Stratified Care for the Hindrance of Dullness: Prevention First

Numerous ways exist to antidote mental dullness or sleepiness in meditation practice. Rather than dumping all of them here, I offer a stratified approach that begins with simple commonsense, pragmatic, physical-plane understandings and approaches that emphasize prevention. In short, prevention means planning toward optimal meditation set and setting.

Understand the Doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties

The early Buddhist doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties helpfully informs the more contemporary considerations I’m offering in this post. It also informs the broader notion that a viable path is a “laddered” map with levels of practice that require you to rebalance overall practice orientations to meet the challenges of each new level of practice.

The laddered path functions within the causal model of reality, which says, “If I do x, then y will result.” The causal model is eventually debunked both in theoretical orientation—view—and in direct experience. The constraints that are linear time and causality are, to use the dzogchen parlance from the Gyalwa Chaktri, “a great and powerful falsehood and lie” (Reynolds 2015, p. 145). So noncausality is absolutely true, but until that truth is directly realized, sufficient practice effort usually requires buy-in to the causal model. This buy-in is at first noncontroversial, and normally not even deliberated, because it comports with modern, western science as the default view.

The causal model leads you to the noncausal realization; then the noncausal realization reveals that there never was a doer doing a cause-and-effect “path.” From the perspective of the gradual, laddered path, in other words, noncausality is mappable as high realization; from the perspective of that realization, causality constituting a path is, or was, the final delusion. Thus, the relationship between the gradual path and spontaneous realization of spontaneity is profoundly paradoxical. Although this topic is endlessly fascinating to me, in the present context this is all just to say that I’m addressing practitioners who are still trying to master calm-staying practice and ply their efforts to realize the fruits of ordinary insight practice (vipassana).

If you are past that point, then you already know I’m not addressing you. It is worth noting, however, that normally practitioners of extraordinary insight think they have transcended the causal model when in fact true letting go of path unfolds in increasingly supersubtle, barely detectable stages that can be missed altogether. The supersubtlety can be easily missed because of the grasping known as spiritual bypassing. Thinking you are enlightened before you are is the stickiest temptation, and it results in being stuck, albeit at a mappably high level. I’ve written elsewhere at some length about the common phenomenon of the partially realized teacher.

So to turn back to where most practitioners find themselves, Shakyamuni Buddha taught that aspirants have five spiritual faculties, five orientations that potentiate enlightenment. These potentialities are best actualized by being held in balance. But what is balance? A final distribution? In truth, the faculties ordinarily are not in balance long—at least not in the early and intermediate levels of practice. It is the lead faculty of mindfulness—metacognitive tracking of variables across time—that must monitor and rebalance the other four faculties continually. Whenever you sense that you have for a while not been progressing toward your practice objectives, are regularly swamped by distractions on the cushion, or are sometimes undermined by dullness or sleepiness on the cushion, study closely the doctrine of the Five Spiritual Faculties and apply it.

The five faculties have traditionally been configured in various spatial arrangements to body forth specific dharma teachings. One famous configuration places the faculties as two pairs of horses, one pair in front of the other pair, with the horse representing mindfulness in front and leading both pairs. The five horses are working together to steer a wagon forward along a path.

The first pair of horses represents the faculties faith and discriminating insight. This pair represents poles capping the ends of a continuum. They mark the attitude of receptivity, faith, over against effortful penetration into experience, insight.

Parallel to the first pair but at a more granular level, the second pair of horses represents the faculties of concentration, on the one hand, and energy, on the other hand. Metacognition, or mindfulness, as the lead horse has to balance—and continually rebalance—each of the pairs so that your vehicle can be pulled straight. The faculty of concentration does not by itself drive effective concentration practice, which I prefer to call, after the Tibetan Buddhists, calm-staying practice. When the distraction-free calm unification of mind—concentration—far exceeds energy, then dullness results. This dullness not only impedes the shift to effective insight practice during a meditation session, but also stymies mastery of concentration practice itself.

The Five Spiritual Faculties is a doctrinal teaching on the relationship between the masculine principle (discriminating insight and energy) and the feminine principle (faith and concentration). Both men and women need both principles and the theoretical knowledge and pliancy to adjust practice when it is not balanced optimally for the current practice level. Initial stages of practice almost always require increase of the masculine flavor; the advanced practices after the gains of ordinary insight, conversely, require reorientation emphasizing the feminine. This sliding fulcrum under the gradual path, so to speak, is another reason that it is important to have, understand, and subscribe to a coherent and fully detailed map and model of enlightenment. A coherent map supports the spiritual faculty of metacognitive mindfulness so that you can track your day-to-day practice within a framework and steer yourself skillfully with these masculine and feminine sides of the whole conveyance well in hand.

