MIndfulness of Dhammas: The Hindrances: Sloth and Torpor

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp.125-134)

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 131-139) 

“ And how does he in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas in terms of the five hindrances?  “If sloth-and-torpor is present in him, he knows ‘There is sloth-and-torpor in me’; if sloth-and-torpor is not present in him, he knows ‘There is no sloth-and-torpor in me’; and he knows how unarisen sloth-and-torpor can arise, how arisen sloth-and-torpor can be removed, and how a future arising of the removed sloth-and-torpor can be prevented.

The Hindrances

The hindrances have an unwholesome effect on our minds.  It is necessary to abandon them before moving on to the next dhammas.  “He (the Buddha) said that when attended to carelessly, “these five hindrances are makers of blindness, causing lack of vision, causing lack of knowledge, detrimental to wisdom, tending to vexation, leading away from nibbāna.” But when we attend to these states carefully, we learn to see into their empty, transparent nature and no longer get so caught up in their seductive power. They then become the focus of our mindfulness and the very vehicle of our awakening.”  Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

The hindrances are phenomena that obscure our perception.  The Buddha used the following simile to describe how each hindrance obscures the mind:

There is a pool of clear water that reflects our image.

When sense desire is present in the mind, it is as if the pool were suffused with a colored dye.

Desires color our perceptions.

When aversion is present, it is like boiling water. We can’t see clearly.

When we’re heated up by anger, we’re in a state of turbulence.

Sloth and torpor are like the pool overgrown with algae.

There is a stagnation of mind that prevents us from seeing clearly.

Restlessness and worry are like water when it is stirred up by the wind.

The mind is tossed about by agitation.

And doubt is like muddy water, where we can’t see to the bottom,

and everything is obscured.

–SN 46.55 Sangaravo Sutta

As the Buddha noted, there are three contemplations for each hindrance:

  • Know when a hindrance is present or absent,
  • Know the conditions leading to the arising and removal of a hindrance, and
  • Know the conditions that prevent future arisings of a hindrance.

Sloth and Torpor

Both sloth and torpor refer to laziness; sloth is physical laziness and torpor is mental laziness.  When sloth arises, we feel a lack of energy that can come from withdrawing from experiences with resultant feelings of discontent, boredom or depression, over indulging such as with eating and drinking, or over exercising.  We lack drive and energy and just want to lie down and nap.  When torpor arises, our mind is sluggish, dull and confused.

Sloth and torpor can occur when we meditate and get so relaxed that we slide into it.  This state can be very relaxed and comfortable but it is not insight meditation.  We lose our concentration and fall into laziness.  Insight requires energy, vigor, and sharpness.  (Bhante G.)  Goldstein notes that sloth and torpor can be the tendency to withdraw from difficulties.  He compares it to keeping a car in reverse gear, never going forward but always pulling back.

Sloth and torpor are different from aversion in that aversion is the condemning mind, “striking against” whereas sloth and torpor are withdrawal.

Conditions that lead to the arising of sloth and torpor

Discontent, Boredom, Laziness, and Drowsiness

Thinking about not being contented, bored, lazy or drowsy is called unwise reflection and are the causes of sloth and torpor.  “Unwise reflections” means thinking that there is no harm in boredom, languidness, lethargy and sluggishness and so on.”  (U Silananda).  What is boredom other than discontent with what is present?  Two examples that can trigger our willingness to have boredom are listening to a speaker with whom we have lost interest or engaging in an activity with which we no longer want to participate.  This discontent is tiring and causes us to withdraw.

Difficult emotions

Sometimes we repress very difficult emotions and when they start to arise, we use sloth and torpor  (withdrawal) as a defense.

Overeating

Overindulging in food commonly brings on drowsiness and lack of energy.  Not eating enough can also cause the same symptoms but this appears to be less of a problem in our affluent culture.

An imbalance of concentration and energy

Too much concentration can invite a dreamlike state that is pleasurable to remain in.  There is a lack of energy that is a hindrance to mindfulness.

Conditions that lead to the removal of sloth and torpor

Mindfulness

When we feel drowsy, lazy or dull, we need to investigate the cause.  We can ask, “What is this experience I’m calling sleepiness or dullness?” and pay mindful attention.  If we aren’t mindful, we might just withdraw further and further.  With mindfulness, we can often experience a surge of energy.  

Develop mental clarity

We can include more objects in our field of awareness.  This puts the mind to work.  Also as we can do the same while meditating,

Open your eyes or change posture

When sloth and torpor arise in meditation, opening the eyes or changing posture (e.g. move from sitting to standing) can be helpful.

Practice mindful reflection

This is the attitude of seeing difficulties as challenges rather than something to withdraw from.

Engage with good friends and profitable talk

Being with others with like intention can be invigorating.

Take rest

It may be that the answer to the question, “What is this experience I’m calling sleepiness or dullness?” may be that you are physically and emotionally tired. Taking rest for a sufficient period of time can be beneficial.

Conditions preventing sloth and torpor

“And what, bhikkhus, . . . prevents unarisen sloth and torpor from arising and arisen sloth and torpor from increasing and expanding? There are, bhikkhus, the element of arousal, the element of endeavor, the element of exertion; frequently giving careful attention to them . . . prevents unarisen sloth and torpor from arising and arisen sloth and torpor from increasing and expanding.” SN 46-51

The three elements of arousal, endeavor and exertion are all producing energy.  When we take our perceived difficulties as challenges, we adopt a different attitude and engage with the problems rather than withdraw.

Reflection

  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • Observe the arising of sloth and torpor in your life, when it is present or absent, the conditions that cause it to arise and the conditions that cause it to fall away. Practice mindful prevention. Can you experience when sloth and torpor hinders your present mndfulness?

Meditation

  • Meditate using the mindfulness of the breath technique and focus your insight meditation on states of mind.

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