Thursday, January 24, 2013
Sloth and Torpor, Incognito
One of my favorite Buddhist phrases is “sloth and torpor”, the translation of the third of the five hindrances to meditation. I was listening to a talk by Joseph Goldstein that touched on this topic. Though typically associated with sleepiness or dullness, he notes that at a deeper level sloth is simply the deep-seated tendency of the mind to retreat from difficulties. He also points out that sloth and torpor frequently masquerade as self-compassion: When we are tired or bored, instead of investigating those states, we often respond to a kindly voice inside us saying, “Let me be good to myself. A nap would be just the thing right now.” Perhaps because I believe Western adaptations of mindfulness practice have too often given short shrift to compassion—and to self-compassion in particular—I have frequently fallen prey to this vice in my own practice. As an antidote, I find it helpful to remind myself that true self-compassion is a willingness to be with what’s unpleasant.
When it comes to effort, there is always a balancing act. If we try too hard to be mindful, the effort itself can become a distraction, yet we can also fall too easily into daydreams and rumination. Goldstein suggests that skillful effort occurs when the mind is relaxed and open, whereas unskillful effort can be recognized by a forcing of the mind. This distinction sounds quite appealing to me, yet when it comes to everyday life, I frequently find myself resorting to cajoling.