise—as is our faith, so is our life.

In general, it is a good policy not to harshly judge our meditation. In our meditation career, we are bound to have many periods of purification. If we feel dissatisfied at these times, we are almost sure to lose interest in meditation. Meditate with faith and enthusiasm, leaving the fruits of our meditation in God’s hands.

Another reason not to judge our meditations is that our judgment may be distorted. When I was in college, a close friend of mine majored in neurophysiology. He conducted a study using the college lab to research physiological changes in meditators during meditation. He measured brain wave activity, galvanic skin resistance (as in a lie detector test), and oxygen consumption (the main indicator of metabolic rate). This meant that the meditators had to be hooked up to various machines, wires hanging all around their head and hands, and a mask over their mouth and nose. Imagine meditating under these conditions, knowing that a technician was carefully monitoring the depth of your meditation!

Not surprisingly, nearly every meditator tested apologized to my friend for their meditation being shallow. They felt extremely self-conscious and unable to meditate as usual. Yet my friend told me they all registered substantial physiological changes indicative of a state of rest and relaxation deeper than that of deep sleep, while yet remaining fully aware—and convinced they weren’t meditating. Conversely, other studies have shown that under hypnosis, in which a state of deep rest and relaxation is suggested, subjects may feel very deep, but nevertheless show no significant physiological changes. Thus, it is impossible to accurately judge the benefit of our own meditations. We simply meditate with enthusiasm, but also with the attitude, “Thy Will be done.”

This raises one final point: beginning meditators often end their meditation abruptly, simply opening their eyes and getting up. I’ve often been told, “I wasn’t feeling deep, so I didn’t need to take much time to come out.” We may not feel deep, but our body may be in a more deeply restful state than we realize. Like being woken from a deep sleep, coming out of meditation quickly can be a shock. It may leave us feeling irritable or spaced-out. I recommend laying in the corpse pose with eyes closed for at least 5 to 10 minutes before getting up from meditation. This allows the body and mind time to readjust to activity. This time is not only important, it is also often very blissful. It allows the shakti (spiritual power) generated by the meditation to become more integrated and homogenized throughout the subtle body.

I often feel sleepy in meditation. In fact, whenever I sit to meditate, I immediately feel a great heaviness and tiredness. What can I do?

Many people ask this question or something close to it. If you wonder about this, you are not alone.

There are two entirely different philosophies for handling sleepiness in meditation. Each has its value. The first approach says, “Don’t fall asleep no matter what.” The second says, “If you approach meditation with sincerity and enthusiasm, and yet find yourself overwhelmed by fatigue, don’t fight it. Sleep if you need to. But then meditate more when you awaken.” Honestly, I find that for most people the second approach is more practical. Those who attempt to follow the first approach often end up quitting meditation, as they find it a discouraging struggle.

For seven years as a Carmelite nun, St. Therese of Lisieux (Mother Teresa took her name after her) fell fast asleep nearly every time she sat for prayers. She fought and fought her fatigue until at last she accepted the inevitable. She described her conclusions at that time as follows: “Well, I am not desolate. I remember that little children are as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as well as when they are wide awake; I remember, too, that when they perform operations, doctors put their patients to sleep.”

Indeed, sleep during meditation is not necessarily a sign of spiritual laziness and ineptitude. Many have noticed that if they fall asleep in meditation, upon waking, their meditation suddenly seems remarkably deep, clear, filled with shakti and bliss—as if God had performed an operation on them during sleep. As Francisco de Osuna, the 16th century Spanish Franciscan monk noted (he launched St. Teresa of Avila in her mystic life with his book on mental prayer), “Sleep during meditation is not sleep for the body, but sleep for the Soul.”

This is not to encourage using meditation as nap time. We are not speaking here of laziness. If, however, we meditate with enthusiasm and faith, and yet find ourselves battling deep fatigue, we may do well to recognize that sleep can be part of the natural processing and purification involved in spiritual growth. Just as thoughts in meditation are often the smoke of purification (see February issue), the same holds true of clouds of deep fatigue. Forcibly resisting fatigue is therefore akin to forcibly resisting thoughts; despite our good intentions, it may corrupt the innocence of meditation. Rather than spend an hour or two fighting fatigue, it may be preferable to to sleep for ten minutes and then experience the bliss of meditation effortlessly.

So, if you are plagued with fatigue in meditation, you may want to try this: First treat the fatigue like any thought in meditation, with indifference. We don’t mind it. We gently come back to the focus of our meditation without fighting it. Often this gentle tact will allow us to dissolve the fatigue without falling asleep. We may feel drowsy for a while, but before we know it, we may find that the sleepiness has disappeared and we are having a wonderful meditation. If, however, the fatigue is persistent—we find ourselves constantly battling with it to stay awake—then stop the battle. Either lay down in the corpse pose (not on your side), or lean against a wall. Upon waking, continue to meditate.

Often, after waking, we will have a surprisingly deep, clear experience. Instead of feeling frustrated and hopeless about meditation, we will then feel encouraged to meditate. We will feel confidence and enthusiasm over our meditation, and become established in our practice. This is not to discourage anyone from adopting the first, more rigorous approach, but if that leads you to feeling hopeless about meditation, this offers a practical middle way.