Now I will focus on the third hindrance, sloth/torpor and the fourth hindrance, restlessness.
Many people read books about meditation and dip in and out of it and that’s ok, but if we want to move from anguish to happiness we need to consistently apply ourselves even if we are too tired/stressed out/agitated to sit on a given day. That may be when we need it the most. Energy arises when we have a clear-cut direction and a goal.
Before I started meditating I experienced a lot of sloth/torpor. But I believed my first teacher when he said I could discover my own calm, timeless nature through a daily sitting practice coupled with regular retreats. In my first few years of practice, friends commented on how disciplined I was. But I have never been particularly disciplined. I just decided that I was going to devote myself to piercing through the veneer created by the worries and concerns that dominated my life so I could sink into a spacious peacefulness—which took a while, but it worked!
Keeping an energized meditation practice going depends largely on sustaining our commitment. Committing to a goal gives the mind direction, even if its only committing to being present for the next ten breaths. And of course, some sloth/torpor is inevitable, especially during retreats. It’s natural to have sleepiness when you are continually sitting staring at a wall with no stimulation or entertainment. Then the bell ending meditation ends for lunch and you aren’t sleepy any more.
Sometimes sloth/torpor during meditation is due to resistance. We committed ourselves to the retreat and we’ve been sitting for a while, but we are bored, tired of paying attention, and want to be somewhere else. Maybe we are resisting unpleasant thoughts or feelings, so our laziness is protecting us against this unpleasantness.
Our thoughts can decrease or increase our energy. If my sitting isn’t going well, my thoughts of how bad my meditation is can send me into a downward spiral, which drains my energy. We can think, “oh, no, there’s still 20 minutes left before the bell rings” or we can commit ourselves to being completely present for the next three breaths and discover that we have lots of energy. Sometimes being “relaxed” and calm is overemphasized. Diligence, energy, and vigorous active engagement are all necessary if we are going to transform our suffering into joy. Or, in Sanskrit, dukkha into sukkha.
Sometimes sloth/torpor is a reaction to the chronic habit of tension and anxiety, or being chronically excited. When that kind of stress has been normalized for us over time, in our meditation we experience how it has been draining our energy. Sloth and torpor may be a transition some people have to go through, like coffee withdrawal. That’s perfectly OK. And even after we have deepened our sitting, sometimes it is healthy for us just to veg out!
Now, a few words on restlessness: Often we create our own entertainment in meditation—planning what we will cook for dinner or planning the rest of your life or just indulging in a pleasurable fantasy. This pretty natural.
When we notice we are doing this, there are a number of things we can do:
1. We can narrow our focus by repeating something to ourselves coupled with continually returning to our breath.
2. We can follow my teacher’s instructions “When you want to tame a sheep or a goat, give it a large pasture.”
3. We can do a loving-kindness practice. This calms the mind; and helps us be more kind and accepting. And a happy mind is generally not restless.
4. We can bargain with our mind by saying, “I’ll just pay close attention to the next 5 breaths.” If we do this wholeheartedly often our boredom will go away.
5. We might do some hatha yoga before we sit. Traditionally, in India hatha yoga was considered an essential precursor to meditation.
6. If you find that you are doing some important planning while sitting, make a mental note of what the themes is so you won’t forget it. Often our lives are so busy that we don’t take enough time to plan, which is an important part of living.
7. Often there’s a specific feeling underneath our restlessness and that’s invariably tied into sensations in our body. Just transferring our attention to the feelings or sensations is often all that’s necessary to let go of restlessness. If I am worrying about my finances and I make a mental note and that doesn’t work—then I can just notice the feeling. If it is anxiety I can go into that and see what that is about, including opening to my bodily sensations. Careful attention to my sensations, which are always in flux, will likely dissipate my worry.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher