Meditation vs Sleep: Notable Similarities and Surprising Differences
Deep sleep and meditation have many similarities in terms of the benefits they provide to the body and mind. But there are also some crucial differences between them.
Let's explore meditation vs. sleep and take a look at the similarities first.
How Sleep and Meditation Are Similar
Both sleep and meditation have the power to restore and revitalize the body and mind. Numerous scientific studies have established rest is essential to our physical, mental, and emotional health:
Both the cellular repair and stress-processing parts of your sleep cycle are essential to maintaining good physical and mental health. If these are compromised by poor sleep patterns and lack of a routine, our mental and physical health deteriorates.
Just a few of the many benefits of getting a good night's sleep include increased levels of happiness, improved fitness level and muscle mass, enhanced memory and learning skills; and more fulfilling sexual relationships.
The scientifically verified physical and emotional benefits of a regular meditation practice are similarly impressive, and include:
- Enhanced vitality
- Improved memory
- Increased positive emotion
- Relaxation and stress relief
- Deeper and more restful sleep
- Improved capacity to introspect
- Increased mental clarity and intelligence
- Improved powers of focus and concentration
- Enhanced creativity (ability to "think outside the box")
- Deepening equanimity and compassion
The Brain In Deep Sleep and Samadhi
When we've got a great night's sleep, this means we've entered deep sleep as well as dream cycles. Similarly, when a meditation session is complete, we've come to the deepest levels of meditation—known in Sanskrit as samadhi—where mind activity suspends fully.
And scientific research shows in both deep meditation (samadhi) and deep sleep, there's an increase in the brain of low-frequency Delta waves. So our brain behaves similarly in deep sleep and deep meditation.
Another physiological similarity between sleep and meditation has to do with their effect on heart rate and breathing patterns. In both deep sleep and meditation, both heart rate and respiration rates tend to decrease.
However, in deep meditation, the breath can become extremely fine and shallow—and even suspend entirely for periods. While respiration also slows down in a deep sleep, it doesn't slow down as much as in deep meditation.
While both sleep and meditation are beneficial to the human body and mind—in the ways we've seen above—there are some essential differences, which we'll now explore.
How Sleep and Meditation Are Different
When we meditate, our body and mind become deeply relaxed, yet we (as awareness) remain awake and alert. That is the most significant difference between sleep and meditation.
If you've tried meditation, chances are good you've noticed a tendency to drift off to sleep as your body begins to relax. We nod off to sleep in the middle of our meditation session because our human body-mind tends to associate deep relaxation with sleep.
And conversely, we tend to associate being awake with being in body-mind overdrive—i.e., with a tension-filled body and a racing mind.
But in meditation, we train ourselves to remain alert and awake, even as the body and mind are deeply relaxed. It's the heart of meditation practice: a profoundly relaxed body and mind, which allows our true nature—our spiritual essence as pure awareness—to shine brightly through.
Once again, the critical distinction between meditation and sleep is that in meditation, we remain alert, while in sleep, we fall into non-alertness. But meditative alertness has a very different quality than the typical sharpness of the waking state—because meditative alertness comes with the deep relaxation of the body and a spacious, bright and naturally focused mind.
Meditation Can Be More Restful Than Sleep
What may surprise you to learn is that in deep meditation, the level of rest that the body receives can be two to five times deeper than what it receives in the deepest part of sleep.
That's right—meditation can be more relaxing and therapeutic than sleep!
And when the body is resting deeply, the mind also can more easily come to sleep, and release long-held anxiety, stress, clutter, and mental fatigue. And this leads to feeling more calm and relaxed when we rise after a meditation session.
Meditation and Sleep Are Mutually Enhancing
Does this mean we should forego sleep entirely, in favor of meditation? Not at all! A good night's sleep and deep meditation practice—while they're not interchangeable—are mutually enhancing.
Being well-rested from a good night's sleep lessens the chances of falling asleep during your meditation session. And one of the benefits of regular meditation practice is how it enhances your sleep.
So we might consider meditation and sleep to be akin to our right and left hands: while they're not identical, they do work together beautifully.
Meditation Connects Us With Inner Peace and Joy
One of the most profound benefits of meditation is its power to connect us with inner peace, joy, wisdom, and freedom—that is wholly independent of external circumstances. Being rooted in this unconditioned and durable peace and freedom dramatically enhances our ability to navigate our lives skillfully.
The bright, awake awareness fully unveiled via meditation is the witness of the waking, dreaming, and deep-sleep states. It's what remains constant throughout our nighttime and daytime experiences.
As meditation teacher Ravi Shankar beautifully explains:
"Wakefulness and sleep are like sunrise and darkness, while dreams are like the twilight in between. Meditation is like the flight to outer space, where there is no sunset, no sunrise—nothing!"
The Bottom Line
Sleep and meditation are similar in that they both contribute to physical, mental, and emotional health and wellbeing. They both reduce stress and help to revitalize the body and mind.
The primary difference between sleep and meditation is that in meditation, we remain alert, awake, and aware—while in sleep, we lack alertness, and instead fall into dullness and non-awareness.
Over time, a regular meditation practice can enhance the quality of our sleep. And sleeping well sets the stage for more productive meditation sessions. So the two are mutually beneficial, in a beautiful way.
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