We are inquiring in to the forth foundation of mindfulness; the universal categories of phenomena known as the dharmas. As we discussed in the last Frame, these categories are laid out as a means of transmuting the doctrine into direct perception. This foundations starts with the 5 hindrances.
Let’s start with a recap of what we have covered so far and see if we can connect the dots.
We are already familiar with them
We started with the contemplation of the body as a way to enter into the path of mindfulness. In the second foundation, we learned how our deep seated reactive patterns condition the mind. Reaction to discomfort conditions aversion. Reaction to pleasure conditions craving. Ignoring neutral sensations leads to confusion.
In the third foundation, we explored these “3 poisons” further. We also saw how a lack of mindfulness can cause an imbalance in the mind. On one side, we experience an inward collapse and a lack of energy (sloth and torpor) and on the other, we the mind is restlessly going out to seek for something outside (restlessness and worry).
- Craving / Desire
- Aversion / Aggression
- Sloth & Torpor
- Restlessness & Worry
- Confusion / Delusion
Clearing the way
Why is so much emphasis placed on these hindrances? For the simple reason that they hinder progress in our meditation and daily lives.
We know experientially that it is impossible to sink into meditative states while we are caught in these mind states. So we need to know how to relate to them in order to proceed on the path of mindfulness. In this part of the teaching, they are singled out as a way to address them and work with them directly.
Let us learn how we can do that!
The Buddha lays out 5 ways of working with the hindrances.
Step 1: becoming familiar
First, we need to become aware and mindful when these states are present, how they alter our perception and hinder us from seeing clearly. Let us examine them one by one:
Being caught in the grip of craving
The first hindrance is desire, lust, clinging, grasping, greed, attachment. It has the quality of being caught in the grip of lust. It is based on the incessant search after sensory pleasure, and it carries the seed of addiction. There is a sense of narrowing, of entrapment, of getting stuck.
The buddha used a metaphor, which I think is helpful here. Imagine the mind as a bowl of clear water. Each hindrance has a particular way of altering the water and distorting the clarity of the mind.
💡 Desire is like pouring dye into water. Whether we are thirsting after food, pleasure, sex, recognition or spiritual attainment, the mind fixates on the object of our desire and colors our entire perception.
In what ways does lust and grasping show up in your life? What is the quality when this state is present? How does it feel in your body? Can you recognise the sense of being caught? In what way does it color your thinking?
The fire of aggression
So desire has a quality of drawing us deeper in to a trap. Aversion and ill-will, by contrast, is more like pushing away or fighting.
💡 Aggression is like violently boiling water. A violent heat that obscures our vision.
This tendency of mind is rooted in the poison of hatred. And as we look closer, we begin to see that even mild forms of irritation and aversion carry this seed of ill-will.
In what ways does anger and aversion show up in your life? What situations and relations trigger this in you? What is the quality of mind when this state is present? How does it feel in your body? Can you recognise the sense of boiling water? How does it obscure your vision?
The stagnation of sloth and torpor
When the quality of sloth and torpor is present, there is a lack of will. We find ourselves low and unmotivated to take action. There is a sense of being unable to make effort and to stay concentrated.
💡 The mind state of sloth and torpor is like the water being overgrown with algae. There is a sense of stagnation with no energy and no movement.
In what ways does sloth and torpor show up in your life? What is the quality of mind when this state is present? How does it feel in your body? Can you recognise the sense of stagnation? How does it prevent you from taking action?
The wind of restlessness
💡 Restlessness and worry is likened to windswept water. The mind is turbulent and our attention is tossed around without control
When the mind is agitated and restless, it is difficult to stay calm and focused.
In what ways does restlessness and worry show up in your life? What is the quality of mind when this state is present? How does it feel in your body? Can you recognise the sense of being tossed around? How does it prevent you from staying calm and concentrated?
The mud of doubt
💡 Confusion is like muddy water. Everything gets confused and mixed together and we can’t see clearly.
This hindrance is often experienced as lack of trust, confusion, self-doubt and second-guessing. There is a sense of going around in circles and never getting anywhere.
In what ways does confusion and delusion show up in your life? What is the quality of mind when this state is present? How does it feel in your body? Can you recognise the sense of everything getting mixed together? How does it prevent you from seeing clearly?
Step 1.5: working with self criticism
At this point, it is important to clarify that the hindrances are not meant as moral judgement. We may hear them as “bad” or “wrong” and jump to the conclusion that we are bad for having them or that we are doing something wrong.
💡 Hindrances are not inherently bad. We are not bad for experiencing them.
For example, we sit down to focus on the breath and we find the mind restless and agitated. We think to ourselves “what am I doing wrong?”. We may even turn the judgement into an identity “I can’t even stay with the breath”, “what is wrong with me?”, “I can seem to do anything right”, and on and on.
Self criticism is just another form of aversion. It adds fuel to the flame.
