Meditation hindrances and how to work with them
I remember my first weekend retreat at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in the summer of 1993. I took the weekend “off” from family and work obligations to learn how to meditate and take an Introduction to Buddhism class. My first meditation experience in the Meditation Hall at Aryaloka was blissful – even the outdoor birdsong quieted and the stillness was palpable.
During that first meditation class, I was excited to learn the list of hindrances to meditation: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety and skeptical doubt. I could relate to that list because I experienced those hindrances off the cushion too, to varying degrees, and regularly.
Having the list of hindrances was helpful because when I mediated and watched the antics of my mind, I had a way of working in meditation to move beyond them… sometimes.
The hindrances distract our minds with mundane thoughts that can, and often do, become obsessive. If we are obsessing about mundane issues, we are distracted from our spiritual work and spiritual progress.
Let’s explore the hindrances:
1. Sensual desire (kamacchanda)
Our meditations often reveal what we desire and crave. We sit down to meditate, to still the mind and find calm and tranquility and we start thinking about a person we are attracted to, or the aroma of the bread baking in the oven in our kitchen, or the concert we have tickets for – you know what’s on your list.
When we compulsively crave sensual pleasures (sex, food etc.) we are alienated from the depth of the here and now and from those people, places, thoughts and activities that are in the present moment. So there is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure, but when it becomes compulsive we distract ourselves from being present to the moment, being present to our lives.
When we become aware of sensual desire we can bring our awareness back to the focus of the meditation. We can look at what we desire and see through our projections and unrealistic expectations. We can look at what discomfort might be beneath the compulsive desire. For instance, when we are distracted by thinking about someone we are attracted to, we may be distracting ourselves from looking at something that is troubling us in our relationships, or disappointment in not achieving a goal, or something we are concerned about. We might ask ourselves “What am I distracting myself from?”
Guarding the doors of the senses is a way of working with sense desire. This involves recognizing what situations, images and thoughts create sensual desire and avoiding them. For instance, when on a retreat or when meditating in a group, avoiding conversations just before the meditation.
2. Ill-will (byapada)
Ill will, or aversion, like sensual desire, obstructs our ability to be mindful and free and alienates us from kindness. We feel constricted and reactive rather than open-hearted and expansive.
Ill will can be sparked by:
- remembering what we heard a friend say about us that was hurtful
- going over an angry interchange with a relative
- wishing we had something that someone else has (a material possession, a relationship, confidence, teaching ability etc.).
We can work with this hindrance by questioning the ill will, noticing the effects on our bodies, how it affects our energy and what it might be covering up such as frustrated ambition, fear, embarrassment or protection from feeling disappointment.
When we are aware of ill will, being attentive to it and stopping ourselves from fanning its flames will help it to dissolve and build confidence in our ability to be present and mindful.
When working with ill will, I realized I have sometimes reacted to someone or a situation, and come to see that the ill will was centered in my own story line or way of interpreting someone’s action or comment. Working with ill will offers the opportunity to have compassion toward myself and other people.
Practicing and cultivating loving kindness, empathy, equanimity and meditating on karma are good antidotes for ill will.
3. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)
Sloth is a lack of energy and alertness to keep interested in the focus of meditation. We feel drowsy and sleepy and it feels as though our vitality and effort are limited.
Torpor is a lack of mental energy. The mind is dull or easily drifts in thought. This hindrance may be a result of discouragement, frustration, boredom, indifference, hopelessness or resistance.
Sloth and torpor may be overcome by consciously arousing more energy by walking meditation; sitting up with a more erect, energized posture; opening the eyes; washing the face with cool water; opening a window or bringing curiosity and finding interest in the object of meditation.
Bringing curiosity to why we are feeling sloth and torpor, understanding how particular thoughts, beliefs, and evaluations feed into the hindrance can be helpful.
Being mindful of what we eat before meditation and how what we eat affects our energy in meditation, reflection on impermanence and the importance of practicing here and now, reflecting on a dharmic topic that inspires us are all ways to work with this hindrance.
4. Restlessness and worry, anxiety or remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)
This hindrance manifests as being unable to settle and concentrate due to a physical feeling of wanting to move the body and is accompanied by memories and thoughts about things we are worried about or feel remorseful for.
We may feel agitated and restless, unsettled and uncomfortable. It takes courage, patience and discipline to stay with discomfort and explore our thoughts and actions to understand what triggers them (frustrated desire, pent-up aversion, fear and resentment, or dissatisfaction).
I have found reflection, writing in a journal and talking with spiritual friends helpful in working with this hindrance. Walking meditation, yoga and exercise are also helpful when dealing with restlessness and worry; and confession is beneficial when dealing with regret and remorse.
Remembering how it feels to be still and calm may help. Remembering to consciously breathe or focusing on the ongoing rhythm of breathing, can calm the body. The more attention that is given to breathing, the less attention is available to fuel the restlessness or worry.
Strong opinions about what is or is not supposed to be happening, judgments of what is “good and bad” seldom lead to calm. Attachment to a self-image can be agitating. It can be liberating to realize that we don’t have to believe every thought we have.
5. Skeptical doubt (vicikiccha)
This hindrance manifests as uncertainty about meditation (“Does meditation really work?”) and in one’s ability (“I’m not good at meditating.”) and culminates in a lack of confidence.
Some doubt inspires action and the impulse to understand, encourages deeper investigation and can be healthy.
Doubt that hinders meditation is a doubt in the practice, in the Dharmic teachings, in one’s teachers, and/or in oneself. When doubt involves uncertainty about the practice or the teachings, it is helpful to study and reflect on the Dharma itself.
Questioning deeply held beliefs, attending to unresolved feelings, challenging ingrained convictions about self-identity, remembering something that inspires us in the practice (such as a teaching, a person, or some experience you have had in the practice) can all help to dissipate doubt.
Working with the hindrances can help us to answer the following queries:
- Where do I put my attention?
- What thoughts and actions cause my mind to fixate its attention on what I want or don’t want?
- How can I apply mindfulness rather than allowing this mental activity to continue?
- How can I work with this impulse of preoccupation and obsessive thinking?
- How can I bring curiosity and exploration, understanding, kindness and non-reactivity to my meditation practice?
Working with the hindrances can strengthen our faith, our firm conviction in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and remind us of why we meditate and practice ethics and how much we value our practice.
Faith gladdens the heart, clears away the hindrances and breathes life into our efforts to continue our path to freedom.