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