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Vipassana Gave Me Insomnia - Why?

Arius

Senior Member
Hello.

Ostensibly I am on Day 7 of a home-bound Goenka-style Vipassana-inspired meditation "retreat." I am having a serious problem and am actually breaking protocol in search of advice.


Some Background Info

Numerous people over the years have recommended Vipassana to me, and I've wanted to try it for a long time. I had two primary concerns that prevented me from going:

1. my dietary needs and restrictions (to deal with SIBO/leaky gut) are extreme, non-negotiable, and completely incompatible with the food offered at the retreats.

2. I might be pressured to push myself physically in a way that would either permanently worsen my condition or force me to drop out of the retreat (and not be allowed to return... they are quite strict about the fact that you have to do 10 days, and, like the rest of the general population, I don't get the sense that they have any concept of what CFS/ME is).

A few weeks ago someone suggested Vipassana to me again and I felt very inspired to try it. Everyone has such a transformative, positive experience with it. But the barriers remained. So I decided to do the next best thing: my own home-bound retreat.

I blocked 10 days off in my schedule during which I cancelled all plans with friends and lovers, made no doctors appointments, etc. I read up on Vipassana made the following rules for myself:

no talking (except to roommates about important house business)
no writing (hi!)
no computer (cough)
no guitar
no books
no cellphone
no masturbating (suspect this is religious nonsense, but want to be as true to Vipassana as possible)

Basically for the past week I have done nothing but make food, eat, sleep, and meditate.

I read up on the schedule and was determined to follow it to the letter. Get up at 4 am, meditate, breakfast from 6:30am-8:00am, meditate until 11, lunch, meditate, no dinner, etc. I even found the Goenka lectures that students listen to from 7:00 to 8:15pm every evening on youtube and have been watching those one per day at the appropriate time.


My Concern: Insomnia

When I did my research, I was immediately somewhat concerned about the lack of sleep programmed right into the schedule. Even if I fell asleep bang at 9pm (as if!), getting up at 4am meant a maximum of 7 hours of sleep every night, which is less than I need. And I figured that realistically, it would probably be more like 9:30 or 10pm before I fell asleep, meaning 6 hours.

I normally feel like total garbage and am barely able to function if I get one night of less than 8 hours of sleep, and here in the Vipassana schedule it was required that I do that to myself for 10 nights in a row. I should have modified the schedule to include more sleep. But I really really wanted the benefits and was concerned that modifying the schedule would deprive me of the full experience. (I guess you could say I ironically crave equanimity in the face of cravings.)

Anyway. I went in with some concerns about sleep. What I was not prepared for was the insomnia that is apparently a normal and common reaction to Vipassana. I have been unable to find any information about what causes this, and nobody has anything to say about how to fix it.

You all know that sleep issues are part of CFS/ME. I spent years working on correcting my sleep cycle and have finally reached a place where I am basically getting a decent amount of sleep every night. Or WAS, before I started doing this Vipassana.

Now, after a long hard day of meditating, I go to bed and lay awake for hours. I’ve been averaging maybe 3 hours of sleep a night and feeling worse and worse every day. I’ve been experimenting with modifying the schedule a bit, trying to sleep in (I just end up laying in bed awake), doing less meditation, etc.

Yesterday (Day 6) I did 3 “Determination” sittings (not allowed to move for an hour while doing body scans) interspersed throughout the day and spent the rest of the day resting. I watched the Goenka talk at 7pm and did 30 minutes of meditation mainly just focusing on my breath.

I’ve also tried eating 3 full meals so that I’m not so hungry because I thought the hunger might be keeping me up at night.

Nothing has worked - I still spend most of the night awake. I am getting more and more depleted and am very worried about permanently damaging my health. Does anybody know what causes this or have advice about what to do?

The obvious solution is to stop the Vipassana altogether. Which it breaks my heart to do. But I think at this point I have no choice.

I still want to finish the 10 days if I can, even if it’s just me napping and not going on facebook etc the whole time. But I’m wondering if I might have to return to normal life. It would be super helpful to have some understanding or insight about what is keeping me awake so I can just modify my schedule instead of giving up.

Unfortunately the internet is full of unhelpful and even harmful (and frequently invalidating, dismissive, and gaslighting) comments from pro-Vipassana folks who have no concept of what CFS/ME is. “Let go of your attachment to sleep.” “Your problems are caused by your desires, not by the technique.” Etc. Fine for a health person. Not so great when the stress of a few bad nights sleep in a row can permanently reduce your quality of life.

I would really appreciate any info or experiences from people who share my illness.

Thanks,
Arius



P.S. This is an aside, as the main issue I have right now is just getting a full night’s sleep tonight, but I feel I must warn people: Vipassana meditation is far more physically and mentally taxing than I expected.

