As a reminder of what we’re exploring, the five hindrances are:
- Sensory desire
- Lethargy and drowsiness
- Restlessness and worry
We come now to the third hindrance: lethargy and drowsiness. “Sloth and torpor” has been the standard translation from the Pali for decades, however both of these words are not in common usage, so I accept Ajahn Thiradhammo’s translation of lethargy and drowsiness. This captures the physical (lethargy) and mental (drowsiness) aspects of this hindrance. There’s no great mystery to it; we know when we are feeling low energy or are nodding off. Do we notice and name lethargy and drowsiness? Do we have a way of addressing them other than complaining?
Ajahn Jayasaro says that lethargy/drowsiness occurs most readily in a mind habituated to a high level of stimulation. Unless we are living a secluded life, this describes most of us; as soon as the momentum of activity flags, so do we. When one thing is finished, we automatically leap to the next item on our list, or else distract ourselves with a passive activity, but do we notice the ebb and flow of our physical and mental energy?
In Thirtysomething, an American television drama (1987-1991), there was a phenomenon called the “Presbyterian sleep response” (with apologies to Presbyterians). For one of the main characters, when anything distressing occurred, her way of coping was to fall asleep. It is a classic, passive way to avoid something we’d rather not face.
Particularly when meditating, we may find that simply relaxing our bodies and keeping them still will bring on a sleep response because we associate the two so strongly; moving/tension = awake, relaxation/stillness = sleep. This is not a problem unless we don’t face it squarely and name what’s going on. Once we’ve recognized lethargy/drowsiness, we can make it the object of our curiosity and mindful investigation. Like every other mindstate, it is not static; if we attend to it, we will notice more details and perceive subtle changes.
As with the practice of mindfulness generally, if we take lethargy or drowsiness as our object of meditation, it gives us just enough distance from it to identify with it less, which makes it easier to study. It changes our relationship to this and other passing moods, enabling us to more clearly “see things as they are” – not me, not mine, but an ownerless collection of physical and mental phenomena that comes and goes.
Lethargy/drowsiness is not enough energy, and restlessness/worry (the 4th hindrance) is too much energy. One way of diagnosing these mind states is to contrast them in our experience. What does sluggishness feel like to us? And what does restlessness feel like? Where in our bodies do we experience them? What thoughts are associated with each mood? Which is more often present? Bringing the two into balance by exploring and remediating whatever is out of balance is the work of mindfulness.