Monthly Archives: January 2013

Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness – The Five Hindrances

If you have been practicing the first three Foundations — being mindful of physical sensation and our relationship to the body; noting feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral; and noting mental phenomena (thoughts and emotions) as they arise and fall away — then you are ready to incorporate the Fourth Foundation, the dhammas, into your practice. The dhammas are described as ‘categories of phenomena which highlight how the different elements of the mind are functioning.’

If you haven’t had a chance to practice, then the following is just information to have available. The Buddha taught these four Foundations in a particular order for a reason. But the teachings are of value no matter what door you enter, and it’s possible that something in this exploration will inspire you to investigate the previous foundations and begin your practice in earnest.

The first of the dhammas is called the Five Hindrances. A hindrance is an obstacle to mindfulness. What gets in our way of seeing clearly, of being fully present?

The Buddha offers one analogy that fits very nicely with our jungle/garden theme from last week’s talk. He talks about a bowl of water, but we can just as easily see it as a pond we come upon in the garden of our mind — a reflection pool that, when mind-garden conditions are calm, is pure and clear. In this state, all is visible: The fish swimming in the pond, the rocks at the bottom of the pond, the reflections of the trees. It is like my husband Will Noble’s painting Reflection, where everything is visible. Look at the painting and see if you see all of what is going on. For more detailed view where you can scroll around, click here. (This won’t work on Apple products.) The painting makes an excellent focus of meditation. Not surprising since it came out of a meditative experience and was drawn and painted with meditative attention over a period of eight months.

Reflection, a watercolor painting by Will Noble


Now the Buddha has us imagine what if into this pond a dye was poured. It would color our view of what is happening, shifting our understanding of current reality. This is how the Buddha described what happens when the first hindrance of sensual desire is present.

Sensual desire might be sexual in nature, but it could be any craving for something we experience with our senses. For example, our eyes might have a sense desire to be surrounded by only the most beautiful things. Our sense of taste might be addicted to sweet, salt or fatty foods. Our sense of touch might want every creature comfort, to be cushioned and cozy and warm. Our ears might crave only the most delightful sounds and be distressed at sounds that seem discordant to our ears.

When noticing sensual desire in ourselves, in whatever form it takes, we might recognize a quality of mindlessness, as if we are being led by something so powerful we forget ourselves. We disempower ourselves through our desires, because we are so limited in what we can tolerate. The ultimate effect is that we enjoy so little of this experience of life!

Stop now and think of a sense desire that is a challenge for you. Find some recent instance of experiencing that sense desire. If nothing comes to mind, delve into the past and remember what it felt like to crave something so strongly. Oh come on, there was at least that overwhelming teenage crush! And remember how the thought of ‘him’ or ‘her’ colored everything in your experience? The desire is usually more painful than pleasurable when the wanting gets so powerful. Everything is interpreted through whether it fulfills our craving or not. All else falls away and we get out of balance. Life has a driven quality, shot through with desperation, helplessness, and sometimes self-loathing.

It is said that much of literature is based on this hindrance. Think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for example. Here’s a wonderful quote from that tale of runaway desire:  “Vronsky meanwhile, inspite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy. He soon felt that the realization of his desires gave him no more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.”

“No more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.” Whoa! Now that’s a cautionary tale — one that we have all told ourselves over and over again in our own lives after each experience of craving, consuming and then sitting with the resulting emotions and thoughts. Being mindful, being present to savor each moment as it is, helps us to actually learn it!

For the second hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool boiling. This bubbling boiling quality represents aversion, often experienced as anger or hatred. You can physically feel the boiling quality of being really angry.

In this mind state, when the water is boiling, can we see anything else but the bubbles?  No. We can’t see the rocks, the fish, or the reflections that are present in the calm pool. We are just focused on the bubbles, the aversion, the anger, the hatred. It is all consuming. It is the only thing that exists.

