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…