Monthly Archives: March 2015

Gravitational Pull and the Five Hindrances

Meditation is the practice of being present in this moment, becoming more skillful in how we relate to our experience and becoming more compassionate with ourselves and others. With practice we develop mindfulness throughout the day. With mindfulness we are able to notice the nature of the thoughts that pass through our field of awareness. I have begun to notice how sometimes these thoughts have a gravitational pull, drawn to a certain future event, like the treat I’ve promised myself later in the day or a concern I have about whether the layover on an upcoming trip is long enough for us to catch our next plane. Or the pull might be toward something that happened in the past, something I’m still feeling emotional ripples from experiencing, or something I’m figuring out how I might have handled differently with better results.

That sense of gravitational pull makes these small future or past events feel like the center of my mental universe. They are where my mind is drawn if I’m not busy with something else. 

Have you noticed any gravitational thoughts — events in the past or future that hold your attention? Maybe it’s the dread of some chore, the daydream of some future situation, anticipating or longing for pleasure, questioning whether you are up to the task you set out to do, or maybe your thoughts are more muddled and you just want to sleep. Each of these kinds of thoughts can be categorized in what the Buddha called the Hindrances: Sense Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor, and Doubt. [Read more about the Five Hindrances.]

Being able to identify the nature of our thoughts in these categories hones mindfulness skills. It reminds us that our thoughts are not ‘ours’ but natural byproducts of the universal nature of thinking mind. This depersonalizes our investigation, making it feel safer. Many people avoid this kind of inner exploration because they fear discovering something awful that will make them feel even worse about themselves. These five hindrances are not labels to brand ourselves. To have a slothful thought does not make me a lazy person. To have a lustful thought does not make me a slut. If we understand that the thoughts are not personal and do not define us, then it makes the idea of mindfulness and inner investigation much less scary.


‘The Five Hindrances’ is one of the Buddha’s useful lists found in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This one identifies mental obstacles to awakening to the present moment.  Noticing the nature of our thought patterns brings them into the light, creates spaciousness with which we can take wise action in regard to the thought.

For example, since I found that I kept worrying about that short layover, I was able to determine that the wise action was to call the airlines and discuss whether I needed to change one of the flights. Having made the change, that worry has dissolved and therefore has no gravitational pull. I am able to be present in this moment with whatever is happening here and now. Yay! If I didn’t pay attention and had not identified the thought that was causing my discomfort, I would have carried it with me for days.
Sound familiar? Stop, close your eyes, anchor your awareness in physical sensation for a moment, and then notice your thoughts as they pass through your field of awareness. Is there a recurring thought that comes up for you? Maybe it is so powerful it is draws you in and you find yourself caught up in a tangle of story.

Once you have identified the thought that has you in its gravitational pull, ask yourself:
  • Does this thought pull you into the past or the future?
  • If it’s in the past, would you say it is mostly regret or nostalgia? Is there a strong emotional content? Is there anger? Is there shame?
  • If it’s in the future, would you say it’s mostly worry, dread, excitement, restlessness?
  • Notice how the thought feels in your body. Is there tension? Is there an ache in the chest? Does all the energy drain from your body?
  • Notice what associated emotions, memories and images arise. Bring that past experience into your spacious compassionate field of awareness where you can see it clearly. Keep breathing, stay present, be kind. If judgments arise, notice them too. Replenish the field with as much spaciousness and compassion as you can muster. Release all expectations. (If what you come upon is so extremely painful that you don’t feel you can continue on your own, find a skilled therapist who knows how to walk you through the process of this kind of self-investigation.)
  • If you are worried about something, what is a skillful action you can do to address or alleviate your concerns? For example, if you are dreading some overwhelming chore, you might break it down into incremental bits and allot an hour a day to it.
  • Is there a wall you come up against, some lack of information or a sense of self-doubt, for example? Noticing what is needed opens the door to being able to get the information or alleviate the doubt, either by developing the skills necessary, finding someone else who has those skills to help with the task at hand, or confirming that you indeed can do this.
  • If there is nothing in your power to do about it, or it is not your problem to solve but you’re still concerned, you can always send metta, infinite loving-kindness, to the person or situation. Sometimes this is the best we can do, and it is actually quite a lot to do!

