THE FIVE HINDRANCES: Obstacles to Practice
by Philip L. Jones
We begin by learning to concentrate the mind and open to or meet different aspects of our experience --physical sensations, feeling, mind-states and thoughts-- with mindfulness, this quality of non-judgmental awareness. Then the fun of practice actually begins. We start using these tools to work with aspects of our lives that interfere with our ability to rest in awareness and that leave us unsettled.
The Five Hindrances are:
Sense-desire, lust or greed
Hatred, anger, aversion or fear
Sloth and torpor or sleepiness and sluggishness
Restlessness and worry or agitation in the mind and body
Doubt or uncertainty
These qualities of mind and body are called hindrances because when we are caught up in them, they hinder or interfere with the development of concentration and mindfulness. This process of getting caught in the hindrances involves clinging to or identification with the mind and body states characteristic of the hindrance. When we are identified, we have lost our ability to experience a thought or physical experience as an object of awareness. Instead, we are caught in believing that what we are thinking or experiencing is who we are. Or, we are caught in believing that what we are thinking or experiencing is who or what the other person or thing is.
Identification with the Hindrances is a common, probably universal, impediment to practice. For one's practice to progress and bear the fruit of freedom from suffering, one must learn to work skillfully with the Hindrances. There are a variety of instructions for dealing with these different hindrances, a variety of skillful means. Some of the instructions for working with specific hindrances will be covered below. However, since this is only meant as an introduction, this will not be a comprehensive list of skillful responses.
The Primary Instruction
The primary instruction for each hindrance is the same: first to recognize it, then to meet it with acceptance, mindfulness and investigation, the quality of curiosity.
In order to let go of resistance and to bring acceptance, mindfulness and investigation to an experience, first we simply have to recognize that it is present. So recognition is the first step. As we explore each hindrance, we will begin with a description of what it is.
Acceptance is a crucial step in working with a hindrance. It is crucial because we cannot come to understand what lust is, or what fear is, if we are constantly pushing it away or holding it so tightly that we won't let it go away. If we won't let it be what it is in the first place, then we will not be able to see, to experientially know, what it is. Also, until we can accept the existence of a hindrance as part of our experience, we will be caught in holding on to it (greed) or pushing it away (aversion). In other words, we will be caught in a hindrance towards the hindrance, such as having aversion for aversion. Non-acceptance piles one hindrance on top of another. So before we do anything else, there has to be an acceptance that this is what is present in our lives in this moment. It is important to understand that acceptance doesn't mean that we act it out. Acting on a hindrance would mean that we are continuing to identify with it, that we are stuck in it. So this form of acceptance includes renunciation or letting go of acting on the experience. Acceptance involves a realization that an experiential understanding of the hindrance as an object of awareness is a necessary step in becoming free of the hindrance.
The second quality that we bring to the hindrances is mindfulness. It is the quality of seeing something just as it is. It is the quality of allowing this to reveal itself just as it is. It is not a doing but rather a receptivity to seeing and experiencing. If acceptance can be viewed as allowing this to penetrate into awareness so that it can be known, then mindfulness can be regarded as penetrating this in order to know it. It is known through bare attention. Attention that is bare of judgment about whether it is good or bad, useful or a useless. Attention that is bare of decision-making about the hindrance. Attention that is bare of commentary or story-telling about the hindrance. It is a seeing or a receptive knowing that this is what is present at this moment.
Acceptance and mindfulness allow us, then, to investigate our experience of the hindrance. Investigation is not an analytical process. It is curiosity about what is being experienced at this moment. What is this? Investigation allows us to see what the hindrance is and to truly come to understand for ourselves: This is what sense-desire, or any other hindrance, is. This is how I experience it in the body at this moment. This is how it affects the mind. The more we are able to investigate a hindrance and come to understand how we experience it, the more easily we will tend to recognize it when it arises into our experience.
We've all been naturally endowed with the ability to experience contact with certain sense objects. For most of us, these abilities include organs for seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. Buddhist psychology includes a sixth organ, the brain or mind for cognizing or thinking. When a sense object, such as a sight, a sound, an odor, a taste, pressure or a thought, has contact with a sense organ, one response to the contact is for desire to arise. Desire for more contact with the object. There might be desire to continue hearing the sound of a bell as it fades away. There might be desire to look at a colorful sunset after spending a long day meditating.
Sense-contact and sense-desire are not a problem. The problem is not being aware that sense-desire is what is present in this moment. The problem is getting caught in clinging to the sense-desire, getting caught in it or identified with it.
In addition to the primary instruction of meeting sense-desire with recognition, acceptance, mindfulness and investigation, it is especially useful to bring the practices of renunciation and investigation to this hindrance. Because there is such strong cultural and biological conditioning to seek and consume pleasant sense experiences, the intention to renounce, to let go of, sense-desire is a necessary counterbalance and is essential if we are to understand how we get caught in this hindrance.