The worst part for me is actually the body scans. The focused attention required is completely exhausting. I can scan for about ten minutes to half an hour before my brain is totally exhausted and I need to rest for a few hours before going again. I learned this years ago with guitar – I can noodle around on guitar for a while without getting too tired, but if I “zoom in” to try to work on a particular chord change or exercise, and start really practising, I am rapidly depleted of energy. Mental focus is extremely energetically expensive, and this specific meditation practice requires 10.5 hours of mental focus a day.

Vipassana seems like a wonderful tool for physically healthy people, but in my opinion and experience it is dangerous for anybody suffering from post-exertion malaise.



TL;DR: What is the cause of Vipassana-induced insomnia, and what is the cure?
 

Cheesus

Senior Member
Messages
1,292
Location
UK
Sorry, I cannot tell you what the cause or cure for your insomnia is. However, I have been practicing Vipassana for many years, so I can speak with a bit of experience about it as it relates to ME/CFS.

First, you have really thrown yourself in at the deep end. In fact what you have done is jump off the side of a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Most people spend years doing ordinary practice before working their way up to a retreat. A retreat is hard. It is taxing. To go from nothing to 10 days of focussed meditation is a brutal introduction. I'm impressed that you made it all the way through to day 7.

Second, in line with that, meditation should not be used as a stick to beat yourself with. It is really just about sitting to be as you are. If you find that it is causing you harm, I would strongly urge you to stop what you're doing. I don't think any experienced practitioner would recommend you pursue a schedule that causes you harm.

My advice to you is to cool things down a bit. Give yourself a break. At least reduce the amount you're meditating to allow yourself to get enough sleep. There is a popular belief amongst people without much experience of meditation that it is supposed to produce a wonderfully relaxing mental state. That can happen, but as you are discovering, the reality is that it is often quite difficult and unpleasant. The gains you make whilst meditating are ultimately worth it, but they are hard won.
 

Arius

Senior Member
Thanks for your compassionate reply, Cheesus.

This isn't my first experience with meditation. I've been doing a combination of yoga, Qi Gong, and controlled breathing / visualization meditation for years now. But it IS my first experience with Vipassana specifically. And I've never done an intense "retreat" like this before.

What I struggle with in this moment is knowing how specifically to give myself a break without really knowing what aspect of the practice is causing the insomnia. I have been wrestling with this for a few days now, but kept going.

I think now my impulse is to stop meditating completely, try to return as much as possible to a normal way of life, and get one or two good nights of sleep. Then I would like to try building up from there. Basically, return to baseline and then gradually introduce more Vipassana and see what the effects are on my sleep and energy.
 
Messages
102
Recovered from CFS. I’ve done 3 Vipassana’s and served 4.

Vipassana is extremely hard work. When I had similar insomnia issues, I would lie down in bed to practice so that if I fell asleep, great. In my case (and those of my teachers) the insomnia is actually the beginning of feeling suppressed tension in the body. The mind will do anything to stop us from feeling stored painful experience that has not been felt.

Meditation, although hard work, reduces the need for traditional sleep. Like the other poster said, it’s not about self torture, and without proper guidance, it can be messy and somewhat dangerous for anyone let alone a person with CFS.

Having said all that, they teach (and I fully agree) that if a person doesnt improve their health from this practice, then they aren’t doing it right.

I applaud your determination. I needed the support of the staff as it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The first one was hard but great. The second one was like I was literally losing my mind and took months to regain my footing.

Vipassana is by far the deep end of the pool. In my view, much harder than psylicybin or Aguascalientes.
 
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pamojja

Senior Member
Messages
2,379
Location
Austria
Ostensibly I am on Day 7 of a home-bound Goenka-style Vipassana-inspired meditation "retreat." I am having a serious problem and am actually breaking protocol in search of advice.

Goenka, with all my respect to him for making it easy accessible and available throughout the world, has in his attempt to standardize such courses, also strewn in some unnecessary elements making it indeed very difficult to practice for many. Saw in a statistics of VRI-Igatpuri in 1997 that of 200,000 first time students only 20,000 came back to a second retreat.

Personally practiced with them for 10 years, also in many longer courses, till I was kicked out for being critical of their rigid approach totally opposite of how the Buddha taught.

But there is still the tradition of his teacher Sayagyi U B Khin, also having at least 1 meditation center on all continents running such courses with a much, much gentler approach: http://www.internationalmeditationcentre.org/global/index.html

Yesterday (Day 6) I did 3 “Determination” sittings (not allowed to move for an hour while doing body scans)

That's for example an invention by Goenka. At IMC one should just not leave the meditation-room for those 1 hr sittings. Also anapana is practiced for 5 days. As soon you're having difficulties with vipassana you're told to return back to anapana, till settled again. Or otherwise go for a walk, take some sleep, relax, etc.

