When we feel trapped or entangled, we tend to blame our current conditions: if only things were different then we would feel better. For example, in my community that has been suffering from severe drought and extreme fire danger, there has this week been a lot of rain. We’re told the threat of fire is over and the drought is somewhat eased. Add to that the news that children can now receive the COVID vaccine, and our county is the most vaccinated in the US. Obviously, we are all out dancing in the streets, all our worries released, and nothing but joy in the air.
Or not. You won’t be surprised to read that life goes on much as it has always done. Think of something you were worried about that has not come to pass. A loved one survived surgery with flying colors, for example. A brief sense of relief may come, but it might not feel as profound a release of tension as you had imagined. Maybe it’s more of a crossing off an item on a mental checklist of worries. We are grateful, but the underlying tension in our bodies is still a presence. And the vacuum left by not worrying about one thing has probably been filled by another. We might not all worry, but we all have habitual ways of engaging in life.
In the veil metaphor, we might say that some of our veils seem to have a permapress quality. Regardless of circumstances, the fabric bounces right back into the form it was woven. We ask, why aren’t I happier? Why aren’t I enjoying this as much as I thought I would? Why aren’t I more appreciative of all the wonders of life? Why do I get only glimpses of being fully present?
Not surprisingly, the Buddha had something to say about that. He created, also not surprisingly, a list that helps us to understand the nature of our thoughts and how to release the permapress nature of our patterns of thinking.
Of course, his advice begins with an ongoing practice of regular meditation, and actively cultivating awareness and compassion in our lives. This is not an escape into an altered state. It is developing the ability to see clearly and, when thoughts arise, to notice the patterns of our thoughts. We see not just the subject matter but the tonal quality of the thoughts. The Buddha identified five types of thinking that he called the Hindrances, and encouraged his students to use them to notice and investigate them as an important part of awakening.
- Craving – lust, avarice, greed
- Aversion – anger, hatred, disgust
- Restlessness & Worry – excess energy, anxiety
- Sloth & Torpor – physical lethargy or mental muddle
- Doubt – lack of clarity of path or purpose
To benefit from this list, you don’t need to memorize it, but you do need to practice with it. And here is how:
- Get whatever you need to write a sentence or two.
- Pause for a moment and instead of releasing thoughts, allow them to flow. When you come upon one that is troubling, write it down. It doesn’t have to be a complete thought, just enough to get the gist of it.
- Having written it down, look at the list of the Five Hindrances and see if you can categorize the nature of your thought. If several of the Hindrances apply, note them all, but also identify which is the most dominant one. So it could be ‘aversion with undertones of worry and a hint of doubt’ like you’re sampling wine. Let it be that impersonal. It’s just a thought.
- Pause to notice and appreciate that we all have these same kinds of categories of thoughts. The Buddha, as enlightened as he was, recognized these patterns in his own thinking. Notice how that makes you feel, and if something comes up, make note of that too. For many people, it is a relief to know this is just the nature of human brain activity. But for some, it could feel like some sense of specialness has been sacrificed. If that is the case, that would be worth exploring sometime.
- Notice any tendency of mind to claim the Hindrance that best matched your chosen thought. If we are curious to know who we are, we often grab at labels that define us. But just because you had a thought that fits into one of the categories doesn’t mean it defines you. If you find yourself saying, for example, Oh, I’m a sloth & torpor person, stop! You are not. Your thoughts do not define you. They are just thoughts, thoughts that anyone could have. While it’s skillful to recognize a recurring pattern of a Hindrance, claiming it as identity just entangles us further in weaving a knot-choked identity veil and keeps us from feeling free to investigate with compassionate curiosity. Instead, we feel we have to defend ourselves. But the key to true happiness is the realization that we have nothing to hide, nothing to prove, and nothing to defend. Once we really understand that, we can more freely discover what it is we have to give from our most authentic sense of aliveness.
- Look again at the thought you wrote down and see where in time it takes you. Into the past or into the future? Make note of that. If you think it is in the present moment, check again to be sure. Are there past opinions that inform the thought or future speculation that flavor it?
In general, troubling thoughts are threads that tug on the past and cast into the future. Because right here and now at this moment, what we have are the senses and the experience of seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing. Pause and explore for yourself. Take a sip of water or rub your palm across a surface. Listen. Look. Notice. Let it be purely experiential without inner commentary. Welcome to the present moment.
This present moment just as it is, when fully experienced, is a field of sensations. Maybe we interpret them as pleasant or unpleasant. Maybe we label them with names we have learned in the past. But if we quiet down and really pay attention to the senses themselves, we awaken to the gift of being fully alive.
Take as long as you like.
Ah, you’re back. That must mean that you want to learn how to cope with the Hindrances when they appear, because you’ve discovered, as have we all, that they just keep showing up. As lovely as any fully present moment is, our habit of mind, our various veils of thinking, arise and interfere with our direct experience.
If this upsets you, just notice the aversive thought, and recognize that Hindrance. No need to make an enemy of it. It’s just an unskillful way of being in relationship to life. Understood and treated with compassion, these various Hindrances can be toned down, and the habit of mindfulness becomes stronger and more reliable.
When we understand this is a universal experience of being human, it is much less intimidating to look at Hindrances as they arise, 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 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! And to help do that, here are some words to use to counter the power of the thought:
- Craving: This moment is enough.
- Aversion: May I hold all that’s arising with compassion.
- Restlessness: This moment matters.
- Worry: May I be well. May you be well. May all beings be well.
- Sloth: This moment is my personal point of power.
- Torpor: It’s okay not to have the perfect answer.
- Doubt (self): I have a seat at the table of life guaranteed by having been born.
- Doubt (practice/path): I trust my inner wisdom has guided me to this path.
Or come up with phrases of your own that help you.
I have taught extensively on the subject of the Five Hindrances, so feel free to investigate further. [Read more about the Five Hindrances.]