Use Mindfulness to Track and Steer Your Four Other Faculties

One principle to bring to planning set and setting for your practice comes from modern research on attention reserves. This principle is that you have a finite allotment of willpower, as well as attention, to spend after a good night’s sleep. As the day wears on, your reserves are steadily depleted, regardless of your practice intentions and meditation method.

Now, I’m a night owl (delayed sleep phase syndrome). Moreover, I have always tended to be high on the energetic/agitation side of the fulcrum between excess energy and dullness.  I practice in the wee hours past midnight, after everyone in my home is asleep. I’m mentioning the excess energy counterpoint to dullness here to point out that practice solutions depend on accurate diagnosis of the individual. It so happens that most American practitioners have dullness and sleepiness as their all-t00-familiar hindrance. I rarely hear people complain about excess energy on the cushion, although it does happen.

That dullness is such a pervasive hindrance may say something about our society’s enforced dearth of unstructured downtime. Because of “convenience” technologies such as laptops, mobile phones, email accounts, social media, and even the electric light bulb, our downtime and deep time are no longer aligned with organic cycles. They are intruded on. In fact, any ostensible downtime is severely fractured by our over-accessibility. If our evenings and nights remain open to the same external stimuli that deplete our attention reserves during the day, then is it any wonder that most of us drop into mental dullness the moment we isolate ourselves in comfort on a meditation cushion?

I’m emphasizing here that effective self-discipline is not about time management so much as it is about energy management. You need to identify when to practice on the basis of your intrinsic energy-concentration imbalances, your idiosyncratic circadian variations, and your work schedule constraints. If you have more mental clarity and higher energy first thing in the morning, before office work, then do a single practice session and do it first thing in the morning. If, like me, your energy tends to naturally revive after a brief early evening rest, and if you tend toward excessive energy or agitation on the cushion in general, then practice at night.

The advice that follows was to a specific practitioner who through logging his practice results discovered he needed to stop practicing twice a day, both in the morning and at night. The main ideas here can apply to anyone needing to address dullness or sleepiness on the cushion. Some other versions of this advice appear in various parts of my book manuscript. This is just a quick-and-dirty summary for this man I regularly advise. I’m posting it here because a mutual friend of ours urged me to, saying that it might help others.

Practice Only after Attentional Reserves Are Restored by Rest

If you are in the insight stage of the Knowledge of the Arising and Passing Away (A&P) or otherwise have a burning desire to practice at the end of the day, it is certainly fine to do so for sheer pleasure and interest, but cross out with a big red X the plan to make nightly practice a perfunctory fixture in your life.

By the end of your day, your willpower and attention reserves are depleted. Practicing with brute force willpower at the end of the day will condition your mind in ways counterproductive to the goal of mastering concentration meditation, and counterproductive to objectives that support that goal. It will be unpleasant, tedious, and frustrating. The more often you associate being on the cushion with these negative emotional reactions, the worse for your faculty faith. In this situation, you must metacognize the problem, and then optimize for energy. 

Routinize “Unplugging” by Evening and Practicing Sleep Hygiene before Bedtime

The principle here is that your mind needs downtime to integrate, via the unconscious, what is happening on the cushion under directed attention. By shutting down dharma and other work efforts in the evening to prioritize care for your body, meaning adequate sleep, you are in fact “practicing”: As Carl Newport writes in Deep Work, “A shutdown habit . . . is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy” (Newport, p. 146).

If you are feeling doubt arise as you read this pointer, then likely you have been unhelpfully programmed by dharma cowboys who equate number of cushion hours with attainment. I’m inviting you to prioritize precision over time-per-sit and time-per-day standards. For support, consider that the Dalai Lama instructs beginners to spend only 5 minutes in concentration practice here and there. He says to quit the session when the concentration begins to fail. The instruction is not practice long, but rather practice well.

This latter point suggests another item on the list.

Limit Pre–Stream Entry Meditation Sessions to 30 Minutes or Less

Yes, that’s right. Limit the length of your meditation session to 30 minutes, 15–20 if in the Equanimity insight stage. Close the session when dullness or thought-elaboration has emerged and your applying corrective strategies for, say, 3 minutes, hasn’t reversed the slide into dullness. In your practice log, record every day for a while how many minutes of meditation you finished before irreversible slippage into dullness or gross distraction occurred. See what you record for a couple of weeks. This will suggest how long your sessions can fruitfully be at this time.

I fiercely reject the “odometer” approach to meditation practice. Number of hours on the cushion in no measure correlates with reduced calendar time to x realization. In fact, if you think about it, you will discern that the truth is the opposite: Time and precision are usually diametrically opposed emphases, so a sliding scale needs to be observed. Driving yourself into the ground to concentrate when your natural attention reserves for the day are depleted will condition your practice mind to slip into compensatory dullness. When these experiences harden into habit, which they will, then dullness will infect your practice even at the beginning of the day when you are fresh. (My advisee has adversely conditioned himself this way for more than a year. We are now tearing down his practice and rebuilding it up from from the ground.)