To see the nature of thoughts and emotions is the gift of the practice of meditation. More and more we are able to live mindfully. Seeing how these thought patterns fall into the categories the Buddha delineated 2600 years ago certainly depersonalizes them.  When we understand this is a universal experience of being human, it is much less intimidating to face our fears, to see them for what they are, and to use this understanding to further bring mindfulness to our current struggles so that we can alleviate suffering. But remember that to strive to get beyond hindrances is just another hindrance (aversion). Striving is not the way. We do this practice with wise balanced effort. All that is necessary is to have the paired intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others when we discover that we (or they) haven’t been present at all.

And why aren’t we present? Because some thought or emotion is holding us in its gravitational orbit, pulling us in like a black hole. Wake up!

Root-bound – Learning to Let Go

Just outside in the early spring sunshine, my neighbors were trying to pull a root-bound rosemary plant out of its pot for replanting. At one point it looked like he was giving birth with the pot held upside down against his stomach as she, playing midwife, yanked and pulled. All to no avail. She said, ‘There has to be a lesson in this somewhere, maybe a blog post?’ And I said, ‘Well, I am writing one about letting go.’ We all laughed, and eventually the rosemary bush plopped out of the pot to applause all around.

The root of suffering, says the Buddha, is grasping and clinging. So it follows that the end of suffering comes from letting go. But most of us are not very good at. We can’t imagine that life will be okay beyond the pot we are clinging to. Conversely, when we imagine things would be all better if we could just get beyond this damned pot, we might push with too much force which, according to the Buddha is the other primary cause of suffering. There was a moment just now when my neighbor was banging a hammer on the tip of a length of re-bar into the hole in the bottom of the pot her mate was holding, all within easy striking distance of his cheek and chest. It could have been a 911 call for sure!

When we develop a meditation practice and learn to be present with whatever is arising in the moment, we begin to notice the patterns of thought and emotion that fuel the grasping, clinging and pushing away. As we patiently practice, we find we are able to allow room for whatever passes through our open field of awareness to simply come and go. To the degree that we can be aware and compassionate with our experience, we find ease, balance and joy.

In this state of awareness and compassion, we might notice a pattern of thought that keeps our mind tense and entangled. Just developing the ability to notice thoughts in this way rather than getting lost in them is quite skillful. But even at this point we might fall into the trap of wanting to get rid of that thought pattern, making it bad, making ourselves bad in some way. That’s just another painful thought entanglement.

If you want to let go of something, just bring more awareness and compassion into the way you are holding your experience. Have heart courage to face your fears. This is a vulnerable state, but it doesn’t require armor or weapons (or a hammer!). Be willing to listen. See the fear inherent in the grasping and clinging. Soften your stance and whatever is ready to let go will go. Trust in the process.

If letting go is a subject of interest to you, here are some other posts to check out.

You Never Have to Wait Again!

You never have to wait again? That sounds like an impossible promise, but what if it is possible? Let’s explore.


First, let’s define ‘waiting’.
We might say that waiting is focusing  our attention toward some future moment, thinking that what is to come is the ‘real’ experience and whatever this is in this moment is not worthy of our attention. While waiting people often say they are just ‘killing time.’


But through the practice of mindfulness we find that this moment is always worthy of our attention. Therefore, we never have to wait again.


Can that be true?


A typical situation most of us dislike is waiting in line.
We might experience anger and frustration. We might think, ‘These people aren’t doing their job,’ ‘They aren’t respecting my time,’ or ‘I am now going to be late for such and such and so and so will be upset with me.’ We might debate whether we should stay in line or come back another time. We might give ourselves a hard time for not planning enough time or for choosing the wrong time to come. Even after we have accomplished what we came for and left, the aggravation may lingers on, ‘ruining our whole day’ or at least we continue to think about it and maybe talk about it to others.


So what would make standing in line NOT be waiting?
What if we let go of the idea that our only purpose is to pick up the prescription or buy the groceries or mail the package? What if this is not a placeholder moment but a real deal moment? As we stand in line we can come fully into the moment just as it is without any other purpose but to be here, senses activated. We feel our feet on the floor, supported by the earth, anchored by gravity. We might notice temperature, texture, light and dark, color and pattern, tension in the body, air on the skin, the breath rising and falling. There are so many things going on!


