Category Archives: Five Hindrances

𝅘𝅥𝅯A tick a tick a tick a good timing𝅘𝅥𝅯 and why being in the moment makes us happy

sunrays1000
Because last week we did an exercise, using the little emojis to represent the Five Hindrances, this week in class I checked in with my students to see how the experience of exploring in that way and working with what they found. If you tried out working with them, I’d love to hear from you!

One student said that in the middle of a difficult conversation she tried to categorize what was coming up for her as one of the Hindrances. It didn’t help.

No, it wouldn’t. This is an exercise to do when we are alone, just noticing thoughts and emotions arising in our experience. It’s good to do after meditation and especially good to do on retreat where periods in between sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, yogi work meditation and sleeping — when the mind is free to wander, but it is also much more present in the moment. Useful insights can come during these periods of simple noticing because we’ve quieted down enough to allow our own inner wisdom to be heard.

When we are interacting with others, it is important to listen to them. It is challenging enough to not get caught up in planning what we will say next, let alone analyze and categorize thoughts that arise.

Our practice of being in the present moment supports us in conversations with others. If it is a difficult conversation, we might notice the urge to say something unskillful. In that instant, it is skillful to pause and ask ourselves ‘What is my intention here?’  If the intention comes from fear in one of its many forms, rather than loving-kindness, then we know that our words will not be skillful.

But we don’t stop and categorize our thoughts and emotions at that moment. We save that for another time. Instead we silently send metta to ourselves and to other person – May I be well. May you be well. – and go from there.

Talk of being in the present moment prompted another student to ask, “How does being in the moment make us happy?’ Over the past year of meditation practice and attending classes, she has found increasing clarity, peace of mind and, yes, happiness. But she wondered what is it about being in the moment that makes us feel happier? How does it work?

I suggested that it is primarily because the moment is the only place we really live, the only moment that exists with all the senses to experience. All other perceived moments are memory and imaginings, lacking in the fullness of sensory awareness.

Also being in the present moment we are able to see more clearly how threads of thought and emotion that make us unhappy are rooted in the past. Seeing their source, we can more easily question their veracity and gently let them go. The more we let go, the more we are able to stay present and the more joyful the present becomes.

Of course at times there is pain in the moment. But the pain is compounded by dredging up memories of this same or a similar pain, and then pain becomes misery. Pain is exacerbated by getting stuck in the future, thinking the pain will go on forever, or wondering when it will stop. Staying in the present moment with pain shows us the multi-faceted nature of the pain itself, and also all the other things that are going on in this moment that are not painful. Learning how to be present with pain — not making it worse — makes us happier.

Full awareness of this moment fills us with gratitude for being alive, frees us from all the nagging thoughts that find fault in the way things are or want to keep it just so forever. It releases tension and fear-based emotions. It ‘gets us out of our heads’ and into the felt experience of life.

There is an integrity in being fully in the moment, a wholeness to our body-mind experience, that feels like a homecoming. And that makes us happy!

Are there other reasons being in the present moments causes happiness? Please comment!

A fun way to learn to focus

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.following-thoughts-bench

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. craving-green

Craving

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.

aversion-red

Aversion
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?torpor-face

Torpor

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.restlessness

Restlessness

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.doubt

Doubt

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.’
Doubt
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.
Torpor
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.

There’s an app for that!

There are a number of apps on my phone that I don’t have a clue how to use. You too? Well, that’s like the Paramitas, the perfections of the heart we have been discussing. These qualitparamitas appies or states come pre-installed in our being. We don’t have to go to the app store to get them. Some of them are familiar. Some we think we understand but could use a little reminder. Others we aren’t even aware we have. In this series on the Paramitas, we are opening each ‘app’ to discover how it functions in our lives.

Last week we were talking about the first Paramita: Generosity. Dana Paramita. Now let’s look at ways we obscure the generosity we are born with. If our basic needs are met, our hearts are naturally generous. As an example, my granddaughter spent her free time in kindergarten yesterday making a card for her little sister. She drew a picture of the two of them holding hands and dancing together. She told me she made it because her sister’s birthday is coming up ‘and also she’s still a little bit sick’, so she was thinking about her.

Her generosity rises up naturally. Later in the day the girls fought over some toy, as kids will do. Where was her natural generosity then? It was obscured by the desire to obtain a pleasure or the fear of losing a pleasure. She was the exact same generous-spirited girl, but she was going through some inner turbulence, wasn’t she?

We all go through inner turbulence from time to time. Things don’t go our way. We feel threatened. We get caught up in the desire for something or the fear of losing something, and it feels as if we are being tossed around in a storm of volatile emotions. Can we become more skillful in how we navigate these turbulences that pass through the field of our experience? Can we recognize and even embrace the temporary nature of all conditions?

We can do so more effectively if we come to know and rely on our true nature to help us through difficult conditions. The Paramitas, these perfections of the heart, are aspects of our true nature. When they are obscured by turbulence or simply lack of awareness, we can pause to cultivate clarity. This is much easier when we have a regular practice of meditation that helps to create ease and spaciousness in our body-mind. We can recognize that we are not our thoughts. We are not the turbulence. And we can more readily feel the presence of the Paramitas as joyful states of being.

These perfections of the heart are not gold stars for being good, doled out to some and not to others. They are not achievements to be admired. When we think of them in this way, we get caught up in striving, judgment, comparison and confusion. But if these qualities are inherent in our very being, what keeps them hidden?

We can apply the Buddha’s Five Hindrances from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to find the answer to that question. If you remember, these are Sensory Desire, Aversion, Worry/Restlessness, Sloth/Torpor, and Doubt.

Let’s look at these Hindrances in relationship to Generosity:

  • In our hunger to satisfy sensory desire we might not share our chocolate ice cream.
  • In our aversion to ‘getting involved’, we may resist offering assistance to someone in need.
  • When worried about our finances, we may put off donating to our favorite charities.
  • When we are restless, we may have difficulty really listening to someone who needs our attention.
  • If we are feeling sluggish and slothful we may not feel able to get off the couch and do any act of generosity, even to ourselves.
  • If our minds are clouded and confused, in a state of torpor, we may not be able to think clearly enough to activate generosity.
  • And if we are in a state of doubt, we may not be able to imagine that anything we could do would have an impact.

The Hindrances give us a useful framework for looking at any of the Paramitas, don’t they? If one of them resonates, we can bring wise intention and wise effort to bear. We can spark some generosity and apply it to the Hindrance that is troubling us. For example:

  • We might find the sensory pleasure in generosity. Eating chocolate ice cream is even better when someone else is enjoying it too.
  • We might discover that offering assistance and getting involved brings us great joy and a sense of meaning.
  • We might calm our worries about finances by recognizing others in greater need, and sending metta, infinite loving-kindness to ourselves and them: May I be well. May you be well. May all beings be well.
  • We might sooth that sense of restlessness by focusing attention on someone we care about and really listening to what they have to say.
  • We might disrupt our slothful mode by recognizing that a brisk walk would be a generous gift to ourselves.
  • We might clear the torpor by activating generosity in any form as it clarifies our intention in the world and sets other things in motion.
  • And, if we are in a state of doubt, we can think about acts of generosity that have meant a lot to us, and recognize that it is the little things that make a world of difference.

 

In class we discussed the person on the curb holding a sign, asking for money. One student said that by the time she had mentally worked through her concerns that her dollar would contribute to the person’s death in the form of liquor or drugs, she was already a block away. In most communities there are services for those in need. If we contribute to those services, we may be doing a greater generosity in the long run. But what about in that moment? Maybe there is no harm in following through on an impulse to be generous. Who are we to judge how the money is spent? This is a deeply personal choice, and whatever decision we make, let it be one that doesn’t leave us feeling guilty. At the very least, and it is no small thing, we can be generous with respect, with kindness, with well-wishing. We can acknowledge that not just ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ but ‘There go I’. This person is not different from me. He or she is part of my family, the family of all beings. And at a cellular level and a spiritual level there is no separate self. We are all the same expansive infinite being. We are all made of the same stardust. We all meet the same fate. Sending metta — ‘May you be well. May you be free from harm. May you be happy.’ — is not a cheap kiss-off platitude, but radiant and generous beyond measure.

As we explore the rest of the Paramitas, we will discover each in turn, see what obscures them and learn how to access these amazing ‘apps’ that are built-in to our being.

Worried? Read on!

Last week I had jury duty, so I made sure my calendar was clear in case I had to serve on a longish trial. It turned out that I didn’t. But it gave me the opportunity to see how it felt to have a clear calendar, and wow, I have to say, it felt very very pleasant.

That sense of ease and openness made me realize that in my inner landscape of mental activity, future events are sometimes like black holes that suck up a lot of energy. This goes beyond simple planning. Long after the planning is done, the mind might be drawn into that black hole, circling around the anticipated event — a trip, a social gathering or something like jury duty — pretty much anything that has unknown elements, which is everything in the future, isn’t it? Being a woman, charged full of oxytocin, the ‘bonding hormone’, I also expend a lot of mental energy worrying about the well being of my loved ones.

