Seeing ourselves and the world clearly requires a clarity of mind, something hard to locate when so much stands in the way. The Buddha identified the confusions and distractions that occlude our radiant minds as the Five Hindrances — desire, resentment, sloth, worry, and doubt — that prevent us from experiencing the happiness that is so close at hand. A mind infuriated by greed or frozen in anxiety will not see the 50 other beautiful things that it could take in if it were unhindered. Each of these hindrances individually block our happiness. At times they do that separately, and at others in combination. Worry and doubt often arrive as a pair, as do desire and resentment. The hindrance that seems to most commonly stand alone is sloth.
Sloth and torpor are sluggishness, a low-energy funk of mind or body, and often both. Unlike anxiety, resentment, desire and doubt, sloth does not bring energy. It can appear as a nearly immobilizing weight on the body and the spirit, even though it is just as powerful as the more excitable ones.
The way the world bruises us as we make our way through life can weigh us down. Clouding our mind can also be the concerns of everyday life, the crises we anticipate and those we are experiencing in the present. On top of that, there is the news blaring at us from manifold directions — and in the eyes of many, much of the news is bad. We all have staggered home, overwhelmed by the world, and slumped on the couch unable or unwilling to do anything to correct this collapse.
When we shut that front door behind us, the gravitational pull of the sofa can be persuasive. We may barely have set down our things before the couch has us in its grip. As our body sinks into its familiar cushions, we reenter all the other hours we have spent there trying to tune out the world. We get lost in the embrace of this cradle and close down our connections to our senses.
Considering the pace of modern life, this is an understandable response. The body’s need for rest and calm should not be denied. This is part of human condition, and everyone feels it sometimes. Many feel it every morning when they hit the snooze button again and again, staying in bed even while they are trying to plan the day. People hindered by sloth and torpor may be inert, but they are not relaxed. Their minds lurch from worry, to sorrow, and unattainable urges. Despite how much they may appear to be resting, they are exhausted. This is not a regenerative state.
The difficulty is how to find the energy to break out of this hindrance because when it becomes concentrated in us it distorts our perceptions. They are hindrances because we get lost in them. We want to show up for our lives, to participate as we choose, and experience the most of what we are capable of seeing and feeling. If we don’t take care of this disinterest or boredom, it can overtake us.
Sometimes the cause of our sloth and torpor is a reluctance to experience powerful emotions, especially painful ones. Many of us have the habit, when something difficult is just arising, to switch off, numb out, thinking, “Time for a nap!”
It’s not wise to just try to push through. The sloth and torpor may be serving as a sort of regulator valve to prevent too much from coming at us all at once. After many years of meditation practice, I appreciate that sometimes we must go slowly because we need to titrate our experience of suffering. We cannot just dive in, or we may get overwhelmed.
The first step in developing this discernment is recognizing the difference between sloth and the body’s need for rest. We all need rest (and most of us need more of it), but with sloth and torpor the amount of rest sought is out of balance with the body’s requirements. When we recognize that we are indeed in a state of sloth or torpor, how do we work with it?
My friend wears a watch that she thinks of as a sloth indicator. She has it set to remind her to stand up every hour and move around for a minute, and it also reminds her to pause to breathe deeply six times a day. At first when she put on her new watch, she was delighted by the reminders to experience her body, but that didn’t last long. By the morning of the third day when it told her to stand up she got very cranky at it bothering her all the time. Next when it suggested she breathe, she ripped it off her wrist and shoved it in her desk drawer, asking resentfully, “You want me to breathe now? I don’t have the time.”
It’s good to be able to laugh at our annoying watch — and at our annoying minds. Laughter is a burst of energy that can restore perspective. What happens to us is not as important as the way we are relating to what is happening. The way my friend reacted to her watch got her to ask herself some questions. Was she resentful or afraid of a commitment? Could she be kinder to herself in the face of her crankiness?
How do we restore perspective when trying to laugh seems like too much effort? Work on not making the feeling of sloth your enemy. In other words, the more we add judgment, projection into the future, self-belittling, fear, hopelessness, or a sense of isolation, the more we suffer when sloth comes. Our work is to grow in presence, balanced awareness, compassion, and understanding, applied to whatever is happening — including sloth.
We also want to develop the discernment to differentiate between sloth and depression, though sometimes it takes a good degree of awareness to sense the difference. In bearing the pain of depression, having a holistic perspective about utilizing many modalities for healing is often the wisest.
If we can begin by recognizing sloth as sloth, without so many of those add-ons, we then have enough mental space to experiment with various antidotes to see if we can come into better balance. What brings you energy? Physical movement? Gratitude reflections? Reaching out to someone in need? If we reflect on it, we probably have some experience or knowledge of actions that might well pick up our energy. We can think of them, and start to initiate them, even from the sleepy, comfortable embrace of our couch.
[Editor’s note: This essay title was changed from “What to Do When You’re Paralyzed by Overwhelm” to reflect more accurate and non-ableist language.]