the five hindrances

 

 

THE FIVE HINDRANCES

 

The five hindrances (Pali: nivārana) are what is preventing us from gaining calmness of mind and insight into the true nature of phenomena and existence.

 

These five are (1) sensual desire, (2) ill will, (3) laziness and drowsiness, (4) restlessness and worry and (5) sceptical doubt.

 

The Buddha attributed the cause of ignorance or delusion to these five hindrances. He described the five hindrances as the nutriment and specific condition for the arising of ignorance.

 

He gave a simile to illustrate his point: “When gold is debased by these five impurities, it is not pliant, malleable, or luminous. It is brittle and not ready to be worked. Which five? Iron, copper, tin, lead, and silver... But when gold is not debased by these five impurities, it is pliant, malleable, and luminous. It is not brittle and is ready to be worked. Then whatever sort of ornament one has in mind - whether a belt, an earring, a necklace, or a gold chain - it would serve one's purpose.

 

“In the same way, when the mind is debased by these five impurities, it is not pliant, malleable, or luminous. It is brittle and not rightly concentrated for the ending of the mental taints. Which five? Sensual desire, ill will, laziness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and sceptical doubt... But when the mind is not debased by these five impurities, it is pliant, malleable, and luminous. It is not brittle and is rightly concentrated for the ending of the mental taints.” (Anguttara Nikaya 5:23)

 

The mental taints referred to here are (1) the taint of sensual desire, (2) the taint of craving for existence, (3) the taint of ignorance, and (4) the taint of wrong view. In a broader context, the taints can be regarded as the three unwholesome roots of greed, hatred, and delusion. Nibbana is described as the extinction of these three mental defilements. Nibbana is further defined as the end of suffering and the attainment of the highest peace and happiness.

 

1. Sensual desire (kāmacchanda)

 

The Buddha described sensual pleasure as follows: “There are these five cords of sensual pleasure. What five? Forms cognizable by the eye that are desirable, lovely, agreeable, pleasing, sensually enticing. Sounds cognizable by the ear…Odours cognizable by the nose…Flavours cognizable by the tongue…Tactile objects cognizable by the body that are desirable, lovely, agreeable, pleasing, sensually enticing, tantalizing. These are the five cords of sensual pleasure. The pleasure and joy that arise dependent on these five cords of sensual pleasure are the gratification in the case of sensual pleasure.”

 

The Buddha did not deny the happiness that sensual pleasure can bring. But there are, as we well know, accompanying disadvantages and potential causes of suffering in our pursuit and addiction to these pleasures. Hence, the Buddha wanted to wean us away from our dependency on sensual pleasure so we may enjoy a higher and more superior form of happiness.

 

This is how he put it: “Though some may say, ‘This (sensual happiness) is the supreme pleasure and joy that beings experience,’ I would not say so. Why is that? Because there is another kind of happiness more excellent and sublime than that happiness. And what is that other kind of happiness? Here, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states of mind, one enters and dwells in the first jhana…the second jhana….third jhana….fourth jhana.” (Samyutta Nikaya 36:19)

 

Jhana is a deep state of mental absorption we can experience after overcoming the five hindrances during our meditation. It is a pleasurable and peaceful state of mind that is devoid of the taint of sensual desire. The Buddha recommended jhana as follows:

 

“Jhana is called the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of enlightenment. I say of this kind of pleasure that it should be pursued, that it should be developed, that it should be cultivated, that it should not be feared.” (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta 66)

 

Our fondness for and addiction to sensual pleasure is what is keeping us from the meditation cushion. Rather than settling down to meditate we would generally do something else which we reckon as more enjoyable and entertaining such as listening to music, watching a movie, reading a novel, and surfing the internet. We need to develop a deeper appreciation for the happiness of inner peace and the benefits it brings in order to wean our mind from the sensual objects.

 

In a retreat, craving for some sense object can become very strong and disturbing, rendering us unable to concentrate on our meditation object. At such times we need to be patient and know how to deal with this hindrance and bring it under rein.

 

The first rule is to be mindful of the sense desire. We can mentally label, “sensual desire, sensual desire,” and acknowledge that a hindrance to our attainment of inner peace and calm has arisen. There are various types of craving. It could be thoughts about enjoying some particular food or drink or thoughts about enjoying various types of sensual pleasure (having a holiday, music, movies, reading a novel, sex, recollection of enjoyable times, etc.).