Sound familiar? Well, don’t worry about it. It’s part of the human condition. Over 2600 years ago, the Buddha identified worry as one of the Five Hindrances (Sensual Desire, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor, and Doubt). Maybe for you, one of the other Hindrances is more a presence in your life. Most of us have all of them to varying degrees. But why did he call them ‘hindrances’? What are they hindrances to? They can get in the way of opening to and receiving this moment fully. This doesn’t mean we have to get rid of these hindrances. Good luck with that! But we benefit by noticing them when they arise in our awareness, seeing them for what they are. Simply noticing them in a spacious compassionate way weakens their power to hold us.

I have written about all the hindrances in the past, and you are welcome to check out those posts, but let’s stay with worry for now. You can see how worry gets in the way of being fully present. The mind is stuck circling that black hole of future event or the black hole of what someone we love is experiencing, and it keeps going there even when there is absolutely nothing more we can do about it now.

When we meditate, we are practicing making ourselves fully available to the sensations of this moment. With openness to whatever arises in our experience and compassion for ourselves when we find we’ve gotten lost in thought, we return our attention to the breath or other physical sensation. In that moment we come to understand the way of things: We see that there is impermanence, so we know that this too shall pass. We see that we are all of a piece here, made of the same microscopic stuff as the air we breath the earth we walk on and each other. And we see how when we forget those two things – impermanence and no-separate self — we suffer because we get caught up in grasping at lifesavers and clinging to cliffs, shoring up barriers, chasing after empty promises and running away from imagined monsters. All of which takes a whole lot of mental energy.

So worry if you will, but be aware of the quality of worrying. Don’t make an enemy of worry, but see it for what it is. Be compassionate with whatever arises. There’s nothing wrong here.


Yesterday Will and I went on a hike on Hoo-Koo-e-Koo trail up in the hills of Kentfield, CA. Most of the trail is fairly level, following the contours of the mountain, in and out of canyons. In normal years there is at least a little waterfall running down each canyon, but now in early fall, after four years of drought, even the deepest cool dark canyon is dry. Standing there, surrounded by hillsides of bay trees, ferns and dried leaves and the boulders normally covered with a cascade, we stood still to listen to the absolute silence. The stillness I experienced there is akin to the stillness deep in a meditation. So peaceful. Accepting the moment as it is, not wishing the water was running; not worrying, in that moment, about whether there will be rain in our future: That is what we are learning to do with our practice.

 

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!

The Hindrances make us go deaf and blind

The Five Hindrances* cause a kind of blindness and deafness. How can that be? You can probably provide your own example. If there is some issue that sets you off when a topic comes up on the news, that’s a perfect time to notice how every time it comes up, there is that same circular pattern of anger, the same volatility of emotion, and a repetition of thoughts on the matter that blot out all else in that moment. Can you even hear the news or have you gone off into your own inner rant? In that moment, if someone were offering some brilliant solution to the very problem that upsets you, you would not hear it because the volume of your angry rant is ramped up so high. If anger is not something you experience often, you might notice it in someone else. (If you do, it is skillful just to notice, not to offer unasked-for instruction on the Hindrances!)

Greed too has a blinding/deafening quality. When desire or craving arises, we may have a difficult time tempering it. Only justifications to fulfill the craving are admitted into our thinking. Yes, another hindrance might chime — self-judgment, shame or despair, perhaps — but we are blind or deaf to the calm loving voice of compassionate reason.

I remember one time on my way to the refrigerator to fulfill a hunger that had nothing to do with my stomach, I was so consumed in my desire for ‘a little something’ that it was a shock when I heard another voice within me asking if this was really going to appease my desire or was it actually fueling it. Who was that?

I’d never heard that wise voice before in this context because when I am caught up in greed, I am deaf to its kind loving words. They don’t suit my goal or the kindness doesn’t feel deserved. But that one time, for whatever reason, I heard it. Having heard it once, there is a better chance I will hear it again at another moment when such wisdom would be useful in bringing me into the moment, aware of what I’m actually doing.

By noticing the hindrance, naming it as hindrance, and seeing the hindrance as simply an obstacle to clarity of mind, we unlock its hold on us. A calmer, more fully-informed way of being prevails.

We practice awareness to develop the ability to see and hear the wisdom that is always available to us. We practice compassion to be better able to stay present with whatever arises. Our compassionate eyes do not need to look away from what is difficult in the world and within our minds. We can hold it all in an open friendly embrace, neither grasping nor pushing away.

