hindrances

Finding meditation’s intrinsic rewards

The mind is pulled in two different directions in meditation.

Peace, calm, and joy are the intrinsic rewards that meditation offers, and in theory that reward system should help keep you anchored in your direct, moment-by-moment experience. That can happen, and in fact that’s a good description of the experience of jhana (dhyana in Sanskrit). Jhana is a state of “flow” in which meditation becomes effortless because the rewards of joy, pleasure, and calmness keep you immersed in your present-moment experience. The rewards of meditation can pull you into your practice. That’s the first pull.

But it’s not always easy to experience those rewards. There’s another pull, which we’re all too familiar with: the pull of our distractions. This pull is much stronger. We’ve evolved to have minds that are constantly searching around looking for things that are wrong. Our ancestors’ survival (and thus our present-day existence) depended on a heightened awareness of anything that might threaten our chances of continuing to exist. And although our lives are pretty safe compared to the days when you had perhaps a one in three chance of dying violently, those circuits are still active.

So your ability to become absorbed in calmness and joy is hampered by the mind obsessing about some future event you’re anxious about, or a careless word from a friend that hurt your feelings, or some pleasant experience you hope will happen.

The parts of your brain that are responsible for those patterns of thought have been around for a long time and have had a lot of practice in getting your attention. They’re deeply wired into the rest of the brain and have the ability to hijack the brain’s “higher” centers, which are more recently evolved.

And so the powers of distraction are strong. You can let go of a distracted train of thought and return to your sensory awareness of your moment-by-moment experience, only to find you’ve become distracted again, long before you had a chance to get to the “rewards” of peace, calmness, of joy.

Two approaches I’ve found are useful for helping break out of this dynamic are these:

1. Really appreciate the experience of the breathing.

There is a shift in the quality of your experience when you disengage from a distraction. The shift may be slight, but it happens. It’s there. There’s just a little more calm, a little less tension.

Practice noticing those shifts. Really appreciate them. Allow yourself to feel that you’re coming home as you return to the breathing. You can even say words like “Yes,” or “Thank you,” or “Coming home again.”

Doing this will help to enhance your experience of the intrinsic rewards of meditation, so that they become stronger, easier to notice, and more compelling.

2. Disengage from distractions respectfully and empathetically

Treating your distractions as the enemy is a mistake. They’ve evolved to keep us safe and alive. Those are important tasks, and we should appreciate that they are what our distractions are trying to do. They’re not trying to mess up our meditation practice. They’re not trying to make us tense, stressed, upset, or depressed — even if that’s what they end up doing. From their point of view, they are crucial to our survival, and our happiness doesn’t even register to them.

So first, stop reacting to your distractions. This is common advice, of course, but accept that distraction simply happens. It’s no big deal. You can just let go and return to the breathing.

But before you do, say “Thank you.” Say “Thanks. I’ll deal with that at a more appropriate time,” or “Thanks. It can wait, though,” or “Thank you. Later.” Maybe you can come up with phrases that are better than mine.

If you’re signaling to those parts of the brain that their input is valued and will be attended to at the right time, they’re more likely to stop bugging you. Otherwise, they’ll think that their crucial role in keeping you safe is being ignored, which means they think you’re endangering yourself, which means they have to try even harder to get your attention.

This two-fold approach, of valuing but politely disengaging from distraction, while also savoring any increase in calmness, can help make our distractions less insistent and our moment-by-moment sensory experience more compelling. It can help us get more quickly to the rewards that meditation offers.

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Enjoying the play of your inner toddler

child playing

We can experience different kinds of distracted thinking in meditation.

There are obvious, compelling, and “in your face” thoughts in which we tend to become completely immersed. These are the full-blown distractions where we completely forget that we’re meant to be meditating, and instead become submerged in our inner dramas. We dip in and out of these all the time in meditation, returning to the practice every time mindful awareness reappears.

Then there are lighter background thoughts that babble on in the background, even as we continue to pay attention to the meditation practice. So we’ll be following the breathing, for example, while random thoughts keep popping up. Perhaps these thoughts take the form of a commentary on our experience, or perhaps they are completely unrelated to the meditation practice. But they’re not usually so emotionally compelling that we get caught up in them.

I mainly want to talk a little about this second kind of thinking, and how we can relate to it.