As we access these sensations, we develop a spacious awareness that awakens us. As if captured by an artist on canvas, we experience this moment as complete unto itself, rich with shapes and colors of the clothes draped on the bodies, the faces with all the character and moods exposed in a setting that is full of pattern, light and shadow. If it were in a museum we would be fascinated by this painting.


As we sense into the fullness of this experience our compassion is awakened. We understand that we are all in this together —  in this line and in this life — not in an ‘us against them’ way but in an intrinsic connection of all life. Out of this awakening awareness and compassion, we smile. And just as something shifts within us, something starts to shift within the room. Our eyes meet another’s and a conversation begins. When its our turn at the cashier, we are kind. Here is a person having a stressful day dealing with aggravated people. Great compassion! We each have the capacity within us to frame our experience, to decide whether it is a source of irritation, insight or pleasure.


There are many other kinds of waiting beside standing in line, of course. A pregnant woman could be described as waiting, but is she? In fact, she is very actively providing a nurturing environment for gestation. I remember when I was pregnant having the wonderful sense that I could do absolutely nothing and I was still being the most useful person in the room. There are other kinds of gestation that we might interpret as waiting, but as passive as it may feel, something is happening. Is there anything like that in your experience? I know sometimes when I am writing, I need to take a break, do a little game of Spider Solitaire or unload the dishwasher, anything to empty my mind and let me return to the writing from another angle. Gestating. Not waiting!


There is waiting for news. Maybe about a loved one. Is he or she okay? For this kind of waiting we can send metta, universal loving-kindness: ‘May you be well.’ This is really all we can do about it, and it helps us to settle and come back into the moment. Maybe the news is our own, waiting for results of medical tests. Same thing. ‘May I be well.’ Metta is a powerful activity, aligning ourselves with that quality of infinite loving-kindness, feeling it in ourselves and then sharing it generously with all beings. ‘May all beings be well.’


Maybe we’re waiting for news about something we’ve submitted, such as an application or a manuscript. Someone else is holding our future in their hands. That can be a stressful if we focus on the future, hoping or worrying ‘what if..’. But if we stay in the moment, once we’ve done everything we can do, we don’t need to ‘wait.’ We go on living fully. It can actually be a pleasant feeling to have accomplished having something ‘under submission’ where it is no longer on our plate and we are free to focus on other things. Every time thoughts about that ‘up in the air’ submission arises, we simply send metta. ‘May those in whose hands the decision rests be well. May they be happy. May they be at ease. May they be at peace.’ That’s all we can do, and it’s the best thing we can do.


Some people seem to make a whole life out of waiting: for a settlement, or a true love, or a baby, or the wherewithal to buy a house, move, change jobs, get sober, etc. Whatever it is always seems hopelessly off in the future, but because they believe it will change everything, this life here and now seems pretty shabby compared to that dream. Appreciating this moment just as it is may seem like a betrayal of the dream. We’re told not to take our eye off the prize. But this is the prize: This ability to be fully engaged and aware right now.


Sometimes we’re waiting for the courage to kick in to do something we want to do. Mindfulness enables us to notice the pattern of our thoughts that keep us from proceeding. We can notice:
  • A thought that knocks the stuffing out of us. Every time we think it we want to crawl back under the covers, grab the remote or head for the refrigerator.
  • A gaping hole in our knowledge base that needs to be addressed before we can proceed. Identifying the question and just Googling it is a good step. Maybe it’s a big gap and requires a book or a course. Sometimes it is a gap that can be helped by thinking of who we know that might have the answer or the contact. So often our quandary has to do with believing that we have to do this on our own. It truly does take a village!
  • Erroneous assumptions that keep us circling around again and again, coming to dead ends. Every inner statement can be questioned: Is that true? How do I know that’s true?


If we let go of the idea that we are waiting and instead really pay attention, we gain clarity, compassion and courage.

So next time you find yourself waiting, explore the experience and see for yourself what is true. Maybe you will find you never have to wait again!

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