The hindrances of worry and restlessness also blind us. We only pay attention to what feeds the worry, however remote this information may be. The antsy quality of restlessness doesn’t allow for the possibility that it might be okay, maybe even joyful, to simply be here now in this ordinary moment.

Sloth and torpor also cause deafness and blindness. We don’t want to pay attention to any sense within ourselves that calls us out to play, to breathe, to be active, awake, alive. We create what we hope is a safe couch-potato or bedridden refuge for ourselves, but in fact it is not a refuge at all. It is a dulling down, a deadening, an enervating escape. A true refuge is a place where rest refuels, energizes and balances us. As we develop awareness we can begin to see the difference between shutting down and refuge.

Doubt is blind and deaf as well. When we doubt, we punch holes in everything that is offered. (For example, if we are given a compliment, we discount or distrust the source.) We see only the holes, and not the whole of the fabric of being. We even embroider the holes and make them seem more real than the fabric itself. If wisdom were to arise and speak to us, we wouldn’t trust it. And such is the nature of this quiet still voice that it would simply be quiet. It has no agenda, no goal, and all the time in the world since it is beyond time. It is simply there, always available, woven deeply in the fabric of being. But we have to be available for it as well, by sensing into the texture of the fabric of this present moment experience.

Compassion provides clarity.
When we notice one of the hindrances arising or being active within us, that noticing is skillful. It’s awareness! Yay!
But in the next moment the hindrance might draw us back into all kinds of self-abuse. Compassion at this moment makes all the difference in how we proceed. With compassion, we can stay present with seeing clearly what is happening in this moment.

Compassion is not indulgence but an infusion of honesty. It tells us, ‘Hey, these hindrances are universal and a longstanding part of the human condition. The hindrances are not who you are. You are not uniquely flawed because a hindrance keeps arising, anymore than a swimmer is flawed because a wave in the ocean overcomes him or her at some point.’

So we use compassion and universal loving-kindness skillfully when we notice the presence of a hindrance. ‘Aha!’ and then, ‘How human an experience is this!’ With this two-fold noticing, we are able to stay present to witness the dissolving of the strength of the wave of hindrance that might otherwise drown us.

Rejoice! Recognizing the blindness and deafness of the Five Hindrances helps us to dissolve them. When we are present and the hindrances have fallen away, we are grateful. We are encouraged to notice and stay present with this awareness of their disappearance. Rejoice! Notice the joy! Notice the tranquility! Notice the happiness!

The Buddha likened this state of being (at least temporarily) hindrance-free to being free from debt, to being released from prison, to being liberated from slavery, to having safely crossed a dangerous desert, and to having recovered from an illness.

Recently my three-year-old granddaughter had a terrible bout of stomach flu. Such misery! The next day when we visited her, she told us, ‘All that tummy ache. All that poop!’ She was fully recovered, happily dancing about the house. The simple joy of normal life after she had been so knotted up in pain gave her a pronounced bounce in her step, a lilt in her voice, a ready smile, laughing at nothing, when usually she is quite serious about her play. She was rejoicing. Isn’t it great to be alive and pain-free?

Back into the Fray
Of course things change moment to moment, and this sense of gratitude and delight we feel can easily turn into greed for more. ‘Why isn’t it always like this?’ we might complain. Or the fear of losing it arises. A myriad of other thoughts can come along to drag us instantly back into one hindrance or another.

But to the degree we can stay present to see the arising of a hindrance, we can meet it with awareness and compassion. Then it dissolves and we can expand into a spacious delight where we can rest in mindfulness, concentration and absorption.

Naming and Claiming
If we notice a hindrance, we might be in the habit of saying, ‘Oh, I’m the type of person who has this hindrance’? This naming and claiming game is just a divisive diversion. In this moment when we recognize a hindrance, we are seeing clearly. We can be appreciative of this moment of clarity. And we can send loving-kindness to ourselves to create more spaciousness in our heart-mind to hold this new information in a way that will support expansive understanding instead of diving right back into a hindrance.

Metta (Loving-kindness)
We practice metta to remind us that it is available in any moment, to cope with whatever arises. If we discover we are being hard on ourselves, we use metta to gentle up our approach to the challenge at hand. If we are holding a grudge against someone, we can send them metta — not because they ‘deserve’ it, since metta is not a reward, but because when we enter a state of sending metta, we better understand the unitive nature of being. We let go of the isolationist indoctrination of our culture that has had each of us in a tight little knot unable to sense our connection. We might say or think:

May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.
May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace.
May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace.


