the third Hindrance—sloth and torpor

POSTCARD#436: Bangkok: I don’t need to describe sloth and torpor in detail, because I’m sure we know it all too well through our experience of meditation. We sit in meditation and don’t really know what we are watching, whether it’s the present moment, silence, the breath, or whatever. This is because the mind is dull. It’s as if there are no lights turned on inside. It’s all gray and blurry.

Making Peace with Sloth and Torpor

The most profound and effective way of overcoming sloth and torpor is to make peace with the dullness and stop fighting it! When I was a young monk in the forest monasteries in Thailand and became sleepy during the 3:15 A.M. sitting, I would struggle like hell to overpower the dullness. I would usually fail. But when I did succeed in overcoming my sleepiness, restlessness would replace it. So I would calm down the restlessness and fall back into sloth and torpor. My meditation was like a pendulum swinging between extremes and never finding the middle. It took many years to understand what was going on.

The Buddha advocated investigation, not fighting. So I examined where my sloth and torpor came from. I had been meditating at 3:15 in the morning, having slept very little, I was malnourished, an English monk in a hot tropical jungle – what would you expect! The dullness was the effect of natural causes. I let go and made peace with my sleepiness. I stopped fighting and let my head droop. Who knows, I might even have snored. When I stopped fighting sloth and torpor it did not last all that long. Moreover, when it passed I was left with peace and not with restlessness. I had found the middle of my pendulum swing and I could observe my breath easily from then on.

Dullness in meditation is the result of a tired mind, usually one that has been overworking. Fighting that dullness makes you even more exhausted. Resting allows the energy to return to the mind. To understand this process, I will now introduce the two halves of the mind: the knower and the doer. The knower is the passive half of the mind that simply receives information. The doer is the active half that responds with evaluating, thinking, and controlling. The knower and the doer share the same source of mental energy. Thus, when you are doing a lot, when you have a busy lifestyle and are struggling to get on, the doer consumes most of your mental energy, leaving only a pittance for the knower. When the knower is starved of mental energy you experience dullness.

At a retreat I led in Sydney a few years ago, a retreatant arrived late from her high-stress job as an executive in the city. In her first sitting that evening her mind was almost as dead as a corpse. So I gave her my special teaching on how to overcome her sloth and torpor: I told her to rest. For the next three days she slept in until dawn, went back to bed again after breakfast, and had a long nap after lunch. What a brilliant meditator! After three days of no fighting, giving hardly any mental energy to the doer but letting it flow to the knower, her mind brightened up. In another three days she had caught up with the rest of the group in her progress through the stages. By the end of the retreat she was way ahead and one of the star meditators of that retreat.

The most profound and effective way to overcome sloth and torpor is to stop fighting your mind. Stop trying to change things and instead let things be. Make peace not war with sloth and torpor. Then your mental energy will be freed to flow into the knower, and your sloth and torpor will naturally disappear.

Giving Value to Awareness

Another method for overcoming sloth and torpor is to give more value to awareness. All Buddhist traditions say that human life is valuable and precious, especially a life like this one where you have encountered the Buddha’s teachings. Now you have the opportunity to practice. You may not realize how many lifetimes it has taken and how much merit you’ve had to accumulate just to get where you are now. You’ve invested lifetimes of good karma to get this close to the Dhamma. Reflecting like this means you will incline less to sloth and torpor and more to bright awareness.

The path of meditation sometimes comes to a fork in the road. The left path leads to sloth and torpor while the right path leads to bright awareness. With experience you will recognize this fork. This is the point in meditation where you can choose between the alley to sloth and torpor or the highway to mindful stillness. Taking the left path you give up both the doer and the knower. Taking the right path you let go of the doer but keep the knower. When you value awareness you will automatically choose the right path of bright awareness.

Sloth and Torpor and Ill Will

Sometimes sloth and torpor is the result of ill will, the second hindrance. When I used to visit Australian prisons to teach meditation, I would often hear the following prison proverb: “an extra hour of sleep is an hour off your sentence.” People who don’t like where they are will try to escape into dullness. In the same way, meditators who easily get negative will tend to drift into sloth and torpor. Ill will is the problem.

 In our monastery in Thailand we would meditate all night once a week. During those all-night sittings, sloth and torpor would regularly conquer me an hour or two after midnight. Since it was my first year as a monk, I reflected that less than twelve months previously I would spend all night at parties, rock concerts, and clubs. I recalled that I never experienced sloth and torpor when listening to the music of the Doors at 2 A.M. Why? It became clear that when you are enjoying what you are doing then you don’t tend to get sloth and torpor, but when you don’t like what you are doing then sloth and torpor comes in. I did not like those all-night sits. I thought they were a stupid idea. I did them because I had to. I had ill will, and that was the cause of my sloth and torpor. When I changed my attitude and put joy into the all-night sittings, making them fun, then sloth and torpor rarely came. So you should investigate whether your sloth and torpor is the result of an attitude problem—the attitude of ill will.

Using Fear

When I was a lay Buddhist I attended a Zen retreat in the north of England. It was very early in the morning, and the meditation hall was freezing cold. People had their blankets around them. When you meditate with a blanket anywhere close to you, you tend to get sleepy. The teacher was walking up and down with a big stick, and the fellow next to me who had started nodding got hit. Everyone’s sloth and torpor suddenly disappeared right then. We only needed one person to get hit and that was enough. The  problem was that the fear that woke me up remained with me, preventing further progress. Experience teaches that you can’t generate wholesome states like peace and freedom by using unwholesome methods like fear or violence.

In the old forest tradition of northeast Thailand, monks would meditate in dangerous places such as platforms high in the trees, on the edge of cliffs, or in jungles full of tigers. The ones who survived said they got good meditation, but you never heard from the monks that didn’t survive!

Continued next week 17 September 2021, with the remaining two hindrances: restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca) and doubt (vicikicchā)

These are Excerpts from Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond A Meditators Handbook by Ajahn Brahm

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