Sloth and Torpor: The Flip Side Of Peace, Joy And Contentment

This month we will be exploring a fourth hindrance – Sloth and Torpor.  But before we jump into it, let’s take a step back and remember what these hindrances point towards.  We started with Desire and Aversion.  They are wanting/not wanting energy.  It is the underlying tendencies or habitual impulses we often speak about in this practice.  It is the nature of what we call “the grasping mind”.  This grasping aspect of mind controls our behavior by pressuring us to push away or avoid what we don’t want and grab after or hold on to what we want.  (Ok I know this is basic stuff but it is important to constantly remind ourselves).  The impulses/tendencies of the grasping mind are not based in reality.  They are reactivity; based solely on our minds assumptions or projections of reality.  Desire and Aversion are the direct felt sense of this impulsive reactivity.  This practice is about learning to feel/experience Desire and Aversion without reacting so we can begin to tell what is reality and what is our projections/assumptions about reality.  When we are viewing the moment in reality, we can always respond appropriately.  During meditation, we constantly watch the impulses of wanting and not wanting (Desire and Aversion) rising in the mind.  By not following through on the impulses (including getting lost in the stories associated with them), we are reprograming the grasping mind and diminishing the impact (power) of its habitual tendencies.

The third hindrance we talked about was Restlessness.  Like Desire and Aversion, Restlessness and Sloth and Torpor are symmetrically.  They are on opposite sides of the same energy.   Restlessness and Sloth and Torpor are thoughts (likes and dislikes) relating to the body’s energy flow.  The difficulties lies in seeing our thinking about the energy flow rather than blaming the energy flow itself.  When our energy is high and/or fast, we get Restlessness.  When our energy is low and/or slow, we get Sloth and Torpor.  This energy flow is a normal and natural aspect of the human body.  It is our relationship with this flow that the hindrances are pointing towards.  The grasping mind is usually (habitually) what controls our relationship with this flow of energy.  Restlessness falls on the dislike side and Sloth and Torpor falls on the liking side.  During meditation, we try to observe both the flow and our thoughts about it.  The more we are able to see this distinction between the natural flow of bodily energy and the grasping minds thinking about the flow, the less trapped in the hindrances we become.

Now we can turn towards Sloth and Torpor.  It is generally associated with sleepiness but it can also feel like boredom, dullness, haziness and fantasy.  It comes from the need for stimulation.  We live with constant stimulus so the minute we stop or slow down, the mind falls into the fuzzy spectrum.  This is the same process we talked about in last month’s post on Restlessness.  Sloth and Torpor starts with boredom and dullness.  The mind looses interest in the breath or present moment in meditation.  The moment seems dull, uninteresting; a waste of time.  The thinking mind then moves away to something more pleasurable – sleeping and/or day dreaming.  The more we practice, the stronger our awareness becomes and the more we notice this sleeping and day dreaming which brings with it judgment about meditation, how “good” we are at it and whether its worth the trouble. 

The very act of meditating, however, sets this process in motion because meditation brings the body to stillness and focusing on the breath diminishes stimulation – together they are a recipe for sleepiness, fantasy, boredom and dullness.  Basically, the grasping mind (which is always seeking out pleasure) mistakenly thinks nothing is happening and seeks pleasure is sleep and fantasy.  The sleepiness and fantasy associated with meditation is so pleasant.  It is only when we become aware of it that it becomes unpleasant.  And that unpleasantness is associated with our judgment about the sleepiness or fantasy.   The trick is to see that all of this is judgment about the moment. 

On the other hand, if we hold meditation as being solely about balancing energy we would see it as a balance between alertness and tranquility.  This is the flip side (or bodily side) of Restlessness and Sloth and Torpor.  Without sufficient alertness or interest, our grasping mind’s judgment of low energy turns into Sloth and Torpor.  Without sufficient calmness or peace with whatever is present, our grasping mind’s judgment of high energy turns into Restlessness.

The truly remarkable thing about working with Sloth and Torpor comes from learning to stay present when we think “nothing is happening”.  The direct experience of genuine joy, peace and contentment is quite subtle.  It is not the same experience as with joy, peace and contentment that comes when our outer world is going right or working out in our favor.  Often what we call sleepiness is the grasping mind’s misunderstanding of this subtle energy and it’s habitual impulse to move away from it.  Genuine joy, peace and contentment does not need stimulus.  It does not need to be generated at all.  It is always present but it is subtle and below the superficial level of the grasping mind.  When we meditate, we are learning to access this subtle level of energy.  You can think of this practice as learning the art; the skill;  or the wisdom of how to access the direct experience of this subtle level of energy, to see the value in it and to be able to abide there, rather than follow the reactivity of the grasping mind.

