How to meditate while laying down (instructions, tips)
In general, trying to meditate while laying down is nearly impossible. It’s not completely impossible, which is why I use the word “nearly” there, but it is very difficult. It’s like there’s a switch in the brain that says, “Ah, the body is parallel to the ground, time to go to sleep.”
But if you are like me, and there are times that various parts of your body hurt too much to meditate while sitting up, and you still want to meditate, the only thing you can do is meditate while laying down.
Because laying down is so conducive to losing focus and drifting off to sleep, every recommendation I can offer involves how to stay awake and focused while you are laying down.
Basic meditation instructions
The basic meditation instructions for meditating while laying down are the same as those for people sitting upright: Focus your attention on your breath, count “1” as you breathe in, count “2” as you breathe out, and so on. When you reach 10, start again at 1.
When you catch your mind wandering off and thinking about other things (“What should I have for dinner? Why did he say that?”), gently bring yourself back to your breath. Don’t scold yourself. Instead just label the thought, “Thinking,” and then bring your mind back to the breath and counting. If you have forgotten where you were, start again at 1.
When you have lost your focus, another good instruction is to take a moment to declare your intent and say something like, “Now I am placing my mind upon the breath.” Any statement like this can be helpful. You can add things like, “For just the next 10 minutes,” or, “For just the next five breaths,” and similar words that set your intent as well as a declaration of a time limit. The end result can be, “For just the next 10 minutes, I am placing my mind upon the breath. I have set a timer for this ten-minute period, so I know that all I have to do is focus on my breath.”
Specific instructions for meditating while laying down
Here are some specific instructions for meditating while laying down. They are based on my own experience.
First, make sure you are well rested. If you aren’t, you’ll just fall asleep.
Second, if you can practice a little yoga or other forms of stretching before laying down, that can also help. Also, when I say yoga, I mean with the tv off. The idea is to begin relaxing and slowing down your brain and thoughts before you lay down.
If coffee or tea helps keep you awake, have a small cup while you are stretching, or just before you lay down.
Just before you lay down to meditate, use that phrase I mentioned above: “Now I am going to place my mind upon the breath.”
When you are laying down, if one of your sides is against a wall, keep your arm on that side up about at a 90-degree angle, vertical to the floor or bed. You can rest the back of your hand or arm against the wall. The idea here is that if you start to fall asleep, your arm will fall down and wake you up.
Always set an alarm. I usually start with a six to eight minute session, then reposition myself, and then follow up with sessions of 10, 12, or 20 minutes, generally depending on how tired I am and how much time I have to meditate that day. In between each session you can take time to reposition your body, sit up briefly, or wiggle your arms, legs, and head. Remember, mindfulness meditation is about being alert and focused, not about rest and dozing off.
A note about breathing: When paying attention to the breathing, Zen people tend to focus their attention on the abdomen, watching it rise and fall as you breathe, and mindfulness people tend to focus their attention on the breath as it exits and enters the nostrils. Use whichever approach you prefer, but don’t switch during a meditation session. That is, if you set the timer for 10 minutes, focus on the nostrils for that 10 minute period. If during the next ten minute period you want to focus on the abdomen, that’s fine, but don’t switch back and forth during one period. That only leads to thinking. Be decisive before you start and stick with your choice for that time period.
While I don’t usually like to keep my eyes open when I meditate in a seated position, I do keep my eyes open while laying down. The instruction is to keep your eyes open somewhere in the 1/4 to 1/3 range, meaning they are about 3/4 or 2/3 closed. Half-open is fine, too; whatever works for you. If/when your eyes start closing you have probably lost the battle, and I find that this is another good time to sit up, stretch, and reset the timer.
A final point is that when you’re in a seated meditation position, you constantly check your body. Is the back of my head up? Is my chin tucked in? Is my back straight? Is my pelvis tilted forward on the zafu? Are my shoulders back? And so on. Anything you can do that is similar to this while you’re laying down can be beneficial, as long as you’re not making yourself uncomfortable. For instance, you may want to keep your thumb and forefinger touching on one or both hands. Anything you can think of that will keep your mind sharp and alert.
Those are my basic instructions for meditating while laying down. If I think of more helpful hints and suggestions I’ll add them here over time.
To reiterate the main point, meditation is about paying very focused attention to some object, typically the breath. It’s not about losing focus and falling asleep, so any time you start dozing off, from a meditation perspective you’re just wasting your time. So do whatever you need to do to pay sharp, focused attention on the breath.