A Zen master’s surprisingly simple method to overcome lethargy (or complacency): STARVE!

Pomnyum Sunim. His words are wise and applicable. (photo credit to: well.hani.co.kr)

Recently, I have been struggling with actually sitting down and working on projects that I want to work on. After +8 hours of work at office, a dinner, and warm shower, the last thing I wanted to do was actually operating my brain and doing something. I’ve already ‘worked’ more than 8 hours today, I am getting a pay-check next week, my stomach is full, and I am warm. I am complacent.

But I made a promise to myself that I will work on these projects, because I really want to get them going.

So, after a warm shower and my stomach is full, I sit and open my laptop, with mild enthusiasm.

And I say to myself, ‘Oh, I actually need to message my friend A on Facebook… it won’t take more than 5 minutes.’ So I would go on Facebook, and next thing I know, I am reading statuses and watching videos, and on youtube. I haven’t messaged my friend A, of course, and it’s past midnight. It’s another full-time work day tomorrow,  so I better go to sleep. I feel bad about myself for not writing a story. I complain about long hours at work. I promise I will write for at least 30 minutes.

But the vicious cycle repeats.

<+8 hours of work – home – full dinner – warm shower – complacency>

And while there is nothing wrong with being complacent with having a full-time job that feeds myself and puts roof over my head, I want to continue writing a story I am working on, learn to draw, and read on virtual reality, dark matter and other books that fuel my brain and mind.


So I turn to Zen Buddhism.

I am a fan of Zen master’s teachings because they offer practical advices on life.

After a few minutes of web-surfing, I find one.

[A twenty-something Korean male asks Pomnyum Sunim, a Zen master from South Korea, during Q&As of his public talks:

“There are times in my life where I cannot get out of feeling lethargic. I feel lifeless and feel like I don’t want to do anything. It usually goes for a day, and in worst times, even for a week. How shall I get out of or treat it? I am curious how you would go about it.”]

It’s about lethargy, which is a bit different from my own problem, complacency, but similar. Both states represent inactivity and passive state of mind. Both states are completely opposite of a state in which you are in tune with infinite source of energy for your desire. So I read on.

[Pomnyun Sumin smiled and said:

“[When I was about your age,] for really tough and heavy lethargic feelings, I didn’t eat. When you starve about more than 5 days, your body says ‘I gotta do something so I can eat something’ and tries to survive. Desire to survive is the best method to overcome lethargy. Lethargy comes to you only when you are full, not when you are hungry.” (audience laughs)]


I was surprised by the simplicity and intuition in it, so I decided to try it on the weekdays (I usually come home on the weekends, and I know I would not be able to say NO to my mom’s homemade food. Also, for every sacrifice, it is wise to give yourself some rewards. So I have let myself go completely nuts on the weekends – chocolates, rice-cakes, sweet potatoes, vanila ice cream + carrot cake + nuts and seeds and on and on… – and that had be fun and good inspiration to keep myself honest during the weeks).

So, for past two weeks, for weekdays only, I replaced my dinner with a warm glass of milk (protein + fat) + honey (sugar + minerals) + bean powder (for extra protein). Some days, I didn’t even have that. I drank some water and didn’t eat any solid or liquid food.

I also inserted an exercise: a 30min run or slow pull-ups (20~40 reps, divided into any number of sets I feel like that day) right in there, because I just set up pull-bar thing on my doorwall and I felt like I should make some use of it.

better cycle!
new routine that works for me, adding exercise and replacing full dinner with meagre or no food

And I am very happy with the results so far.

After exercise, I take shower, make my glass of dinner, and sit down. I feel light and not dull. My mind is crystal clear and calmly active. I let the laptop closed until I know how I want to use my one precious evening hour (or two, when I’m lucky).

I decide in my mind whether I want to write, draw, or read. I drink, and I just do what I decided to do for the evening.

At 10PM, my phone gives off an alarm. It’s time to go lay on my yoga matt and stretch my hips. After that, I feel the hunger. I go to bed with a bit of that, and I imagine that byte of my egg sandwich in the morning. Yum.

I fall into sleep faster, and I sleep better. Because I can feel increased energy and just lighter mind and body. It’s incredible.

My morning routine – writing and 10 minute breathing – comes to me easier. My breakfast had never tasted so amazing and I am ready to go for the day!

Okay that was a lot of… what not.

I encourage you to give it a try a few days this week, if you have been feeling lethargic, dull, or struggling to work on personal projects after your full-time job hours (which is not easy, but worth it, as you know).

What surprising tricks do you use to keep your mind clear and light when it’s difficult to do? Do you have your own ways to shatter that feeling of lethargy?

I’d love to learn from you. Please share in the comments (and any other feedback).



Below is a full excerpt of Pomnyum Sunim’s answer that I translated into English. I tried to minimize paraphrasing, but there is always limitation in translation.

I enjoyed reading and translating, though, and I hope you enjoy it as well.

The original excerpt was in Korean, and you can find it here.

Pomnyum Sumin in a Q&A session at one of his public talks.

