five hindrances

Faith and discipline

tree growing in rockLong-time meditation practitioner and teacher Vajradaka gives practical suggestions about how we can rekindle faith in our meditation practice.

Many people struggle to keep up a regular meditation practice, even when they really want to. Here are a few practical guidelines.

Most of those who have difficulties are not disciplined enough in the way they work in meditation, and a measured amount of discipline each day can make the process easier and more enjoyable. For example, you can set yourself the task of shortening the time it takes you to notice when your mind wanders off. At the start of each practice form an intention to catch yourself as soon as possible each time your mind wanders.

If you consciously decide to do this every day for a week, a positive inclination to acting in this way will develop. Your skill in noticing your attention wandering will increase and your concentration will benefit. Taking on a task like this is within your ability and if it succeeds it will increase your confidence, interest and engagement. It will make the practice feel more your own.

 Take time outside formal meditation to consider whether you’re recognizing the hindrances accurately  

In the following week you could take on another task for each meditation practice. This time have the general intention to recognize accurately the hindrances underlying your distraction. To call this ‘wandering off’ is not really enough. At this point it is worth mentioning that there is an important relationship between knowledge and discipline. It is helpful, for example, to be familiar with the traditional list of five hindrances — the varieties of distraction — and their antidotes. This kind of knowledge comes partly from reading and being taught by others, and partly from learning through your own experience. For instance, on the basis of knowing the symptoms of ‘restlessness and anxiety’ you can differentiate them from ‘sense desire’. Taking time outside formal meditation to consider whether you’re recognizing the hindrances accurately can be useful. Correct recognition of hindrances allows you to be more effective in countering them.

The next week you might take on building up and applying knowledge of which antidotes are effective in dealing with those hindrances you have recognized. For example, reflecting on the implications of sense desire can create a strong feeling of revulsion to that kind of distraction, (although it can also sometimes exacerbate restlessness and anxiety).

I suggest that you take on the practice of noticing distractions quickly, recognizing hindrances accurately, and applying antidotes effectively, in three-week cycles over three months.

A good habit to establish if you meditate within a busy schedule is to give yourself at least five minutes at the end of the meditation, before plunging into something different. During meditation, if you get even slightly concentrated, there is not much sensory input. You enter into the mind’s own experience of itself. If after meditating you suddenly listen to the news on the radio or even start to plan your day in a determined way, that original subtle experience of concentration will be jarred. Over time an inner rebellion to being put through such jarring can develop. The result may be that you feel resistant to meditating, without knowing why.

Discipline arises from faith — the confidence that if you apply yourself to your meditation it will work. And discipline strengthens our faith. When we engage intelligently with our meditation practice we experience tangible results and gain greater confidence in our ability to work with the mind.

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Anxiety, depression, anger… Paths to purification?

wolf looking fierce

Contrary to what you might think, negative emotions are not “bad” things we need to get rid of. Sunada sees them as gold mines – opportunities to learn more about ourselves and walk the path toward uncovering our innate purity.

Meditation is supposed to help us become calm, peaceful, and happy, right? But then when we sit, all this other stuff seems to get in our way – anxiety, worry, depression, irritation, hateful thoughts … So we try harder to get rid of them because, after all, meditation is supposed be about freeing ourselves of all these ugly states of mind, right?

Well, let me stop you right there. Meditation isn’t about willfully fighting and pushing our way to calm and peace. If you go back and read that last sentence, maybe you can sense the incongruity of the whole idea. It’s like going to war in order to enforce peace. There may be short term gains, but there will likely be long-term costs. Also, the struggle itself creates a negative sort of energy that feeds into the situation, making matters only worse.

The kind of unencumbered joy that we see radiating from people like the Dalai Lama doesn’t come about by battling with ourselves. It comes by accepting all of ourselves (yes, even the hateful sides!) with patience and loving-kindness, and giving them all the care and attention they need, so they become our peaceful allies and friends. OK, sounds nice you say, but how do we do that? The best teaching I’ve found on this comes not from the Buddha, but from Rumi, the beloved Sufi poet from the 13th century.


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jelaluddin Rumi (Sufi poet, 1207-1273)

What would happen if you were to treat your anger or depression as an honored guest, as Rumi suggests? What if you imagined it not as an enemy that’s come to irritate and annoy you, but as a good friend who is feeling down and wants to talk? I suppose there are many different ways to interpret what Rumi means by a “guide from beyond,” but this is how I see it. Any time we feel those negative emotions come up, it’s a voice from deeper within ourselves asking to be heard. Somewhere inside, there’s a being that is crying out for love and caring, because it’s feeling hurt, afraid, lonely, or is just simply in pain. That suffering being is you. Why on earth wouldn’t you stop and listen? So next time one of those “guests” stops by, welcome him in. Give him the best, most comfortable chair in your house, and invite him to tell you all his troubles. You might be amazed by what you hear.

   Any time we feel those negative emotions come up, it’s a voice from deeper within ourselves asking to be heard.

And how do we do this “listening” on a practical level, you ask. Well, let’s take depression for example, since he’s been among my frequent guests in the past. When I sat with my depression, I started by observing what the physical experience of it was. As dispassionately as possible, and without passing judgment, I tried to observe how every part of my body and mind felt at the moment. So I observed that my body felt heavy, my chest felt tight, my breathing was shallow, my shoulders were slumped, my chest was caved in. My mind felt sluggish, fogged in, and dull. Doing this sort of careful observation in the context of a sitting practice is a great way to practice mindfulness. Sure, it’s unpleasant and no fun. But how else are we going to help our guest feel better, if we don’t fully understand what’s ailing him?