The worst part for me is actually the body scans. The focused attention required is completely exhausting. I can scan for about ten minutes to half an hour before my brain is totally exhausted and I need to rest for a few hours before going again. I learned this years ago with guitar – I can noodle around on guitar for a while without getting too tired, but if I “zoom in” to try to work on a particular chord change or exercise, and start really practising, I am rapidly depleted of energy. Mental focus is extremely energetically expensive, and this specific meditation practice requires 10.5 hours of mental focus a day.

Then just return to anapana. And take it easy. A first 10-day course is just the beginning. No need for exactly 10.5 hours focus daily. In fact, practically impossible for most. You are stirring too much effort stressing you and making you unable to sleep. Effort has to be balanced with relaxation.

TL;DR: What is the cause of Vipassana-induced insomnia, and what is the cure?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indriya#Balancing_the_spiritual_faculties

Most deep-going vipassana retreats for me has always been alone somewhere in the mountains, not even carrying a watch and due to some chores in such a situation, much less hours of practice.

Be kind to yourself.
 
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Arius

Senior Member
Pamojja, thank you so much for sharing your experience and insights. I had intuitively and naturally reverted back to anapana when the scanning was too intense; I'm glad to hear this is an encouraged practice.

I've read a few comments on the internet similar to yours by people who are critical of the Goenka method.

Finding the right balance of effort and relaxation is definitely part of what I am hoping to achieve today. I don't want to swing too far back towards "laziness," but I also don't want to over-exert or agitate myself.

Thank you.
 

jesse's mom

Senior Member
Messages
6,795
Location
Alabama USA
Personally practiced with them for 10 years, also in many longer courses, till I was kicked out for being critical of their rigid approach totally opposite of how the Buddha taught.

Hooray!

As soon you're having difficulties with vipassana you're told to return back to anapana, till settled again. Or otherwise go for a walk, take some sleep, relax, etc.

Good!

Be kind to yourself.

Please do be kind to yourself.
 

Arius

Senior Member
When I had similar insomnia issues, I would lie down in bed to practice so that if I fell asleep, great. In my case (and those of my teachers) the insomnia is actually the beginning of feeling suppressed tension in the body. The mind will do anything to stop us from feeling stored painful experience that has not been felt.

Meditation, although hard work, reduces the need for traditional sleep.

Vipassana is by far the deep end of the pool. In my view, much harder than psylicybin or Aguascalientes.

Thank you for the insights! Suppressed tension could definitely be the cause for me.

I do know that meditation reduces the need for sleep. If I was feeling rested and okay I wouldn't be concerned. What concerns me is that I am seeing a decline in my health (feeling increasingly ill) more and more every day. Someone has suggested that having anxiety about not getting enough good sleep may be the reason I wake up feeling worse, that I need to not be so attached to getting good sleep. That is worth considering and experimenting with.

I had an awful psilocybin trip a few months back. I spent the whole trip worried that I may have rendered myself permanently bed-ridden by poisoning myself with these mushrooms. I was going through a break up and was homesick and had a few concerns about money and housing and things at the time as well, and all that came up viciously. If the trip had lasted 10 days, I would say it was definitely much worse than doing a Vipassana retreat; but because of the short duration of the mushroom trip, I definitely think this Vipassana is a more intense test.
 

pamojja

Senior Member
Messages
2,379
Location
Austria
Having said all that, they teach (and I fully agree) that if a person doesnt improve their health from this practice, then they aren’t doing it right.

You might question what Goenka tells in his discourses, even the Buddha himself suffered from back-pain at old age. In my case having been healthy before starting vipassana, but for the first 3 years of practice it made me immobile and horizontal for half of that time. 8 months I suffered Spondylodiscitis, 8 other months right after my first couple of courses Palmoplantar pustular psoriasis:

_aEUwmhE.jpeg

Funnily, anapana always initiated some healing, and vipassana always made the pus drip.

Vipassana is by far the deep end of the pool. In my view, much harder than psylicybin or Aguascalientes.

Maybe better stop before it's too late ;).
 
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Float

Senior Member
Messages
307
Location
Australasia
I had I insomnia at vipassana and also at several month long yoga ashram stays. It was because I was hypothyroid. My whole body used to buzz and vibrate. Especially from heart. I used to think it was the prana. Nope it was all part of the hypothyroid symptoms. Constipation and cold feet are my other signs .
Unfortunately, going undiagnosed for many years is probably the reason I have ME (alongwith hyprtvigalence from trauma ).
 

