are a long-time favorite for many people. In the Buddhist jargon
this hindrance is wonderfully named sloth and torpor.
The three-toed sloth is an animal that will hang
by its feet upside down for hours and hours. I’ve
read that you can shoot a gun right by it’s the head
of a sloth and it won’t even turn its head. Then,
after a long time, it might make its way down the tree
and have a little nibble on something, then go back
up and just hang there.
The Buddha compared torpor to being imprisoned in a cramped,
dark cell, unable to move freely in the bright sunshine
The quality of sloth and torpor in our minds is a
sinking into a state of dullness, of sleepiness, of heaviness,
where there’s no clarity, no energy. There’s
no light in the mind; everything is murky, confused. You feel disconnected.
When sitting have you experienced sleepiness, torpor?
(Who hasn’t?) How have you dealt with this?
How have you responded? Do you have an “attitude” about
getting sleepy or dull?
On retreat it becomes very obvious when sloth and torpor arise.
In the first few days of a retreat, people often struggle with
sleepiness during sittings.
Even after a good night’s sleep, when you
start to meditate why are you so sleepy all
of a sudden?
In our lives we usually are moving, going,
on the energy of stimulation.
On retreat we pass through this phase.
In classical practice it's called "sinking
While finding the delicate balance between tranquility and alertness
is an important part of meditation practice, it's
not uncommon for the tranquil side of things — relaxing,
letting go, yielding, surrendering, being at peace — to
sometimes be stronger than the alert, energizing, interested,
inspired aspects of the mind. When tranquility isn't balanced
with an equal measure of alertness, its easy to fall into a
dreamy, drifty state. You just meander along, sometimes
quite pleasantly, enjoying the images that pass
through the mind or just the comfort of pre-sleep. Sometimes
this state is so pleasant that it's difficult to rouse yourself.
Slipping into complacency
Just as with restlessness, there’s a subtle level of sloth
and torpor, which arises when the practice is going very well.
In advanced states of meditation, when mindfulness flows without
much effort, we can become complacent, resting in a
kind of cruise control. Things are going smoothly, but we've lost
a certain quality of vibrancy, of alertness, and sloth and torpor
begin to enter into the mind. So we need to maintain a quality
of vigilance to keep our practice energized.
Sometimes you may experience sleepiness or sloth because your
basic experience is neutral. The sights, sounds, physical sensations,
feelings, and memories that arise as you practice are not very
exciting. They're not tremendously pleasant — it's not that
you're intoxicated with pleasure. They're not terribly painful — you
don't have to struggle to face pain. Everything is ordinary and
you become bored. Because we’re often seduced
into seeking progressive levels of stimulation we forget or overlook
the refined awareness that provides much greater fulfillment,
happiness, and sense of completion. When we understand that
boredom is really just lack of attention, we can overcome this
aspect of sloth and torpor by amore careful aiming of the mind
toward the object.
In the face of difficulty we pull
There is also a deeper, more profound meaning
to sloth and torpor than these states of sleepiness or dullness. Sloth
and torpor on this deeper level is the tendency to withdraw from
difficulties. In the face of difficulty, we retreat, not willing
to engage, not wanting to go forward to meet the difficulty. Pulling
back, we are unable to draw on the strength that we actually have
to deal with what is arising. At that time, we’re unable
to connect with our strength.
We may see this played out in our lives in many different ways
when we do not arouse the energy and the effort to meet the different
challenges that come to us.
How is this played out in your life? In
Some people may be very skillful in meeting the challenges of
the world, yet when they turn inward they retreat from difficulties,
falling into this dullness of mind. Others are good at meeting
their own inner difficulties, but when faced with challenges in
the world, find themselves pulling back, retreating.
Our practice, then, is to observe how this hindrance manifests
in all its many forms.
Sloth and torpor’s seductive disguise
"I need to take care of myself. I’ve
been working hard.”
As doubt can masquerade as wisdom, sloth and
torpor has its own mask, and it’s an incredibly seductive
disguise. Sloth and torpor often comes masquerading as compassion. We
are facing some difficulty, we are feeling tired, and we hear this
very kindly-sounding voice in the mind, this very compassionate
voice, “Oh, maybe it’s time for a nap, let me take
a rest. I need to take care of myself. I’ve been
working so hard.” Although we surely do sometimes
need to take a rest, very often it’s just the voice of sloth
and torpor sensing a difficulty and not wanting to engage with
it, looking to pull back from it. So be watchful. You
can apply real discernment when this voice arises — is it
compassion or is it a masquerade?
We can see why it’s important on retreat
to keep engaging in the face of torpor. We need to
arouse effort and energy for the practice to deepen.
Why is this important in your life?
If we are habituated to a pattern of retreating from difficulties
in our daily lives, there won’t be much joy or happiness. The
heaviness of sinking into that dull, unengaged state of mind doesn’t
serve our quest for happiness, for vibrancy.