One of my cousins once remarked, “You can learn a lot about life by observing cats.” I think of that statement sometimes when I’m in the presence of felines.
I’ve been observing my sister’s newest cat ever since the kitten arrived in May. Her name is “Random Kitty”, because there seems to be very little about her behavior that is predictable. There is one aspect that seems less random, that is when Random Kitty is at her rare moments of rest.
Just when I think she is feeling lazy and sluggish, I notice her eyes are half-open and staring at my face. After a few minutes of our mutual staring contest, Random Kitty pounces on me, then runs around the room, engaging in random activities again.
It was during one of those few moments of her inactivity that I pondered the meanings of sloth and torpor. Sloth being defined as the aversion to exertion or work; laziness; indolence. Torpor as lethargic indifference; apathy. Is the kitten really being slothful and overcome by torpor, or is she engaged in primordial “cat meditation”? Is there a human equivalent of this state of mind?
We are familiar with the seductive feelings of listlessness, and drowsiness after a large meal or strenuous physical work. Not only does the body feel physically lazy, but the mind feels “out of it”. We don’t want to move the body nor put any effort into analytical thought. During a lazy summer weekend afternoon, it’s very easy to surrender to sloth and torpor. Perhaps we need to let that state sweep over us. Especially at night when it’s time to drop off to sleep.
There are times when sloth and torpor are our adversaries. This is true when we’re driving our cars, or engaging in work. The inconvenience of sloth and torpor keeps us from mindfulness during thought, contemplation, and meditation.
Is Random Kitty feeling lazy because she is lounging in the warm sunshine on the porch or is she focusing all of her energy on observing her human friend? Is she contemplating me as I contemplate her? Or am I anthropomorphizing too much? Maybe she is only trying to figure out how to eat me for lunch.
Most wisdom traditions discourage the surrender to sloth and torpor. For instance, in Buddhism, this mental state is one of the “Five Hindrances”: 1. sensual desire 2. ill will 3. sloth and torpor 4. restlessness and worry 5 uncertainty.
The teachings say they Hindrances bind us to ignorance and suffering. Practitioners are reminded that to unbind oneself to the Hindrances, leads to awakening or enlightenment. Practitioners are reminded of some techniques that help to avoid sloth and torpor in order to live mindfully. They include: Knowing that overeating is a cause of it. Change the bodily posture from time to time. Stay in the open, fresh air. Engage in enlightening, joyful conversation. Share in noble friendship.
If doing all of these recommendations doesn’t work, then it might be time for a short catnap. Keep it brief; then arise and enjoy the refreshed state of awareness.
My personal awareness returned to the analysis of Random Kitty. She has never been taught about sloth and torpor nor has she been warned of the Five Hindrances. Perhaps I need to be more mindful of the temptation to observe her through a human filter and stop comparing her actions to human actions.
I remember that Random Kitty is a cat.