When we sit in meditation, the untrained mind naturally runs amok. No fault there. We live in a culture of constant distraction and short attention span. The mind, even in silence, gets caught up in thinking or gets lost in a fog. Cultivating inner calm, ease and balance, we become better able to focus on one object, like the breath rising and falling. We create a spaciousness that lets us befriend what arises without engaging with it.
Imagine sitting on a park bench on a pleasant spring day. All manner of people pass by and you not
ice them, maybe smile at them, but you don’t rush up to them and have a conversation, do you? That’s a skillful way to be with all the sensations, thoughts and emotions that pass through your inner ‘park’, that compassionate field of awareness in your meditation practice. How nice!
But, because, being human, we have lots of opinions and preferences, we may find certain people passing by our park bench grab our attention in various ways:
- Perhaps there’s an attractive person we’d like to get to know. Or we see an ice cream vendor and suddenly we’re salivating, even though we weren’t the least bit hungry. Maybe we find this moment so extraordinarily pleasant that we never want it to change, We think, ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’
- Perhaps someone walks by smoking and now the air is full of a foul smell. Or someone looks evil and we imagine horrible things they may have done. Or someone’s wearing an outfit that just doesn’t work – ‘What were they thinking?’ Or we wish the park bench was better positioned so we could see both the pond and the rose garden. If only that tree was a little to the left, then it would be SO much better.
- Perhaps, even with all that’s going on around us, we get lost in a fog, and only after an unknown period of time do we notice again where we are and what’s going on. But then we’re lost in the fog again.
- Perhaps a band of pranksters come along and lure us away from the bench entirely. We get swept up in their big to do, and it all seems so much more interesting than sitting on that boring old bench. They can magically travel into the past and the future! Why wouldn’t we hang out with them? But finding ourselves swept away, there’s also a sense of feeling lost and worried. Where is that park bench? Where is the park? Where the heck are we?
- Perhaps we’re concerned because we’re not sure if we’re allowed to sit on this bench. Is this a private park? Do we need an invitation? Are people looking at us as if we don’t belong? And if we are allowed, is this really a good thing to do?
What I have just described in that park scenario are the Buddha’s Five Hindrances: craving, aversion, torpor, restlessness and doubt. What are they hindering? They hinder our capacity to focus, to concentrate and to awaken. Let’s look at them one by one. These emojis I created for an exercise we did in class to help recognize and remember these Hindrances.
Whether we crave sweets, sex, adventure, love, power or something else, that grip of craving throws us off-balance. We’re leaning into longing, missing what’s here and now.
Craving can be a specific physical addiction, but it is more universal than that. It’s like a dangling fishing lure that we keep leaping after, only to discover the pain of the hook. Even when we enjoy getting what we had craved, there’s an edge to that enjoyment because now we fear losing it. Clinging and craving go hand in hand. Even if we feel we have come to terms with the nature of impermanence, we hope against all reason that the rules don’t apply to us.
Hatred is the most virulent form of aversion, and the one that causes mental blindness. This ‘blind rage’ sabotages any possibility of happiness. The mental knots of grudges and pet peeves we’ve been exploring recently, that entangle our thoughts and emotions in misery of our own making, are also aversion. As is the habit of fault-finding. How often have you been enjoying an experience but found some way in which it would be even better?
This is a kind of mental malaise, a state of fogginess, a ‘huh?’ quality, as if we’re just floating along mindlessly, not really living. There could be a physical component to this, when there’s a sluggishness in the body that is not just needing to rest after being active but an ongoing state of lethargy.
The restless mind has difficulty settling down and focusing on this moment. It is always leaping to the next thing on the calendar or to do list, or solving a problem or planning an event or a creative project. Worry and anxiety can arise here as well. The restless mind is everywhere but here and now.
This is not the healthy questioning that is an intrinsic part of our insight meditation practice where we ask ‘Is this true?’ This is a sneaky self-sabotaging doubt: Doubting that we can meditate or do whatever task we set ourselves. It’s also the doubt that our wise effort will be rewarded. Doubt may arise about the value of the practice and teachings, even though we have experienced their benefits. It’s the belief that somehow we are uniquely unqualified to awaken.
In class we did a practice of sitting as we would in regular meditation, but instead of just sitting on our metaphorical park bench and feeling friendly toward all that passes by, we made a point of identifying them as one or another of these Hindrances. I gave each student a sheet of Five Hindrance emojis in a pie chart, and every time a thought or emotion arose they were to make a mark in the section of the Hindrance where it best fit.
