A great secret of spiritual life is that the goal is not to acquire anything at all, but to remove the obstacles to our wisdom as we become aware of them. When our detrimental habits have all been eliminated – voila! We are awakened. Of course, the further along the path we get, the more subtle the obstacles become, but our only duty is to deal with what’s in front of us in a skillful way. We’ve talked about sensual desire and aversion (greed and hatred) as the primary habits that prevent clear seeing, and now we come to two energetic themes: not enough energy and too much energy.
Energy is a general and possibly ambiguous word in English. In the Buddha’s formulation of the Five Hindrances, the third hindrance is often translated as “sloth and torpor”, but these are somewhat archaic terms. In modern language we could say “apathy and laziness”, which we might recognize in our own behavior. “Can’t be bothered”, “Too much trouble”, “Why should I?” are some of the forms this type of energetic shut-down takes. Normally we don’t speak these words out loud but feel them as de-motivators, whether with regard to a sitting meditation practice or any other wholesome activity.
To be clear, we are not talking about clinical depression, which is real and shares some characteristics with apathy and laziness. If a lack of energy interferes with our daily functioning, medical professionals should be consulted.
Instead, this hindrance refers to the normal ebb and flow of energy and our tendency to drift towards stasis when there isn’t any immediate demand for our attention. Even during daily meditation, we can ease into a sleepy, and sometimes quite enjoyable, state in which our objective is comfort rather than investigation. One definition of mindfulness is to remember to be fully present, now and now and now. Whether we are practicing concentration meditation or simply living our lives, mindfulness, in this sense, is always appropriate.
We can take apathy and laziness as a meditation object, look into it and notice where in our bodies the identifiable sensations lodge themselves. When we detect apathy and laziness in ourselves, we can make a choice to examine it in a focused and energetic way. It is, after all, sometimes exactly what we meet with, and every possible experience can benefit from mindfulness.
As with many practices recommended by the Buddha, sustainability is the key. We apply as much mindfulness as we can without straining and without drifting off. Keeping track of our energy is a basic spiritual skill.