📖 The inner critic
A personal example
For a long time, I believed that anger was ugly and bad. And since I don’t want to be bad, I tried to distance myself from it: “anger is not welcome”. Any sign of anger was either repressed or projected outside so that my self-image could be maintained.
The problem with dis-owning parts of ourselves in this way is that we push them into the unconscious, in to what Carl Jung called the shadow. In other words, the anger remains intact – residing in the shadow – until we are able to face it and start integrating it. Not only is the anger there, but it remains out of our reach and we have no conscious control over how it erupts and manifests. So in a way, this path includes what we might call a type of “shadow work”. Instead of running away, we stop and invite the difficulties. We face them with gentleness and care. We hold them with compassion. We start seeing the hindrances as a natural part of our human conditioning and we learn to work with them rather than against them.
What moods and mind states do you label as “bad”? What are you believing about these states? Can you let go of the ideas and judgements and become curious? Rather than avoiding, can you shine a light on it?
Step 2: “taking in the good”
By turning to the hindrances with mindfulness, we become familiar with their various qualities and effects on the mind. We get to know the taste of restlessness, confusion, desire – or whatever – as soon as they arise. At first, they may feel like permanent residents of the mind. But as our mindfulness increases, we begin to see that they are more like visitors passing by.
💡 Like everything else, hindrances are impermanent.
This leads to the second step in the instructions, which is becoming aware when the hindrances are not present. We learn to recognise the mind that is free from these defilements.
These are moments of peace that provide a taste of the fruit of our practice and strengthen our motivation. By paying attention to these glimpses of freedom, we begin to rewire our neural circuits. It is like installing a new operating system in the brain. What begins as short moments of peace over time becomes the natural way of being. We install the habit that Rick Hansson calls “taking in the good”. We cultivate the mind that is free from defilements. It is not that we have to suppress the hindrances or strive to “produce” some higher state. We simply let the water settle, and our innate clarity becomes available.
Step 3: knowing what keeps the hindrances alive
The third step is knowing the causes for the hindrances to arise. This means understanding the conditions that give rise to craving, aversion etc. We cannot be free from suffering as long as the causes and conditions for suffering are there. They go together.
💡 As long as these conditions for the hindrances are present, they will manifest.
This is the essence of the doctrine known as “dependent origination”, or “conditioned co-arising”.
All things arise in dependence on other things. There is always a cause for something to emerge.
We have explored how craving and aversion arises from unconscious reactions to our likes and dislikes. We experience something we do not like –> an unpleasant sensation is the body —> we react with aversion. As long as we keep reacting to pain and pleasure in this way, we keep watering the seeds – the conditions – for craving and aversion in the mind.
💡 We tend to believe that we are reacting to the situation. In fact, what we react to is the sensation that arises as a response to the situation.
The habitual reactions are stengthened until they become automatic. When we are children, we scream for toys or that ice creams. Although our expression becomes more subtle and sophisticated over the years, our strategy is largely the same.
We have the mistaken belief that happiness comes from the fulfilment of our desires.
Strong market forces and entire industries encourage us to increase our desires. We are basically trained to seek delight in sense pleasure. We think that the next high, the next thing, the next relationship, will finally be it. That once we get it, we can relax and be happy. And the reason this keeps going is because there is temporary gratification. It feels good – for a while. But it does not ultimately make us happy. We all know this at some level. But the momentum of our habits are so strong that we keep kicking the wheel.
Breaking these patterns of reactivity and cultivating equanimity takes practice. The thing to understand is that we get good at what we practice – whether we are practicing mindfulness or reactivity. The Buddha summed this up:
“whatever you frequently think and ponder upon, that will become the inclination of your mind”
Once something happens, it becomes increasingly likely that it will happen again. This is how habits are formed, both in the mind (behavior), brain (neuroplacticity) and in the physical universe (what biologist and biochemist Rupert Sheldrake calls morphic resonance).
Through mindfulness, we learn to notice our reactions and behavior. We gain insight into the power of habits and the causes of the hindrances. Over time, this affords us to start decondition the mind and install new habits that give us access to a deeper source of happiness. Happiness that is not dependent on the fulfilment of desires. Happiness that is inherent to our Being.
Step 4: working with hindrances once they have arisen
The forth step is knowing how a hindrance can be removed once it has arisen. In other words, what are the causes for these mind states to disappear?
Facing our demons
In the mythology of ancient India there is a demon known as Mara. He represents the forces that lead us to delusion, and away from awakening. We could say that Mara is the embodiment and personification of the hindrances. As he would show up to seduce the Buddha or distort his teaching of the Dharma, the Buddha would turn toward him with a smile and say “Mara, I see you”. As the story goes, he would even invite the demon for a cup of tea.
This approach is based on the deep psychological insight that the way to overcome paralysing fear and phobia is through exposure. We do not get rid of fear through avoidance – we integrate it by facing it. This does not mean that we push or expose ourselves to triggers that may be overwhelming or re-traumatising. We need to find the middle way between suppressing and indulging. To continue the metaphor, we may need to cut the demon into small, digestable pieces so that we can digest them in our own pace.
