I thought it might be helpful to share this message I wrote to a friend who told me he’s struggling with sloth and torpor in his practice.
I have a couple tips for you my friend. Learn the 5 hindrances and when they arise in your meditation, acknowledge which hindrance has arisen. It can be noted mentally “sloth and torpor is present” or just become aware that this is a hindrance. This is like becoming aware that an intruder has entered your house and so it will put your mind on high alert to guard it. This is part of Satipatthana (the four foundations of mindfulness which constitute the Right Mindfulness step of the Noble Eightfold Path).
There are four foundations: mindfulness of the body (this can include the breath because the Buddha called the breath a body within bodies, mindfulness of feeling (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), mindfulness of the states of the mind (anger, joy, peace, worry, uplifted, contracted, with out the factors of awakening or with), and mindfulness of the mental factors which includes, the 5 hindrances, the 7 factors of awakening and more.
Joy will wake you up. Smile and it will help bring the factor of joy out of you. The Buddha said to overcome sleepiness to contemplate that death is certain and it can come at any time so now is the time to awaken.
This is part of how we cultivate Viriya (energy) which is before tranquility (passadhi), concentration/Jhana (samadhi), and equanimity (uppekha).
The 7 factors are sequential:
- Sati (mindfulness)
- Dhammavicaya (Investigation of Dhamma/Properties - this is investigating the qualities of the mind and contents, the last two steps in Satipatthana)
- Viriya (energy- this is the effort to overcome sleepiness and create a mind state that is alert but not agitated. This is compared to holding a baby chick so that it will not fall and die or it won’t be crushed with too much force. It needs to be held gently but firmly and with great care and compassion)
- Piti - 1st Jhana (Pleasure in the body and mind from directed thought and examination - doing what you need to do to gently, firmly and consistently keep the mind with its object of observation. When the mind begins to become concentrated joy will arise, but don’t wait for it, bring joy up to help the piti which leads to concentration. The Samadhi in this means the 3rd Jhana).
- Passadhi - 2nd Jhana (Tranquility - this is where the mind doesn’t slip off of the object anymore, thoughts are gone in this stage. We can slip back down out of Jhana or thoughts can creep in but the mind is firmly established now and has enough Sati to let thoughts go without any clinging. Notice tranquility comes before samadhi)
- Samadhi (The 3rd Jhana deep deep tranquility and no disturbances in the mind with pleasure in the mind (Sukha))
- Uppekha (The 4th Jhana - Incredibly deep peace with no feeling of pain or pleasure)
When you get to the 3rd and 4th Jhana you will be able to sit for as long as you want with no desire to get up at all. The body will feel completely at ease and the mind will be deeply tranquil.
It’s important not to create agitation or craving to get to any particular state because it is the absence of craving and agitation that allows these states to arise naturally.
Believe me, Joy is your biggest friend on the path. Simple Joy you can create from within that isn’t attached to anything. The Brahmaviharas can be cultivated infinitely and safely (Metta (Loving Friendliness/Kindness), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (Sympathetic/Appreciative Joy), Uppekha (Equanimity)
If you become tired or agitated, imagine you are in the movie screen and just step back further and further from the mental and physical screen to observe it. There is an awake awareness that is always underneath it all and it is never tired.
However, if you are burning the candle at both ends or thinking a lot during the day, it will tire you out. The thing I learned on my first retreat is that thinking causes sleepiness and uses up an incredible amount of energy. So you can see why Dhammavicaya (Investigation of Dhammas) is right before Energy. If sleepiness has arisen, there is not enough energy and energy can be restored by investigating what is going on and if there is not enough power to do that there needs to be more mindfulness).
It is not all exactly linear but it is in the general sense. All the factors help each other and support each other.
The Bahiya Sutta, for me, shows how we can step back from the sense doors and become aware without distinction. This creates a sense of joy that arises naturally. It’s this stepping back and just being the sense but not holding onto any object that arises. It’s this vast and detached awareness that sees but does not see an object, it is just seeing.
Sometimes, I will sit down and just stare without staring. The joy that arises is so very useful. All the senses can be used this way, including the mind. For me, seeing is the most powerful, but hearing without grasping onto the auditory objects that come to the ear can also help me with this. The mind can be very useful and it’s contents. It’s like being in a pool full of excitement and sloshing, then stepping back to being outside of the pool, then stepping back to floating in the sky seeing the country, then stepping back and seeing the whole planet, then stepping back and seeing the entire universe.
In the 4 arupa (formless Jhanas) this is what happens to some degree. This method of being aware of the sense but not attaching to the sense objects at all, just being totally disinterested (the Buddha used the term dispassion and disenchanted). It’s knowing that the senses are a spell and we need to get away from the spell. The senses are the doors that all deliver the poisons - greed hatred and delusion - and so we need to stay away from them to become freed.
The path doesn’t provide reward later on, if we are meditating correctly, it provides reward immediately. Joy comes immediately, alertness comes immediately, concentration comes immediately. We may have hindrances arise but they are not enemies to fight, they are friends. If we fight we are going to lose. “Ahhh sleepiness is here, thank you.” “Ahhh agitation is here, thank you.”
Bow to the hindrances because when they are seen and known as the cravings of the mind and body and released with love they become your greatest ally. They will not be gone until we reach Nibbana.
A feeling of thankfulness and befriending whatever arises is a great way to settle the mind and cultivate Right Effort (Abandoning unwholesome mind states, preventing them from arising, Cultivating wholesome mind states, and maintaining wholesome mind states that have arisen. This is using Appreciative Joy (Mudita) to uplift your mind. The Buddha said to not tolerate negative mind states. He used very strong terms like obliterate and utterly destroy the defilements. Right Effort is not a passive thing, it requires, well, effort. But remember the baby chick. Remember Joy is your greatest friend.
Remember that knowing is what we are here to do, to know the process of dependent origination.
We don’t become freed from a prison, we see that we are carrying the chains that keep us bound and we see that they can be put down so we are light and emancipate ourselves from the prisons of our own making.
It’s challenging when there are responsibilities. My time living at the monastery really showed me that worldly responsibilities do get in the way of creating a mind state that is conducive to unbinding.
I will be taking one day retreats to get longer sits in. Sitting for longer periods 1.5 or longer is very very useful and, I think, necessary to break through.
Mastery of jhana is a mark of wisdom
"I declare a person endowed with four qualities to be one of great discernment, a great man. Which four?
"There is the case, brahman, where he practices for the welfare & happiness of many people and has established many people in the noble method, i.e., the rightness of what is admirable, the rightness of what is skillful.
"He thinks any thought he wants to think, and doesn’t think any thought he doesn’t want to think. He wills any resolve he wants to will, and doesn’t will any resolve he doesn’t want to will. He has attained mastery of the mind with regard to the pathways of thought.
"He attains — whenever he wants, without strain, without difficulty — the four jhanas that are heightened mental states, pleasant abidings in the here-&-now.
"With the ending of mental fermentations — he remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having directly known & realized them for himself right in the here-&-now.
“…I declare a person endowed with these four qualities to be one of great discernment, a great man.”
— AN 4.35
Jhana and insight, hand-in-hand
There’s no jhana for one with no discernment, no discernment for one with no jhana. But one with both jhana & discernment: he’s on the verge of Unbinding.
— Dhp 372