Sleepitation

From the back row of the Monks’ Chapel we could see Brother Nodananda sleeping again in meditation. When group chanting stopped, within minutes Brother’s chin would slowly drift downwards toward his chest, gathering momentum, until his chin would bounce gently back up until his head, neck, and spine were erect again. But only for a moment, and his head would drift downward again and back up repeatedly, slowly. As Brother’s sleepitation deepened his whole upper body along with his head and chin would bob slowly down towards his knees. Then back upright and back down repeatedly, throughout the hour-long group meditations.

sleepitationNodding during “meditation” is an indication of sleeping; letting the mind drift and sleeping upright in a chair. Relaxing and refreshing as napping or daydreaming may be: is sleepitation meditation? Sitting in sleep the “meditator” may experience dreams and imaginations. Eventually, a noise awakens and jolts the sleepitator out of their sitting sleep-trance. The sleepitator may then think they had a deep and relaxing “meditation”. Might even remember their dreams (or “spiritual” experiences) they had while sleepitating.

Better Dead Than To Sleepitate?
“Better to be dead than to sleep in meditation” warned the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order. Practice with an absent mind and falling asleep during meditation was considered spiritual death. A bad habit and a public embarrassment. I was guilty only on rare occasions. The monks knew which Brothers had the habit of sleeping during group meditation. Nodding while seated on one’s meditation stool was the indicator: sleepitation.

Few, however, were the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastics who regularly nodded off during group meditations. One can not know for sure what is going on inside the mind of another person (thank goodness!). But, when the chapel was quiet–no coughing, fidgeting, or nodding–the silence and stillness indicated the monks were engaged in meditation practice.

Sleeping while sitting upright or even while walking is fairly common. In the mountains of Italy, WWII Infantrymen slept while marching–it was “a kind of coma,”1 said a G.I. In the American Civil War an infantryman wrote in his diary, “The nice thing about tarmac finished roads is that it’s easy to sleep while marching”. Common. If soldiers can sleep while marching, with rifles and full packs on their backs, sleep during meditation practice has got to be much easier. I wonder how many people think they are practicing “meditation” but are really just sleepitating.

Question for readers: How does one know, with certainty, that their meditation experiences are not just dreams or imaginations? Especially, if sleepitation is so easy?

Notes

1  Sleeping while marching is a fairly common experience for exhausted soldiers. Account of sleep marching WWII Infantrymen in Italy.

0 comments

  1. saijanai

    his is NOT, according to theory, a “siddhi” but merely the end-point of changes that can take place during TM practice. In fact, according to theory, in some people at least, when great works of art or natural beauty are encountered, or some great intellectual/emotional/artistic insight occurs, some of the same kinds of changes can take place, giving rise to language such as “breath-taking beauty” or “I was inspired by teh situation and came up with my new idea.”

    I should add that not only does TM theory predict this, but so did Abram Maslow, and in fact, mainstream research into creativity (done by people with interest in no form of meditation at all) also reports that high levels of alpha eeg coherence, especially in the frontal lobes (the signature of samadhi during TM practice) is often found during appreciation of beauty and during the preliminary stages of creativity in normal individuals.

    Again: samadhi isn’t a siddhi, but the basis for them, as well as the basis for creativity and appreciation of beauty.

  2. saijanai

    Samadhi, and yogic cessations of breath, or heart, or mind are vague descriptions of self-reported experiences.

    Samadhi- a siddhi. You said. I like your analogy. Defined further: Samadhi- mythic, occult power espoused by gurus; grail sought by yogis.

    There is nothing “vague” about samadhi. However, by its nature, it literally CANNOT be described since, by definition, theory, and at least preliminary physiological studies, it is a situation where the activity of the brain associated with data and sensory processing and intellectual evaluation is minimal and the proposed physiological explanation is that the functioning of the thalamus that normally coordinates internal processing and merges it into the incoming data-stream of of sensory data has changed so that there is neither incoming sense-data, nor ongoing feedback from the cortex with which to merge it.

