What kinds of things do we get up to when we are meant to be meditating, but have become distracted? Most people will say they “think” or “fantasize,” but that’s not very specific. What kind of thinking is going on? What kinds of desires drive our fantasies?
There are five traditional hindrances to meditation. Speaking very non-technically, what we tend to do when we’re distracted is one of the following:
- Getting annoyed about things we dislike
- Fantasizing about things we like
- Worrying and fidgeting
- Snoozing and avoiding challenges
- Undermining ourselves with stories about what we can’t do
These are the five hindrances in very non-technical language. Each of them is a form of mental turbulence that prevents us from experience the natural calmness and joy of the undisturbed mind.
The Buddha suggested a number of ways to calm the mind by dealing with the hindrances.One approach, which we could call “reflecting on the consequences,” uses thought to calm our thinking.
He suggested that we reflect on the disadvantages of continuing to be caught up in the hindrance that is currently dominating our minds. For example, we can ask, What will happen if I continue to let my mind be dominated by anger or doubt? Will it make me happy? Are the consequences of these mental states with those that I want to live with? By consciously reflecting in this way, we bring alternative visions of the future into our present consciousness. We thus create the possibility of choice. We are then able to experience an emotional response to each of the alternatives we’ve imagined.
So, if you imagine that continuing to indulge in angry states of mind is going to lead to isolation and conflict, then the emotional response to that imagined future outcome may well be one of aversion. And generating aversion to the outcomes of anger will tend to lead to aversion to the anger itself. (This is a useful aversion to have!) And we may imagine being calm, confident, and kind, and this exerts its own emotional pull, making it more likely that we’ll choose the path that leads us there.
The Buddha used a very colorful image to describe this antidote. He said it was “like a young woman or man, in the flush of youth and fond of finery, who would be ashamed to have the carcass of a dog or snake hanging round his neck.” I like this image. It reminds us there is beauty already present beneath the hindrance, and that the hindrance itself is something that mars our inherent spiritual loveliness, and that is relatively superficial and extraneous.
So, when you notice you’re in an unhelpful state of mind, see where that’s leading you by reflecting on the consequences. Become aware of the unwholesomeness of the negative mental state that you’re experiencing, and allow a natural and wholesome aversion towards it to emerge. But also be aware that there is an inner beauty just waiting to be revealed.