The Hindrance of Sloth and Torpor

by Gil Fronsdal

Sloth and torpor follow sensual desire and aversion in the list of the five hindrances. Accustomed to the stimulation of constant desire and aversion, some people become tired or deflated when these stimuli are absent. After meditation has calmed the mental activity of wanting and averting, sloth and torpor may be the hindrance that needs to be overcome. Doing so renews a healthy state of energy and alertness.

The five hindrances are key psychological forces that obscure the natural luminosity and healthy functioning of the mind. Because they hinder attention, it is important for people practicing mindfulness to become wise about them.

Sloth and torpor are forces in the mind that drain vitality and limit effort. Sloth manifests as a physical absence of vitality. The body may feel heavy, lethargic, weary, or weak. It may be difficult to keep the body erect when meditating. Torpor is a mental lack of energy. The mind may be dull, cloudy, or weary. It easily drifts in thought. Being caught in sloth or torpor can resemble slogging through deep mud. When this hindrance is strong, there is not even enough mindfulness to know we’ve fallen in.

Discouragement, frustration, boredom, indifference, giving up, hopelessness, and resistance are some of the psychological causes of sloth and torpor. Mental and physical tiredness may resemble sloth and torpor, but differ in not arising from a psychological attitude.

The presence of sloth and torpor does not mean that energy is not available. It means we are not accessing it. With a change in conditions, energy may reappear in a moment. This can be seen clearly in young children who switch from being “tired” (while shopping, for instance) to being energetic (about an offer of ice cream, for instance) in a matter of seconds. The energy level depends on whether they evaluate the situation as boring or exciting.