New Moon Day: The Five Hindrances Part III

August 30, 2008

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The Five Hindrances Part III,

Sloth-and-Torpor

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While pursuing the Noble Eightfold Path with commitment and diligence a sublime peace will eventually begin to establish itself within. As you see the various phenomena that appear in the mind as being impermanent then a sense of relief arises – relief due the fact that what had once caused you so much suffering – the feelings, the emotions, the regrets, the worries, the resentments – are not as real as you had thought them to be. On probing these mental events you unveil them as being “void, hollow, and insubstantial”*, and subsequently they lose their weight and the mind is relieved...(*SN 22:95)

The things that we investigate with our developed awareness – that awareness that arises through the practice of concentration and mindfulness – are none other than the five khandhas, those components which, when bundled together, form this so called individual: form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Everything that we experience from the moment we are born to the moment we die slots into one of these categories.

By being mindful of these khandhas we, by degrees, peel away our preconceived ideas regarding them and consequently their inherent nature is revealed. In Buddhism this nature is defined in terms of the Three Characteristics of conditioned existence: Anicca, dukkha and anatta – impermanence, suffering and not-self. Generally, impermanence is the first to be perceived during the development of insight.

Anicca is relatively easy to grasp on an intellectual level. We can see that we are born and that we die. We see all things in the world are of this nature. But the understanding of anicca that we are aiming to foster is an experiential understanding, one that takes place in this present moment. When we begin to comprehend this truth then we experience things as being anicca. A chain of thought arises, we are mindful and we see it change and disappear. A feeling arises, we are mindful and we see it change and disappear. Mental formations arise, we are mindful and we see them change and disappear. And we see the body in the same way. We see that nothing is stable. These descriptions are just a drop in the ocean of the understanding of anicca.

The second characteristic that rears its unforgiving head to the meditator is that of Dukkha suffering. Many people, myself included, have long had a grasp of dukkha, even if we don’t realise that’s what it is! Life for such people, although without apparent difficulty, is hard to bear within. We are usually unable to make sense of, let alone make use of, our suffering before we come into contact with the Dhamma. But to the Buddhist meditator who probes his or her experiences then the truth of dukkha becomes, by stages, clear; and one even values the experience of suffering because it is that from which wisdom arises. One begins to see why things are dukkha – because they are anicca. And not only that, but the deep understanding – that to cling to these things is the reason why we suffer – arises. When we truly see this then suffering falls away. There will be a point when suffering does entirely fall away – enlightenment, but even before then it reduces in tandem with our relinquishing of attachment.

The third characteristic that begins to emerge during the development of insight is Anatta – not-self, no-soul. The true understanding of this, again, cannot be acquired through reading books or hearing talks (unless your developed mind is ripe to penetrate the truth, and all it needs is a few words). One begins to appreciate anatta only through the systematic development of the Eight-fold Path spearheaded by concentration and mindfulness, when the khandhas are gradually seen as being ‘not-yours’. Anatta to the worldling is threatening and a cause for concern. To the wise person, however, it is nothing of the sort. It is something wonderful that must be understood in order for happiness and freedom to take their place in our lives.

With the path developed and mindfulness and concentration functioning unhindered, the meditator “reflects upon the rise and passing of the khandhas and is filled with rapture and with bliss, while he beholds the deathless realm.” (Dhp 374)

And so the path is one where we begin as a worldling – blind to these three characteristics, and finish as a noble one – one who ‘knows and sees’. The defining mark of ignorance – the root cause of our suffering – is not understanding these three characteristics.

The Third Hindrance: Sloth-and-Torpor

Which brings us to the hindrances, and especially to sloth-and-torpor. In some respects these hindrances are smoke screens that the threatened mind of ignorance throws up in order to stop us seeing the truth of things. Sloth-and-torpor is the definitive smokescreen. The mind don’t wanna know.

Sometimes, it can almost seem like there are two people inside you as you practise. One is doing the practice, developing virtue, and dearly wishing to develop meditation and wisdom; and the other is the fat slob who just wants to lie on the sofa all day stuffing themselves with pizza and Coke while watching Back to the Future Part III. The last character is in no mood to see that all conditioned things are anicca, dukkha and anatta! And so as we shed the layers of views and opinions and as glimmers of the nature of reality break through, the ignorant mind begins to feel threatened. For such a very long time have we been deluded! Our ignorant mind is not going to give up his pizza very easily!

There may be times when we are in a fairly concentrated state, mindfully paying attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise. As our mindfulness sharpens one or more of the three characteristics may become apparent to us. Let’s say you intuitively realise that this chain of thought you are watching is in no way yours. You didn’t have to think about it, it just became clear. “How could it be mine?” But then before you know it, along comes the fat pizza-gobbling Back-to-the-Future-Part-III-watching ignorant part of your mind, waving his arms like a pompous film director cutting the filming: “No, no, NO!” It says, “That’s quite enough of that! Thank you very much. Whatever next?” And that’s that; a hindrance swamps your mind, your mindfulness vanishes, and the blindfold is strapped back on. And the truth seemed so clear…. (If this happens it’s a sign that concentration is not strong enough.)

