Overcoming the Five Hindrances

1050 Views 1 Comment
five hindrances

For a meditator, the classical five obstacles are:

– desire for sense pleasure,

– aversion and ill will,

– sloth, torpor, dullness, and boredom,

– restlessness and worry,

– doubt or obstinate skepticism.

The hindrances (or the obstacles) are the places where most people get stuck. As we develop meditative skills, we learn how the hindrances function; we investigate them as habitual forces without adopting them as our personal story. When mindfulness is weak, it is easy to be swept away with desire, aversion, or speculation.

Regarding such hindrances, the Buddha taught that we must know five things:

– the presence of the hindrance,

– the absence of the hindrance,

– the cause for its arising,

– the way of its abandoning,

– the way for the nonarising of it in the future.

The cause for the arising of a hindrance is unwise attention, the way of its abandoning is wise attention, and the cultivation of concentration, mindfulness, and insight is the way for the nonarising of that hindrance in the future.

The Five Ways to Investigate Hindrances are:

– Recognize when a hindrance is present.

– Recognize when a hindrance is absent.

– Understand the conditions that cause a hindrance to arise.

– Understand the conditions that cause a hindrance to cease.

– Explore how to prevent the hindrance from arising again in the future.

A mindful investigation of hindrances will produce valuable clarity regarding the qualities unique to each hindrance. We have to approach the hindrance sufficiently to understand its basic function and supports; we have to study it just enough to untangle the mind from its grip. But we don’t deny the hindrance, we just simply recognize it primarily as the result of unwise attention and quickly remedy the error. Later, when we can discern mentality, we will apply the full strength of the unified mind to meticulously analyze nuances of all wholesome and unwholesome states. In meditation practice we must abandon the unwholesome states and also give attention to esteemed wholesome states, such as concentration, mindfulness, patience, and so on. We learn what to cultivate and what to discard. We learn how to relate wisely to whatever arises in the mind, to consistently and efficiently abandon wrong attention and establish right attention.

The first hindrance is the sensual desire (kāmacchanda). Desire has the characteristic of projecting onto an object attractiveness that the object itself doesn’t intrinsically possess.The misperception inherent in craving embellishes objects with the illusion of desirability or hate-ability—the illusion that the object can bring or destroy happiness. But desire and craving never actually result in fulfillment. As we develop concentration and contemplate impermanence, craving will lose its power over us. But we won’t need to force yourself to let go. We outgrow the compulsive desires that keep us restlessly seeking satisfaction in external perceptions and activities. Desire arises when there is incorrect attention to pleasant feelings, whether it is a primitive craving, a refined attraction, an inclination toward sophisticated intellectual pleasures, or a subtle craving to repeat a perfectly tranquil meditation. Desire removes us from the direct perception of present experience and seduces us into a mental realm of hope and craving. To steady the mind, we don’t need to change what we see, smell, or feel; we don’t need to eliminate pleasant encounters. We need, instead, to control how we relate to the sensory experience. We may still experience sensory pleasures, but we won’t get lost in them. With the development of wisdom, we will understand that sensual desire is not pleasure; it is suffering; it is a force that inhibits the deep peace and rest we seek. This training progressively abandons lesser happiness to attain greater happiness.

The second hindrance, aversion or ill will (vyāpāda). Aversion persists when there is incorrect attention to unpleasant feeling. It can take mild forms such as irritation, impatience, and frustration; chronic forms such as pessimism, pity, miserliness, and anxiety; or dramatic forms such as hatred, rage, terror, jealousy, and aggression. Aversion has the characteristic of projecting onto an object repulsiveness that the object does not inherently contain. Aversion can never end by replacing unpleasant external conditions with comfortable and agreeable conditions, since the suffering is not caused by the external conditions. The problem is the quality of attention, not the physical situation that we encounter.