For the third hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool filled with algae, stagnant and without movement. This hindrance is sloth and torpor. What great words to describe a sluggish mental state, but the experience of them is debilitating. If we spend long enough on the couch, the easy chair or the bed, there will be insufficient oxygenation to be healthy. Our mind and body shuts down. Life is too much bother. Nothing excites us. The Buddha would no doubt ascribe this state to anyone suffering from depression.

For the fourth hindrance the Buddha has us imagine wind on the water, creating a lot of ripples and obscuring whatever is beneath and making it impossible to see any reflection. This is the hindrance of restlessness and worry. When we feel restless or worried we can’t be mindful of the present moment. We are glued to the future time of our imagination, eager or dreading.

For the fifth hindrance the Buddha asks us to imagine the water being muddy, obscuring our view. This represents doubt. We stir up the silt of the pond with our doubt. In relation to the practice of meditation, we might doubt our ability to do this. Everyone else seems so into it, but our mind is all over the place. Or we might doubt the teacher’s ability to teach or the teachings themselves. This is not just healthy questioning and exploration, but a habituated state of doubt, muddying up our minds. We might also see where in our life we are stymied by doubting our self-worth or our ability to do something that everyone else has told us we are quite qualified to do.

In our analogy of the jungle-garden, we can ponder this pond. As we do we might recognize one or more of the Five Hindrances that keep us from being fully present in the moment, fully mindful. When we become mindful for even a moment, we can check in and notice our mind state. We can think of the quality of that mind state and recognize how it is obscuring our view of things.

We might notice the one, or ones, that come up most often for us: Sensual desire, Aversion, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness and Worry, or Doubt. This is not to label ourselves or get attached to yet another aspect of identity. It is a way to help us to recognize tendencies so that we can see them as they arise. Just as we learn where in our body we have a tendency to carry tension so that we can go there and release it as needed.

If we recognize these mind states, we are being mindful. That’s cause for celebration, not for judging ourselves for having a mind state that is universally experienced by all of us at one time or another, to one degree or another. Mindfulness is that radiant light that has the capacity to dissolve obstructions.


A silent retreat is ideal for creating the opportunity to notice all of what goes on in the mind with few distractions and responsibilities. If we set the intention to be present, anchored by physical sensation, and the paired intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others, then we create conditions to notice these hindrances. At that point we do not try to banish the hindrance, because that just creates more turmoil in the pond of our mind. Instead we just note it, simply recognize it.

Recognition without judgment is key. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, he was able to deflect the tempter Mara by saying with compassionate awareness, “I see you, Mara. I know you.’ We too are able to see and know these hindrances for what they are. We can say, ‘Ah desire, I know you.’ or ‘Ah aversion, I know you.’ or ‘Ah sloth and torpor, I know you.’ or ‘Ah restlessness and worry, I know you.’ or ‘Ah, doubt, I know you.’ That recognition is mindfulness in action! It is the bright light of awareness that is all that is required to dissolve all suffering and nurture all joy.

It’s a Jungle In There! Coming into Healthy Relationship with Our Minds

Continuing with our focus on the Third Foundation of Mindfulness… 
Imagine ‘pleasant’ ‘unpleasant and ‘neutral’ as seeds scattered in the garden of our minds. If we leave them to their own devices, if we are not mindful of them, they root and grow into a jungle of thoughts and emotions made up of desire, greed, aversion, hatred and delusion. We get entangled in the vines and feel trapped. We are so entwined we can’t see sky, can’t feel the ground beneath our feet, can’t imagine anything beyond this strangling-vine existence that we take to be who we are. We are lost deep in the jungle, and this is normal for most of us.

When we meditate, we develop the skill of mindfulness. This is a radiant quality that sheds light infinitely in all directions. This light allows us to use all our senses to become fully aware of this moment and our current experience. We can feel the earth beneath our feet, see the sky and feel the rain. In this state of awareness, we see the tangle for what it is — not us! Not who we are. Just a jungle of thought and emotion that now has more and more space between the trunks and vines so we can explore mindfully.

