Meditation can have a big effect on sleep, but it is not always what you might expect.
The party line, that you will hear on meditation retreats is that if you are practising mindfulness, you will need less sleep. This may well be true, but making it an expectation is not the way of Dhamma. Really you should be looking at what is there, rather than grabbing expectations. The truth is people have widely varying sleep needs, patterns and problems.
Sometimes meditation can ruin your sleep. If you are an 8 hour/day sleeper, you may be disheartened to find you sleep less. It can take while to learn to trust that you can get by with less sleep than before. Especially if you find yourself waking up in the early hours, and then worrying that you will be tired during the day.
You may also find the opposite – that meditating can increase your need for sleep. In fact, you can find yourself descending into a deep zombie slumber for many hours. Usually this is a kind of residual tension taking the opportunity to unwind itself. This is generally a good thing. You are reaching deeper levels of letting go, and your unconscious is able to unravel more of itself. You wake up feeling really destroyed, almost zombie-like. But after you get up and move around, or get to work, you should find you have more energy after all. One teacher calls this ‘paying off sleep-debt’. It does not usually last too long.
Another fairly common effect of meditation is that your sleep gets broken up. First you wake up during the night, and generally stay there trying to get back to sleep. But a better strategy is to get up, and do some pottering about. It is nice, quiet and cool. Take the chance to do some jobs. Go back to bed when you feel like it.
Generally speaking sleep is split into 5 stages. First is a light sleep (theta wave for 1-7 mins), then stage 2 with short brief bursts of mental activity called ‘spindles’ (10-25 mins), followed by stage 3 and 4 of deeper sleep (delta wave for about 30 mins). Then brain activity picks up as one enters Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) which is deep in that it is hard to wake someone up, but characterised by vivid dreaming and hopefully, apnea which paralyses the body to prevent you from thrashing about. The older you get, the more time you spend in light sleep.
A full cycle lasts about 90 minutes ish and most people will go 4 cycles. However, if you do wake up that is good – you are being more mindful. It is fine to break up your sleep patterns, so long as you get a full cycle in. In fact, there is evidence that humans always used to sleep in 2 or more phases, as a night was all the hours of darkness. Only in the 1600s with cheap lamplight were people able to stay up into the nighttime, and then take a long, single sleep. Here is a fascinating article on the topic
One way to directly affect your sleep with meditation is to meditate as you go to sleep. This can have a very real, noticeable effect. Lie comfortably and focus on your breathing. Empty the mind as much as possible, and allow any remaining thoughts to be there, without attaching to them. With practise you find you can maintain awareness through much of the sleep cycle. It is said that if you have strong mindfulness you will know if you wake on the in-breath or the out-breath. And if you are a champion meditator, you will know which breath you fell asleep with.
Practising this mindful sleeping is very handy for the ‘power-nap’ also.
A curious feature of meditation as you fall asleep is that you can often set your wake up time. You make a strong determination to wake at a certain time as you go to sleep mindfully. It really can work quite well – though better to use an alarm clock to be sure.
Another curious effect of the meditation sleep is that often your mindfulness wakes up before the rest of you. That is you become aware, before your mind/ego has had chance to reassert itself. This can feel a little panicky at first as you have no idea who or where you are. Like waking up in a stranger’s bed. Relax with it and watch as the ‘world’ cranks up in your mind.
You may also find that you wake more often while the sleep apnea is in affect – your body is paralysed. Your dream may take this into account and supply a suitably terrifying scenario to explain the inability to move. Actually it is just a natural way the mind stops your body acting out your dreams. Some people lack this function, and are unable to sleep as a result (as are their partners). In Thailand they say there is a ghost sitting on your chest.
One last piece of advice for the meditation sleep. You may wake more often, or after fewer hours sleep. Or you may not be able to get off to sleep. Well, as always, watch the mind. Attachment to thoughts and thinking will interfere with sleep. Watch the fear and complaining that arises in the mind – ‘I can’t sleep … I’ll be tired …. That noise is keeping me awake …’ Let it go. If you can’t sleep then fine. Lie quiet and resting without sleep. The bed is comfortable. Problems can wait till the morning. Enjoy the moment.