Sleep Like a Buddha: A Reflection on Buddhist Living


The following reflection originally appeared in the newsletter I sent out on May June 3rd, 2024.

Feel free to read just the bold words and skip the rest.



Last newsletter, I began a series exploring how to have a wise relationship with different essential aspects of human life.  Today’s addition is on relating wisely to sleep.

Really, “sleeping like a Buddha” is pretty simple — just sleep when you’re tired & it feels appropriate.  When you wake up, get up.  If in spite of your best efforts, sleep doesn’t seem to happen, deeply accept that, and perhaps also get a little curious about what’s going on.

The above paragraph is probably enough, but just in case some of you want a more detailed exploration, read on!

As one brief note before jumping in, I encourage you to read these reflections on wise sleeping less aaavenue for self-criticism & perfectionism, and more aa means for curiosity & self-discovery!


The Middle Way Part 1: Overindulging Sleep

Buddhist Wisdom is rooted in the middle way — aavoiding of extremes.  In the case of sleep, rather than sleeping in order to rest & nourish ourselves, one extreme is sleeping out of an emotional drive, like aversion or escape.

Speaking personally, for seemingly my whole life, I wake up from time to time and just don’t want to get out of bed, which leads to sleeping in.

In my younger years, I often couldn’t get out of bed for 10, 12, or maybe 16 hours, feeling paralyzed by inertia.  At the core, this was often driven by an existential void; a depression or nihilism energy.  Other times, it was the product of poor sleep habits or a hangover, among other things.

These days, when the early morning aversion comes, it’s usually because it feels so nice and cozy in bed, and there’s a craving to stay in that cocoon, as opposed to consciously meeting the discomfort of getting out of bed.  Occasionally, I didn’t get enough sleep the prior days, so I tell myself sleeping a little extra today is helpful for balancing out my system — sometimes this feels true, sometimes not!

However, the more I’ve gone on this path, the better I aat gently moving past the inertia and arising when it’s appropriate.  Tactically, I find the more connected I am with my deepest intentions, the easier it is to pop up quickly and jump into the day.  As one teacher once told me, just practice “wake up, get up.”

Curiously, one of the #1 conditions that helps with this is just getting to bed aaappropriate time — when I’m in the habit of doing this, there usually isn’t any inertia I even need to move past.

Beyond sleeping in, there are other times we can overindulge, such as going to bed way too early or taking naps.  Importantly, it’s only an overindulgence when we’re not actually tired / in need of sleep, but rather we sleep out of a desire to escape and not deal with life.  Meditation retreats are often a profound place to explore this, as we have almost no stimulation, so sleep becomes aalluring escape route!

Add all this together, a basic question to ask yourself is, “why am I trying to go to sleep?”  If you note, “because I’m tired / feels appropriate / system is too wired and needs a rest, etc.”, that’s wisdom talking.

Conversely, if you notice something else, rather than judge and criticize that, just log away the data with a non-judgmental attitude.  This is how wisdom grows.

Aa brief note, please don’t become neurotic about never sleeping in or not taking naps!  Just pay attention to your motive!


The Middle Way Part 2: Shortchanging Sleep

Even though it’s generally considered common knowledge that adults need something like 7 to 9 hours of sleep for optimal functioning, one study found that 35% of American adults sleep less than that.

Of course, there are a number of these folks who have sleep disorders, often putting sleep “out of their control.”  There’s probably also a very, very small percentage that are enlightened or meditate 10+ hours a day and legitimately need less sleep to function optimally (when I was a monk, I functioned optimally on about 5 hours a night!).

However, what’s most likely is that many of these people are part of the cultural epidemic of busy busy busy.  Having too many activities and duties shortchanges sleep on two levels:

  1. Since there isn’t enough time for all the things, people tend to put off sleep to get more done.
  2. A busy life makes a busy mind, and one of the main reasons people can’t fall asleep within minutes of lying down is an overactive mind.

Of course, sometimes busyness is a short-term predicament with a clear endpoint, like raising an infant or having a big deadline next Friday. There is wisdom in putting out the fire instead of sleeping through it.  However, if your whole life is one short-term predicament after another, I’d raise an eyebrow.

Add all this together, wisdom means having your priorities aligned with well-being, for yourself and others — and this generally involves a well-nourished body.  There’s a reason the Buddha praised those as wise who were “unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.”

In turn, if you consistently don’t sleep enough for optimal functioning, I encourage you to look deeply at what’s going on within!

Aa brief note, please don’t slip into the neurosis of too tightly gripping around “enough sleep.”  It’s fine if you undershoot here and there.  Personally, I find I’m always okay on one random night without enough sleep.  But when it becomes multiple in a row, my system suffers.  Anyhow, we’re not going for perfectionism, but rather curiosity and discovery.


A Brief Thought on Napping

A curious look asleep overindulging & shortchanging is napping.

