I can’t meditate because it makes me sleepy. I can’t sit still, or I get hungry. All my annoyances from the day before comes up when I meditate. I find myself arguing with my boss when I meditate. I don’t think I meditate correctly. Does meditation even do anything? Is it working? I can’t meditate because my mind is too busy, and I’m too busy.
Sound familiar? If you struggle with any of the above, join the club! Everyone struggles with one or more of these issues in the beginning years of meditating, and many of us struggle with them from time to time thereafter. These problems are not only common, they’re the very reasons we should meditate!
In spite of how peaceful people look while meditating, there can be a lot of struggle going on behind those closed or partly closed eyes. Buddha was no stranger to these issues, and they are what he referred to as the Five Hindrances. The five hindrances create problems for us in the practice of our daily life, and they often become acute when we sit to meditate. But it’s the very act of meditating that’s helps us learn to let go of these hindrances, and to allow more skillful or wholesome states to move in their place.
Let’s start by promising ourselves to stop whining about these issues, and instead become more mindful of them and how they effect how we act, how we behave, and how we think. In just becoming aware, we see how the hindrances operate in our lives, and then we can gently, compassionately, and mindfully let them go. Meditation is the practice ground where we do this, so we should expect that the hindrances will arise.
So, what are the five hindrances exactly, and what did Buddha have to say about them:
The Blessed One said: “These five are obstacles, hindrances that overwhelm awareness and weaken discernment. Which five?
“Sensual desire is an obstacle, a hindrance that overwhelms awareness and weakens discernment. Ill will… Sloth & drowsiness… Restlessness & anxiety… Uncertainty is an obstacle, a hindrance that overwhelms awareness and weakens discernment. . . Avarana Sutta: Obstacles
Sensual desire is our food cravings, our anxiety over pain or discomfort, our need for sounds, sights, tastes, and it can manifest in fussing over the right position to sit, the desire to eat even when not hungry, etc. Throughout the day, notice how often your attention goes to sensual desires. Don’t judge it, just notice. When sitting, if this issue arrives, just explore it with your attention, what it is you’re feeling in the body, if there is craving, or angst there, and just settle your attention on the feeling. If the feeling begins to fade, bring your attention back to the breath. If sensual desire arises again, put your attention on it again, watch it closely, explore how it feels, then again, go to the breath. Over time, you’ll find in putting your attention on the hindrance, the feeling fades, and eventually doesn’t arise as often, if at all.
Ill will, anger, resentment, aversion can all be a powerful obstacles to your mental well-being. These negative, powerful emotions prevents a lot of people from even wanting to sit in meditation. I’ve heard people say, I’m just to angry right now. But meditation is the perfect thing to do if you are experiencing these hinderances. Sit, take a few deep breaths, and then let your attention move over your body. Explore how that powerful emotion manifests in the body. Do you feel anger in your chest, your stomach, or somewhere else? Are your muscles tense? Let go of thoughts as they arise to justify the negative feelings. Return to the body with your attention every time a thought tries to drag you into the story. It takes a lot of practice working with anger and resentment to let the story go, the thoughts that want to hold you in that emotion. But when you can get out of your head and keep your attention in the body, I think you’ll find exploring how emotion moves through the body fascinating. When your emotional energy then turns to inquiry and curiosity, anger loses it’s power and fades. You’ll also discover what trouble makers those thoughts can be! Returning again and again to either the body or breath is a wonderful practice!
Sloth and drowsiness can be frustrating, but very common. If we’ve not been meditating in the past, our bodies may be trained to go to sleep when we shut our eyes. Unlike anger, if you put your attention on your sleepiness, you may soon find yourself in dreamland. Sleepiness is hard to come out of once you’re there. Keeping your eyes part way open can help. Putting your attention on sounds instead of the body or breath can also be helpful. But I highly recommend that before sitting, you make sure you get a good night sleep and are fully rested. If you’ve been too busy to get a full night sleep, then you might consider focusing on simplifying parts of your life so you can sleep. That is where your practice may need to be until you can get some good shut-eye. Some people do better meditating in the morning, while others are better in the afternoon or evening. Experiment to work out the best time of day. It could be you’ll need to do short meditation while on break at work in order to hit more comfortable alert times.
Restlessness and anxiety are really common as well. It’s hard for many to sit still for periods of time, and harder still for the busy mind, especially for intellectual types. This has been my issue, even after ten years of meditating. It wasn’t until I let go of my frustration, acknowledge that I enjoy thinking and input of information, and that it’s not only ok but good for me to give my brain a rest. With each meditation, I first form the intent in my “mind” that for that allotted time period, I am going to let everything go. I have also noticed over the years that if parts of my body start to tense, that my mind soon follows with a lot of activity. So, for busy-minded people, you might try doing periodic body scans during your meditation. If you find a tense spot, mindfully let it relax, then go back to the breath. I have found this helps with body and mind restlessness. My restlessness seems to first manifest in some part of my legs or shoulders, and if I relax those areas, my mind also gets more quiet. It’s also not uncommon to sit, only to have a whole list of things you need to do that day pop up. This happens to me almost every time I sit and within the first five or ten minutes. I remind myself I can let those go for now, and I will get to them later.
The last hindrance I want to address is uncertainty or doubt. We aren’t talking about healthy skepticism here. This hindrance is focused on undermining your practice, why we meditate, etc. We all suffer from this time to time. Is this meditation helping me? Am I doing this right? I don’t think I’m meditating correctly. Where is the bliss?!!!!!
All this is common. Any experiences you have during meditation is what it is. All meditation is good meditation, even if you struggled through the entire 20 or 30 minutes, repeatedly going back to the breath because you kept wandering off in thought, or you were raging angry and went on a mental tirade. At times like this, be mindful of what had happened, how thoughts or emotions kept tugging at you, or how you kept nodding off because you were too sleepy. We learn from each meditation. Each time we sit again, we make slight adjustments, we increase our compassion for ourselves, and little by little over time we learn about the fascinating processes of our minds and bodies, we become less judgmental, and eventually more focused.
Meditation is like going to the gym. We first discover how we have all these hindrances and it can feel overwhelming, just like the out of shape person who starts to exercise. Over time, we train our minds by letting go of thoughts and returning to the breath. We investigate the things that refuse to be let go of, and we give them attention until they gradually lessen their hold and we can let go. As the body becomes more fit through exercise, we learn to move towards more skillful and healthy states of mind and actions through meditation. It’s a process. No amount of whining is going to help you. In fact, that just encourages unskillful thinking. But meditating day after day allows you to first understand the hindrances, and then to let them go.
“Now, when a monk has abandoned these five obstacles, hindrances that overwhelm awareness and weaken discernment, when he is strong in discernment: for him to understand what is for his own benefit, to understand what is for the benefit of others, to understand what is for the benefit of both, to realize a superior human state, a truly noble distinction in knowledge & vision: that is possible. . .”