* The Buddha’s Five Hindrances are desire, aversion, restlessness/worry, sloth/torpor, and doubt.

We send loving kindness to the Five Hindrances and voila!

In our ongoing exploration of the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, we are lingering a bit at the Five Hindrances to give ourselves some time for it all to sink in. We need time to practice what we learn so that it is experiential rather than theoretical.

Whatever we are exploring, whatever we are doing, the two most important things we can remember are our paired intentions: To be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be kind to ourselves and others, especially when we find that we or they have not been present at all.

So we bring this second intention to our exploration of the Five Hindrances. We send ourselves metta, universal loving kindness, as we practice noticing the presence or absence of a hindrance.

We send metta to whatever it was that had us so distracted up until this moment of awareness, and we send it out to all beings, without exception. This practice creates within us an intrinsic understanding of our deep connection with all of life. Our thinking mind can do the scientific research to explain that this oneness of all being is so, but metta practice brings it home to us in a much deeper and more profound way.

In any given moment, when we find ourselves distraught or lost, resetting our paired intentions to be present and kind is the skillful means to recognize what’s going on and to dissolve habituated patterns of suffering in our lives.

Pause and notice what’s going on with you right now. What is your current state of mind? See if you notice any of the Hindrances (desire, aversion, restlessness and worry, sloth and torpor, and doubt) in residence. If so, the recognition alone can do a great deal to dissolve a hindrance. But recognition alone can be pretty heartless, can fall quickly into patterns of judgment or discomfort with acknowledging a hindrance.

Enter metta!  We can greet the hindrance with universal kindness. This kindness is not an indulgence. It simply gives us the opportunity to be able to spend more time with the hindrance without having to fight it, avoid it, deny it, or claim it as a personality trait. With universal kindness we are able to simply be with it and recognize it for what it is.

Claim it as a personality trait? You may wonder who would want to claim any of these negative states. But in the chronic rush to get some sense of identity, we may claim even the most unattractive traits. We might call these hindrances ‘character defects,’ and own them, claiming the shame as well. We might say about ourselves, ‘I’m just lazy.’ or  ‘I’m a terrible worrywort.” Stop and think if there are some of these claims you have made, or continue to make. This level of noticing is very useful.

The Buddha asks us to look closer, to sit with any hindrance we discover. He asks us to see them for what they are, to meet the hindrance and know that it is not us.

It is not us. Phew! But does that mean we are not responsible for the words and actions that arise from our experience of one of these states? No, of course not. We learn how to skillfully navigate these challenging mental states by being mindful, which includes both awareness and kindness. We will explore Wise Speech and Wise Action further along, but the Buddha put this instruction of noticing hindrances first for a reason, so we will stay with it for now.

Metta dissolves the sense of isolation that keeps us so attached to the hindrance to shore up a sense of identity we can cling to. With metta, we sense our interconnection with all of life and don’t need to rely on what we thought were ‘personality traits’ to make us visible in the world. The hunger for visibility arises from a deeply ingrained fear of disappearing. But when we sense our interconnection in the infinite web, we can, in that moment, let go of our need to build up a separate identity.

In that mindful moment when we see a hindrance clearly and send metta to it and to ourselves, if we can stay present to notice what happens to the hindrance, then we teach ourselves the benefits of the practice. We don’t have to take anyone else’s word for it. We know for ourselves the effectiveness of mindfulness practice. The experiential learning of the practice is more valuable than all the teachings. The teachings are to inspire the practice and shine a light in the darkness when we are stumbling about. But the teachings without mindfulness practice are like a bouquet of cut flowers, pleasant at the time but not able to take root and grow. The practice and the teachings together are like a plant given all the right conditions to grow strong and produce fruit.

In meditation or any time during our day, when we recognize we have not been mindful, then suddenly we are being mindful in that moment. At that moment, if we can be kind, if we can send metta instead of castigating ourselves for having not been mindful, then we are able to be mindful in this moment as well. So metta plays a very important role in mindfulness training. It cuts off our tendency to see ourselves as uniquely unqualified to do this practice. With metta, we get that this is the natural way of things, and that we are as vital and acceptable a part of the fabric of life, knots and all, as anyone else.

Next week we will look at applying metta to each of the hindrances. Until then I hope you will take the time to practice noticing these mind states that arise, noticing the thoughts and emotions that arise when you notice, and add loving kindness to the mix, so that you can stay fully present with the experience.

You might be better able to notice these mind states arising in someone else. This is still useful, as long as it is done with loving kindness. If you find you are judging harshly, then you have a hindrance of your own you can notice! All good.