Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
- Lao Tzu
But why does it even happen? Lets go a bit into the ins and outs of your nervous system…yes, I digress, but if you stay with me I promise to get back to meditation and how to be in the zone instead of zonking off.
Keeping it simple, your autonomic nervous system is the part of you that spontaneously regulates internal bodily functions. These bodily functions are the bits of you that automatically happen such as your heart rate, dilation of your pupils, your state of alertness, how much glucose is released into your bloodstream, lung capacity, etc. The autonomic nervous system at any one time is in either one of two modes: sympathetic or parasympathetic.
The function of the sympathetic nervous system is to prepare the body for intense physical activity during perceived threat. This is usually referred to as the survival or fight-or-flight response. It’s what enables us to run like hell away from a marauding tiger. Or get out of a burning building. Or narrowly avoid getting run over by a car. In this mode your body thinks it’s under attack, so bodily functions speed up and become more alert. Any functions not critical to survival slow down. Your heart rate rises, your breathing becomes faster and heavier, your muscles contract, more glucose is released into you bloodstream for muscle energy and you get a boost of adrenaline. There’s more cool stuff that happens, but like I say, keeping it simple.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system operates in the exact opposite. It relaxes the body and slows down many of the high-energy functions. It’s sometimes referred to as either the rest-and-digest or grow-and-repair state. In this mode, the body counterbalances the effects of the previous sympathetic state to restore the body back into a state of calm. Your heart rate slows down, your breathing slows, the muscles relax, saliva production increases, stomach digestion starts again and you start to feel hungry.
Nowadays, we’re no longer being chased by dangerous predators. But we have other constant stresses which we put ourselves through….starting with waking up to a loud alarm, instead of naturally waking up to the sunrise. Then we rush through breakfast, to get out the door, drop kids off to school and get to work, all in a short space of time. While we’re at work, we’re chasing deadlines, juggling multiple projects, making everyone happy and in the recent economy, trying not to get retrenched. Your mind is constantly busy trying to stay on top of everything you need to remember, to stay alert so that you don’t drop the ball. You sometimes can’t even switch off to sleep. This constant undercurrent of stress is keeping you in the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight mode. All the time. That’s quite taxing on your body.
So the first few times you sit down to meditate and you nod off, such as that trial class you did last week, your body was doing an inner whoop-de-doo “jump for joy”. Meditation switches your nervous system into parasympathetic mode, the rest-and-digest state and its slowing down bodily functions to prepare for a bit of R&R.
Simply put, your body is craving sleep. I’d say listen to your body and just go with it. Allow for it to happen. Hopefully you’re lying down while you’re nodding off.
The good news is the more regular you practice meditation, the more often you’re giving your body time to relax and repair. Just be prepared until you start to your make your practice more regular, your body is going to be grabbing the next opportunity to get you some more snoozes. But then if you persist you’ll notice after a few weeks, you’re awake in meditation without any effort. You're finally in the zone. Milestone! Well done, you!
It helps if you set the intention as you sit down to meditate that you want to stay awake during the session. It's like giving your mind and your body a gentle reminder to keep up with you.
Till next time. Happy meditating…cheerio!