 

If we can put aside those thoughts and stay with the meditation object, the desire will pass away. If it does not and thoughts continue to intrude, we can exercise wise reflection to help us overcome the craving. There are various ways of reflecting, including considering the limitations, dangers and disadvantages of sensual pleasure, its insatiability, and the noble quest we have embarked on, i.e., the liberation of the mind from its slavery to sense objects and the attainment of a higher and more superior form of peace and happiness.

 

Whether it takes a shorter or longer time, if we persevere we will eventually overcome the craving. We can then appreciate the mind that is content and free from craving as opposed to the mind that is burning with desire. One is cool and peaceful, the other is aflame and hankering.

 

Craving underlies the mind’s restlessness, agitation and discontent in everyday life. It can grow from a subtle, mild desire to a roaring, raging fire. According to the Buddha craving is a root cause of suffering and our endless sojourn in samsara (the round of birth and death).

 

Craving needs to be understood, skilfully managed and gradually brought to a natural diminution and cessation through maturing wisdom.

 

But do take heart – the purification and liberation of the mind is a work-in-progress that is going to take more than a few lifetimes! Meanwhile, through restraint, patience, understanding and contentment we can grow in inner peace and happiness.

 

2. Ill-will (vyāpadā):

 

This includes all forms of mental aversion such as hatred, anger, annoyance, irritation, and resentment. In a retreat we can sometimes observe (hopefully with some amusement) the mind’s penchant to being irked or vexed by almost anything and everything! Memories, replaying some old hurts, being annoyed with other participants in the retreat or even with the teacher, unhappy with less than ideal practice conditions, etc. Needless to say, it is difficult to gain calm when anger is burning the mind.

 

The practice of lovingkindness (metta) is prescribed by the Buddha as an antidote against anger. He recommended that we practise metta not just sporadically but on a frequent basis as doing so can greatly weaken the root of anger. Patience, tolerance, restraint, mindfulness and understanding are also qualities that are needed to help overcome ill will.

 

When anger arises, just as in sensual desire, the first rule is to notice it. The reason for this is simple: if one is not aware of the anger, how can one even begin to check it? Notice the anger – it could be just a slight irritation or annoyance which often occurs without one realizing it or it could be something much stronger and easily noticeable. Notice how the annoyance affects the body and mind. Notice the tension in the body, maybe there is a tightness in the chest or stomach or any other part of the body. Maybe you can sense that your face is frowning. Notice the tension and pain in the mind, notice the inner commentary (i.e., the angry and critical thoughts directed towards the person you are angry with). You can give an appropriate label to the mental state such as ‘anger’, ‘irritation’, ‘annoyance’, ‘resentment’, ‘hatred’, ‘indignation’, ‘rage’. You can acknowledge that this anger is an unwholesome state of mind and a hindrance to your meditation.

 

The anger may take a while to subside, going through what we call a “refractory period” before it passes away. However, the noting of the anger and the sustained mindfulness on it helps to contain it and prevent it from escalating. It gives the mind an opportunity to check the anger. During these moments, when we are aware of the anger, we can play the role of being a good adviser to ourself by exercising wise reflection to help us let go of the anger. There are many ways to reflect to help us to abandon the anger. We can reflect on the dangers and disadvantages of anger and how it is like a poison to the mind. We can reflect on the Buddha’s teachings on non-anger, especially on the famous simile of the saw. If applicable, we can consider the good qualities and the past kindness shown us by the person with whom we are now angry. We can contemplate the virtues of patience, tolerance, restraint, and forgiveness. And the list of skilful ways of reflecting goes on.

 

We can radiate metta to a person we dislike. Though we may not like a person we can still wish the person well, with the understanding that the “wellness and happiness” has a condition attached to it, i.e., it must be a happiness that harms nobody and preferably one that contributes to the well-being of others. If we are in the habit of practising metta, anger is less likely to arise, and when it arises it is not so strong and is more easily checked.

 

At the time we are angry, we can also switch from vipassana (insight) to metta meditation, radiating metta to the people we normally send to or to all beings in general so as to take our mind away from the person or incident that has aroused anger in our mind. Diversion is also a tactic. Then, when the mind has calmed down, we can return to our vipassana practice.

 

Thus, with a combination of mindfulness, patience, tolerance, wise reflection and metta, we can overcome the hindrance of ill will during our meditation.