At this point, we might develop an aversion to the jungle. We might think meditation is our ticket outta-here. But that is just planting another ‘unpleasant’ seed that grows quickly into a tangle of aversion. 


So we look at those seeds more carefully. When we notice ‘unpleasant’ arising in our experience in response to some cause or condition, before it can turn into a full-blown angry rant that twists us so tight we cannot breath, we shed the light of awareness on it and the seed, exposed, dries out and dissolves. 

Next we notice ‘pleasant’ arising, and before it grows into a kudzu vine of craving more of this pleasant experience, we shine our full light of awareness on it. We find we can be with a sense of pleasant without being taken over by desire for more and more and more of it.

Shedding the full light of awareness is what the Buddha did as he sat under the Bodhi tree confronted again and again with all manner of ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’ thoughts and emotions that could easily have gotten him entangled, and surely had in the past. But his purpose was clear: To stay mindful, to stay present, and to see the manifestations that taunted and tempted him for what they were. In this skillful way, he was able to see the causes of suffering.

When we are entangled in the jungle of thought and emotion, thinking ourselves kings or queens of this jungle, claiming it proudly as our own — while in reality we are as much its victim as a bug caught in a spider’s web — then we are suffering. We might not be aware that our entrapment and attachment to that entrapment is the cause of our suffering, but with mindfulness we see it clearly for what it is.

Now in this same garden of our existence there are also seeds that are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral that thrive in the full light of mindfulness, that root and grow in ways that are beneficial. There is the pleasantness of sitting and knowing we are sitting. If we can simply allow that pleasant seed to grow into a dedication to practice, it will bear the fruit of pure joy and wisdom. There is the unpleasantness of forgetting to do our meditation practice, and with the light of awareness it will grow to remind us that mindfulness requires dedication to practice. 


There is the pleasantness that comes with being kind and generous, and there is the unpleasantness that comes from having said or done something hurtful. Both of these seeds, when noticed, inform us in a way that we become more skillful in our words and actions, bring more joy into the world and into ourselves. 

There is the neutral of noticing all aspects of a situation, not ignoring things that might make us uncomfortable or don’t support our argument to which we may be very attached.

It is important not to embellish this jungle analogy with chores beyond what is prescribed by the Foundations of Mindfulness. Shedding compassionate radiant light is all we need to do. We do not need to weed, eradicate, dig or spray toxic chemicals in the jungle-like garden of our mind, and doing so would be counterproductive. We are not doing a makeover! Whatever changes happen arise naturally as a result of our paired intentions to be present in this moment, and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover we have not been present at all.

In class students said that this analogy helped them to visualize the way thoughts and emotions work. Does it help you? I’m always happy to read your comments or answer any questions. Just click on ‘comments & questions’ below.

Third Foundation of Mindfulness – Awareness of Mental Phenomena

Last week we discussed the Second Foundation of Mindfulness and in class we practiced noting whether a current experience was ‘pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.’ The homework was to continue noting throughout the week, in meditation and in life. This noting is in addition to anchoring awareness in physical sensation. That is our foremost practice. All other practices within The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are done in conjunction with the First Foundation.

The practice of noting sets the stage for the Third Foundation of Mindfulness, the awareness of the arising and falling away of mental phenomena — thoughts and emotions.

It is surprising to me, looking through my translation of the original instruction for the Third Foundation of Mindfulness in the Satipatthana, to see how short it is. For us in the modern era, the exploration of thoughts and emotions seems such a huge topic, almost insurmountably complex — as if all life is lived in the realm of thought and emotion. That is because we are steeped within the thoughts, so enmeshed in them that we can’t see them clearly. Yet we take all our cues for our speech and behavior from these thoughts and emotions that have us caught up in their tidal pull. 


What the Buddha taught is a practice that enables us to swim in the ocean of thoughts and emotions, fully aware of the nature of waves and tides. We can stop struggling, thrashing about, thinking we are drowning, and begin floating, enjoying ourselves and swim. Or surf!

