Practice: Working with the Hindrances

The first and biggest problems we all have in meditative practice are those constant bothers that the Buddha termed “hindrances”, clouding the clear water of awareness. He counted five, usually translated: sensual desire, ill-will, restlessness, sloth-and-torpor, and doubt. When I first heard these, I wondered, why these five? They sound like a miscellaneous grab-bag of problems. Actually they are technical terms with broad application, that can be split into three basic groups. The first group we could call “attachment”, the second “energy”, the third stands alone as “doubt”.

Attachments that Hinder

When feelings of attachment carry us away, we lose the path. If the attachment feels positive, that’s “sensual desire”: desire for a person, for something to buy, for a good dinner, for some fun experience. Thinking sweet nothings can pull our attention away from practice. It isn’t helpful to fostering the wise clarity we’re after, since it pulls us into a different place or time, spinning fantasies.

Negative attachment is repulsion, otherwise known as “ill-will”. It covers a multitude of attitudes. Obviously, if annoyance, anger, hatred, jealousy, or contempt arises, that’s ill-will. But so too is worry and fear: this is ill-will directed towards the future. So too is regret or remorse: that’s a form of ill-will towards the past. (Remorse is also considered a form of restlessness, depending on how it manifests). Again, this pulls us out of the present into past or future narratives that cloud our mind.

Note that these responses might be useful in other contexts: we might be legitimately concerned about something that needs dealing with, like an upcoming test. We might be legitimately regretful about something wrong we did in the past. We might have positive feelings towards a meal we will enjoy, or a partner we love. The point is that these hinder us in the context of meditation, not that they are necessarily wrong in other contexts. They may or may not be.

Also, of course, we can fall into ill-will for ourselves or our practice: getting angry, frustrated, or annoyed at ourselves for failing to ‘practice properly’. This is also a hindrance. Which isn’t to say it’s not natural! If frustration arises, the way to escape the hindrance is to be mindful of the frustration, to see it for what it is; even to depersonalize it. See it as “Frustration is arising,” rather than “I’m frustrated.” Then deal with it as just another phenomenon among many, not one that is about you, at all.

Between the two of them, sensual desire and ill-will should be seen as covering the gamut of feelings of attachment, from very negative to very positive.

Energy that Hinders

When we meditate, sometimes it seems like the engine of our effort isn’t tuned properly. That’s the purview of restlessness and sloth-and-torpor.

The biggest problem for introducing sloth-and-torpor is that it’s annoyingly awkward in English. Neither “sloth” nor “torpor” are everyday words, which leads us to assume the concepts they describe must be odd or obscure. I prefer the translation “dullness and drowsiness”. It’s a state of low energy, completely ordinary and one we all know well. The mind is foggy or stuck, without momentum, or tired and sleepy.

Its opposite is the so-called “monkey mind” of restlessness, where the mind seems to fly from one thing to another distractedly, remembering this, planning for that, cycling through narratives of likes and dislikes without awareness. This kind of thinking resembles our ordinary thinking when we daydream, say while waiting in line or unable to sleep. That is, it’s undirected, uncoordinated; bubbling with too much agitated energy. Boredom often comes across as restlessness, but it can also appear as dullness and drowsiness, or even as ill-will or doubt, depending on how it manifests.

Anyhow, restlessness and dullness/drowsiness cover the blighted waterfront of bad energy.

Doubt that Hinders

The last hindrance is doubt, all on its own. This is a state of mind very dear to a skeptic like myself. “Doubt everything”, says the bumper sticker. And of course, in a sense we should. But eventually, and in certain circumstances, doubt can become a hindrance. Eventually we have to choose and move forward with our lives. Doubt in the context of practice is something that can bring it to a halt.

Approaching the Hindrances

The five hindrances can derail practice: feelings so strong that they carry us away, energy so unbalanced that it makes practice difficult, questions that throw on the brakes. The Buddha famously recommended that proper practice be like that of the lute player. To play a tune, the lute’s strings cannot be tuned too tight, nor too loose. They have to be in balance, in pitch. Finding that pitch is essential, and for that we have to overcome the hindrances, at least for a time. (Whether they can ever be overcome completely is another matter).

