Awareness dissolves mental hindrances

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Last week I introduced The Five Hindrances, the first of the dhammas that make up the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. All these numbers and lists might have you throwing up your hands at this point. It does seem a little daunting. But any time you think, ‘This is too much,’ just allow yourself to rest in awareness of whatever physical sensation is present in that moment.

Remember that all we really need is the two intentions with which we enter meditation: The intention to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and the intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others. In meditation and in our daily life, if we can reset these intentions whenever we are feeling lost or confused, we are good to go!

Then why learn anything else about the dharma? Each of us has to decide for ourselves whether in this moment we are ready and able to learn more of the Buddha’s teachings. If the cup is full, stop pouring in more tea! Our minds can only take in so much information. Then we need to spend time with what we have taken in, allow it to steep. 

Buddhism is primarily experiential. The dharma lessons point the way and provide tools for the experience to illuminate and awaken, but if we just study-study-study, then we are out of balance with the teachings. Our own sitting and walking meditations, our own ability to create spaciousness in our experience brings the dharma home where it can actually give meaning and end suffering. All else is restless mind, greedy mind, trying to know it all. Resting in ‘I don’t know!’ is one of the most delightful experiences of my life. I rejoice in it. I savor it. It’s delicious. Make room for that sense of being comfortable with not knowing and see for yourself if it releases a few endorphins.

If you have been following along and have developed a regular practice of meditation, then it may be interesting to explore more of the Buddha’s teachings that shed so much light on our experience. One of my students mentioned this week that the Five Hindrances might be a more accessible door to the dharma for some people.

What are the Five Hindrances?

The Five Hindrances are mind states that act as obstacles to clarity of mind. They are desire/craving, aversion, restlessness and worry, sloth and torpor, and doubt. Do any of these sound familiar? Most of us experience all of them at one time or another, sometimes in combination or quick succession. In class, one student felt sloth was too pejorative a term. Another clarified the distinction between sloth and torpor — sloth a sense of physical sluggishness and torpor more a fogginess of the brain. This sounded right to me. It’s important to remember that all of these terms are the closest English approximation to the original Pali language terms. Can we leave room in our understanding for the translations to not be completely satisfactory?

How to be in skillful relationship with the Hindrances
It is skillful to acknowledge the Hindrances that are currently present in our experience. That recognition is all that is required. If we actively try to change them or push them away, we are just getting caught up in aversion. Compassionate awareness brings everything into balance. If we can stay present with the hindrance that we notice, it can teach us something valuable. Each hindrance has the capacity to be a great gift, if we recognize it, can stay present with it and learn its nature. This is the path of awakening! So don’t turn away.

One student said she really liked the word ‘hindrance’ — so much easier to deal with than ‘character flaw,’ the term she was raised with. Other students nodded their heads.

Yes! We can much more easily spend time noting a ‘hindrance’ than dwelling on a ‘character flaw’ that takes us right into shame or guilt. The statement, ‘Oh, I’m so lazy,’ takes us to a dead end place where we either suffer quietly with our ‘defect’ or noisily try to bust out, rebelling at the label.

How much wiser is the statement, ‘Ah, sloth, I know you.’ This simple recognition of a transitory state passing through our experience has the ability to dissolve it on the spot. We don’t claim it, cling to it, or react to it. We sit with it, see it for what it is, and the clarity of recognition brings us into the present moment.

Noting what causes hindrances to arise
The Buddha’s teachings also encourage us to notice what leads us to activate these hindrances, and then to mindfully avoid those situations. For example, if you crave alcohol, don’t hang out in a bar. If you crave pastries, don’t go inside the bakery. Years ago when I attended Weight Watchers meetings, I remember they called the foods we just couldn’t resist ‘red light foods.’ The answer to these irresistible temptations was to not have them in the kitchen, to not tempt ourselves with what was just too challenging. This works to a point, especially when we are feeling most vulnerable.

With each of the hindrances we can observe in our own lives the point at which they are activated. It might not be a place, person or object that sets it off. It might simply be a habituated pattern of thought that we get caught in again and again. We just go there, almost as a default position. Noticing the pattern is skillful. Then we can investigate the nature of the pattern. We can see which mind state it leads to. We might see where it comes from — a parent, a teacher, an old love interest, a playmate or schoolyard bully.

The radiant light of awareness, developed through these mindfulness practices, recognizes that thoughts, emotions, mind states, etc. are not who we are. We suffer in our attachment to them as identity, and are liberated from suffering when we simply enjoy and feel gratitude for the opportunity to experience all of this finite fleeting earth experience in whatever form it takes.

Seeing what activates the hindrances helps us to develop the ability to stay present with a clear mind. This ability at first may seem so brief that we have a hard time seeing how it even happens. I remember thinking that it was like alighting on the head of a pin and then almost instantly falling off. When I understood that this was natural, like the challenge to find balance when learning to walk or ride a bike, I was less frustrated and thus more able to be present with the experience. With practice that brief alighting becomes more constant, a widening stable foundation where we place our awareness.

While we are developing our practice it is especially important to be with people who support us in our practice and to avoid spending too much time with those who lure us into behaviors that lead to mindlessness or actively try to throw us off this course. This is being kind and skillful.

As our practice deepens and our sense of being in the present grows, we may be sufficiently grounded in our practice to recognize that not only can we resist temptations that had previously drawn us, but we have a sense of presence that helps others become more grounded as well. This is not something we aim for, lest our goal-setting topples our equanimity. But we can recognize when it happens, and then be less self-protective and more engaged in the world beyond sangha in a way that creates a sense of moment.

A good test is to see if you are using the word ‘should’ as in ‘I should be able to sit in a bar and drink iced tea even though I crave liquor.’ The word ‘should’ is just a stick we beat ourselves up with. Put it down and pick up compassion and common sense instead!

Noting when the Hindrances are absent
If we find we are in a state of awareness, the Buddha encourages us to notice how that feels and to enjoy the spacious ease of not being caught up in the thirst of sensual desire, the turbulence of aversion, the sluggishness of torpor, the agitation of restlessness and worry, or the muddiness of doubt. To rest in clarity is peaceful and pleasurable, and this pleasure is finer than any we had imagined when pursuing a goal driven by sensual desire. Whatever happiness we were striving to achieve is nothing compared to this. Just this. Bliss.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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