Mary

Moderator Resource
Messages
17,293
Location
Southern California
@Arius , @pamojja , @jesse's mom , @Float , @Cheesus - I'm tagging you all here as you've all taken part in this thread. A non-member who does not have ME/CFS PM'd me and asked that I post the following regarding Vipassana and insomnia, and it seemed appropriate, so here it is:

Hi all,

Actually I had the same issues, not being able to fall sleep when practicing Vipassana meditation at night, then later ironically I tried even harder, believing that I didn't meditate hard enough. Now I now that one should avoid meditation around bedtime altogether, and that it makes sense to treat it as a path towards awakening, not for falling asleep ;)

Here is a passage from Osho that I came across, who wrote that insomnia and vipassana don't relate well at all. Please have a read of this quote from "The secret of secrets. On the secret of the golden flower" – Taoist teachings on life and existence:

"If you feel very sleepy while meditating, then start watching your breath and sleep will disappear. That's why many Buddhist monks who do vipassana start suffering from insomnia. I have come across many people who were suffering from insomnia because they were practicing vipassana and they were not aware of it: if you watch your breath, it destroys your sleep.
So to my sannyasins I say: never practice vipassana for more than two or three hours a day, and those three hours should be between sunrise and sunset, never after sunset. If you practice vipassana in the night you will disturb your sleep, and to disturb sleep is to disturb your whole body mechanism.

One monk from Ceylon was brought to me. For three years he had not been able to sleep. A sincere monk... that was his problem. Thinking that vipassana was so great, he was practicing it day in, day out. Even when he was in bed feeling that no sleep was coming, he would practice vipassana. Now if you practice vipassana in bed, it is impossible for sleep to come: sleep never comes to a person who is becoming very alert of the breath. You can try it – if you need insomnia you can try it. To watch the breath is the best way to destroy sleepiness in you, because breath is life and sleep is death; they are antagonistic to each other. (...)"

(On a sidenote: I think Osho seems to have misunderstood the vipassana method as a sheer breathing meditation, though it clearly isn't – that would be called annapana. Vipassana is rather a bodyscan method, if you follow the teaching of S.N. Goenka. Yet I think that it doesn't make so much of a difference regarding the correctness of the point that he is making)
 

pamojja

Senior Member
Messages
2,379
Location
Austria
It's about balancing the 5 faculties. Where each individual faces differing constellations at the commencement of meditation. As already pointed out with this wikipedia article:


In a large meditation forest monastery in Myanmar, where up to 400 meditators practiced during rainy season from 5 AM till 9 PM, I on the contrary had rather the problem to still keep practicing the last of those hours. Nor did I ever hear of meditators not being able to sleep after such a strenghous routine of so many hours sitting, day after day after day. Most used walking meditation to wake up again inbetween.

Osho was a philosopher, but as shown in this quote from him - if authentic - never a sincere meditator.

I always meditate before falling asleep. Especially when a restless mind otherwise would keep me awake.
 
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pamojja

Senior Member
Messages
2,379
Location
Austria
On a sidenote: I think Osho seems to have misunderstood the vipassana method as a sheer breathing meditation, though it clearly isn't – that would be called annapana. Vipassana is rather a bodyscan method, if you follow the teaching of S.N. Goenka. Yet I think that it doesn't make so much of a difference regarding the correctness of the point that he is making

According to the Pali suttas anapana meditation is used for samatha as well as vipassana meditation. Bodyscan as thought by Goenka is one of many legit techniques invented in 20th century Myanmar to revive this practice for modern laypeople, in that particular way not found in any of the original scriptures.
 

Arius

Senior Member
Thanks, Mary.

I'm interested in whether there is merit to the idea that focusing on the breath keeps you awake, because actually I have a nearly impossible time falling asleep (I just spent an hour laying awake and am now up and about to smoke a huge bowl of cannabis in an effort to knock myself out) the past couple years, and I've suspected for a while now that my now natural tendency to focus on my breath while I'm waiting for sleep to come is actually keeping me awake. I try not to, but it has become a habit and is a difficult one to break.
 

raghav

Senior Member
Messages
809
Location
India
What you are doing is called Dharana in Patanjali Yogasutras. This is focus on any one object, in particular the breathe. This requires energy and effort since the mind will wander again and again. The next stage after this is Dhyana. The only difference between Dhyana and Dharana is in Dhyana you reach focus and maintain it effortlessly. Then comes Samadhi. Here you expand the object of focus once you have completely stopped your thoughts. There are 8 levels of Samadhi. The problem you are facing is you are doing a crash course in Dharana or focus using effort. So do it for 20 to 25 minutes in the morning after a light breakfast.

Keep doing this daily. In 2 to 3 months you will be able to focus effortlessly or at least with minimum effort. Then it will be invigorating than being tiring which is what you are feeling now. So all the best.