    As a side-effect of this change of functioning of the thalamus, blood-CO2-sensitivity has become slightly less, and so breathing patterns abruptly change, sometimes appearing to cease altogether for a while.

    This is NOT, according to theory, a “siddhi” but merely the end-point of changes that can take place during TM practice. In fact, according to theory, in some people at least, when great works of art or natural beauty are encountered, or some great intellectual/emotional/artistic insight occurs, some of the same kinds of changes can take place, giving rise to language such as “breath-taking beauty” or “I was inspired by teh situation and came up with my new idea.” Would you be surpised to learn that in virtually every human language, including English, all the Romance languages, Chinese, Japanese, various various Indian languages for which I have found dictionaries, etc., the word for “breathing” and twords for “spirit” or “soul” (and often words for creativity) all have the same etymological root in a given language?

    To me, it is no coincidence that the brain activity of samadhi during TM, and the brain activity found in people appreciating great beauty or during the first moments of the creative process, are very similar. They are all aspects of the same thing, with samadhi being the “purest”–in the sense of having no other features–example.

    Samadhi isn’t a siddhi, but, as the term samyama implies and the Yoga Sutras explain in more detail, it is at teh basis of any and all siddhis.

    In fact, yogic tradition holds that a fully enlightened individual has command of all the siddhis, simply by virtue of samadhi being present at all times in their nervous system, in all ways, in all possible circumstances, no matter what teh enlightened person is doing.

    As one commentator says about the Yogic Flying siddhi, one is creating</b one’s body into the air. Most people interpret this as talking about some kind of “teleportation,” but the simpler explanation is simply that siddhis are extreme examples of the creative process.

    As Maharishi liked to put it, siddhis are not “super-normal powers” but “normal superpowers” that arise spontaneously when one’s nervous system becomes healthy. The practice of the TM-Sidhis is merely meant to accustom the nervous system to be in its fully mature state, albeit for a brief period.

  3. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijanai: Thanks for trying to clarify and answer my tough questions.

    Samadhi, and yogic cessations of breath, or heart, or mind are vague descriptions of self-reported experiences.

    Samadhi- a siddhi. You said. I like your analogy. Defined further: Samadhi– mythic, occult power espoused by gurus; grail sought by yogis.

    Maybe some futuristic day science will be able to create “humans” as brains or hearts in vats, or “flatline” parts of the human body and keep alive organs indefinitely. Heck, today it’s not uncommon for human bodies to live for years on life-support machines. Yogis sustaining their bodies without heartbeat, breath? Mythic stories float among the guru’s disciples.

    Who’d trust yoga-siddhic power over life-support machines? A Bhakti or Christian Scientist.

    Cheers

  4. saijanai

    Recommendation: What would be helpful to readers and myself (since the abstracts are, well, abstract and studies are dense and techinical) if you wouldn’t mind to provide a very brief (brief!) laymans explanation how these studies are of interest to the blog post or comment thread (which I’m guessing was our discussion on samadhi?

    I kinda got distracted (as usual) from responding to your remarks about sleep as sleep is just what happens when “your nervous system is allowed to rest in the most efficient way” (AKA “doing TM”) when you happen to need sleep.
    Assuming you don’t need to sleep, the rest attained during TM generally ranges along a continuum from relatively normal eyes-closed relaxation to the samadhi state itself, which TMers call “pure consciousness.”

    Are you saying samadhi is suspension of breathing?

    Breath suspension often appears during an episode of pure consciousness during TM, but not always.

    How do you/Maharishi define breath suspension? Suspended for how long?

    Maharishi didn’t actually define breath suspension, but described pure consciousness/samadhi as a situation where the mind is quiet, without content of any kind, but the nervous system is still alert.