Twenty-something male:

There are times in my life where I cannot get out of feeling lethargic. This feeling where I feel lifeless and feel like I don’t want to do anything usually goes for a day, and in worst times, even for a week. How shall I get out of or treat it? I am curious how you would go about it.

Pomnyum Sunim:

“It depends on every person but when I was in my twenties, this is what I did when I felt lethargic. When I feel sluggish, I would go to tombs of General Kim Yoo-Shin or King Muyeol of Silla, close my eyes, and lay quietly [Sung: They are big names in the history of Sila, one of three countries that were occupying land of Korea in 600s].

What I would do was, with my eyes closed and laying there, just imagining lives of these individuals, that happened more than 1,300 years ago, as if I am in a movie. Then, I see that what was once considered good at that time, is not necessarily considered good now. There are many instances in the history where a break-up from a loved one turned out for the better, or what’s considered to be failure at the time serves an individual an opportunity that eventually led to bigger rewards. Just reflecting on the past events and historic figures helped me build awareness of myself and  see my current life events from different perspectives.

Light sluggishness, I could solve like that. But for really tough and heavy lethargic feelings, I didn’t eat. When you starve about more than 5 days, your body says ‘I gotta do something so I can eat something’ and tries to survive. Desire to survive is the best method to overcome lethargy. Lethargy comes to you only when you are full, not when you are hungry. (audience laughs).

I am just talking about my experience here. When you are hungry and a thought ‘I might die’ comes to you, a thought ‘I want to die’ does not occur to you. Thoughts like ‘I want to live’ emerge. You climb up a mountain to jump off a cliff and kill yourself, but just before your jump a tiger appears. Then, you don’t go ‘Well, fantastic. I was about to die, so eat me tiger.’ You will go ‘Ahh!! Someone help me!’ and run away. When you are about to kill yourself and a bomb explodes nearby, you will run. (audience laughs)

Feeling lethargic is a problem that you are conscious of, while desire to live is a problem of survival, of life or death. Every consciousness is based on survival and life. In other words, desire for survival is closer to the root. So when your mind is lethargic, you can kill yourself. You can kill others or yourself. If you kill someone else that’s a murder, yourself, that’s a suicide, and that happens when your mind is broken a bit. But when your own very survival is at serious risk, such torpidity disappears. I am just talking about my experience. I do not know much about you or other people.

So, based on my experience, what if you starved a bit? I tried this. When I starved for 4 to 5 days, I didn’t think ‘I shall live!’. My body automatically goes, ‘I got to live.’ Lethargy is gone.

Well, one time I wanted to test the limit of body. Not to overcome lethargy, but there are many North Koreans that starve to death and I was indifferent to that fact. So I thought ‘How can I eat my meals when they are starving to death?’ and fasted for 30 days. Recently, I did it once in 2008. A news of thousands of North Koreans dying from hunger came out. I didn’t eat for 70 days. But I did not die.

Even when you don’t eat for 70 days, you don’t die. However, when you fast, you got to have a clear mind. Everyday activities are no problem, but if you do strenuous physical activities or get fiercely angry, you use up your energy quickly. You maintain equanimity and fast, there is no problem in everyday activities. While I was fasting, however, I couldn’t speak much so public talks were a bit difficult. After 49 days, my energy decreased abruptly, so I only meditated and fasted. Because when you mediate, you don’t use up much energy.

Another thing is when we talk of fasting, we tend to think your body does not eat anything. But when you fast, your body consumes pure 300grams lean meat. What do I mean? Body eats its own lean meat. So fasting is not vegetarianism but a meat diet. When you weight yourself, it decreases quickly in the first three days, because you are emptying your intestines. Then, 300 grams decrease daily. There is small differences depending on how much water you drink. So I came to understand my body needs about 300 grams of lean meat to maintain my body temperature and go about my day.

But when I only did meditation, my body weight decreased by only 200 grams, and with more meditation, only 150 grams per day. When you use your brain it consumes a lot of energy, but during meditation you don’t use your brain or talk to anyone, so some energy is saved and I lost less weight.

When I fast, I like to see what happens to my body, and then what happens to my mind. Some people study ‘What do you eat when you fast? When do you start eating again?’ but I don’t. What different ways of fasting would there be? You just don’t eat anything. But how to eat again is a problem. It is best for you to see how your own body reacts to the food coming in, how appetite arises, how your state of energy and mind change, how your psychology changes, what makes you get diarrhoea or feel uncomfortable, how the amount of food increases, and so on.

Considering your age, I think you will be fine after about 5 days of fasting. When lethargy comes, it is best to eat nothing. Feeling lethargic means you do not want to live. Then other than taking pills or jumping off, you can try dying by not eating and see what happens. (audience laughs out loud)

When your consciousness is seized by lethargy and you take your life with pills or other means, it is irreversible. But when you fast, it takes a while for your body to die and you get to re-evaluate your life slowly, and that energy of ‘Shit, I want to live’ will come back. If there is better method, I encourage you to find one and try it for yourself.

Twenty-something male:

Thank you.





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