The Third Hindrance: Sloth, Torpor, and Boredom: Q & A with Ajahn Amaro
When I find myself with a free evening before me, I frantically try to fill it with activity rather than spending it alone. How can I learn to face an evening with nothing to “do”—and enjoy it?
Our sense of self is continually formulated by the things that we do and our interactions with others. When we find ourselves with nothing to do or no one to be with, our ego has nothing familiar by which to define itself.
However, we can transform our fear of this emptiness. Boredom and loneliness depend on investing in the sense of self. And, ironically, the harder we try to solidify our image of me through activity, the more we create the conditions for boredom to arise. If the sense of self is clearly understood as empty, solitude becomes a cherished companion. Try quieting the mind and then dropping the question “Who am I?” into it. A gap opens up after the question and before the thinking/self-creating habit can produce a verbal answer. Explore that gap and how it changes your experience of selfhood.
Sometimes I keep participating in something just because it’s comfortable, even though I’m not getting anything out of it: my relationship, job, even meditation practice. Is there a way to transform these feelings of sloth and apathy into newfound interest, or are they signs that I really am ready for a change?
We easily take refuge in the familiar because we enjoy the sense of belonging it brings; however, it is unwise to make a change reflexively every time these feelings arise. If we just sugarcoat our apathy with a new situation, we will never come to any real sense of fulfillment.
The Buddha recommended that in order to benefit from our engagements we need to ask ourselves, “Does this thing still have any genuine benefit for myself and others, here and now, or do I just keep at it out of habit?” Just that simple knowledge of the true effects of our actions is usually enough to guide us as to whether or not to proceed. If a change is needed, we shift our situation, guided by mindfulness and wisdom; if patient endurance is needed instead, that, too, will arise.
When I’m going through a difficult period, I often find myself doing everything I can to avoid the source of the trouble. I tend to become apathetic and even drowsy. Where can I get the courage to confront my problems?
From suffering, of course! If we can simply recognize that we’re distracted and that it’s because we’re avoiding something, that’s half the task.
Compulsive activity, blaming others, taking refuge in drugs or alcohol, and submitting to feelings of dullness in meditation are some of the ways that we evade our internal problems. These latter two are often caused by a desire to avoid feeling, because the litany of self-criticism is so painful.
The courage to confront the source of our problems usually arises from desperation. If we truly wish to be free of our difficulties, our heart has no other recourse than to acknowledge the core issue (even if we have studiously avoided it for decades!) and accept its connection to the suffering we are experiencing.
The other main source of assistance, when the heart is enmeshed in delusion, is the helpful perspective of our friends. Delusion has the unique ability to mask itself from its originator, thus it is often only from the “outside” that it can be recognized, and this recognition arouses the bravery needed for us to look squarely at the truth.
Ajahn Amaro is co-abbott of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California.