One of the most important lessons in Inner Peace/Outer Peace involves the Five Hindrances to meditation. (Let’s not capitalize them again in this essay.) There are probably more, but these traditional five are a convenient classification system for all the mental demons that assail us when we seek our twenty minutes of tranquility, peace, wisdom, and self-awareness.
About halfway through our semester, when each of us in our own way is incorporating a meditative practice into our lives as a part of this class, we usually invite a guest speaker to tease out the meanings of these hindrances, and how they apply to what is now a daily routine—and a challenge—for our students.
2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus reportedly said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” He was referring to the constancy of change in the universe we observe. In the inner universe of our personal meditative space, change is constant, too. In my essay, “The Flood Plain,” I made the comparison of consciousness to a river (a common comparison; no originality there.) So, echoing Heraclitus, we could say, “we don’t step into the same mind twice.” Our minds are always changing. And, who are the “we” doing that stepping?
Though arguably we are the same human being we were yesterday, and we’ve come to sit in the same place, using a now-familiar routine or ritual to cross the threshold, still, we can sense the change in our mentality, even almost measure it, by noting what quantities and combinations of the five hindrances are lurking to encounter us along our conscious journey, today.
In the past we have used an insightful essay called “Difficulties and Hindrances,” a chapter in the book Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. You may wish to go there to wade deeper into the subject than we will here. But, a quick check of your search engine will show you that many, many people have written about these hindrances. For about the same long time: 2500 years! And across all forms and styles of meditation.
Let’s just sum up what these hindrances are. Afterwards, you can spend a happy half an hour exploring what other teachers have said about them. If you learn to recognize aspects of the five when they leap out of their hiding places upon you, this will turn out to be one of the most useful life-lessons you will take away from our class.
It begins with a Buddhist teaching. In that tradition, the five hindrances are identified as mental factors—obstacles, hurdles, veiled curtains, interruptions—that can take us by surprise and hinder our meditative progress. They make it difficult or impossible for us to concentrate, even if we’re not consciously trying to concentrate. After repeated occurrences, we may even get used to their unwanted arrival; we recognize them when we see them coming, but we’re often powerless—at least right away—to stop them.
Here they are:
Desire: the particular type of wanting, of craving, that seeks happiness or at least satisfaction through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Our consumerist tendencies, which enter our meditative space more and more, also come under this heading. We can close our eyes and almost see that page we were just looking at, of shirts or shoes at Amazon or Under Armour. I include other kinds of desire here, too; for instance, we may want to be the best student, the most noticed by the teacher, the best meditator, the most enlightened one. All of these lead to cravings that may be impossible to satisfy. Or, if you do satisfy a particular craving, it may not just turn off. You may want more of it; you may want it over and over again.
Ill-will: all kinds of thoughts related to aversion, to negativity, to the opposite of desire, to feelings of hostility, resentment, anger, disliking, hatred, bitterness… This is the kind of hindrance that can spring up as soon as we turn our minds inward; we may find we’re haunted by unresolved events, some of them in the distant past. There’s leftover anger or resentment or hurt that seem as strong as ever they were in the beginning. Even if we don’t want to, we go right to confronting some of the nagging issues begging for our attention, and which we have tried to avoid because of how unpleasant our thoughts—and subsequent actions—could become.
Sloth: what a great word, with its image of the large, lazy tropical mammal hanging for hours in the canopy of trees. When we feel torpor, laziness, an inertia of body and a dullness of mind, it’s hard to find the energy to meditate. In fact, we may see no reason for it. Our heaviness can drag us down, both physically and emotionally.
Restlessness: one of our worst current enemies, the diagnosis that identifies our inability to sit still, to read, to study, to calm the mind. The body nags at us with its itches and muscular discomforts. And even if we can sit still and not fidget, we find we have a fidgeting mind that brings us no clarity, just a dumbed-down babble of thoughts we can’t turn off. So, we leave meditation; instead, we reach for our phone! This restlessness may then increase, as an intended by-product of the apps, games, programs we’re using on this phone.
Doubt: The worst of all hindrances perhaps, this lack of trust in the process. If we ever had faith in the meditative practice, it seems to be gone. We find ourselves thinking that no matter how many millions of people have benefitted from contemplative practice, all over the world for thousands of years, it’s not for me! Perhaps it’s a scam, a pyramid scheme; let’s give some other practice a try.
Understand: you are not alone in confronting these “demons,” as I called them in the first paragraph. If you know your history—religious or literary or art history—you’ll know that saints and sinners and pilgrims have often been bothered when they tried to meditate. And before these hindrances had a name, they often appeared as demons, devils, mythological beasts, or just the usual female temptresses whom men have always blamed for ruining their spiritual life. We now live in a more enlightened time when some of us, anyway, take full responsibility for what is going on in our own mind and nowhere else. We don’t blame the nearest person for exciting our desire or antipathy or our laziness.
You may think of other hindrances to add to our list. Or perhaps the ones you think of will fit under one or two of these well-established headings.
What do you do when one or more of these hindrances come storming into the wished-for tranquility of your meditation?
Tradition advises you that you can overcome them by by investigation and understanding. By curiosity. As with other lessons about identity in this course, you can learn to see these hindrances not as a permanent part of you, not as an indelible marker. They are just something you have to deal with. As Kornfield says, “(The hindrances) raise a central question for anyone who undertakes a spiritual life. Is there some way that we can live with these forces constructively and wisely? Is there a skillful way to work with these energies?” Later he answers his own question: “Depending on our relationship to these hindrances, they can be the cause of tremendous struggle, or valuable fuel for the growth of insight.”
Here is an image I use when thinking about the five hindrances. It’s a space travel metaphor.
With the same wisdom that John Paul Lederach employed in making the leap from “conflict resolution” to “conflict transformation,” we acknowledge that there are things (like deeply-rooted historical problems) that won’t go away. Rather than trying to avoid them, we use them, we mine them for natural resources for generating energy. It’s like when NASA scientists launch a deep space probe. They can save fuel, and they can get to their destination more efficiently, by using the gravitational pull of celestial bodies that lie near their path. We are journeying far away; we can turn off our rockets and allow the gravity of this nearby planet to pull us toward it for a while, and then turn them on again when it’s time to move on.
In the words of Lederach, we can use the force that has built up in a longstanding conflict. We can acknowledge it and not seek to wipe it out. Instead, we can use some of that energy that people have already invested in maintaining it, towards working out some kind of compromise or collaboration that brings us to a better place.
In the same way, in our individual meditation, we can use the latent power in any one of those hindrances to help us become better meditators. That’s where we’re going, and they can help us get there. But how?
Jack Kornfield again: “The most direct way is to be mindful of them, to transform them into the object of meditation…to bring the mind to greater freedom. (We can) really understand how these forces operate in the mind. We can use their power to enliven and strengthen our investigation.”
The hindrances are not who we are; rather, through our meditative practice, they afford us an opportunity to understand who we are. As we define our evolving relationship to them, our hearts may lighten, because we increasingly see each one—desire, aversion, laziness, restlessness, and doubt—not as a burden we can never get free of, but as a problem we can solve.
Lederach, John Paul: The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, Good Books, 2014.
Goldstein, Joseph, and Kornfield, Jack; Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, Shambhala Books, 2001