 

3. Laziness and drowsiness (thīna-middha):

 

Naturally when one is lazy there is no desire to meditate. We need to summon interest and effort to sit. In a retreat setting, initally we come with the intention to put in the best effort. We want to attain the best possible benefits from our retreat. But the mind is impermanent and fickle. It changes. It loses interest. It wants to lie down and sleep. It thinks of doing other things which it finds more interesting and entertaining. We need discipline and a sense of purpose to keep at our practice.

 

We reflect wisely on the importance and benefits of the practice: this practice steadies and strengthens our mind, weakens the mental defilements, contributes to our overall happiness in life, inclines the mind towards Nibbana and shortens our sojourn in samsara. We think in ways that can inspire and motivate us to continue with zest and enthusiam. As such, we can reflect on the preciousness of the human birth and the opportunity we have now to practise; the brevity of life and how death may come at any time; hence, the need to seize the moment and make the most of our opportunity to practise; how this path was trodden by the Buddha and his enlightened disciples and that success cannot be achieved without making the necessary effort, etc.

 

Then there is drowsiness and sleepiness which can be very persistent and frustrating. We keep nodding off despite our best effort to stay awake and alert. Sleepiness can set in for a variety of reasons such as the heaviness of the body after meals, tiredness, the imbalance between effort and calmness, and the subtleness of the meditation object which causes the mind to slip away from it. We need to persevere, to try to maintain a firm body posture, to keep making the effort to stay with the meditation object and not give up. The effort itself to stay with the object and to keep coming back whenever the mind wanders off will eventually break up the sleepiness or, at least, shorten its duration. We must remember that sleepiness, too, is impermanent and will pass in due course as we persist in the practice.

 

There are various strategies to tackle sleepiness. As always, the first rule is mindfulness; in this case, to note that sleepiness has arisen. One can mentally label, “sleepy, sleepy,” acknowledging the presence of this hindrance. Then there is the determination to stay awake and making the body posture firm. When sleepiness creeps in, the body tends to droop and slouch and the head nods. Realizing that drowsiness has set in, we straighten our body, hold the back up and keep the head straight. We apply more effort to stay aware of our meditation object. If we are doing metta (lovingkindness), we stay more focused on it, perhaps concentrating on the meaning of the metta phrases or thinking of more people to whom to radiate the metta. If we are doing vipassana (insight meditation) we try to be more aware of the vipassana objects such as the breath and body sensations. We can look for more details and changes in the phenomena.

 

Doing “sitting touching” three points can also help to awaken the mind. This is how it is done: First you note briefly the upright sitting posture, then you note the sensation of touch between the right buttock and the seat, then you go back to noting the sitting posture followed by noting the sensation of touch between the left buttock and the seat. Then you go back to noting the sitting posture followed by noting the sensation of touch at the hands that are placed together on the lap. In this way the mind is moving up and down – up noting the upright body, down noting the right buttock, up noting the upright body, down noting the left buttock, up noting the upright body and down noting the hands. These up and down mental movements over the three points in a clockwise manner done repeatedly can help to awaken the mind as it keeps the mind moving and active.

 

Other suggestions are that we can visualise or imagine a bright light, perhaps repeating occasionally the word, “light, light, bright light, bright light”; meditating with eyes open for a while; pinching and pulling our earlobes – the little pain inflicted may help to wake us up; rub our limbs with our palm. If all this fails, we can go to wash our face with water and do a bit of stretching before sitting again. If sleepiness still recurs we can get up and do walking meditation. In a retreat we normally balance between walking and sitting meditation. When sleepiness is persistent we can opt to do more walking than sitting.

 

If after making valiant effort we still can’t keep awake, then perhaps it is time to throw in the towel and go and have a nap with the intention to get up as soon as possible (i.e., as soon as we feel refreshed) to continue the practice with renewed enthusiasm.

 

It is the effort that counts. Thus, as we keep trying, that effort itself can help to break up and shorten the spell of sleepiness. Another thing to remember is that sleep is not a bad thing in itself. It is also restful for the mind and body, thus it relieves stress. When you think about it, to have a sleepy and restful mind is better than having an agitated and restless one. But, of course, we acknowledge that our intention in meditation is to stay awake and not fall alseep. Our intention is to cultivate a calm, peaceful, alert and clear mind so we can gain insight into the true nature of phenomena. Hence, our effort to dispel the sleepiness and stay alert. With practice the mind will overcome sleepiness and stay awake.