Two forms of investigation are helpful with this hindrance. Investigation of the impermanent nature of the sense-object will help to undermine the tendency to grasp which is based on the belief that we can obtain a kind of permanent satisfaction from it. When we bring mindfulness and investigation to the feeling-tone associated with sense contact, we can experience and see for ourselves the strong conditioning in the mind to grasp the sense objects that are pleasant. At the same time, the simple act of bringing mindfulness to this process allows us to disrupt this grasping. The moment of mindfulness breaks the chain of causation linking pleasant feeling-tone and grasping, helping to de-condition this hindrance. If grasping the particular sense-object is strongly conditioned, then it may have to be met with mindfulness repeatedly to have a noticeable effect, but over time the difference can be seen.
Hatred or Aversion
Another possible set of responses to sense contact is hatred, fear, anger or aversion, in other words a desire to avoid, push away or destroy the sense object. An example would be experiencing an itch on the face as one is meditating. Rather than investigating this sense experience with mindfulness, one might actually scratch the itch in an attempt to make it go away or one might physically tighten in an attempt to resist and control the itch. Another example would be when a thought or emotional memory that is unpleasant begins to arise into awareness, rather than experiencing it and seeing it with mindfulness, one might respond by getting angry and blaming another person for the experience.
Once again the problem is not hatred or aversion itself. The problem is the lack of awareness that aversion is what is present in this moment. The problem is getting caught in clinging to the aversion, getting caught in the aversion or being identified with it.
Aversion is resistance to the sense contact. Resistance is a form of clinging because we have to cling to or grab onto the object in order to push it away. Often this clinging takes the form of a judgment that the sense contact is not ok. There may also be a judgment that aversion is not ok, especially if one has learned that one "should' let go. So, it is important to recognize aversion even if it is aversion to the aversion.
The first place to start in working with hatred or aversion is to attempt to follow the primary instructions of recognition, acceptance, mindfulness and investigation. As with sense-desire, it is also especially useful to bring the practices of renunciation and investigation to the hindrance of hatred or aversion. Because there is such strong cultural and biological conditioning to push away and avoid unpleasant sense objects, the intention to renounce the aversion and to know what is present, rather than acting out the resistance, counterbalances this conditioning. These practices are essential if we are to understand how we get caught in this hindrance. Other ways of describing renunciation and investigation are: to let go, to open, to experience, to endure and to know.
When investigating aversion, it can be helpful to notice the state of the mind and the body when aversion is present and when it is absent. The experience of aversion is often described as a contraction or tightening of mind and body. Investigation of the impermanent nature of the sense-object will help to undermine the tendency to push away which is based on the belief in the permanence of the sense-object and the contact with it. When we bring mindfulness and investigation to the feeling-tone associated with sense contact, we can experience and see for ourselves the strong conditioning in the mind to push away the sense objects that are unpleasant. At the same time, the simple act of bringing mindfulness to this process allows us to disrupt this pushing away. The moment of mindfulness breaks the chain of causation linking unpleasant feeling-tone and pushing away, helping to de-condition this hindrance. If pushing away the particular sense-object is strongly conditioned, then it may have to be met with mindfulness repeatedly to have a noticeable effect, but over time the difference can be seen.
If we think we are meeting the aversion with mindfulness and it persists, it is often helpful to look to see if there is a resistance to being aversive. This resistance to aversion or judgment about being aversive is often where the energy arises that keeps the aversion arising again and again.
When there is not sufficient mindfulness to simply meet the aversion, there is another option. In this situation, it is skillful to replace the aversion with thoughts of loving-kindness or metta, a mind-state that can be cultivated through loving-kindness meditations.
Sloth and Torpor
Sloth and torpor or sleepiness and sluggishness is one of the hardest hindrances to recognize. It is so pleasant to fall asleep, to give in to the tug of falling asleep, that one often doesn't recognize this hindrance until after the fact. - Oops, I was asleep. It is important to notice if there is a judgment, if there is aversion about having fallen asleep, or if one can just see that non-judgmentally. If one can catch the sleepiness at the beginning and meet it with acceptance, mindfulness and investigation this will actually bring energy to the experience which helps to counteract the sleepiness.
There are two basic reasons that we fall asleep while we are meditating. One reason, which is particularly common in the evening or during the first day or so of a retreat, is that we are physically tired. Most people in our society lead very busy lives and are constantly being bombarded with a variety of stimuli. On top of this stress, most people don't get enough sleep. So, when we slow down and get quiet, there is a tendency to regard this as a signal that it is time to sleep.