    Researchers were not looking for breath suspension in the studies I linked to, but for some consistent change in phyiological measures associated with the self-reports of pure consciousness. Breath suspension was found to occur in many, but not all, people, during many, but not all, self-reports of pure consciousness. Breath suspension was measured by things like how much the diaphragm moved during meditation, but more sophisticated measures found that it wasn’t really breath “suspension” but a long, slow inhalation (apneusis) lasting up to a minute or so. In the first study, researchers noted that if the abrupt change in breathing lasted less than about 15 seconds, meditators didn’t push the button.

    In the very first study done on PC, researchers just hooked TMers up to various kinds of devices and asked them to meditate and push a button at the end of a pure consciousness episode. The researchers then noted what kind of physical measures were related to the button press. The most consistent changes were that there was a period of apparent breath suspension, or greatly reduced breath rate, along with an abrupt decrease in heart-rate, along with an abrupt increase in skin resistance.

    Later studies found that changes in EEG were also abrupt: the other changes associated with PC were also correlated with an abrupt increase in EEG coherence in the frontal lobes, along with decreased power in the higher frequencies associated with sensory and data processing and problem solving/thinking (gamma and beta EEG amplitude becomes less, basically).

    What’s the difference between TM Samadhi as defined by other sources or wikipedia Samadhi definitions?

    I don’t know of any difference in definitions. They all come from the same ancient texts, after all.

    Is samadhi only available with TM?

    Who knows? The EEG found during TM ranges from that found during normal relaxation to that found during the TM “pure consciousness” state. One important finding is that in most other forms of meditation, such as mindfulness and concentration, the EEG signature looks to be pretty much the opposite found during TM, especially during the TM PC state: whatever is consistently higher during PC is lower during mindfulness and concentration. Whatever is consistently lower during TM PC is higher during mindfulness and concentration. The degree of difference depends on how PC-like the TM period turns out to be.

    One could claim that only TM or some other practice along the same lines reliably takes one in the direction of samadhi. One could equally claim that what TMers call “samadhi” is the exact opposite of “real” samadhi and that TMers are fooling themselves into thinking that TM is somehow special.

    I know of only one study on meditation other than TM that measured episodes of breath suspension. The researchers weren’t asking about pure consciousness (though they mention the TM studies) but simply asked for reports of breath suspension during meditation, and found one subject that they carefully measured. Unfortunately, they didn’t record EEG data that I am aware of, so we can’t be sure if it was the same kind of event as during TM.

    Another potential difference is that often/generally, people apparently don’t note breath suspension during PC during TM, which would be expected as noticing a sensation in the body, such as cessation of breathing, is a sensory event, and PC is defined as a lack of sensory and mental processing, so again, it’s impossible to say if what the researchers in this new study were looking at was “pure consciousness” as defined by Maharishi, or something else entirely, or perhaps related in some way.

  5. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @saijani: Thank your for avoiding your “wall-of-text” comments.

    I appreciate your insights on these topics. You seem to have lots of knowledge and passion for Transcendental Meditation! I read all three abstracts you provide. Dense material these studies.

    Recommendation: What would be helpful to readers and myself (since the abstracts are, well, abstract and studies are dense and techinical) if you wouldn’t mind to provide a very brief (brief!) laymans explanation how these studies are of interest to the blog post or comment thread (which I’m guessing was our discussion on samadhi? I am having a hard time making the connection from the abstract and articles.

    For example:
    Are you saying samadhi is suspension of breathing? How do you/Maharishi define breath suspension? Suspended for how long? What’s the difference between TM Samadhi as defined by other sources or wikipedia Samadhi definitions? Is samadhi only available with TM?

    Thanks man! Dig your passion and insights.

