Sloth and Torpor (Mental elements 25 and 26, Sl-To)
Sloth is mental stiffness and a lack of driving power. It drains your energy and manifests as sluggishness, dullness, and sinking of the mind. Sloth is the sickness of consciousness. When present along with torpor, it literally paralyzes consciousness.
Torpor is lack of cheer, lack of good humor. It is clumsy, unmanageable, and unwieldy. It chokes up the mind and manifests as sleepiness, nodding, laziness, lethargy, and so on. Torpor is the sickness of mind-body.
Sloth and torpor always arise together and basically oppose urgency, vigor, energy, driving power, liveliness, and wakefulness.
The best way to counteract the twin elements of sloth and torpor is to start applying the mind to a wholesome subject of interest, instead of reacting to boredom. A meditator should counteract sloth and torpor by becoming aware of boredom, giving wise attention to it, and arousing energy for self-improvement. In extreme situations, in order to counteract sloth and torpor, it becomes necessary for a meditator to arouse the same inner driving power he would in a do-or-die situation.
If you drift off during meditation, you are reacting because you are not able to deal with boredom, which eventually generates sloth and torpor. This is why many people feel sleepy when they try to meditate. Boredom is actually a subtle form of aversion, and many people have an aversion to silence. That is why they find meditation boring. But boredom should always be handled carefully so as not to allow sloth and torpor to take over and sicken the body-mind-consciousness. For a meditator, the first step is to become aware of any sense of boredom or aversion to silence. The next step is to observe boredom with equanimity as a mere feeling. While maintaining awareness of boredom in this way, the meditator should arouse a sense of urgency for mental development, purification, spiritual growth, and so on, as if it is the most important thing to do.
Literally the sense of urgency you need to arouse is similar to the sense of urgency you would need in a medical emergency where you abandon everything and rush to the hospital. It is like going to a hospital for fixing a dislocated shoulder. If you had a dislocated shoulder, the pain would be so great that going to a hospital would be the most important thing to do.
Arousing a sense of urgency may not be possible all the time, especially for beginners. Even then, in order to counteract sloth and torpor, you should never hit the couch, go to sleep, or take up an activity as a reaction to boredom. You should never take up a task or turn on the TV or radio because you cannot handle boredom or silence. If you cannot arouse a sense of urgency, then the best way to handle boredom is to end the boring activity with the awareness that the activity is being ended. Then, with the awareness that the boredom has been tackled, you should take up an activity such as contemplating an interesting, wholesome subject, walking in the fresh air in bright sunlight, performing a favorite physical workout, playing outdoors, or doing preferred chores, and so on. That counteracts boredom and stimulates energy. Once boredom is gone, you can then return to the meditation. You should do your best to maintain awareness throughout the transitions from boredom to activity and back again to meditation in order to provide continuity to your meditativity. In this way, you won’t allow boredom to generate sloth and torpor.
In spiritual practice, the struggle to counteract sloth and torpor often lasts for a long, long time. It is a formidable task. However, once you have gone through the first few thresholds by means of consistent and steady effort, it becomes easier to penetrate and transcend sloth and torpor.
Some people, especially those who are always busy in worldly activities, believe that it is better to be active than to be sitting quietly and meditating. Worldly-minded people give all kinds of excuses for not being able to meditate. They do not realize that it is mainly an aversion to silence, along with an undercurrent of delusion, which makes them run away from meditation. When they try to deal with silence, sloth and torpor arises in them. They simply react to it by craving activity or thirsting for entertainment. It takes a certain degree of maturity and non-delusion to be able to deal with aversion to silence. Like these worldly-minded people, do not allow the intellect to justify your inability to handle silence in any manner. Realize the sloth and torpor in you (if they exist) and get rid of them by developing vigor for meditation and contemplation.