Sleepiness and sluggishness may arise, though, even when one is not tired. In these circumstances it is usually a sign that there is resistance to being awake to something in our experience, something that is attempting to come into awareness.
In working with this hindrance it is extremely important to have a strong intention to stay awake. This is the foundation that allows one to meet this hindrance with acceptance without being pulled into it by the pleasantness of sleep. Then, if one is able to meet the sleepiness with mindfulness and curiosity, this increase in interest should provide the energy needed to counteract the hindrance. If one is not physically tired, or if one is not sure whether there is resistance to being awake to something, then it is useful to investigate beyond the experience of sleepiness. This involves "holding a space" for whatever might be hiding to come into the light of awareness.
There are other skillful things that one can do to increase energy. Some of these include:
• Holding the breath as long as one can and then quietly exhaling. Repeating this 3-4 times.
• Tugging on the earlobes.
• Twirling the tongue around the inside of the mouth, passing over the front and back of the teeth, while keeping the lips closed.
• Opening the eyes to allow more light to enter, without focusing on anything in particular.
• Standing up and then continuing to meditate while standing with the eyes at least partially open.
• If all else fails, then perhaps it would be best to take a nap and just get more rest.
Restlessness and Worry
If the hindrance of sloth and torpor is an expression of insufficient energy, the hindrance of restlessness and worry is an expression of too much energy. It is characterized by quickly changing thoughts (often called monkey mind), anxiety, worry and excessive energy in the body such as twitches, itches and difficulty sitting still. Whether the hindrance is expressed mentally or physically there is an agitation, an unsettled feeling that can be quite unpleasant.
One of the impediments to recognizing that one is caught in this hindrance is the reaction to its unpleasantness. Often there is a reaction of aversion. The aversion may actually be contributing more energy to the restlessness even though one is attempting to avoid the unpleasantness. After recognizing that this hindrance is present, it sometimes takes courage to sit with it and to meet it with acceptance, mindfulness and investigation.
Just as sleepiness may be an indication that there is resistance to something that is attempting to come into awareness, restlessness may also indicate this. In order to open to whatever is attempting to rise into awareness, one must learn to work skillfully with the excess energy.
• If experiencing it in the body, once recognized then investigate the feeling-tone of the experience.
- Is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral?
- Is there are reaction within the body to this feeling-tone?
- Is it possible to relax into this sensation? This is sometimes referred to as surrendering or dying into it.
- If you are on retreat, one way of working with excessive energy is through walking meditation.
• If there is a lot of agitation in the mind, sometimes it is more helpful to use sound as the meditation object rather than the breath. Sometimes the effort to focus on the sensations of breathing as the object of meditation can leave us cramped. Using sound as the object of meditation can lead to a greater sense of spaciousness. The spaciousness allows a sense of relaxation to develop which counterbalances the restlessness and worry.
• It can also be useful to investigate if there is an attitude of striving present. This can lead to too much energy. A skillful response would be to let go and relax a bit in one's effort.
Doubt is traditionally defined as doubt in the teacher or the teachings, but it may also include doubt about one's own ability to do the practice, doubt about whether one is doing things right and uncertainty or doubt about whether what one is experiencing is what one thinks it is. For example, "Is this doubt?" and "Am I being mindful or am I merely suppressing this desire?"
If one can recognize that doubt is present, one of the first skillful responses is to try to meet it with acceptance, mindfulness and investigation. One has to be careful with the investigation. Exploring what doubt is does not mean exploring what the doubt is about, although sometimes it will be useful to look at this as well. Investigating doubt involves looking at what it is, recognizing that it is simply a thought arising in the mind.
Even if one recognizes that doubt is present and has some recognition that it is merely a thought, it can still be difficult to get unstuck from this hindrance. One of the basic antidotes to doubt is trust or faith in the practice. Trust arises from simply doing the practice over time and seeing how things come and go. Trust may arise from a recognition that people have been successfully using these practices for over 2500 years. Trust may also be based on one's relationship with a teacher or spiritual friend. Trusting that the teacher will guide you in a way that is helpful. So if one is caught in doubt and is unable to get unstuck from it using mindfulness, it is often very helpful to speak to a teacher or spiritual friend whom you trust.
Ultimately, it is the practice of mindfulness that frees us from these Hindrances. If we develop enough concentration, we may temporarily suppress them. But it is only by meeting them with mindfulness that we become free of them. When we open to the Hindrances and allow the experience to penetrate into our awareness and allow our awareness to penetrate into the experience, then we allow the sense-desire, the anger, the sleepiness, restlessness or the doubt to pass away through its own nature. When we see and experience this, then we have become free of this particular hindrance in this present moment. When we do this again and again, over time these hindrances slowly stop arising. The mind becomes naturally more concentrated and it is easier to find the peacefulness that is always present but often unrecognized.