The hindrances are particular smokescreens that the deluded mind produces in order to stop you developing your mind. It seems that sloth-and-torpor is one of the most efficient at succeeding in this task as it can literally knock you out.

Sloth-and-torpor is one of the hardest hindrances to overcome as it brings no energy. The Buddha referred to it as being like water covered with mosses: we cannot see anything clearly; the mind is in a state of darkness and confusion. This hindrance is not sleepiness, it is that which smothers your awareness with dullness and lack of clarity. Sloth-and-torpor is characterised by delusion.

Say it’s time for you to meditate and you feel full of energy and enthusiasm. There’s no way you’re going to suffer from sloth-and-torpor, right? You place your cushion on the floor, set your clock, and sit down. Half an hour later you discover that your nose has developed a rather intimate relationship with the carpet. “What was that?!” you think. Sloth-and-torpor is the answer. This little example shows that it is not necessarily connected with tiredness of the body. You may feel so bright and alert at the beginning of the sitting, but then the fog descends and you are left helpless.

It is a strange hindrance and one that can plague some meditators. Even the Venerable Maha-Moggallana is said to have suffered from it whilst he was striving for the goal. Luckily he had the Buddha to counsel him. The Buddha offered him the following advice: “…you should shake your ears, and rub your limbs with the palm of your hand…”, or “…you should get up from your seat, and after washing your eyes with water, you should look around in all directions and look upwards to the stars in the sky…”, or “…you should, conscious of that which is before and behind, walk up and down, with your senses turned inwards, with your mind not going outwards…” (For the full list see here.)

It is crucial that we don’t fail to exert ourselves and try all possible means to overcome this powerful adversary. If we don’t really get a grip then it may plague us for weeks, months or even years. I once knew someone who suffered from this particular hindrance in a way that I doubt anyone has ever done before. Practically every time he sat he’d ‘go’. Within minutes of crossing his legs he’d be nodding and going for the record in meditation limbo. Then he’d lean over too far, lose balance, and come to, with eyes open and shaking his head. Then he’d go again. We can all suffer in this way if we don’t address the problem with energy and cunning. I’ve come-to many times with my face in the carpet. Or I’ve been startled by my head suddenly jerking backwards. It’s a killer.

There are numerous ways to tackle this problem, some requiring, as I said, a little cunning.

ENERGY!!!

Resolve to yourself to overcome this obstacle. Raise your energy and encourage yourself: “COME ONNN!!!”. Take deep breaths or short sharp breaths. Or hold your breath – that one works. Open your eyes every minute to re-establish mindfulness. Or (kindly) slap yourself round the face. I’m not joking. Rub your limbs, scratch your head. Simulate yourself. Break through this barrier with physical exertion. It can be done.

Or, as the Buddha said, sit outside. Avoid those environments which are conducive to this hindrance. I find that if I sit outside in the open I’m less likely to fall prey to it. Some spaces clearly provide first class tickets to sloth-and-torpor e.g. small warm rooms. It’s better to meditate in a cool place, so throw off those blankets!

Be Ruthless

We know that when we suffer from sloth-and-torpor we tend to ‘nod’. Our awareness dulls and we inhabit this hazy, wirly state, occasionally emerging when our head topples forwards. During a sitting we may be aware of this nodding the first few times but after that we very often lose it and ‘go’ without realising. It is then that we emerge from the depths a considerable time later, generally with our nose buried in the carpet. To counter this we can place a box of matches on our head, then, when our head tips, the matches fall and we are brought back to life by the noise. Just make sure you put them back on before you nod again, or you’ll get another mouthful.

For some people this may not be drastic enough. I once tried sitting on the edge of my kuti roof. It was pretty good. And it worked for a while. The thought of falling off made me alert. “I’ll never nod off up here!” I thought….. Yes, you guessed it. Luckily the velocity of my nod wasn’t enough to send me flying.

Even more drastic? Some teachers recommend sitting on a well. They are of course speaking in jest, but one does see the need to be adventurous when dealing with this hindrance.

Or try a cup of water on the head. I once tried this. I was fed up with suffering from the old S and T so I decided to get tough. I proceeded to meditate while balancing a cup of water on my head. I have rarely been so aware. “Wow!” I thought. “This is it!” So, brimming with confidence, I decided to sit late at night. I thought the method was, errr, foolproof…..

Are any?

So, these are just a number of little techniques that we can use to overcome this hindrance. We must be imaginative. We must be resourceful. And we must be energetically determined.

Mindfulness and Patient-Endurance

Of course the smoothest way to zip past this meditation marauder is to simply use it as an object of mindfulness. Know the state of sloth-and-torpor. Step back and watch it. Mindfully investigate it. When you can do this then the hindrance can rapidly disappear.

But, alas, there will be times when, despite the well and the water, and the matches and the scratches, our head remains determined to detach itself from our shoulders. So, once again, we call on the Grand Master of Dhamma Practice: patient-endurance. See the period of sloth-and-torpor through. It will pass.

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I highly recommend you read this interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi, a monk with a hair raising ability to talk about the Dhamma, and the eminent translator of a large portion of the Buddhist suttas. (Not connected with the above subject).

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The next teaching will be on:

The Full Moon Day, Sunday the 14th of September

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