Talk 17: Hindrances – Sloth & Torpor              J. Goldstein on the Satipatthana Sutta


Sloth is a sluggishness of consciousness, a sinking mind, whereas torpor is sluggishness of the mental factors.  Sloth & torpor arise together.  Both are common at the beginning of a retreat, after our usual sense stimulation is largely removed, but before connection with a deeper energy is established.  Sloth and torpor can be quite gross, manifesting as overt sleepiness, or subtle, taking the form of retreating from difficulty.  The subtle forms can lead us to complacency, dulling our awareness, and sapping the vigor from our practice without our seeing this clearly.  Sloth and torpor tend to be recalcitrant and will not be rousted out easily. 


Conditions Promoting the Arising of Sloth & Torpor

·       Giving unwise attention to certain mental states promotes sloth and torpor.  The mental states include discontent, laziness, boredom, lethargy from overeating, and depression.  Our unwise attention to these states promotes sloth and torpor, rather than the states themselves.  The unwise responses are manifold, such as believing these states will not hinder our practice, or that we should indulge the state temporarily.  Our unskillful response often takes the guise of compassion, particularly for ourselves. It is quite common to feel we need to give ourselves a rest, either mental or physical, when actually we are being seduced by sloth and torpor. 

·       Sloth and torpor can act to shield us from difficult emotions.  Most commonly, we can view sloth and torpor as a signal that we are avoiding something that would be better to see directly. Although we ultimately will benefit from experiencing difficult emotions with clarity, we should exercise caution in going too quickly, particularly with repressed feelings from the past.  In this case the sluggishness can actually be adaptive by slowing the rate at which we assimilate useful, but painful, insights. 

·       Overeating predisposes us to sloth and torpor.  The Buddha recommended we stop eating five mouthfuls before being full.  Trying to practice this keeps us attuned to the condition of our stomach, rather than our wanting mind. 

·       An imbalance between concentration and energy can promote sloth and torpor.  Too much concentration can bring about a peaceful, dreamlike state, which is pleasant, but dull.


Practices to Overcome Sloth & Torpor When They Are Present

·       Investigate the direct experience of dullness using mindfulness.  Sometimes our attachment to brightness prevents us from opening to the states of sloth and torpor with an investigative attitude.

·       Add objects of meditation in addition to the breath, e.g., add multiple touch points to the awareness. 

·       Develop a radiant mind, in which “radiance” refers to the knowing mind or consciousness.  Turn the attention back onto the mind which knows the sloth and torpor.

·       Open the eyes, stand up, walk outside, splash water on the face, or pull the earlobes. 

·       Practice wise reflection on the privilege of taking human birth and practicing the dharma.  Reflect also upon impermanence and death and train to achieve mental clarity in spite of sloth and torpor being present.   

·       If all else fails, get some rest.  However, Joseph discovered that sometimes lying down until the moment of complete relaxation, just before sleep begins, refreshes the mind sufficiently.


Sloth and torpor are deeply rooted and are not fully abandoned until the final stage of enlightenment.


Teaching story:  Joseph was on retreat with Goenka and arising at 4 am for a daily two-hour sit prior to breakfast.  He would position himself next to a wall each morning, and found himself leaning back for support and fighting to stay awake.  A voice arose in his mind encouraging Joseph to sleep until breakfast so as to engage the day more productively.  Joseph persevered with the early morning routine and one day experienced a breakthrough in which the sleepiness was no longer present.  If he had succumbed to that inner voice of “compassion” he would never have learned that he could go beyond the lethargy he was facing each morning. 


Teaching story:  During one self retreat, Joseph experimented with eating varying amounts of food after the noon meal. He found that when eating even a very small amount in the evening he could detect a distinct decrease in his energy level during sitting sessions, as compared to the times when he did not eat at all.


Teaching story:  It is possible for sloth and torpor to arise from not eating enough, at least over a period of time.  Joseph experienced this while practicing in Burma with Sayadaw U Pandita.  By practicing slow, mindful eating, Joseph had decreased his food intake to such an extent that he lost considerable weight. His weaken body would at times collapse during sitting.  U Pandita actually recommended Joseph eat more, even if it require being less mindful during meals.


Teaching story:  While practicing with Dipa Ma, she recommended sleeping only three hours per night, but she also advised that if Joseph fell asleep while sitting, it was OK.  Since he had been given permission to lapse into sleep, Joseph stopped fighting sloth and torpor and adopted a more inquisitive approach.  He discovered that potentially skillful states can be access when dullness descends upon us.  The mind is usually calm at such times, and our common problem of restlessness is largely absent.  A type of concentration is inherent in that quiet, and Joseph found he could “pull the threads of concentration” from that quiet. 


Teaching story: Taungpulu Sayadaw recommended rotating among a series of meditation objects, such as hearing, seeing, sitting (i.e., experiencing the whole body) and touching.  The moving from one sense base to another keeps the mind bright and dispels dullness.   In his own practice, Taungpulu Sayadaw did not lie down for 35 years, which Joseph concluded overcame most sloth and torpor.


Teaching story:  In Tibetan, the terms “radiance” and “knowing” are synonymous.  The radiant mind is the mental aspect that knows directly.  Joseph likens this to a mirror in which fog is reflected.  Fog represents the mental dullness of sloth and torpor, while the mirror represents the knowing mind that can experience those states without being affected by them.  Similarly, the knowing mind is untouched by what is being known.


Teaching story: During an early retreat with Sayadaw U Pandita, Joseph was very sleepy, primarily due to having only four hours of scheduled sleep each night.  He decided to force his eyes to stay open when intense sleepiness would descend upon him.  Joseph observed that the sleepiness came in waves that would pass through and then out of the body.  Another wave of intense sleepiness would come about 30 seconds later.  After four or five such waves, the sleepiness was gone. Joseph realized that sloth and torpor is not a monolithic, unchanging state, but rather an energy wave that seduces us to give in to it.


Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche: “Ask yourselves how many of the billions of inhabitants on this planet have any idea of how rare it is to have been born a human being? How many of those who understand the rarity of human birth ever think of using that chance to practice the dharma? How many of those who think of practice, actually do it? How many of those who start, continue?  Once you really see the unique opportunity that human life can bring, you will definitely direct all your energy into reaping its true worth by putting the dharma into practice.”


Ajahn Chah: “I wish that you continue your journeys and practice with much wisdom. Use the wisdom that you have already developed to persevere in practice. This can become the ground for your growth, for the deepening of yet greater understanding and love.  Understand that you can deepen your practice in many ways. Don’t be lazy.  If you find yourself lazy, then work to strengthen those qualities which overcome it.  Don’t be fearful or timid.  If you are timid in practice, then work with your mind so that you will overcome that.  With the proper effort and with time, understanding will unfold by itself.  But, in all cases, use your own natural wisdom.  You come to where you have no more questions, to that place of silence, to the place in which there is oneness with the Buddha, with the dhamma, with the universe, and only you can do that.  From now on, it’s up to you.”