This is what we are going to talk about this month.  Come join us…

Tuere

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Restlessness – Learning To Take Refuge In the Body Rather Than The Mind

Tonight we begin a monthlong exploration into our third hindrance – Restlessness.  Restlessness is unrest in the mind.  We often associate it with the body but restlessness, as with all five of the hindrances, is a mental activity.  Giving unwise attention to this mental activity is how we feed hindrances and allow them to create havoc in our moment to moment experience of life.  Learning to recognize hindrances as they truly are – mental activity – is how we see through the delusion associated with them.  The less we live out of the deluded chaos of the hindrances the more we have access to the natural ease of reality; even when reality presents us with challenging and difficult circumstances.

Let’s take a moment to slow down and look into how this happens with restlessness…

Some thought comes to mind.  Its usually a random memory prompted by something we see, hear, smell, taste or it could also be associated with a body sensation.  Often we are unconscious that this connection has been made.  All hindrances are associated with the unpleasant, so the mind sees this connection as a problem; something needing to be fixed.  The mind begins drawing upon its memories and projections into the future to fuel its attempt to calm down the situation and find a solution.  It spins and spins into a never-ending vortex of thought.

The delusion with this process comes from the fact that it generally starts out in as a pleasant experience.  We, in affect, take refuge in our mind’s ability to solve the problem (ignoring that this is a problem the mind created).  As each attempted solution unravels, the mind gets more and more agitated and we become more and more attached into finding a solution.  At some point along this spectrum we become conscious of suffering arising out of this entanglement and begin frantically looking for relief.  Our habit is to seek some type of pleasure to offset the unpleasantness of our current state.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with restlessness is that the mind cannot calm itself down without mindfulness.  It may eventually replace the spinning with something else but we are at the mercy of that shift.  Our meditation practice is about learning to take a different path.  We learn to shift our attention from the mind to the body.  This requires us to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.  We learn to give wise attention to the presence of restlessness by cultivating present moment calm in the body rather than trying to “solve for X”.

This shifting to the body will most likely be associated with unpleasant feeling tones.  We can think of vedana (the feeling tone) as the gate to liberation.  Mindfulness is the guard.  Together they protect the mind from spinning itself into deeper suffering.  We cultivate calm – not to escape the unpleasantness of the body – but to prevent us from getting caught in the proliferation of the mind.

Cultivating the capacity to calm the mind and body in the midst of restlessness provides an even greater opportunity for tranquility.  Our human bodies – just like all animals – needs to get rid of excess energy.  This is energy generated by the body and mind to allow us to function in life but that is not used up by our actual activities of life (mental or physical).  The body knows how to release this excess energy but will not do it unless we feel safe and secure.  The practice of meditation allows the body to experience a sense of relaxation and safety which prompts it to began releasing energy.  This releasing of energy feels a lot like restlessness.  Meditation is about learning to provide a safe, still, kind environment in which the body can do what it needs to do in order to keep us balanced and peaceful.  See you tonight…

Tuere

 

Aversion: Possibly The Greatest Gift Associated With Being Human

(This is a little longer than normal)

This month we are working with the second hindrance – Ill Will or Aversion.  Aversion is the flip side of desire.  It is in our pushing away, not wanting and avoiding.  I think this hindrance gets an unnecessarily bad rap.  Mostly because it arises out of the unpleasant, uncomfortable and difficult.  There are three words we often associate with this hindrance.  They are ill will, aversion and anger.  We tend to use them interchangeably but I think our common English usage is not completely within the context of what I think this hindrance is pointing toward.  The commentaries I read about ill will point to the notion of hostility towards another person.  The Pali word for aversion is patigha which meads “striking against”; a kind of resistance.  According to Gil Fronsdal, the Pali word that is most often translated for anger is dosa which means “hostility”.  Thus, I think a good phrase for this hindrance would be “hostile resistance towards a person, thing or experience”.   It’s not just about how resistant or angry we are.  It’s the hostility connected to that resistance.  I think the better way to practice with this hindrance is to watch out for our level of hostility when we don’t want, are pushing against or avoiding some experience or person.

The main reason I think this hindrance is possibly the greatest gift associated with being human is because aversion is the easiest of the hindrances to notice.  It is our reactivity when we don’t like something.  Reactivity is pretty obvious so the doorway to awakening is equally obvious.  In other words, all suffering comes from grasping; trying to get what we want.  This is the 2nd Noble Truth.  Grasping is a natural human tendency but when we are trapped in the grasping we are also caught in the desire of wanting.  We are so focused on the positive aspect of what we believe we will get that it’s hard to see the pain and anguish (the original suffering) associated with the hindrance of desire.  We all, however, have no problem seeing our reactivity when we don’t get that positive aspect or when that positive aspect comes to an end.  The more we practice with this reactivity, the more we will be able to see the original suffering of the grasping mind.  When we are able to see this original suffering with a non-judgmental acceptance, the mind can learn to release its grasping.

The second reason I think aversion is a gift is because it wakes us up.  The 1st Noble Truth is about the importance of recognizing suffering.  When everything in our life is going along smoothly we can become lulled into a sleep state.  Our mindfulness diminishes and we stop paying attention to the coming and going of experience.  Because of this unwise attention, we can easily forget about things like impermence, the natural unreliability of existence and how impersonal and void everything is around us.  It is our aversion that shakes us back into our senses whenever we come face to face with this forgotten reality.  This can be a gift if we are willing to hold the shaking with levity.  So long as we remember to keep our actions within our three vows of  non-harm, kindness and renunciation (restraint from needing to get our way all the time), we can use these wake up moments as teachable moments for the grasping mind.  Over time the mind will remember and apply these lessons to situations and experiences when we are, as usual, not paying attention.

The final reason I think aversion is such a gift is because of it’s connection to emotions.  Emotions are what give this human existence color, inspiration, depth, vibrancy, etc.  Aversion is usually associated with what we call “bad, negative or wrong” emotions.  We have a natural problem of associating the unpleasant with “bad, negative or wrong”. We then spend most of our lives and energy tying to keep these emotions from arising or suppressing any which have arisen.  In doing so we are also limiting our ability to truly experience what we call pleasant emotions.   If, however, we were to get comfortable with our unpleasant emotions, we would see that they are pretty transitory.  We would also become less hesitant to experience genuine joy, happiness, peace and gratitude; even when all around us is in chaos.  Chaos without does not mean chaos within.

Moreover, we could use the energetic gift of emotion to truly live in the world.  Emotions such as anger, fear, worry, disappointment and sadness generate a tremendous amount of energy.  It is very easy for us to have a lot of hostility and resistance whenever one of these emotions arise.  If we are not paying wise attention we can simply react to these emotions by turning that “hostile resistance” outward.  I believe very strongly that we need the energy from these emotions to build inner strength.  If we keep trying to eliminate or diminish these strong emotions, we will sap our strength away.  On the other hand, if we are able to get comfortable with the power of these emotions we can learn to harness the energy associated with them.  The more comfortable we get with the energy, the more we can learn to wield it’s power to accomplish unimaginable things.

It takes the Four Noble Truths/Eight-Fold Path; the Lovingkindness/Compassion; and Meditation to see the gift of aversion.  Teachers can point out the way but real awakening will come when you stop resisting your resistance, let go of any hostility and pay attention.  Tonight we will explore the emotional aspect of aversion.

Tuere

Tonight…

Tonight we will begin an exploration into aversion – the second hindrance.  Time got away from me and I won’t be able to write a post in time for our sit.  I’ll write it up in time for next week’s sit.  Thanks for your patience.

Tuere

Desire: The Unrelenting Challenge With Wanting

Tonight, we begin a new year and a new teaching theme.  We will spend the first half of the year looking at the 5 Hindrances (Desire, Aversion, Sloth & Torpor, Restlessness and Doubt) and the second half of the year with the 7 Factors of Awakening (Mindfulness, Investigation, Energy, Joy, Calm, Concentration and Equanimity).  The two lists are simply 12 qualities of mind.  Our sense of wellbeing, however, depends a lot upon which mind state is present.  Learning to balance our expectations and reactions around all 12 states, rather than preferring one over the other, will go a long way in supporting a more contented life – no matter the outward circumstances.  We begin our exploration around how to do this by practicing with the hindrances.

This month we will look at desire.  Buddha gave an example of desire being like looking into colored water.  You get so caught up in looking at the color that you can’t see your reflection in the water.  Desire is basically an unrealistic relationship with whatever we perceive as pleasant, comfortable, pleasing.  We mistakenly input our opinion and/or belief that something is pleasant, comfortable, pleasing into the object itself.  We don’t see that whatever pleasantness we believe exist in the object is just a thought and not reality.

I realize this may sound a little abstract, so let me put it this way.  Many of my friends love dark chocolate.  Over the years, I have received dozens of little gifts with what…dark chocolate!  These gifts usually come with all kinds of cute sayings of kindness, love, motivation, etc.  I have come to realize that I hate the taste of dark chocolate.  Mentally, I expect chocolate to be sweet.  No matter how beautiful and enticing the packaging might be or the love put into sending it to me, I was always disappointed at the first bite.  This is because the taste of dark chocolate is neutral.  It is our individual minds that determine whether we think it is good and my mind thinks it’s bitter (btw – it is unacceptable for chocolate to taste bitter).

Desire is what got me to take the first bite no matter how many times I got disappointed.  Every time I would take a bite, I did so out of my desire for the sweet taste of chocolate (which I love!).  This is why desire is a hindrance.  Desire is what pushed me to take the bite while at the same time, obscuring the reality that it was going to taste bitter.  The point of practicing with desire is not to stop trying dark chocolate.  It is to notice the desire.  If I’m willing to notice desire in something as simple as whether to try a piece of candy, I can work my way up to see it, or more importantly, feel it in situation that bring about a lot of suffering.

