All kinds of things can hinder our sense of inner peace. It could be a serious matter like conflict with a loved one, or a more minor inconvenience like being stuck in traffic. When things don’t go our way, we don’t like it!
We will look at five hindrances, you may discover other hindrances you want to practice with. The first step necessary in working with these energies is to identify them clearly. They cannot be ignored or wished away. Ultimately, the hindrances are states you are creating for yourself, but until you look closely at the hindrance, the stories that keep it alive and the emotions underneath it, it will cause problems. With every hindrance, the first step is to recognize it, acknowledge it, and understand that you are the one making it “real.”
In the Sangaravo Sutra the Buddha uses an example of a pool of clear water that reflects our image.
- When sense desire is present in the mind, it is as if the pool were suffused with the colored dye. Desire colors our perceptions.
- When aversion is present, it is like boiling water. We can’t see clearly. When we’re heated up by anger, we’re in the state of turbulence.
- Sloth and torpor are like the pool overgrown with algae. There is a stagnation of mind to prevents us from seeing clearly.
- Restlessness and worry are like water when it is stirred up by the wind. The mind is tossed about by agitation.
- And doubt is like muddy water, where we can’t see to the bottom, and everything is obscured.
When the hindrances arise, they disperse attention and darken the quality of awareness, to the detriment of calm and clarity. The hindrances do not come from outside the mind but from within.
The five hindrances mess with our minds — they keep us from focusing on what is most important. We can let them block our progress on the path. Or we look deeply and practice with them. Let’s look at the five hindrances.
Desire – The “Want Monster”
The first hindrance desire is the want monster: wanting pleasant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily sensations, and mind states. While desire itself is not a problem, it can trick us into adopting the ‘‘if only’’ mentality: ‘‘If only I could have this,’’ or ‘‘If only I had the right job.’’ Our society indoctrinates us to think: ‘‘Buy this, look like that, own that . . . and you too can be happy.’’
The strength of a desire is determined not by the object, but by the degree of attachment. It is OK to hold things lightly, it becomes a hindrance when you are holding so tightly you get rope burn. Desire keeps us looking for that thing that is really going to make us happy. Wanting is a self-perpetuating habit. We can’t be where we are because we are grasping for something somewhere else. Even when we get what we want, we then want something more or different. We have a sense that being here and now is not enough, that we are somehow incomplete.
A craving comes out of the stress of unmet needs. Neuroscience says, we have fewer dopamine receptors so we seek rewards from substitutes. To lessen the strength of the craving, we need to look deeply. I used to have very strong cravings for Diet Pepsi. The craving was so strong to have one at lunch, that I would even though I knew I would be dying to go to the bathroom before my next meeting ended. Trying to resist the craving just made it stronger. Instead of turning away and trying to ignore the craving, I turned toward it. I asked the question, what desire is being fulfilled by this craving. The desire was really a sense of belonging. When I was growing up, I always wanted to be a “big kid” who could stay up and have pop. Then I started being mindful when I did drink Diet Pepsi. I noticed that the first sip or two tasted great and was really refreshing. But after that I would think about how it was not good for me. And sometimes after the first few drinks, it did not taste that great. Soon I found I could replace the Diet Pepsi with a chai latte or an ice tea. Once I started doing that, the cravings reduced themselves so that my craving for Diet Pepsi is gone.
Ill-Will – the “Not Wanting” Mind
The second hindrance is aversion, hatred, anger, and ill will, the “not wanting” mind. Although we generally don’t think of them as such, fear, judgment and boredom are also forms of aversion. When we examine them, we see that they are based on our dislike of some aspect of experience.
To practice dealing with ill will, we need to turn toward it, not push it away or pull away from it. This means look internally, not externally as we often do. “I can’t stand this traffic.” Funny how other people are the traffic, in our contracted state we don’t see ourselves as part of the traffic.
“Just like our organs, our anger is part of us. When we are angry, we have to go back to ourselves and take good care of our anger. We cannot say, ‘Go away, anger, I don’t want you.’ When you have a stomachache, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want you stomach, go away.’ No, you take care of it. In the same way, we have to embrace and take good care of our anger.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
Anger often arises when we take things personally. Sometimes feelings of anger are justified, as is the case when one is harmed or treated unfairly. The anger itself is not bad, it is often the messenger telling us to be careful. It is when we add layers to the anger or ill will, by telling ourselves stories about it that we suffer. If we are aware of the stories, we can turn off the radio and look deeply at the underlying emotions like fear, grief, or shame.
When anger is strong in the mind, it colors our entire experience of life. We find everything that is wrong. If we don’t deal with our ill will, we suffer greatly because we’re essentially at war with ourselves. The Buddha said that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned first.
Sloth and Torpor
The third hindrance that arises is sloth and torpor. This includes laziness, dullness, lack of vitality, fogginess, and sleepiness. These states can be due to physical causes such as sleep deprivation, exhaustion, or postprandial “coma.”
Sometimes sloth and torpor is characterized by apathy—a feeling of heaviness, that everything is too much effort, as in, “I can’t be bothered.” To counter this hindrance, the Buddha suggested reflecting on “this precious human birth” and on the fleeting nature of each moment. These reflections can arouse curiosity and energy in the mind for what is happening in the present moment. What thoughts were you chasing when you became drowsy? Is your drowsiness a cover for grief or fear?
A lack of meaning or sense of purpose in life can also create these feelings of sloth and torpor. Setting a small goal, moving our bodies, or deliberately trying to see the newness, the freshness, in each experience can all help with these feelings.
As Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal notes, feelings of sloth and torpor can arise in those new to meditation or on the first day of a retreat as we are lacking the constant stimulation we are accustomed to. Strategies to counteract sloth and torpor include: sit with your eyes open, try pulling your earlobes, splash your face with water, or switch to walking meditation. As a last resort, stop meditating and take a nap.
Restlessness, the opposite of torpor, is the fourth hindrance. With restlessness, the mind may get caught in reminiscences and regrets. Researchers estimate that we have somewhere between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day, and a majority of these are the same, old, recurring thoughts. We play our “top 10 tunes” over and over again; we can’t seem to change the channel.
When the mind is restless, we jump from object to object. It is difficult to sit still, and our concentration becomes scattered and dispersed. Another symptom of restlessness is constantly searching for things to do. When I go on a cleaning frenzy, my husband, Walt knows there is a good chance I am agitated about something. I often use busyness so I don’t have to look at what is causing the agitation or anxiety.
Mindfulness practice helps alleviate restlessness and worry because it calmly focuses my attention on what’s going on right now, right here. It also enables me to calmly question the validity of these stressful stories that my mind spins. When I catch myself worrying about the future, I remember what Mark Twain said: “My life is filled with thousands of misfortunes … most of which never happened.”
The last of the five hindrances is doubt. There is skillful doubt — not believing something just because others have said it. But when you’re caught up in skeptical doubt, you’re always looking for the flaw. You’re afraid to make a decision and, as soon as you do, you second-guess yourself. And you’re distrustful of others, always assuming they’re out to get you in some way. You skip from one belief to another, always doubting if you’ve found the “right” path.
Doubt can be the most difficult of all to work with, because when we believe it and get caught by it, we can become paralyzed. Since we don’t know what to do, we do nothing at all. “She may not want to get together or she might be busy so I won’t even ask.”
Life is full of uncertainty. But we are trained to believe that we can try to control everything. Learning to become comfortable with “don’t know mind, to let go, and to cultivate a sense of trust and faith, are vital to inner peace. Remember our greatest control rests in how we relate and respond to our circumstances, more than the actual circumstances themselves.
As with worrying mind, it helps to use mindfulness to uncover the stressful stories that the mind has been spinning — stories that feed this doubt. Then question the validity by asking as Thich Nhat Hanh would by asking yourself, “Are you sure?” and look deeply at what emotions are underneath the stories.
Practicing with Hindrances
It’s not the hindrances themselves that keep us from feeling content and happy. It’s our response to them. Note that when the Buddha talked about grasping that hot coal, he didn’t say that the arising of anger burns us. He said that holding onto anger does. So, he was focusing on our response to that arising anger.
The problem is the extent to which we get caught up in the drama of our lives (good or bad). When we get lost in a daydream, a thought pattern, or a craving, we feel a bit of tightening, narrowing, shrinking, or closing down in our bodies and minds. Our prefrontal cortex goes offline. If we name the stress, we calm ourselves. This activates the prefrontal cortex and deactivates the amygdala, providing us with more choice.
According to Judson Brewer in The Craving Mind, “Importantly and perhaps paradoxically, dropping the action that causes stress comes about by simply being aware of what we are doing to change or fix the situation. Instead of trying to get in there and untangle the snarled mess of our lives (and making it more tangled in the process), we step back and let it untangle itself. We move from doing into being.”
Four steps for practicing with the hindrances are:
- Resource ourselves by practicing mindfulness, loving kindness, gratitude and compassion
- Use meditation to cultivate awareness of the hindrances, naming them gives us more space and time to reflect
- Look at the stories we are telling ourselves about these hindrances and validate by asking ourselves, “Are you sure?”
- Look deeply beneath the stories to see what unmet need we are trying to fulfill or what is asking for acceptance
When we practice in this way, the hindrances are not obstacles to our practice, they are our practice. As the Buddha said, we learn to understand what is for own benefit, to understand what is for the benefit of others, to understand what is for the benefit of both. With this insight, we know what to do and what not to do.