It bears repeating: When you sit on a cushion in persistent thought-elaboration, analysis of your psycho-emotional issues, dullness, or slippage into daydreaming, you are habituating yourself to enter these distractions every single time you are on a cushion. Don’t do this!

Manage your limited energy and attention reserves metacognitively. Do so on a whole-day basis. When the reserves for a sit are depleted, close the session, log your information about the sit, and feel good that this change in overall emphasis from hours clocked to precision is positive practice, even if you have to make further adjustments around logged information later, which you will.  I’m not giving you targeted antidotes for dullness today. Try prevention and unlearning unhelpful attitudes first. I will address targeted antidotes another day. This is stratified care beginning with prevention.

The goal is precision. When you have some mastery, that will foster confidence. Confidence is conducive to faith, and faith aligns you with the automaticity intrinsic to realization. Although we can think of energy and faith as polar emphases in practice, it is important to notice how intricately connected they actually are. This interconnection becomes increasingly obvious as you advance up the path, but, as I have explained, it is operating from the very first sit. 

Focus on Whole-Body Breath Energy Flow instead of on Nostrils

Use a scanning and then whole-body breath energy as the object of attention. Doing so preempts dullness, facilitates entry to the bodily bliss characterizing second jhana, and establishes a direct link with vipassana—specifically, direct experience of impermanence. This broad, flowing focus is contrary to the popular one of  the breath at the nostrils. This narrow object focus is problematic. There are multiple reasons for abandoning this method the moment you read this sentence.

Consider analogous findings from research on attentional reserves: “This study, it turns out, is one of many that validate attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.” (Newport, p. 147). Newport elaborates the connection between open flow and overdirected attention:

To concentrate requires what ART calls directed attention. This resource is finite: If you exhaust it, you’ll struggle to concentrate. . . . The 2008 study argues that walking on busy city streets requires you to use directed attention, as you must navigate complicated tasks like figuring out when to cross a street to not get run over, or when to maneuver around the slow group of tourists blocking the sidewalk. After just fifty minutes of this focused navigation, the subject’s store of directed attention was low. (p. 147)

The remedy is to emphasize and plan for undirected pleasure, rather than a draining obstacle course: “Walking through nature, by contrast, exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls ‘inherently fascinating stimuli,’ using sunsets as an example. These stimuli ‘invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish. (pp. 147-148).

My first point in abandoning the nostrils focus is that such focus is boring rather than pleasurable. It is never a surprise to me when people cling to that narrow object focus and never exit the dullness sand trap. To me, counting breaths, another popular technique, is also inherently boring. Moreover, it actually pulls my attention away from the breath and toward the counting task.

In my experience, the whole-body focus prevents dullness because it gives you a broadly flowing, organically stimulating experience, instead of one that requires that you drill top-down onto one narrow spot and jackhammer it for 30 minutes without flagging. The dullness that results from the inherent boringness and unnaturalness of jackhammering the same point for long duratins means you have to keep applying and reapplying directed attention. This need to redirect attention keeps people stuck at access concentration or, at best, at first jhana, which means the automaticity of second jhana is thwarted. Subsequent jhanas have a broader focus. Focus on breath at the nostrils is therefore the city walk; whole-body flow is the inherently unimpeded pleasure of a nature walk.

The first path objective when I advise people is to consistently attain and sustain second jhana (Elephant Path Stage 6 and 7), Without second jhana, pleasure doesn’t kick in and kick out the need for directed attention. Directed attention is a jhana factor for first jhana, and first jhana is relatively unpleasant. If you have ever smoked weed or taken hallucinogens, then you know that there is an unpleasant transition before the pleasure high kicks you into automaticity. First jhana is this transition. You must pass through it and learn what you can from it, but you need to enter second, master that entry, and consistently replicate its automaticity. Doing so is essential preparation for the path of ordinary special insight, for vipassana.

Traditionally, access concentration is considered adequate for beginning effective vipassana. The problem is that how teachers define access concentration varies dramatically. I define access concentration as a soft version of second jhana. Before you have the automaticity that is second jhana, you are still just trying to concentrate rather than concentrating.

There are many other specific reasons that whole-body-breathing-as-object is vastly superior to nostrils focus, but I won’t go  into them here because it would take me all day. But suffice it to say that to master distinction among the separate jhanas you need to be able to tell when a naturally narrow focus broadens, and vice-versa. You can’t do so if you have constrained and conditioned yourself to an extremely narrow focus only. People who focus on the nostrils are creating and reinforcing their own dullness and their own access concentration sand trap. Don’t do this!

Read Keeping the Breath in Mind Method 2
What I want you to do for homework, besides all the energy-management strategies delineated, is to read and begin practicing Ajaan Lee’s Keeping the Breath in Mind, Method 2. Log your experiences and time elapsed before dullness derails the session. The book is free in various formats: