Buddha was asked, “What have you gained from Meditation?”
He replied “Nothing! However Let me tell you what I have lost: Anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity, fear of old age and death.”
In meditation, profound happiness may be found, but at first it is not easy to establish deep concentration, and for various reasons our mind throws all kinds of blocks and distractions at us. It is as if the ego, or Mara, is trying to stop us from freeing our minds and transcending egoic thought. These distractions are known as the hindrances.
Each meditator must learn their own habitual tendencies, and try out various antidotes to find ways to settle the mind in meditation. Here are some tried and tested methods to work with these psychophysical tendencies and move beyond them until you are able to look within and find no trace of them, just states of deep concentration and bliss.
The Buddha, perhaps the most celebrated master of meditation and the mind, taught that there are five categories of hindrance, and after years of investigation I have never encountered anything in meditation which doesn’t belong to one of these. They are doubt, restlessness/anxiety, sloth/torpour, craving/desire for sense experience, and aversion/ill will/irritation.
A first observation is that in meditation we are distracted by thoughts, which, if not caught early, develop into proliferation, emotion, fantasy or memory. Simply seeing a thought arise and letting it go in order to return to the breath is the number one technique, but often more drastic measures are required.
All thoughts, in meditation or in daily life, can be categorised in these hindrances unless they are thoughts of spiritual development or investigation. Even these can be flavoured with grasping or egoic clinging, ambition, envy (ill will) or fear or laziness.
I find there are usually relationships between the hindrances which are most affecting me on the cushion and the thought patterns or feeling patterns which are negatively affecting my life off the cushion. In this way working in meditation affects and benefits the mental tendencies we spend our day lost in.
The more physical ones are obviously recognizable, if I’m tired or lethargic, then of course I will be working with torpor on the cushion. If Ive just drunk lots of coffee and am extremely busy and under pressure to get things done, then I will naturally face and have to work with this energy in meditation.
Craving and aversion, these two are more subtle, and often flavour our whole mental lives without us really being aware of them. A constant push/pull, a toing and froing between what we want, think we want, and what we don’t. Money, food, sex, even intoxicants, activities we like and those we have to do but don’t like. The general labelling and judging, can be quite unconscious.
In reality, it is wisdom and insight which will chip away at this. Our sense of being satisfied or not, is often so dependent on external things or the behaviour of others. Gradually the world of things will lose its luster, its hold on us will loosen. Impermanence, seeing things as they really are.
Hatred and anger, so often related to expectations or judgements. These negative states do arise, and again, metta practice and compassion will lessen the extremes and the effects of these unskillful states. I tend to berate myself horribly if I get angry, and I do, mainly in close relationships! This shows me humility and how far I’ve yet to go. So often this type of thinking is a reverse craving, i.e. wanting and desiring things not to be, or to be different.
Doubt, indecision, anxious internal discussion, doubting our decisions and our path. We question everything, and that’s a good thing, but we can find ourselves doubting a path and a practice that we have seen is definitely effective in our own experience. We know it works, but find ourselves wondering whether it really does, or whether we can actually do it, why aren’t there more enlightened people in our community? We doubt our ability to meditate, ask ourselves if there is really any point in this, whether the Buddha was simply a nutcase and meditation is for headcases.
What am I doing in my life? Should I be a writer? Should I be a Buddhist? Is this or that right for me? What is the point of it all? Here there is again a self-cherishing, a flavour of just how important your self is to you!
Beyond these ego lies ecstasy. I will discuss each hindrance, and then go on to ways to work with the mind, and techniques you might try:
You are sitting in meditation, and the mind will not slow or settle. You come back to the breath again and again when you manage to catch it, but your energy is up, thoughts are racing, or fears and anxieties have arisen. Do I need to plan such and such or please so and so? This may also express itself as an inability to get comfortable, itches, shuffling.
There are remedies, and the first one is to try to shift your focus away from the mind. So get in touch with the sensations of the breath down in the belly, put your awareness in your hara or dantien, just below your navel.
You know you are tired, even if you have had a coffee, there may be a dullness, a blanket over you. You may even be nodding off, doing the famous noddy meditation! Your head lowers slowly and jerks up. It may be less extreme, just a quality of lethargy, dreaminess. Personally I feel it physically, the dull ache around the eyes, but I can suffer sleeplessness so I suppose this is inevitable.
For me the antidote is physical, and I open my eyes a little. Not enough to see things and become distracted, unless I am so tired I have to open all the way, and then it is a practice to disassociate with objects of sense perception. I have been known to give myself a slap, if Im alone!
Unless there is a genuine need for sleep, work with it, the dreamier states can mysteriously shift into more concentrated ones if you just manage to ride them, to establish a focus on the object. Some of the more concentrated states can involve seeing colours, lights and realms, but these are not dreamy or drifty, they are open, bright and crystal awareness.
You are sitting, but cant decide which pratice to do, you are indecisive. You may even be doubting meditation altogether, or Buddhism, or yourself, or your ability to meditate or be a Buddhist. Perhaps the time may not be right to sit and meditate, maybe you should do it later, and so on.
This reminds me of the voices in my mind when I quit smoking, and it was doubt which was the killer. The advice for me then was to replace all this noise and wondering with a strong triumphant internal shout. “Yes, I am free of that now!” I suppose the meditative equivalent would be some affirmation of your faith and abililty and belief – “Yes, I am creating my happiness!”
A traditional antiote to doubt is faith. Faith has an emotional quality rather than intellectual, so connecting with your heart can help. It is also important to be connecting emotionally with the path generally, with the results, with the bodhicitta, with the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Puja, prostration, and other acts of devotion to the ideal or the other.
It might help to visualise a stream of blessings, or light, flowing across space and time from realms unknown and unseen, from Buddha or if you like from God. Let if fill you and inspire you.
Reminding yourself what you appreciate about your spiritual life, about the dharma, about meditation, can be effective. It may help to remind yourself of the suffering you left behind or are trying to leave behind, of progress you have made.
I find that recalling the weight of my practice over the years helps sometimes, the pathways are forged, the years of effort gather behind me and push me through. Let the strength of your motivation, whatever it may be, of your devotion, and your accumulated effort bolster your belief in yourself to meditate. It is akin to having confidence in meditation and yourself.
This flavours so much of our thinking, our reactive conditioning is simply programmed as it were to react to stimuli with want or not want, we like it and gravitate to it and want more, and clinging and grasping follow with all the suffering they contain. It can be for anything, mundane things such as food or sex, or even spiritual attainments and dhyana. We find ourselves thinking of this or that, our mind subtly pulling us in attractions and repulsions, steering us to distractions.
Craving is loosened by practice, by wisdom, by looking at the way it works in your mind. When in meditation, when concentrating on the breath or metta, we simply notice we have become distracted, and bring ourselves back. We keep doing this again and again, learning as we go how our patterns create push/pull reactions to things, sense perceptions, thoughts etc.
So often we have a sense that our life isn’t enough, or that we are not yet good enough. We feel we need this or that to happen until our lives can be right. So we crave, we crave the partner or the wealth or the home or the experience. This all changes when we learn to find contentment with what is, within and without. This is what meditation will give you, and it is the ultimate blessing.
So similar to craving, this in meditation is often irritation with others in the room, with discomfort, with pain, with thoughts of people or life situations that create anger, resentment, fear or envy. As with craving, it is a case of noticing and returning to focus.
However, ill will and anger is effectively countered by metta, by developing loving-kindness. So if this is your dominant hindrance, more metta practice is prescribed! You can simply use metta for a minute to bring you back into positivity, into focus, and to remove this hindrance. Quickly visualise yourself light, happy, free from suffering, wish yourself this way and then direct this feeling to whoever or whatever you are thinking about.
Obviously we cant always forgive and forget so easily, and this may well be quite understandable, justifiable even. I always try to remember that I cant judge until I’ve walked a lifetime in their shoes. SImply try to drop criticism and judgement, return to breath for now.
Again, progress along the path will reduce this hindrance’s power. As you become more positive and aware, and more in touch with happiness and contentment, there is less and less room for ill will, it simply disappears. It may help to visualise light filling you, dissolving and melting away all traces of impurity and ill.
ANTIDOTES AND WAYS TO WORK WITH THE HINDRANCES
There are a range of approaches from different schools, but I will try to include elements from many of these.
The first stage is to recognise the hindrance, or simply to become aware that one is distracted from the object of meditation. Sometimes this is enough in itself to re-establish orientation to breath or metta, sometimes it needs some more investigation and counter-measures. You will know whether you need to do more than simply return if you are repeatedluy assailed by certain thoughts or emotional flavours.
With practice, you will learn whether you need to act or simply re-establish concentration. Often you can take specific measures such as ones I have described above. Investigation will uncover which of the five hindrances we are dealing with, as it is sometimes not obvious. With time you will be able to investigate the hindrance, its root, and transcend that.
The hindrances are actually our teachers, as we learn so much from working with them in meditation. The rewards for this are incalculable, because if you can manage to overcome a deep emotional cause of suffering such as envy or anger or anxiety, then this will change your life.
The same antidote or pathway you have hacked can be applied in daily life as well, and as a consequence you will slowly become less reactive and more able to see the emotion arise. Eventually you will notice that events or remarks that used to hurt or anger you will not.
Another trick is personfying them, giving them a face, as Mara for example, and laughing with the game, laughing at Mara, laughing at the hindrance, and the foolishness of your mind to be thus occupied.
CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES
One general antidote is to consider the consequences of this hindrance. If it is hatred or ill will, then the ultimate consequence is killing or GBH. Craving for food, obesity. We can remind ourselves that sitting distracted by thoughts of this or that is not why we are here, and if we continue with this lack of vigilance we will never make progress. This unconscious leading of mind will always interfere with our life, until we attain mastery of our mental states.
Naturally considering the consequences is not an appropriate antodite to anxiety or fear!
APPLY THE OPPOSITE FORCE
We can apply the opposite force, so for doubt it is faith, for ill will it is metta, for sloth it is energy and light, for restlessness it is deeper beathing and sinking our focus lower in the body. For craving it is considering impermanence both of craving and its object. More generally, recalling any wisdom or quotes you find inspiring can help.
SIMPLE BRUTE FORCE!
Another trick is force, a resolute and powerful shaking off of thought or distraction. A simple and strong re-establishment of focus, and it is helpful to summon all kinds of powerful energy, such as your intentions, your spiritual aspiration.
This is linked to recalling your ultimate motivations, in Buddhist terms this is “Going for Refuge.” You recollect your aspirations, commitments and your faith. You surrender your difficulties and can even ask for help from the more mythic elements or spiritual allies in your legend.
EXPANSION – VAST BLUE SKY METHOD
One of my favourites is known as the Blue Sky antidote. Here, you kind of expand your awareness around whatever it is proliferating mind. So instead of working with it and wrestling, of using mind to deal with thought, you simply open.
This is in itself an antidote, using breath to breathe out the mind, the ego, the selfing. With the outbreath they join the infinity of space and consciousness. Inbreath establishes focus. You attain a far greater perspective.
You can visualise a sky, and imagine thoughts as clouds passing far into the distance. Allow the mind and its contents to simply dissolve into space. Breathe them out, breathe it out, with your outbreath you join space, with your inbreath you establish one point.
You expand, let your mind be seen as it is, a tiny insignificant bundle of neuroses in a vast universe, like a particle in an ocean. The reason I love this class of antidote is because the expansion can establish a beautiful spacious awareness. A sense of space and infinity almost directly can land the meditator into more profound states.
SEE OBJECTS AS MIND AND MIND A EMPTY
“The Waves of gross and subtle thoughts having spontaneously subsided, The river of unwavering mind naturally abides, Free from the stains of sluggishness, and conceptualisation, May we be stable in the unmoving ocean of shamatha. …..
When observing objects, they are seen to be mind, devoid of objects, When observing the mind, there is no mind, as it is empty of any entity. When observing both, dualistic fixation is spontaneously freed. May we realise the luminous nature of mind.”
Karmapa Ranchung Dorje
In a way this is similar to the blue sky method, except we are using the concept of emptiness to see through the display of mind. We train to see it as illusion, as momentary, as ungraspable. Seeing them thus, we can let them go. Seeing mind thus, it becomes still, and silent.
If we can see internal and external appearances as mind, all we can see and touch as mind, and realise the non-dual unity of mind and appearance, we taste liberation. Our familiar world of concept and craving dissolves into a kind of silence, a kind of space, where there is no mind and object, no self and other. Try it, it is almost too trippy to describe.
Experiment, feel free to create new ways of working with the hindrances. There are all kinds of different visualisations that may help – such as sweeping them away, batting them away, squashing, slicing through the thoughts. You can try using prayer, or affirmation, or manifesting to help you attain concentration. Also, trigger enjoyment and engagement with a smile, even a half smile.
Intention and faith invoke powerful subconscious forces which will help you journey from mental chatter to stillness.
FInally, if nothing else is working, acknowledge defeat and try again later!
Ultimately the hindrances are habitual tendencies which present themselves in meditation and in life. They are a gift when they are seen in meditation, for they are offering the meditator the chance to work with these patterns, and they offer the possibility of transcending habitual patterns. Getting to know the hindrances is like getting to know the mind, and becoming familiar with and working with obstacles to freedom and happiness.
So treat them as welcome guests, visitors with special teachings for you. As you get to know them you will learn from them, and your house will become a warmer and clearer space for their presence and their gifts.
I hope this guide is of use to you, and this might help you to enjoy your meditation. Although it is important not to be too goal orientated, I believe its good to know that massive bliss and all kinds of rewards await. The Buddha in the Parable of the Burning House tempts people out of the house with shiny new chariots. Beyond the hindrances lie dhyana, and deep psychic transformation and profound happiness.
If you have any methods you use which help please let me know, and I will also be very happy to answer questions or offer advice. Just ask.
May your meditation be blessed.
May you dissolve all obstacles.
May your mind be pure and free.
May you find deep and lasting joy.