The Practice of Devotion to Wakefulness

By the time they we are adults, virtually everbody knows all too well what it is like to stay up late into the night. The reasons are many: as kids we are running around playing tag or sitting up playing games; as adults we go to concerts, study for tests, finish long projects, make love, travel … etc.

Yet when confronted with Jāgarānuyoga – the intentional practice of wakefulness by cutting back on sleep – it’s amazing the way the mind reacts. It’s as if the world’s most skilled trial lawyer takes up the case. They call in a slew of expert witnesses: doctors weigh in on the health concerns of missing sleep, bureaucrats recite rules around operating cars and power equipment while tired, and concerned family members wax eloquent about how grumpy one can get without sleep and how relationships will suffer. Faced with a skilled defense around the necessity of sleep there are few who even deem it worth investigating, let alone persist in trying it out.

This is not merely a niche austere practice. When we begin our path of mindfulness and meditation training we encounter the simple realities of our situation. Sleep is not immoral but it is unprofitable. The mind doesn’t develop in sleep and may even lose what it has recently developed. If we sleep too much or too little our mind is dull and hard to direct. And if we want to find time to meditate often it’s the hours of the day previously allotted to sleep that have to be encroached upon.

The practice of Devotion to Wakefulness is not one technique but a whole category of trainings and contemplations into the nature of sleep and the nature of the wakeful mind. It’s an essential part of what the Buddha called the Anupubbasikkha, or Gradual Training. To mature the mind and bring it to the doorsteps of Samādhi and focus, we will need to spend some time in this practice, one way or another. For hobby meditators, though, it is ignored; for many of the rest it is put off as long as possible.

The training regimen seems deceptively simple: stay awake. But like much of the path it isn’t that straightforward. Insomniacs are no closer to enlightenment and may even suffer intensely. What we are trying to develop will have to walk the Middle Way, sensitive to our need for rest and respite while still applying energy to renounce that part of sleep which is unnecessary. Doing this is incredibly worthwhile because it will teach us that very point: sleep and rest are two different things. One is unprofitable, but the other is invaluable. If we investigate and train, we can gain the ability to rest at will without having to collapse into unconsciousness. We can learn to rest while awake, even while active.

To begin we’ll have to get over some hurdles, and the first is to master our intention. A person can be enticed to stay awake by sensual activities or dogged into working long hours out of a sense of gain or responsibility. In the early stages of meditation this sense of enjoyment and profit may not have arisen yet: meditation may still seem like work, a practice of managing hindrances and trying to maintain focus. This doesn’t have to stop us because the reason for developing wakefulness doesn’t have to mirror the way we stay awake while trying to get something external.

Why is it seemingly easy to tolerate periods of missing sleep for activities we deem fun or necessary but so hard to consciously cultivate the practice for the sake of mindfulness and clarity? A lot of it centers around intention. When we stay up late in the world, it’s often not for the sake of staying up late. We have something that we are doing and we accept that staying up late is a consequence. Often the consequence is one that catches up with us in a day or two. The fun drains away, unpleasant feelings arise, and we either prop ourselves up with stimulants and comfort foods or crash and sleep through the day.

To learn to master wakefulness, we have to change our approach. We are not staying awake just for staying awake. Rather, we are cultivating the ability to stay with a task despite our desire or inclination to sleep. As the pāli phrase goes, we want to be able to access our energy with indifference: “As by Day, By Night; As by Night, By Day”. The nature of the task doesn’t matter – it could be studying, or listening to a dhamma talk, or meditating, or doing service. We learn to recognize Sloth and Torpor as a hindrance that clouds the mind, and see that it is supported by the things we are telling ourselves about reality. When start we are certain that sleep is necessary, but wouldn’t we like the ability to override this compulsion to sleep when an activity is wholesome? Why should it matter what time it is? Can we be more in the present moment? We start reminding ourselves that we can always sleep later, or that rest can take many forms like breath meditation or sipping tea. By shifting our perspective and internal dialogue we make it easier to stay on task.

The other part of the training is recognizing our underlying sensuality. Sleep itself is not that delightful, it’s just blank. It’s often the way we couch our sleep in warmth and fluffy pillows and nice scents and freedom from responsibilities that makes it so attractive. If we’ve never learned to rest, that blankness can be the one time we are not overworking our body and mind. Shutting off seems like the only way to relax, and since it’s surrounded with sensual objects it’s hard to resist.

The Eight Precept is actually meant as a support for this invaluable practice: I undertake the training to not use high or luxurious furniture. It’s not the beds and reclining chairs that are the problem, but we recognize if we pad our experience of bodily rest with indulgences it’ll be that much harder to let go. By simplifying our sleeping arrangements and committing to specific times to rest, we boil it down to what is actually essential: we recline the body, we relax the muscles, we relax the mind, and we recharge. When rest has served it’s purpose, if the bed isn’t overly comfortable it’s that much easier to rise and get on with our day or night.