There are many ways to employ meditation to resolve anger. We may soften the tendency toward ill will by cultivating loving-kindness; we may counter the separation that feeds anger by personally giving a gift to the person who irritates us; we may discern the object of our anger as bare elements such as a mere collection of thirty-two body parts, as a conjunction of material and mental elements, or as a process of five aggregates. Through the development of concentration and wisdom, we will understand the danger posed by aversive states. Comprehending the danger it becomes easier to let such states go and peacefully steer our attention back to your meditation object.

The third hindrance, sloth and torpor (thīnamiddha) is sometimes described as dullness, and it refers to a sluggish and stiff quality of consciousness characterized by a lack of driving power. Torpor refers to a weakness or enfeeblement of mental factors. Torpor is characterized by an unwieldiness of the mind and manifests as laziness, boredom, or drowsiness. Arising together, sloth and torpor create a feeling of inertia, a sense that the mind is thick and drooping, a paralysis-like state and loss of vigor. The hindrance of sloth and torpor is a severe expression of not being awake to what is really happening. Sleep is not the cure for sloth and torpor. We can distinguish between physical tiredness and the hindrance of sloth and torpor, between the need to rejuvenate and refresh the body and the weariness that wants to just call it a day. We have to learn what seduces us into the passive withdrawal of sloth and torpor, and conquer the urge to find relaxation through dullness or separation.

The fourth hindrance, restlessness and worry (uddhaccakukkucca). Restless and distracting thoughts are the principal obstructions to concentration; therefore we need several pragmatic methods to overcome the influence of mental restlessness. It is not easy to stay focused. Although invisible and silent, thoughts exert tremendous influence over moods, energy, health, emotions, abilities, relationships, and perceptions. Restlessness dissipates our effort to collect attention; it prevents the cohesion of concentration. When we are restless we are more vulnerable to whims and may act in ways you later regret, fueling worry and remorse. The primary method for working with thoughts is to learn to let them go. We have to clear the mind of compulsive clutter. In fact, much of what we will do when we begin meditation is to abandon thoughts. We have to sweep away fantasies of future events, ruminations about past activities, and commentary about present happenings. We have to train our mind to be quiet by not allowing your attention to fuel a constant stream of chatter and interpretation.we have to let go of our internal commentary and watch life’s events unfold with a silent mind. We have to resolve to not dwell with unskillful thoughts, and if they arise, to interrupt the wandering mind and direct our attention to the object of meditation. We have to train our mind until it comes under our control and responds to our direction. We have to become skilled like the great monks and nuns who were described as the “masters of their own minds.”

The hindrance of doubt (vicikicchā). Doubt as a hindering force is distinct from the intelligent inquiry. The hindrance of doubt describes the exhaustion of mind that comes with excessive conjecture. It might take the form of doubt in our own ability; doubt in the teacher; or doubt in the teachings. Doubt can manifest as indecisiveness; it can come cloaked as dogmatic opinions; it may perpetuate factional sides in a conflict. Because bewilderment is a painful state, people grasp views to try to gain a feeling of certainty but end up rigid and stubborn.

When mindfulness is not yet strong enough to penetrate the object of attention, then the mind might do what minds do—think. Habitual thinking rarely leads to revelation. Questions will inevitably arise as our practice develops since we cannot fully understand this process until we have genuinely experienced it. Yet it will help to suspend doubt; curb the tendency to intellectualize about phenomena, and stop the thoughts before they digress into conjecture. If agitation, perplexity, indecisiveness, or excessive analysis occupies attention, then exhaustion and doubt will often follow in its wake. We must set aside the tendency to doubt in order to see the true nature of mind—only then will we no longer have doubts about it.

We don’t need to struggle to overcome a multitude of diverse hindrances or employ an arsenal of antidotes to tackle each specific problem. To develop concentration we can address one primary obstacle—unwise attention. A deliberate and wise application of attention is the root skill that every meditator cultivates. Nearly every obstruction to concentration can be traced to a root error in how we are applying our attention.

Photo credit: alexhedworth

Source : Shaila Catherine – Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana


  • Venerable Samithawansha August 23, 2016, 7:34 pm Reply

    Excellent article for meditation practisiner

Leave a Comment