The next step after that would be to follow up when we’re off the cushion by reflecting on the situation. With a spirit of experimentation, we might try a few things and then mindfullly observe what effect it has. For example, what happens if I do some yoga or go for a walk and get my physical energies moving a bit? Does that make me feel better? If I listen to my favorite music or talk with a good friend, what effect does it have? Do I feel different at different times of the day? Different days of the week? Different seasons? How do different foods affect me? All of these information-gathering activities can help us learn to manage ourselves better and establish routines or activities that nudge us along slowly and gently in a happier direction.

Then we might reflect on some of the psychological factors affecting our moods. Perhaps we can trace our long-term emotional patterns to our childhood or family conditioning. Or we can examine some of our current habits and thoughts that might be contributing. For example, I noticed that I had a tendency to focus on what’s wrong with things. To some extent it was a professionally-trained skill that I gained in my former work as a project manager – it’s good to be able to foresee all the ways that plans might go awry and have contingencies for them. But as a way of living life in general, I realized that it contributed in a big way toward my seeing everything as a dark cloud.

All this sort of reflection is a purposeful, directed mindfulness practice that extends well beyond one’s time on the cushion. It’s also about listening ever more deeply to ourselves, getting to know our inner being intimately, and responding to its needs. And in this way we slowly dissolve the layers of negativity and pain we’ve been carrying around with us all our lives, and start allowing something else from deeper within to shine through.

So are you beginning to see how listening to our uninvited “guests” can be a gold mine for helping us to go deeper into understanding ourselves? Over time, I’ve come to see those guests as real treasures. On one level, they’re like warning alarms telling us that something in our life is out of balance and needs attention. But on a deeper, spiritual level, they open up a direct and authentic pathway for reaching out to that pure, lovely Buddha-being within each of us. As you might suspect, that being is much quieter and less assertive than the side of us that faces the world out there, so we need to be very still and patient. But at the same time, this being is infinitely wise and loving. If we take the time to listen and care for it, it will return the favor in more ways than you can imagine.

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Susan O’Brien: “Mindfulness is remembering to come back, over and over again.”

(L to R) Susan O'Brien, Michael Grady, and Sara Schedler

The other day I was being interviewed by a journalist and he asked a question about meditation that comes up very often: “So, when you’re meditating are you going into a trance?”

I said to him that it was exactly the opposite, that when you meditate you’re coming out of a trance. Actually, I could have said that when you’re meditating you’re continually coming out of trances. In normal, non-meditating life we’re constantly slipping in and out of trance states without even realizing it. You’ll recognize what I mean when I give some examples:

  • You’re in a conversation with someone and you’re so busy thinking about what you’re going to say in response to something they said thirty seconds ago that you’ve entirely missed the last thirty seconds of the conversation.
  • You’ve found yourself lost in an imaginary conversation in which you’re really letting someone have a piece of your mind.
  • You’ve just arrived at the place you were driving to and you can’t remember anything about the journey there.
  • You can’t remember where you put something that you had in your hand just two minutes ago.
  • You spend time thinking about your failures, telling yourself how nothing ever goes right.

All of these examples are instances where we’ve been in a trance state, so caught up in our thoughts—so “en-tranced”—that we’ve been in an altered state of consciousness. Common names for these trance states are: distractedness, daydreaming, spacing out, obsessing, and wool-gathering. We don’t think of these as trances because we think that trances are connected in our minds with some kind of mystical and perhaps scary mystical states of consciousness. But actually these trance states are happening to us all the time. We slip in and out of them—and from one trance state to another—without even noticing.

In meditation, what we’re doing is noticing when we’ve been distracted—when we’ve been en-tranced—and mindfully returning our awareness to some mental “anchor,” such as the breath. In other words, our meditation practice involves noticing, and letting go of, trance states. Meditation involves coming out of trance states and instead mindfully observing our experience.

The problem with trance states is that we have surrendered any sense of direction. Trance states (or distractions, in simple language) are like fast-flowing rivers. When we’re caught up in one we’re swept along by the force of the stream of thoughts. We’re so caught up in thinking that we don’t even realize that we are thinking. Mindfulness starts with realizing, “Oh, yes, there’s some unhelpful thinking going on.” We scrabble for the bank, and then, all going well, we can sit by the side of the fast-flowing water, observing it as it passes us but not getting drawn in. Although often of course we start to lose our mindfulness; a particularly compelling thought is passing by and we lean closer in, and then before we know it we’ve fallen in and we’re being swept away, without (once again) realizing what’s happened.

The Greeks had a myth of the Waters of Lethe, which separated the world of the living from that of the dead. Lethe is the Greek word for forgetfulness, and this metaphor of thought being like a river works best if we think of the river as having this quality of inducing forgetfulness. When we fall into the river—when we become absorbed in a distracting thought—we forget our original purpose, we forget that we were meditating, we forget that we have a choice about whether to continue with the particular thought that we’re obsessed by, and we even forget that we’re thinking. Perhaps that’s why the word sati, which we translate as “mindfulness” has the root meaning of “remembering.”

Mindfulness is the opposite. It literally means “remembering.” And we cultivate mindfulness by, as Susan O’Brien says, “remembering to come back, over and over again.”

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