Do you nap when you’re tired or because you want an escape from the day?  Conversely, when you’re tired and your brain isn’t working well, do you refuse to nap out of a belief that it’s unproductive or a waste of time?

Aa meditator, we’re less interested in napping / not napping, and more interested in our relationship to it!


Setting Yourself Up for Success

Another pillar of Buddhist wisdom is a keen understanding of cause & effect. Aa long-time night owl, I used to like to do a lot of work (and play!) late into the evenings.  However, this often meant doing heavy thinking and looking at screens until shortly before bed.  As causality goes, this led to difficulty in falling asleep quickly, which also led to waking up feeling crappy, then oversleeping, and perpetuating a not-so-good cycle.

While I’m still not perfect in this, I generally try to abstain from doing anything brain-heavy late into the evening, and also spending more time than necessary on screens. When I can do this, I find that not only does it help me fall asleep more quickly, but the quality of my sleep is better and I wake up more refreshed.

On top of abstaining from late-night screens and brain-heavy work, there is a long list of things that inhibit sleep and likewise induce sleep, like our diet, exercise, mood, state of our relationships, work, finances, health, anxiety levels, and so on.  The wisdom here is noticing the connections & having the oomph to act on them.

Basically, when it’s aappropriate time for sleep, which conditions lead to easeful sleep?  Which lead to restless sleep, the inability to sleep, or difficulty waking in the morning?  Perhaps right now, can you identify one in each category for yourself?

Curiosity and learning are key!


When Sleep Doesn’t Happen in Spite of Your Best Efforts

When I was a child, the ADHD meds I was on made me an insomniac. I would lie in bed for hours, wide awake.  When I eventually went off the meds, my ADHD-spinning mind generally led me to need to lie down for an hour or two before I could fall asleep.  This remained until my 20s when I started meditating.  Nowadays, I’m usually out within a couple of minutes of lying down.

In turn, if the reason you can’t sleep is an overactive mind, spending some years learning mindfulness meditation is aabsolute game changer. When I worked for the 10% Happier App, the “meditation for sleep” was one of the most popular parts of the app for a reason — it works.

I wrote about this more in-depth in another article, but here’s a simple practice I do every single night:

In brief, when I lay down in bed, I let go of the desire to fall asleep, and instead think, “ahhh, how nice I get to practice lying down meditation for a little bit!”

More specifically, I lightly feel the touch of the body on the bed, relax my muscles, and as many times as they arise, shift out of the thoughts and into the body.  While this generally leads to me falling asleep pretty quickly, if a half hour goes by and I’m still awake, rather than get frustrated, I’m happy to have gotten in a half hour of meditation!  If you become upset or frustrated, you make it less likely to fall asleep, and also make yourself tense and stressed.

However, for any number of other reasons, whether aging, sleep disorders, emotional turmoil, an illness, and so on, sometimes sleep just doesn’t happen — or it does for a little bit, and then aa seemingly inappropriate hour, one is unable to get back to sleep.

Here we discover another pillar of Buddhist Wisdom: a kind acceptance of what is.  Wisdom deeply understands that it doesn’t help our stressful situation to layer on top a bunch of shame, frustration, self-criticism, being mad at our body/aging, or “problem-solving” mind. 

Keep in mind that “acceptance” doesn’t mean resignation.  You can absolutely “set yourself up for success,” mindfully attend to the moment, and make adjustments aappropriate without any of these sources of stress.  Over the years, I’ve talked to many people with sleep challenges who made this simple shift and they universally describe it aa total game changer.  Sleep no longer becomes a recipe for stress and emotional turmoil.

In turn, if for whatever reason, you have difficulty falling asleep, just acknowledge to yourself, “it’s like this,” and let that be that.


A Brief Thought on Tiredness in Meditation

Those who are steeped in the Buddhist meditative tradition will know that “sloth & torpor” is considered one of the main hindrances to meditation.  As in, we sit to meditate and become tired, dull, molasses-likeand maybe even fall asleep.

In meditation, we can learn to study this force within us — what is sloth & torpor like We learn the virtue of being with this form of tiredness, without feeling compelled to act on it.

We also start to gain an intuition for when it’s most appropriate to just be with it, like during meditation or our workday, and when is it appropriate to go to sleeplike late in the evening or in the middle of an off-day after a busy busy week.  We likewise learn what it feels like to be tired even when amped up on coffee or an overload of activity.  The list of nuances could go on and on.

However, the purpose of today’s reflection isn’t so much sitting with it on the meditation cushion, but responding wisely to it in our daily life.  If you’re interested in working with this in meditation, here is aarticle I once wrote on that theme.



The body and mind need nourishing rest to function optimally.  In turn, when appropriate, we let ourselves sleep If we don’t seem to do that, then we get curious about why not!  Zooming out even further, we can likewise get curious about our own relationship to sleep.

From curiosity comes learning, and when we can reliably act on those learnings, that’s wisdom.


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