  6. saijanai

    I know I mentioned those studies with links to them in a different comment, but since my traditional writing style is wall-of-text, I guess it means nothing that you didn’t click on the links save that no-one bothers to read a wall-of-text™

    Here are three studies on “pure consciousness” ala TM, which Maharishi Mahesh Yogi claimed was what was meant by “samadhi” (hopefully this message is short enough to bother to read in its entirety -including links):

    Breath Suspension During the Transcendental Meditation Technique
    http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/44/2/133.full.pdf

    Electrophysiologic Characteristics of Respiratory Suspension Periods Occurring During the Practice of the Transcendental Meditation Program
    http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/46/3/267.full.pdf)

    Autonomic patterns during respiratory suspensions: Possible markers of Transcendental Consciousness
    http://www.totalbrain.ch/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/transcendental-consciousness.pdf

  7. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    Hi saijanai: Similar to what you recommend nap or good night’s sleep before TM practice, Self-Realization Fellowship’s Kriya Yoga meditations are recommended to be practiced when one is well-rested, lest the practitioner fall asleep in meditation.

    Napping Monks: While I was in the SRF Monastic Order, the monks tried to take naps BEFORE the long (3-6 hour meditations). The idea being to enter meditation awake, alert, and avoid falling asleep during meditation. It wasn’t always possible or practical to nap before a long meditation. And sometimes we worked long hours and were sleep deprived even in shorter (1 hour) meditations. Fighting sleep in meditations was not too uncommon, but didn’t seem to turn into a habit for most monks.

    Samadhi versus sleep: I’ve not heard of button-pushing studies when coming out of meditation or “samadhi”-states. This would be interesting to learn more about the samadhi-button study or clinical results. These kinds of “challenges” with studying so-called samadhi states are part of the problem with claims of samadhi or meditation experiences. Little way to verify these claims with objective criteria, and we are left taking a meditators word they were in samadhi or some transcendent state. Also, we would need to define samadhi by some agreed upon objective criteria, if that’s even possible. I’m familiar with the general Sabikalpa and nirbikalpa samadhi classifications. But, find the samadhi states don’t hold up well to much scrutiny when looked at without “religious” or theological presumptions.

    Thanks for your comments.

  8. saijanai

    Transcendental Meditation is a purely resting technique. It has no other purpose except to allow you to rest. The entire “technique” of TM is merely to set things up so that the nervous system will take whatever kind of rest is most appropriate for a particular moment, at that moment.

    That said, your TM period is a relatively short period of time, so if you can take the sleep you need outside of meditation, that might mean that other forms of rest might be more likely to happen, so sleeping more at night (going to bed earlier, in general) and/or taking a nap before your TM practice, might be a good thing.

    Even so, if you find yourself falling asleep during TM, then that is what is most appropriate. Trying to stay awake during TM is, well, trying.

    As for your question about how do you know if your experiences are anything other than sleeping or dreaming… obviously,. you don’t and can’t possibly know for sure. However, when people who claim to have regular periods of samadhi during TM are asked to press a button to signify the end of such a period, there are some very non-sleep-like physiological measures correlated with the button presses, which strongly suggests that at least for the test subjects, TM-style samdhi isn’t sleeping.

  9. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    @Sabio: Good question. Brother Nodananda [name changed], the sleepitator mentioned in my post, was possibly the most relaxed and happy monk in the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order. He was one of the senior most monks in age and years as a monk, and everyone seemed to love his child-like smile and joy. He was the sweetest guy. Was Brother Nodananda’s charm caused by his regular “sleepitations”, his chronic sleeping in meditation? I don’t know. But seems that his sleeping in meditation didn’t hurt him in the physical world nor harm his relationships with people. Perhaps Brother’s soul will be doomed (or stunted) in his next life for sleeping so much on the job. (Monks actually believe that kind of malarkey-I don’t)!

    Sounds like meditation taught you to be so relaxed you can easily fall asleep. I wish I could fall asleep like that! I’ve never been able to fall asleep quickly–probably my “rigid” mind. Thanks for your insights!

  10. Sabio Lantz

    The question is, which was better for them, the sleep or the meditation. Were the sleepers also the more relaxed monks, less rigid and less weird about their religion. Is sleep drifting more an individual brain tendency than just a sign of weak will?
    My colleagues are amazed that I can put my feet up for 10 minutes and drop into dream state at will.
    I swear, meditation taught me that.

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