My friend Mary Wagstaff, after years of dedicated study of Buddhism, at the age of 50 took up surfing. Being on the ocean gave her the insights that had been eluding her in her studies. Nature’s like that. So smart and instructive if only we would pay attention! Her years of practice and instruction taught her to pay that kind of attention. Mary’s still surfing and was featured in ‘O’ Magazine as an inspiration and illustration of ‘no limits.’

What we are learning in this Third Foundation is how to apply the skills we have developed in the first and second foundations to the way that thoughts and emotions arise, transform into other thoughts and emotions. To use another nature analogy, we watch them like we might watch clouds form and transform as they drift across the sky.

In this practice, the thoughts and emotions are simply phenomena for us to notice. We can see how the Second Foundation’s ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ experience transforms into a multiplicity of reaction thoughts and emotions right before our eyes. The unpleasant experience quickly turns to aversion, to a thought of how to change the scene or situation, that might then turn just as quickly into a judgment of ourselves for not being able to stick with the assignment, and then we launch into a reminder that we are supposed to be compassionate, and then maybe a story about how we don’t deserve compassion. And on and on. You know the drill!

Key to seeing clearly the constant unfolding of thoughts and emotions is quieting down. This is why an extended silent retreat is so valuable for developing this mindfulness practice. But we can give ourselves the gift of silence also in our daily lives. We can turn off the radio, television, cell phone, computer. We can give ourselves permission to be unplugged for a while so that we can plug into the universal wisdom that is right here and now, whenever we are ready to pay attention.

Through this awareness we are liberated from being strangled by the tangle of thoughts and emotions. We neither run from them, push them away or chase after them. We allow them to exist, noting the arc of their arising and falling away within the field of our awareness. (In this blog you will find many dharma talk posts on the subject of thoughts and emotions. If you would like to read more, you’ll see the links listed under ‘Labels’ when you scroll down in the column on the right.)

We are not our thoughts
As we unplug from the busy world and plug into universal wisdom of the here and now, we also come to understand that all these thoughts and feelings do not define us. Just as we notice the physical sensation of hot or cold without identifying it as who we are, we can notice the arising and falling away of thoughts and emotions without any sense that they define us.

They are just the universal ocean of thought and emotion. They are not who we are. They do not make us more or less special, unique, weird or despicable. This is a great relief for most of us! We take responsibility for our actions and speech, but our thoughts and  emotions, just like our dreams, are of a different nature. We are neither their masters nor their victims. When we notice them, we can take a much wider view and hold the whole process in an easeful way. By doing so the contents of our thoughts and emotions will settle down.

If you balk at the statement ‘We are not our thoughts,’ you are not alone. In any given meditation circle there might be one student brave enough to say, ‘Hey, that’s not my experience. I am my thoughts!’ That student is probably saying what at least some of the others are thinking as well.

There is nothing a teacher can say that will change their minds. This is an insight that arises out of the experience of meditation practice. But a teacher can give guidance to create conditions where such an insight might arise. So in response to that statement in our meditation circle, I led the group in my ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ letting go exercise. Several requested I send them a copy and wrote me back to say they found it helpful, so I include the link here.

Why does it matter whether we believe ourselves to be our thoughts and emotions or not?

First, if we believe ourselves to be our thoughts and emotions, we are too enmeshed in them to see the habituated patterns that keep us in bondage, where we are tossed about at the whim of our thoughts and emotions. A more liberated view comes only when we recognize that thoughts and emotions arise and fall away as part of a process — like breathing. The mind processes thoughts and emotions in the same way the lungs process air.

Second, if we think we are our beliefs, opinions, etc. then we can’t safely examine them or question them. We might find something too awful, too shameful. After all we are ‘stuck’ with ourselves for the course of this lifetime. Why would we want to find out that we are basically rotten at the core? This belief that we are our thoughts and emotions, that we are the accumulation of our experiences and personality traits, makes us rigid and fearful. We develop strong attachments to this idea of self because we carefully seal off our intrinsic awareness of our beingness at a deeper level, the way in which we are not separate from all of life in a sack of skin that is our sole dominion. We fill our lives with busy noisy goings-on, afraid that peace and quiet would open a door we would rather keep shut. But my students would not be attending class and you would not be reading this post, if some deeper sense of knowing wasn’t present. Trust in that inner wisdom.