Situations involving obsessions, excessive compulsions and reacting out of a sense of desperation, fear and anxiety bring with them a great deal of anguish.  They often control our behaviors to the point of creating barriers and prison walls around our lives. We can get so obsessed with getting a particular thing; expecting it to be the perfect fix.  We get so entrapped in our wanting that we loose site of the notion that this so called perfect solution is just an opinion, a thought, a wish.  It may or may not be the appropriate solution.  When we are able to separate our desire – or want – from the object itself, we have access to a whole new level of freedom.  I level of freedom what is not mental, but a felt sense in the body.

Buddha compared the felt sense of release from a hindrance like having a large debt unexpectedly paid off by another; overcoming a serious illness; being freed from slavery; released from prison or finally making it home from a dangerous journey.  Learning to appreciate the present and absence of a hindrance is the key.  This month we want to explore what desire looks like in our own lives.  Where are we chained by it and when are we free?  Can we learn to feel what the release of desire feels like?  It is like Buddha’s examples?

With a deep bow…

Tuere

 

Uhhhh…Better Late Than Never?

My apologies for the very late post.  Tonight we are going to do a little ceremony around the refuges and precepts.  We are starting a new year and a new teaching theme.  It’s not that we are leaving the 4 Noble Truths behind.  It’s more that we are going deeper in them threw the lens of the 5 Hindrances (Desire, Ill Will, Restlessness, Sloth/Torpor and Doubt) and the 7 Factors of Awakening (Mindfulness, Investigation, Energy, Rapture, Calm, Concentration and Equanimity).  We’ll take each of these one month at a time as an individual practice and as how they relate to each other.  As usual, I’ll write a post at the beginning of the month which we will use throughout the month of practice.

Tonight, we are going consider a general overview of the 5 hindrances in conjunction with the refuges and precepts.  We’ll do a little ceremony at the end.

Tuere

Right Concentration – We’ve Come To The End Of The Path Right? Maybe Not…

This month we’ll be exploring the final aspect of the Eightfold Path – Right Concentration.  Concentration can be one of the most misunderstood aspect of training the mind.  I think it’s because whenever we try to concentrate on something we use force of will and it rarely works.  In fact, the minute we start trying to focus the mind becomes distracted by the simplest things.  We become lost in the most minuet details about all kind of irrelevant information.  I once read a great example of the interdependence of the three mental trainings that I’d like to share.  Hopefully, it will put concentration in a more realist position in practice.

Imagine 3 friends go to the park to play.  While walking along they see a tree with flowering tops and decide they want to gather the flowers.  But the flowers are beyond the reach of even the tallest person in the group.  Then one friend bends down and offers their back for the tallest person to stand on.  The friend climbs up, but is hesitant about reaching up to get the flowers for fear of falling.  So the third friend comes over and offers their shoulder for support.  Now the tallest person, standing on the back of one friend and leaning on the shoulder of the other friend, reaches up and gathers the flowers.

In this example, the person picking the flowers represents Right Concentration.  Picking the flowers represents gathering the mind, which is the function of concentration.  To accomplish this, concentration needs support.  The friend who offered their back represents Right Effort because of its willingness.  And the friend who offered their shoulder represent the stabilizing capacity of awareness.  Right Concentration is not just about striving, through force of will, to focus on something.  Gathering the mind depends upon the support of Right Effort and Right Mindfulness.  This means it depends upon our willingness to abandon/prevent unskillful distractions such as the hindrances and to cultivate/sustain skillful qualities such as non-judgmental acceptance throughout our meditation practice.  This also means it depends upon our willingness to return our awareness to the present moment over and over either to a single neutral object (samadhi) or to the rising and falling of phenomenon (vipassana).  We stay interested and attentive to this process until the mind is able to unify itself.  It is then that the mind can easily become gathered as with the example of the friend’s ability to reach the flowers.   So if you find yourself struggling to get concentrated.  Stop trying to reach the flowers alone.  Enlist your friends Right Effort and Right Mindfulness to give you a steady boost.

But the process does not stop there. A gathered mind can penetrate through the thickest layer of ignorance.  It is as if time slows down so we can begin to clearly comprehend the truth of our experience.  Although concentrated mind states may not last, the wisdom gleaned during concentrating can have a lasting impression upon us.  So much so that it affects our view and intentions; sending us back within the flow of the path.  This is why Right Concentration is so important.  And yet I think it is telling that the factor that helps us see the most, that is the biggest support of a liberated mind, is the last factor of the Path.  In my opinion, when we practice diligently with all the other factors on the Path concentration comes naturally ; effortlessly.

I will see you soon…

Tuere