Contact me if you would like to get a downloadable PDF of this exercise sheet.
Please note that we are not categorizing or labeling ourselves. We are looking at thoughts passing through and categorizing them. If we find that most of our marks are in one area, say ‘aversion’, it would be counterproductive to label ourselves an ‘aversive personality’. In the Buddhist tradition, we are letting go of as many labels as we can, not adding more. So, watch for the all-too pervasive mental habit of labeling yourself, and resist!
Coming into Skillful Relationship with the Hindrances
Noticing these five hindrances as they arise in our experience is the first step, but how do we disengage from them? First and foremost, we don’t make enemies of them. That’s just aversion, one of the hindrances! Instead, we recognize their intention to improve things for us. They are patterns developed to ‘save us from ourselves’ in some way. But because they are based in fear and are myopic and misguided, we lovingly and respectfully cultivate enough space for them to exist without feeling we need to adhere to their plans for us, many of which are cockamamie schemes. We remind ourselves that they are not the bosses of us! As we practice, our own quiet inner wisdom can be heard and appreciated. We develop the ability to see the Hindrances for what they are and see that we have the choice not to succumb or engage in them.
We can develop some phrase to use in that moment of recognition that will bring us back to the moment in a skillful way. Your own inner wisdom will have the best phrase, but here are some ideas to get you started. Just be sure they are wise speech: kind, true, timely and not scolding.
Craving: This moment is enough.
Notice all that is arising in this moment to fully engage all the senses. Take sensory pleasure in the feel of your tongue in your mouth, the air on your skin, the light on your eyelids, etc. It was only ever not enough because you weren’t paying full attention.
Aversion: This too shall pass.
Remembering the nature of impermanence helps to ameliorate momentary annoyances. But a deeper practice of coming fully into the senses and thinking of whatever arises as part of this unique moment’s ‘symphony of now.’
For aversion that wants to makeover everything, the study of wabi sabi, where we are encouraged to find the beauty in all phases of life, not just some ‘perfect’ moment, like a flower at the peak of its bloom. How much richer life is when we expand our appreciation to include the beauty of wrinkles! Once you understand the concept, you can answer aversive thoughts with a whisper of ‘wabi sabi’.
Restlessness: This moment matters.
Gently and repeatedly bring the mind back to the here and now from wherever it wanders. In class I found myself almost in tears in defense of this moment, so often ignored. Poor little thing. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Especially when you consider that it’s the only moment that exists! All other moments are memory or imagining.
If worry is involved, you might bring out your inner Doris Day and remember ‘Que sera, sera – what will be will be.’
If anxiety is present, one student mentioned the skillfulness of switching out the word ‘anxiety’ for ‘energy’ and then asking, ‘How is this energy benefiting me?’ and other skillful inquiries. And again, letting go of the habit of labeling yourself ‘an anxious person.’
I can do this.
I am worthy.
I have a seat at the table of life guaranteed by having been born.
You are not uniquely deficient in whatever qualities are needed to meditate or undertake other activities. And you deserve this! If you think you don’t you might use the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river.’ as a chant. It can release any sense of feeling unacceptable. Also, make a habit of sending yourself infinite loving kindness — May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy. — or other supportive loving phrases.
If you are doubting the value of the practice or the teachings, find examples in your own life, or if you’re very new to the practice, in the lives of people you know, where meditation and the dharma have been of value. If you feel you haven’t achieved enough, let go of any sense of a time frame or progress chart. That’s just more self-sabotage.
Here and now. Wake up! This moment is worthy of my attention.
To keep your attention present, you might give yourself extra sensory stimuli: Wiggle your toes, rub your fingers together, or some other small but effective way to maintain present attention. Encourage the mind to be curious about all that is arising in this moment in the field of sensation. Question your desire to escape.
With this look at the Five Hindrances, we have launched our exploration of Concentration, the next Factor of Awakening. I hope you have found this an interesting way to look at your busy thoughts. I appreciate your comments.
I found the reminder to not label myself as an anxious person very helpful. Growing up, my mother had a plaque on the kitchen wall that read: “I am so used to being tense that when I am calm I get nervous.” I tend to label myself as Piglet from the Winnie the Pooh cast of characters. Oh ddddear!
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