By Pema Chödrön
Rather than feeling discouraged by laziness, we could get to know laziness profoundly. This very moment of laziness becomes our personal teacher.
Traditionally, laziness is taught as one of the obstacles to awakening. There are different kinds of laziness. First, there’s the laziness of comfort orientation, we just try to stay comfortable and cozy. Then there’s the laziness of loss of heart, a kind of deep discouragement, a feeling of giving up on ourselves, of hopelessness. There’s also the laziness of couldn’t care less. That’s when we harden into resignation and bitterness and just close down.
Comfort orientation comes in a variety of forms. Sogyal Rinpoche writes that in the East, for example, laziness often manifests as flopping down in the sun with one’s cronies, drinking tea, and letting the days pass by. In the West, he observes, laziness frequently manifests as speed. People rush from one thing to another, from the gym to the office to the bar to the mountains to the meditation class to the kitchen sink, the backyard, the club. We rush around seeking, seeking, seeking comfort and ease.
Whether we flop or rush, and wherever on the globe we happen to be, the comfort-orientation brand of laziness is characterized by a profound ignoring. We look for oblivion: a life that doesn’t hurt, a refuge from difficulty or self-doubt or edginess. We want a break from being ourselves, a break from the life that happens to be ours. So through laziness we look for spaciousness and relief; but finding what we seek is like drinking salt water, because our thirst for comfort and ease is never satisfied.
Loss of Heart
The laziness of loss of heart is characterized by vulnerability, woundedness, and not knowing what to do. We tried just being ourselves and we didn’t measure up. The way we are is not okay. We chased after pleasure and found no lasting happiness. We took time off, went on vacation, learned to meditate, studied spiritual teachings, or spent years dedicated to certain political or philosophical views. We helped the poor or saved the trees or drank or took drugs, and we found no satisfaction. We tried and we failed. We came to a painful, hopeless place. We don’t even want to move. We feel we could gladly sleep for a thousand years. Our life feels meaningless. Loss of heart is so painful that we become paralyzed.
Couldn’t Care Less
Couldn’t care less is harder, more icy, fatalistic. This particular flavor of laziness has an edge of cynicism and bitterness. We feel that we just don’t give a damn anymore. We feel lazy and mean at the same time. We feel mean toward this disappointing and lousy world, and toward this person and that person. Mostly we feel mean toward ourselves. We made a mistake. We’re not exactly sure what this mistake was, but we got it all wrong; and now, to hell with it! We try to forget in any way we can. We stop doing much. We feel as if we can’t do much anyway, and frankly, we don’t care.
So What To Do?
Built into the human predicament seems to be the assumption that we should eliminate our failings; as adequate and worthy people, we should be able simply to leap over our weaknesses. So perhaps the grown-up thing to do would be to blow up laziness with a bomb, or drop it into the Atlantic Ocean with a huge weight so it would never reappear, or send it off into space so that it would float out into infinity and we’d never have to relate to it again.
But if we ask ourselves, Where does joy come from? Where does inspiration come from?, we will find they do not come from getting rid of anything. They do not come from dividing ourselves in two and struggling against our own energy. They do not come from seeing laziness as an opponent, or something out there that we should leap over. They do not come from denigrating ourselves.
The path of awakening is a process. It’s a process of gradually learning to become intimate with our so-called obstacles. So rather than feeling discouraged by laziness, we could look into our laziness, become curious about laziness. We could get to know laziness profoundly.
We can unite with laziness, be our laziness, know its smell and taste, feel it fully in our bodies. The spiritual path is a process of relaxing into this very moment of being. We touch in with this moment of lethargy or loss of heart, this moment of pain, of avoidance, of couldn’t care less. We touch in and then we go forward. This is the training. Whether in formal meditation or throughout our days and nights, we can train in letting go of our commentary and contacting the felt quality of our experience. We can touch our experience without getting hooked by the story line. We can touch this very moment of being and then move on.
We are sitting in meditation or going about our usual routine, and it occurs to us to listen to what we’re saying. What we hear is, Oy vey, oy vey! Woe is me. I’m a failure. There’s no hope. We look at what we do to ourselves, what we say to ourselves, how we lose heart or try to distract ourselves. Then we let those words go and touch the heart of this moment. We touch the very center of this moment of being and then we let go. This is how we train. Again and again, this is our practice.
We join our loss of heart with honesty and kindness. Instead of pulling back from the pain of laziness, we move closer. We lean into the wave. We swim into the wave.
Somewhere in the process of staying with the moment, it might occur to us that there are a lot of unhappy brothers and sisters out there, suffering as we are suffering. In becoming intimate with our own pain, with our own laziness, we are touching in with all of them, understanding them, knowing our kinship with all of them.
We are sitting in front of the television eating chips, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes. Hour after hour after hour we sit there. Then for some reason, we see ourselves clearly. We have the choice to eat the tenth bag of chips and watch the sixteenth sitcom, or to relate with our depression and laziness in an honest and openhearted way. Instead of continuing to zone out and shut down and close off, we lean in and relax. This is how we practice.
So maybe we open the window or go out for a walk, or maybe we sit silently, but whatever we do, it occurs to us to stay with ourselves, to go behind the words, behind the ignoring, and to feel the quality of this moment of being, in our hearts, in our stomachs, for ourselves, and for all of the millions of others in the same boat. We start to train in openness and compassion toward this very moment. This very moment of laziness becomes our personal teacher. This precious moment becomes our profound and healing practice.
Pema Chödrön is the director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
Looking into Laziness, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, November 1998.
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“Sariputra, if there are people who have already made the vow, who now make the vow, or who are about to make the vow, ‘I desire to be born in Amitabha’s country,’ these people, whether born in the past, now being born, or to be born in the future, all will irreversibly attain to anuttarasamyaksambodhi. Therefore, Sariputra, all good men and good women, if they are among those who have faith, should make the vow, ‘I will be born in that country.’”
~ Amitabha Sutra
When I obtain the Buddhahood, any being of the boundless and inconceivable Buddha-worlds of the ten quarters whose body if be touched by the rays of my splendour should not make his body and mind gentle and peaceful, in such a state that he is far more sublime than the gods and men, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
~ Amitabha Buddha's Thirty-Third Vow