Excerpt from the “Overcoming the Hindrances” section of Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana.
Sloth and Torpor
Symptoms: Sloth and torpor is the traditional description given to all sleepy, lethargic, sluggish states of mind. Sleepiness and drowsiness is another common translation. Sometimes you are just too tired, mentally, physically, or both. Sleepiness feels sweet and you want it. You have just no drive or energy. Sometimes you just can’t focus clearly. Concentration requires energy, vigor, clarity, and sharpness. In this state you just do not have it.
Nutriments: When you do mindfulness of breathing, body and mind become relaxed. You often feel sleepy and lethargic. Sleepiness is very sweet. You want to welcome it in, invite it to stay. But real joy does not arise from sleepiness or drowsiness. Don’t deceive yourself by identifying the cloying sweetness of sleepiness with real joy. It makes you dull. You lose your energy. The Buddha said: “This Dhamma is for developing energy, not for developing laziness.” Why can’t we concentrate strongly right now?
Solutions: Try one of the following techniques.
- Mindful reflection—In lethargy too, you must apply your cognitive form of mindful reflection. Conduct a silent monologue to rouse yourself, giving yourself encouragement and motivation.
- Open your eyes—Open your eyes and roll your eyeballs around for a few seconds. Close them and go back to your sitting mindfulness exercise.
- Visualize a bright light—Visualize a very bright light and focus your mind on it for a few seconds. As you are visualizing bright light, the sleepiness often fades away.
- Hold your breath—Take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can. Then slowly breathe out. Repeat this several times until your body warms up and perspires. Then return to your sitting practice.
- Pinch your earlobes—Pinch your earlobes hard with thumbs and index fingers. Really feel the pinch. Surprisingly, this can help.
- Standing—Stand up very slowly and very quietly. Try to do it so that even a person sitting next to you will not know. Do standing meditation for a few minutes until the sleepiness goes away. Once it is gone, return quietly to your sitting mindfulness practice.
- Walking—Do walking meditation for a few minutes until sleepiness disappears. Then return to your sitting practice.
- Splash water—Go and wash your face with cold water.
- Rest—Go take a nap for a few minutes. Sometimes sleepiness actually is a sign we may need sleep.