If a sense of deep connection is difficult, practice metta, sending loving kindness. Remember that we have two paired intentions: to be present, anchored in sensation and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. They work together and create a balance. One fuels the other. So if you find yourself struggling with a concept, let go of the concept and send metta to all beings. To the cashier, to the careless driver, to the texting teen, to the man muttering to himself on the street corner, to the politician who blundered, to the person you love most in the world, to the person who represents all that is evil to you, to the earth itself and all its inhabitants. May they be well. May they be happy. May they be at ease. May they be at peace.

Sending metta calms the heart and attunes us to the unitive nature of our being in a way that thinking cannot.

From this state of kindness and connection we can see that clinging to a sense of separate self means living in a disconnected way where we feel we have something to fear, something to hide and something to prove — that we are ‘good enough’ in whatever form that takes. When we live from that kind of motivation, our life is a misery. The lives of those around us are made more miserable as well. We live in a state of dysfunction, prickly or cloying, always working from some agenda that can never be met. This is what the Buddha called suffering. This is what he spent his lifetime developing practices to alleviate, including, and perhaps most especially the practices of The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

When we sit or walk in silence, hearts and minds open, we offer a large container for the ocean of thoughts and emotions to show us its tides and wave patterns, and to eventually quiet down. Even if it doesn’t quiet down, it is seen with greater clarity.

So this is the practice, to give an attentive dispassionate awareness to thought and emotion, just as we do to physical sensation, just as we do to noticing the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experience. And by doing so, we come fully into the present moment.

The simplest instruction for meditation is to sit and know that you are sitting. The Third Foundation of Mindfulness is to recognize thoughts and emotions. To think and know that you are thinking. We can name the kind of thought or emotion that arises. Judging, planning, worrying, anger, longing, etc. This gives us an activity that short-circuits the story the mind wants to tell. The story gets started and as soon as we recognize it we can name it ‘planning’ (or whatever) and we are back in full awareness, anchored in physical sensation.

Add this technique into your meditation practice if you are ready to do so. Notice the tendency to judge the thought, to judge the wandering mind, and name it ‘judging.’

Here is a poem I wrote about the wandering mind that might help to bring more compassion to your own wanderer.


Prodigal Mind

When my mind
returns to the breath
there is such a sense
of homecoming
such a celebration of
this most perfect union

that I would not be surprised
if the invitations were sent out
the band hired
and the cake decorated

were there only enough time
before my wayward mind
sets off to wandering again.

– Stephanie Noble



Meditation and the Immune System

During a particularly virulent flu season in the US, with the nightly news reporting dire consequences and predictions, it is nice to know that meditation has proven to be helpful in maintaining a healthy immune system.

In one study of the immune functions of meditators and non-meditators, they found  ‘…significant increases in antibody titers to influenza vaccine among subjects in the meditation group compared with those in the wait-list control group.’ (See study.)

So what does this mean for us as meditators? Keep meditating! 


But also, of course, take care of ourselves physically with proper nutrition (reduction of sugar intake,) exercise, hygiene, and common sense. In all things find the Middle Way, using Wise Effort to find balance and ease.

Let go of the fear-based victim stance that gets stirred up by the media frenzy. Instead of being a victim, radiate health! Bath yourself and all beings in metta: May I be well. May all beings be well. Remember that metta is a blessing, not a request from some external source. We are each powerful conduits of the universal life force, however we name it. Radiating health out of love and kindness, you can feel tension leave the body. Tension arises from the stress of feeling a victim or potential victim.

If you do get sick, treat yourself with loving-kindness. This is not a failure of your abilities as a meditator! And please treat others with loving-kindness by staying home until you are truly well.

May you be well! May you be radiantly healthy!
May all beings be well.