Regard your inner chatter fondly, as if you’re listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing.

So, if you’re aware of an inner voice chattering away while you follow your breathing, you can try regarding that voice fondly, as if you were listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing. When a child talks like that it’s usually charming and funny and endearing. It’s not the kind of thing we tend to get upset about.

The way we relate to our inner talk is often more of a problem than the thoughts themselves. When we start resisting our thoughts, wishing that they would go away, the resistance itself is a painful state of mind, and it’s also likely to give rise to distractedness. Our thoughts of “I wish this would stop” throw us off-balance, and we find that suddenly we’re back into becoming seriously distracted again. Our distractions resist our resistance, and before we know it we find they’ve “tricked” us into being unmindful.

Just allowing those babbling thoughts to be present helps us to prevent this happening. It also helps us to be more kind and accepting.

Taking a tolerant and playful attitude toward random thoughts, which is what you’re doing when you regard them as being like the sounds of a young child playing, lets you simply get on with the meditation. The thoughts are still there, but they no longer bother you. In fact you not only don’t mind them, but can be amused by and feel fondness for them. This is immeasurably more enjoyable and helpful than resisting them!

Of course this doesn’t work so well with the first type of thinking I mentioned — the compelling kind. Those thoughts tend to be emotionally loaded, which is why we find ourselves repeatedly drawn into them. What helps there is to give our compelling thoughts plenty of space, and I discussed in a recent article.

When the mind is constricted our thoughts seem larger, and they’re harder to resist. It’s a bit like being trapped in a long car-ride with a child’s constant demands for attention. It drives us crazy! To quiet the inner child down, you need to give it plenty of space to play. Once you’ve done that, you’ll often find that it just quietly gets on with its own thing, and you can enjoy its babbling as you get on with doing your own thing. Eventually, perhaps, the toddler will take a nap, and you can enjoy the refreshing calm of a quiet and spacious mind.

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Let your distractions be your teachers

Once, many years ago, I was meditating—or at least I was supposed to be—and I found myself wondering what the Pali for “Palm Pilot” would be.

I had one of these electronic devices in front of me (if you’re not familiar with this ancient technology, think of it as being a very primitive iPod Touch) because I was leading a retreat and had been reading notes from it. I recognized that this train of thought was a hindrance, and as I wondered why it was happening it occurred to me that it was an expression of playfulness. Could it be, I inquired, that my meditation had been lacking in playfulness? Had it been a bit dry and willful? Looking back, I found that this was in fact the case. So for the rest of the sit I allowed myself to to feel playful, regarding the flow of the breathing as being like the movement of a swing on which I was sitting, or the surge of waves on a beach.

The hindrances—our distractions—have a lot to teach us. It’s understandable to think they are “bad” or are our enemies, but this attitude leads to inner tension and mental turbulence. The hindrances are not in fact “bad.” What they are is ineffective strategies for finding happiness. Each hindrance starts with some kind of dissatisfaction, and on some level we assume that the hindrances will help us deal with that dissatisfaction. If we pay attention to what’s driving the hindrances, we can often learn a lot about what our unmet needs are.

Each of the hindrances is trying to do something for us. Each is a strategy, attempting to fulfill a particular need. The principle problem with the hindrances is that they just don’t work. They don’t bring us happiness. Instead, they add to our suffering. The needs underlying our hindrances are perfectly valid and healthy.

Recognizing that each hindrance is trying to fulfill an unmet need can open up the way to finding a healthier and more effective way of fulfilling that need. To do this we need to relax with ourselves, become more aware of the need underlying the hindrance, and then let that need suggest a way of finding fulfillment. Here’s some guidance about how all that can work.

Sense desire…

Sense desire is often triggered by a lack of pleasure or happiness. In an attempt to fill this unmet need, we crave pleasant experiences, but such grasping doesn’t change our underlying sense of emptiness, and when our pleasures end we’re plunged once again into a state of dissatisfaction.

Other times sense desire is a response to fear: we have pleasure and fear losing it, and so we cling tightly to the experience in order to hold onto it. However it’s simply not possible to hold on to pleasure, since it’s in the nature of all experiences to arise and pass away. The hindrance of craving merely creates more suffering, even though its aim is to bring completion and happiness.