This is a training that can be mastered, and with it we master the ability to overcome Sloth and Torpor. Just having the capability to rest well and only as much as needed should be enough to make it worth the effort. But if not, then we’ll have to engage our Wisdom faculty to break down the myriad of mental barriers that may still be erected.

Why do we think we need to sleep? Why do we cling to it? Why do we resist wakefulness? Why might we neglect the value of being awake and lucid?

This will be a personal exploration, harder for some than for others. Inevitably, it will start to draw us out of ourselves, our sensuality and clinging and self-absorption and depression. We’ll begin to see that sleep is temporary, a mere condition that comes and goes. Sometimes it is appropriate and useful but others it’s not and we have to use discernment to find the difference. It’ll never get us to enlightenment, though learning to rest skillfully might make the path easier to walk. And, finally, it leads us to the nature of the Noble Truths. Our need for rest is a worldly condition that comes with birth; our ability to rest well is a worldly condition affected by our environment and ultimately it’s not something we have control of. Sometimes it will be denied to us, and the important question is: at those times, will we suffer?

My own practice with Devotion to Wakefulness has been long and storied. Of course, growing up I stayed up late for a variety of reasons: all night parties and video game sessions, hanging and stargazing with friends; traveling across the country visiting family; and in the army I would have guard shifts where the penalties for sleep could be severe. When I arrived at the monastery though — and I had the good fortune to be at one where the tradition of developing this practice was strong and esteemed — I learned the difference between having experienced something and having developed something. I was grumpy, resistant, aching and ill-prepared. But the community would sit up all night once a week, meditating, talking dhamma, sitting and walking. For years I struggled and resisted, but gradually I came to find rest in the practice. And when rest arose it became even enjoyable. My energy became paced through the day and I stopped begrudging circumstances that kept me out of bed. At times day would become night and night would become day.

Once I got out into the life of a wandering bhikkhu, it went from a theoretical exercise to a practical exam. When you need to get somewhere you walk no matter how tired you are, and when the weather is cold and/or raining viciously, you sit. You might have to sit for sixteen or eighteen hours with nowhere to go, awake to any failures in your tent or creeping puddles, only able to stay warm enough while sitting upright. Sometimes I would be too close to a swamp and would have to switch on my light from time to time to flick slugs off the tent lest I wake with slimy green streaks across my robes and gear.

When dawn breaks you have two choices: you can go about your day and see what it brings you, or you can curl in a ball and try to shut off. I learned to choose stepping forward into the day, and this decision brought ever greater lightness and acceptance.

Last night, after a long day I had a series of connections to make to travel between Washington D.C. and central New Jersey. I boarded the first train in the middle of the evening and had to remain awake and vigilant to not miss my stops. At midnight I had to walk with my bags through cold, deserted Philadelphia to catch a different bus from the other side of the city. In Atlantic city I stood by the entrance to a closed bus station lobby along with a dozen people who had nowhere else to go: some mentally ill, rambling, soaked in urine. Cold, wind-beaten and with nowhere to sit, we stood and waited. They asked me for spare change to unlock the temporary distraction of a bag of chips from the vending machine, but I carry not a dime. After the last bus, I arrived at my final destination along with the first rays of dawn, and I marveled at the results. Fifteen years prior, when I first began my dhamma journey, if I had even been able to accomplish this journey without breaking down and renting a hotel room, I would have been disgruntled and frazzled for days. But now it was just another one of many fruits of the practice. All through the experience I could say: I can’t control this circumstance; I can control whether I suffer over it.

We don’t have to develop Devotion to Wakefulness. Often to do so means to go to determine to stick with a meditation or dhamma talk to it’s conclusion whether or not we are feeling good and focused. At the upper levels, we may even choose whole evenings or days or weeks to leave sleep aside altogether – “If I rest, let it be through meditation. Let it be in the sitting posture.” These practices can be intense and we will find few enough people to join us. But if we try them, and take some of these steps, we’ll actually be ready when life itself denies us the choice.

A baby is born, a friend or loved one is dying, a natural or political crisis is evolving; there is a storm, there is a sickness, there is a breakdown in our plans. There is pain in life; there is failure and things going awry. But that doesn’t have to lead to suffering. We can wait until we find ourselves in that situation to marshal the resources to face it, or we can pay it forward. We can overcome our dependence on sleep and develop a bright and loving appreciation of lucidity. If we do, when circumstances require that we be there and awake, we will be. We’ll have something to offer and suffering won’t arise.

This is the path and the fruit of Jāgarānuyoga, the Devotion to Wakefulness.

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