Sloth & Torpor; the Third of the Hindrances

  • Sloth & Torpor; the Third of the Hindrances

Sloth describes a slow, sluggishness of mind. Imagine trying to move through thick, waist deep mud, or molasses clinging to the side of the spoon, slowly dripping off the end. This is the quality of Sloth.

Torpor is dullness of mind, lack of clarity, like having the lights turned down in the mind, a sinking, heavy mind, like butter that’s too hard to spread. This is the quality of Torpor.

Together, sloth & torpor are characterized by an inherent and distinct lack of energy, a quality of withdrawing, a contracting mind, a sinking nature, a quality of sleepiness. It manifests differently on and off the cushion, and when we pay attention to it, we get to know what brings it on, and what allows it to dissolve.

When this state arises in our daily lives off the cushion, if we're not aware of its causes and deceptive nature, we might feed sloth & torpor with taking a nap, cozying up with a book, watching a movie, trips to the refrigerator, surfing the internet, or another low energy activity that actually perpetuates the heavy dullness. And sometimes that’s just what the body needs. Sometimes going for a walk, getting some fresh air, or exercising, are really what's needed to bring up the energy. 

For me, sloth and torpor can be particularly prevalent when the days are gray with thick fog, and the air is cold, especially during the summer months when the sun may not shine for weeks on end. My mind and spirit can become as gray as the fog with a sense of heaviness and some depression; like being trapped under a thick, wet, cold blanket unable to move. But as the fog lifts and the sun comes out, my mind, energy and spirit lift at just about the same rate, and the state of sloth and torpor vanish. It's very reassuring to experience the true temporary nature of this state of mind.

During meditation, when sloth and torpor are present, it can feel like swimming through a swamp and we can easily fall into what is called the hypnogogic state; a period of dreamlike drowsiness that precedes sleep. This comes from a lack of attention and mental clarity, allowing the natural flow of thoughts and dullness to take its own course through the swamp without a rudder. When this occurs, we’ll likely fall asleep on the cushion. 

What to do:

From the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha's Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of the Dhammas, the Fourth Foundation...

"While sloth and torpor are present in him, he knows, 'There are sloth and torpor present in me'; or while sloth and torpor are not present in him, he knows 'There is no sloth and torpor present in me.'"

- Know when the hindrance is present.
- Understand the conditions that cause the hindrance to arise.
- Know when the hindrance is not present.
- Understand the conditions that allow the letting go, the releasing of the hindrance.
- Understand the conditions necessary to prevent the future arising of the hindrance.

1. Apply Mindfulness – Notice this state and make the state itself the object of meditation. Allow the mind to relax around it. Take a wide view. This is not indulging the state, but staying aware of it.

2. Investigation - What is the actual experience of this state? Notice the feelings and sensations in the body and mind. Be specific. What does it feel like? Watch this, observe it, be curious.

3. Touch Points – Keep the mind engaged and interested to bring up the clarity and lift the veil of sluggishness. Notice sensations, sounds, smells, sights (whether eyes are open or closed), and the breath. Not to busy the mind, but to sharpen it. Adjust and straighten the posture, even stand up.

4. “Good Friends & Profitable Talk” – Become aware of others around you practicing with you. Let this support and inspire you. As we practice together, it becomes more obvious that we do not practice for ourselves alone. We need each other’s practice. Read about the dharma, talk to friends. This supports, inspires, reassures, and uplifts our practice. It gives us confidence in the benefits of practice.

When we apply wise mindfulness, we gain the insight through direct experience that these states of mind come, they hang around for a while, and they dissipate. The wisdom that grows from experiencing this inherent impermanence frees us from the grip of whichever hindrance may be present at any given time. We can see for ourselves that “All hindrances are self-liberating in the great space of awareness.” 

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