But how do we overcome them? The essential first step, often overlooked I think, is that we have to train ourselves to notice when they are present. In the first section on Contemplation of Phenomena in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10, para. 36), the Buddha emphasizes this point. It’s essential to the practice of mindfulness to know when each hindrance is present, and to know when it’s not. This is a basic form of mindfulness practice: we’re not completely lost if at least we know what the problem is, and we’re more aware if we know that the problem has been overcome.

Countering the Hindrances

Often when hindrances arise they aren’t of sufficient strength to bother us. If we can practice adequately with them in the background, or push them aside with a focus of effort, then no further strategy is necessary. But sometimes all that fails, and we need something a bit stronger.

Each hindrance has techniques associated with countering it. This is something I had been completely unaware of. As I remarked in my previous post, I practiced meditation for many years without any extensive formal training. When I ran into problems in my practice, my approach was simply to sit through them, returning to the breath as best I could. This is, of course, a technique that can work, particularly for increasing focus or samādhi. But it can also prove frustrating. It’s worth knowing other techniques that can be helpful.

Sensual desire: this is often counteracted by meditations in the Satipaṭṭhāna like that on the unattractive nature of the body (P10-11). Since the suttas were written for a celibate audience, the main focus of this practice is in visualizing the organs of the body, in order to break any kind of sexual attraction. This approach is perhaps less apt for laypeople, except in rare circumstances. The elements meditation (P12-13), which I discussed in an earlier post, can also be useful for countering forms of physical attachment: if we can see the new coat, car or house as just a mass of ordinary atoms that  will decay into their elemental forms, suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so attractive and necessary.

Ill-will: the classic counter to ill-will is the meditation on mettā, usually translated “loving kindness”. This, and the other “Brahmavihara” meditations on compassion, empathetic joy (a counter to jealousy), and equanimity are all methods to overcome negative feelings towards other people. These practices aren’t particularly complex but they do involve some work, so if ill-will is a problem for you in meditation, it will likely be helpful to look into the Brahmaviharas. Indeed, I find it useful to begin every meditation sitting with a short mettā practice.

Ill will towards inanimate objects or situations can be overcome by doing meditations on the elements, or simply on causal conditioning: the lemon of a car that’s on my mind is, after all, only a dumb lump of metal and plastic, arisen from conditions, passing from conditions. One strategy I have found useful for dealing with worry is to see how it arises from the imagination. Worry is ill-will directed at a phantom of the future, conjured by imagination. Sometimes seeing how the conjuror creates the phantom can help the worry to diminish.

Dullness and drowsiness: I think the number one antidote to this, particularly among contemporary lay practitioners, should be to get enough sleep! There are a number of techniques to waking ourselves up ‘on the cushion’, such as taking deep breaths or visualizing the sun’s light. Or we can do walking or standing meditation instead of sitting. But really, none of these will be particularly successful without adequate sleep, which is a physical necessity.

Restlessness: from all I’ve seen and heard, this is the most difficult hindrance to overcome. The only antidote to restlessness is … wait for it … mindfulness of breathing. If you’re too restless to focus on the breath, what that says is that you need more practice! Regular sitting brings deeper calm, which over time makes restlessness less of an issue.

Doubt: the classic counter to doubt is critical investigation. That said, there are two kinds of doubt, and each should be dealt with differently. There is little-‘d’-doubt and big-‘D’-Doubt. Little-‘d’-doubt is the sort of annoyance that springs up from time to time in a good practice, that can be dealt with as a form of dullness or restlessness, or even boredom, depending on its character. Basically, try your best to ignore it, to wait it out, and return to the breath. Big-‘D’-Doubt is a different matter, and has to be taken seriously off the cushion. If you don’t feel the practice is right for you, or is working at all, that’s a sign you need to do further reading or talking, or hey, even consider another practice. Meditation isn’t for everyone, after all.

So that covers some basic approaches to all the hindrances. There are other ones besides, such as ‘guarding the sense doors’, or the essential one of finding good friends with whom one can have fruitful discussions, but these should serve as a start. Note that the process is essentially cognitive, not simply one of bare experience: it’s a conceptual process leading towards insight. We first recognize, then strategically counteract, each hindrance as it arises.

I hope this quick review of the hindrances is useful to your ongoing meditation practice. I know that it has made a difference in my own to begin to recognize and deal with each of them as they arise and pass away.

PS: If you have some favorite techniques of your own for overcoming the hindrances, please let us know in the comments!