Second Look at the Second Foundation of Mindfulness

Before the holidays, when our minds were distracted with so much else, we began to explore of the Second Foundation of Mindfulness. Now with fresh minds and a New Year we begin again.

To review, the Second Foundation of Mindfulness is noting whether something in our present experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This kind of noting gives us another way to anchor into present experience. But there are other benefits as well.

The basic experience of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is something we share with all species. A cat purrs at a pleasant experience or hisses at an unpleasant one. A lizard basks in the sun or darts under a rock. A bird chooses one tree limb, then changes its mind and flies to another.

As we spend time noting feeling tones, we become aware of their impermanence. Just as the wind might be pleasantly balmy one moment, then neutral or unpleasantly harsh and cold, these feelings arise and fall away, arise and fall away. Becoming aware of their nature, we are better able to let go of any sense of attachment to them, or any sense that we must act upon them.

Imagine: There is a fly in the room, but you don’t know it. Out of sight, out of mind. You are having a pleasant time, reading perhaps. But then the fly buzzes into your awareness. Suddenly your experience changes to unpleasant. Perhaps an opinion arises: Flies are filthy and don’t belong in the house. Maybe a grievance arises: I was having such a nice time and now I have to deal with this damn fly. Then maybe planning arises: How will I get this fly out of the room so I can return to having a pleasant experience? Perhaps a belief arises: This fly is ruining my good time. And then it’s likely an emotion arises: I hate flies, this one in particular.

As all this busy mind activity goes on, the fly settles down somewhere out of sight. So now, in relationship to the fly, you might have a neutral experience, because without the stimulus of the fly flying around, your mind fills with other things. But perhaps your mind had become so agitated that you are still thinking about the fly. Does any of this sound familiar? For most of us it certainly will. If not about a fly, then about some other minor annoyance.

The fly is not the cause of our jumble of complex reactions. The fly is just living its life as best it can. It is our mind’s habituated patterns of reactivity that make our experience infinitely more unpleasant.

In this scenario, we see how we run through a range of feelings. We can see how a feeling can lead to thoughts and emotions. We see that these feelings are impermanent. They travel through our field of awareness as the wind travels through a field of wheat. Can we be resilient like the wheat? Can we develop both awareness of and detachment to these feeling tones.


(Detachment is a tricky word. In the Buddhist sense it does not mean not caring or feeling separate from. It is an expanded view in which the experience can happen without setting in motion a chain reaction. We can hold all experience in an open loving embrace.)

Through noticing these simple preferences, we see the very beginning of our reactivity to an experience, before emotions and thoughts, fueled by memory, get us all entangled in complex patterns and beliefs we have created over the years.

We will delve more deeply into that very complexity in the Third Foundation of Mindfulness. But for now, it is enough to notice that we can fine tune our attention to that simple noticing. Pleasant. Unpleasant. Neutral. In this way we further anchor into this moment. We begin to see the seeds of grasping, aversion and delusion.

Hmmm, grasping, aversion and delusion. Where have we heard that before? In the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth: That there is suffering in the world. The Second Noble Truth: That the cause of that suffering is our tendency toward grasping, aversion and delusion. If these are not familiar to you, look on the index on the lower right side of the page. There are a number of dharma talks on the subject.

The Second Foundation of Mindfulness offers us an exercise that effectively allows us to see the beginnings of that manifestation of our suffering. In his teachings the Buddha identified the cause of suffering and then set about to develop techniques to end suffering.

Mindfulness is a core technique for the end of suffering. And this simple practice of noticing pleasant, unpleasant and neutral has real value. It builds upon the First Foundation — sensing into physical sensation to anchor our awareness in the present moment — and sets the stage for the Third Foundation.

So please take time as part of your meditation practice, and any time throughout the day, to notice whether something in your current experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. If you find yourself thinking, ‘Well this sucks!’ you can add, ‘Oh, unpleasant!’ This addition might remind you that life is one big opportunity for dharma practice — an expanded view that can poke holes in the solidity of our experience of suffering.