“Drop the story, stay with the energy”
💡 By repressing anger, we also repress the energy behind the anger. Unless we can meet the energetic charge behind hindrances, we are cut off from the life force and strength that is caught up in them.
The path remains blocked until we address the obstacle. Rather than believing the stories we tell ourselves, we become aware of the energetic charge that lies underneath. We simply note “there is anger in me”, “there is aversion”, “there is criticism”, “there is judgement”. We learn to stay with the energy in the body without reacting. This is clear seeing; vipassana.
In the tantric teachings of Vajrayana and Tibetan buddhism, they talk about an “inner alchemy”. This is the process of transmuting the energy that is caught up in the defilement. We learn to use the hindrances as fuel for the inner journey. They even talk about “eating the poison”. From this perspective, the hindrances are not really hindrances after all.
The hindrances is part of the journey
Working with the hindrances is what defines the spiritual journey. This very process is what enables us to integrate the parts that have been cut off and embody all aspects of our humanity.
Ram Dass, in talking about the five hindrances, says that unless we have them in some form, we wouldn’t be here on earth. This life is a training ground to work with everything that is holding us back. He likens the world we live in with a community of self-selected people who have this kind of work to do.
In zen, they sum this up beautifully:
“the obstacle is the path”
A modern take
With the power of mindfulness, we can acknowledge the presence of this force without being carried away by it. This approach is echoed in modern neuroscience. When emotions like fear or anger become strong enough, they grip us. Our sympathetic nervous system is aroused, the subcortical parts of our brain takes charge and we lose control over our feelings and behavior. Research studies show that if we have the presence of mind to step back and simply note what is going on, we can regain conscious control. By clearly perceiving and accurately naming the feelings, the whole system calms down. The highly evolved neocortex comes back online and tells the subcortical parts of the brain that things are under control. The glands secret neurotransmitters that regulate the nervous system and allow us to relax. This is what Dan Siegel calls “name it to tame it”.
The beautiful thing is that there is no fight, no “doing” required. This is what many of us find counter-intuitive. We believe that we need to do something or to fix ourselves. But the real power lies in the ability to witness the mind without acting. Coming back to the water metaphor, we do not get rid of muddy water by stirring it up or doing something. We have to let it settle and the water naturally becomes clear. When we can step back and rest in awareness, we no longer feed the poisonous mind states. We can note without judgement or identification. And paradoxically, when we can fully accept them as they are, we allow them to pass through.
📖 WU WEI: “non-striving”
Setting boundaries and finding balance
Sometimes we need to take a more active approach. In contrast to embracing and and saying “yes” to the hindrance, the appropriate thing to do may be to put up a defence, to say “no”, or even to “cut the head off” of the hindrance. If, for example, inner criticism, self-doubt or confusion keep coming up, we may need be firm and say “no”, “enough”. So the wise response depends on the circumstances and our personal conditioning. If we tend to be self-critical, we may need gentleness and loving kindness – metta. And if we are the more indulging type, we may need to be firm and use strength to distance ourselves from the hindrance. Again, it comes down to wise discernment and finding the middle way.
We can also call upon what Joseph Goldstein calls our “inner dharma coach” to do some wise reflection. It is not that we are looking for a particular answer to a problem, but the process of inquiry itself begins to awaken curiosity and create some inner space.
When you find yourself in the midst of a hindrance, ask yourself:
“What keeps me hooked in this moment?”
“What is causing this anger/confusion/…?”
“What would be a skilful response here?”
“What do I long for? What stands in the way of that?
Step 5: removing the conditions for hindrances to arise
The fifth and final step is knowing how to prevent hindrances from arising. Just as we can take preventative measures to take care of our immune system and physical well-being, there are things we can do to take care of our mind and mental well-being.
Mindfulness removes the causes and conditions for the hindrances:
“Just like darkness disappears as soon as the light is turned on, the hindrances are forced to move out when loving awareness is present.”
One way to look at mindfulness is as a guardian of the senses. By remaining vigilante and awake, we are less likely to be swept away by negative thoughts, feelings, desires, and the rest of it. This prevents the hindrances from building nests in the mind. Once there is some mindfulness, we get reminded of our intention and motivation to stay on the path. Most importantly, we remember what it is like to be free. This is sati; “to remember”. In this way, mindfulness can be seen as strengthening our mental immune system through meditation practice and wholesome attitudes.
Relating to shit happening
Through practice and wise reflection, mindfulness increasingly becomes our default mode that enables us to meet suffering with the quality of loving kindness. Mindfulness is what enables us to see through our own illusions and destructive beliefs. We see the three marks of existence inherent in them and we are less likely to be hooked.
We have the wisdom on one hand and the loving awareness on the other. These are the two wings that enable us to address and work with the hindrances.
In the next frames we learn about the mechanism at the root of our suffering through the teachings on the “Aggregates of clinging”.