…and what you can learn from it

If sense desire is alerting you that your needs for pleasure and happiness are not being met, then in response to those unmet needs, rather than fantasizing, you may be able to relax into your present-moment experience and soften the body. Sense desire teaches us that we are out of touch with ourselves. You may be able to allow pleasure to arise through attending to the natural energy and rhythm of the breathing, and noticing the effect these have on various parts of the body. You may be able to relax your attitude, and allow yourself to be more light, playful, and appreciative.

Ill will…

Ill will is usually sparked off by the presence of an unpleasant feeling. If we’re imagining having an argument with someone, we probably assume that this will stop the other person from behaving in ways that we don’t like, or will make them stay away from us so that we won’t be bothered by them any more. Ill will promises to remove our difficulties from our lives, but of course it merely creates new conflicts.

…and what you can learn from it

Ill will teaches us that there is something painful in us that needs acceptance and reassurance. Ill will is usually defensive, and it may be telling us we have unmet needs for security, reassurance, or self-comfort. Can you find these through acceptance of the painful feelings underlying ill will, and by showing them compassion?

Worry…

Worrying starts with an initial experience of anxiety. Worry is an attempt to “fix” the problem that has led to our anxiety. When we worry, we keep up a stream of thoughts that attempt to anticipate and rehash every detail about the situation that’s making us anxious. But this worry, as we know, merely perpetuates and intensifies our sense of insecurity.

…and what you can learn from it

Worry teaches us that we do not trust ourselves to deal with a difficult situation. I think of it as showing us our unmet needs for confidence and trust. When we’re worrying we don’t trust our fundamental ability to deal with life’s events. So, instead of worrying, can you find confidence from within, by trusting that whatever happens, difficult situations will arise and pass away? Perhaps we can trust that in the end our problems solve themselves. As Julian of Norwich heard in a vision, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Sloth and torpor…

Sloth, or laziness, is often a response to the presence of dread—that sinking feeling we have when faced with some experience we don’t think we can cope with. Sloth is like worry combined with aversion. It’s an avoidance strategy, where we turn away from difficulties because we fear them. We assume that if we just ignore the thing we dread, it’ll go away. Unfortunately, that rarely happens!

…and what you can learn from it

Sloth may likewise show us that we have a need for courage, a need to recognize our own strength, a need for acceptance. We may have resistance to meditating, for example, and find that just by turning toward our resistance we’ll find confidence. If we reflect on how good we’ll feel once we have this unpleasant experience behind us, then we may inspire ourselves to act. As Marianne Williamson observed, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We’re always capable of far more than we think we are.

Tiredness, which is more of a physiological lack of energy, may teaching us that we need to take better care of ourselves. Perhaps we can begin doing this in the moment we become aware we’re tired, by practicing forgiveness, and by accepting our need to rest.

Doubt…

Dread or anxiety may also underlie the hindrance of doubt. If sloth is worry combined with aversion, doubt is worry combined with self-aversion.

Our doubts are thoughts that attempt to validate our desire to turn away from challenging experiences. We tell ourselves that this is something we’re not capable of confronting. We may reinforce a painful and limiting view about ourselves, such as “No one likes me,” because we hope that in being pitiful we’ll get sympathy from others. Doubt doesn’t really protect us from anything. Usually the pain it causes is far worse than the discomfort of facing a challenging situation.

…and what you can learn from it

Doubt may reveal to us that we have an unmet need for clarity. Even getting clear about that need is a start! In fact simply identifying that we’re experiencing doubt can bring enough clarity to help free us from it entirely.

Doubt may also, like sloth, reveal a need for confidence. Being able to step back from our doubt in order to name it can help connect us with our inner strength.

These are just suggestions, though. Our hindrances can point to many forms of unmet need. In order to divine these needs we have to accept the presence of the hindrance without fear or aversion, creating a “sacred pause.” Having created this space, the unexpressed need can come into consciousness directly, rather than appearing wearing the guise of a hindrance. We see the need itself, rather than its expression as a strategy. And then, having met the need face to face, as it were, we can allow it to suggest to us a more effective way that it can be fulfilled. Hindrances, observed mindfully, point us toward our needs.

Our hindrances, if we allow them, will tell us how to find happiness.

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Getting the dead dog off of your shoulders

Woman wearing a fur hood.

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.

See also:

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.

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