In meditation, the Five Hindrances can be seen as the major forces in the mind that hinder our ability to see clearly or become concentrated, preventing us from gaining calmness of mind and insight into the true nature of phenomena and existence. They are universal, we all experience them.
The Buddha attributed the cause of ignorance or delusion to these five hindrances. He described the five hindrances as the nutriment and specific condition for the arising of ignorance.
The five hindrances are: 1) sensual desire or greed 2) ill-will or aversion 3) sloth and torpor 4) restlessness, anxiety or worry and 5) doubt.
Desire refers to that particular type of wanting or craving that seeks happiness through the five sense objects such as sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, in the process enhancing the drive to replace even minor irritating or painful five-sense experiences with pleasant ones. It overrides any aspiration for happiness through mind alone, reinforcing the mind’s desire to encounter and grasp at future moments of enjoyment. It becomes a hindrance when we want something and grasp for it, cling to it. It could be either harmful to us or inappropriate or not useful at this time.
In its extreme form, sensory desire is an obsession to find pleasure in such things as a lustful fulfillment through continuing contact with other physical forms, good food to the point of gluttony, and other extremes, manifested in exaggeration through excess personal hoarding of wealth, power, position, and fame.
Ill-will or Aversion (vyapada)
Ill will refers to the desire to punish, hurt or destroy. It includes sheer hatred of a person or even a situation. It can generate so much energy that it is both seductive and addictive. At the time, it always appears justified for such is its power that it easily corrupts our ability to judge fairly. It also includes ill will towards oneself, otherwise known as guilt, which denies oneself any possibility of happiness. In meditation, ill will can appear as dislike towards the meditation object itself, rejecting it so that one’s attention is forced to wander elsewhere.
It means wanting things to not be the way they are and pushing them away. Ill-will is an escalation of that into wishing harm to someone or something that is in the way of us getting what we want. It can range from a very subtle pushing something away to intense hatred and anger or ill-will.
Sloth and Torpor (thina-middha)
Refers to heaviness of body and dullness of mind respectively. This includes drowsiness, sluggishness, low energy, sleepiness, lethargy. Nothing is clear. The mind feels heavy and dull or dreamy. Sloth refers to the physical aspects: it feels difficult holding oneself up. Torpor is more mental, it feels difficult to pay attention. Sloth and Torpor can be both pleasant or unpleasant. When it’s pleasant it’s more seductive. When it’s comfortable and pleasant it’s sometimes called “sinking mind.” It can be a form of “procrastination”
It’s important to differentiate between sloth and torpor and the need for sleep! Sloth and torpor is a habit of mind which inhibits the application of energy, of being engaged, of being involved. When sloth and torpor is really strong, we can sink into it and get lost in it. The mind can feel like mud, like glue. It’s very difficult to make effort, mental or physical. Energy is often available but it’s hindered or kept back or not tapped into or utilized. For some people who feel “lazy” a lot, it’s a habitual way of using the mind. Sloth and torpor is usually preceded by a certain “pattern” of thoughts.
Restlessness, Anxiety or Worry (uddhacca-kukkucca)
Restlessness is a feeling of agitation or over-excitement, it agitates the mind, so it doesn’t have the time to see fully. Restlessness is unpleasant, so there is a tendency of the mind to push it away, to not want it there. The mind is restless, and restlessness is further enhanced by struggling against it. This monkey mind is also caused by too much misplaced energy. We may feel the restlessness in the body, often in the chest or limbs. The mental part shows up often as a tense mind, a rapidly firing mind, or a mind preoccupied with different issues.
Restlessness of the mind tends to show itself in restlessness in the body; in meditation, by wanting to shift positions, by tightness and tension. Restlessness can take different forms: worry, planning, physical restlessness, self-judgment, regret of the past, nervousness, remorse, anxiety. Restlessness and worry prevent the mind and body from settling, and often involves giving unwise attention to thoughts. Worry is fear of what may happen in the future. Anxiety is a non-specific fear of what will happen in the future.
It is said that Doubt, as one of the hindrances, is the most dangerous of the hindrances, as it is the one that can cause a person to give up their practice. We can have doubt in our ability to practice or doubt of the practice or the teachings. It’s a state of indecision, of vacillation, that doesn’t allow us to fully apply ourselves, causes us to hold back, to get lost in discursive thinking. Doubt interrupts the gathering of data with premature questions; it interferes with the process of seeing. Doubt can question one’s own ability “Can I do this?”, or question the method “Is this the right way?” Even, “How am I doing?” Such questions are obstacles to meditation because they are asked at the wrong time and thus become an obstacle, obscuring one’s clarity. Doubt is not productive or useful, it drains us or disconnects us. It keeps us unwilling to apply ourselves.
The primary instruction in working with the Hindrances is to turn them into your Meditation Object. It doesn’t matter if a hindrance is present or not, but it does matter if you’re not aware of it.
Photo credit: wisdomthroughmindfulness