 

4. Restlessness and Worry (uddhacca-kukkucca):

 

The mind wanders and cannot stay with the meditation object. Maybe it is bored so it gets lost in thoughts. It likes to think and just cannot stop thinking. Or maybe the object such as the breath is subtle and difficult to stay with, so the mind keeps slipping away. We have to be patient and persistent in bringing the mind back to the object. We also have to take an interest in wanting to stay with the object and to see how we can skilfully succeed in doing so.

 

As always, the first rule is to be cognizant of the restless or wandering mind. One notes, “thinking, thinking,” or “wandering, wandering,” or “restless, restless,” whatever one reckons is the appropriate label at that time. We recognise that the hindrance of restlessness has arisen. In the Buddha’s discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness it is instructed that one should know when a hindrance has arisen and when it has passed away, i.e, both its presence and absence can be noted. One should also know how the unarisen hindrance has come to arise, how it can be abandoned, and how it can be prevented from arising in the future.

 

From this we can see that the Buddha wanted us to understand the hindrances very well so we can know how to relate to them, how to abandon them and prevent them from arising in the future. One can also see that the practice is not just about bare attention: there is also room for reflection and analysis according to the situation.

 

As regards the hindrance of restlessness where the mind keeps wandering into thoughts, we can tell ourself, “Nope, I am not going to think. I refuse to think and be thus distracted. I am just going to stay with the meditation object (say with the breath and the body sensations and awareness itself). I can think later after the meditation but not now. Peace and calm is good and since this is what I want to attain for this period of time when I am meditating, I am happy to drop the thinking.”

 

If we keep gently, patiently and persistently bringing the mind back each time it wanders off, eventually the mind will be trained or conditioned to come back and stay put. The mind will still occasionally go off but the incidence will be greatly reduced. It is now conditioned to come back and it stays with the meditation objects for longer periods with fewer meanderings.

 

You can sense the restless state of mind. It is the opposite of the feeling of calm and ease. The mind is unsettled and flighty. It is not comfortable or content. However, as you continue to place the mind on the meditation object, eventually you will be aware of a change in your mental state. You notice the mind has settled or dropped into a state of calm and peace. There is no desire in the mind to go anywhere else. It is comfortable and content to stay in the present moment with the meditation object. It is a pleasant state of mind.

 

However, in the case of worry, it is more than mere restlessness. Worry is troubling, disconcerting, producing anxiety and agitation in the mind. How can we tackle it? Again first, one is mindful. One notices the worry and there and then drops it. Worry is a habit that can be checked. Every time it arises one notices and lets it go. In this way the tendency to worry is curtailed. Over time we notice that we worry less and live more lightly and happily in the present moment.

 

Of course, in the beginning you may not be able to simply let go of the worry as the habit of dropping it has yet to be developed. You can then do wise reflection and reassure yourself that you can face any problem and that we just need to have faith and trust in ourselves and the process of life that we have to go through. For example, you could reflect as follows: “Worry is futile. It doesn’t help. It only causes vexation to the mind. So instead of worrying I will just do whatever I can to solve or tackle whatever problems or matters that need to be attended to. What is important is that I calmly go about doing whatever I have to do.

 

“Besides, many things that one worried about never happened. It was all unnecessary fear and anxiety about the future. And even if some things were to happen as feared, I am sure I will have the inner strength to deal with them when the time comes. I have courage and confidence in facing the future. There is no point worrying uselessly now. I will cross the bridge when I come to it. Meanwhile I live my life as responsibly and as well as I can. This will be the best guarantee for the future.”

 

When worry about something arises during meditation and you feel you ought to give the matter some thought, you can also tell yourself, “Not now, not now. If there is something that I need to think about, reflect or ponder over, let me do it later but not now while I am meditating. Now is the time for me to gain some inner peace and strength.”

 

One realises that the meditation itself will weaken the mental defilements; it will relax, heal, strengthen, and purify the mind, and develop insight and wisdom. Thus the practice can fortify and help us to face the problems and challenges in life. Those problems don’t look so formidable and insurmountable anymore when the mind is refreshed and stabilised.

 

Then there is the mental disturbance of remorse. We may harbour remorse or regret over something we have done or something we ought to have done but failed to do in the past. There is no point beating up ourself about something that is past and gone. We acknowledge our lapse and resolve to live more skilfully and wisely in the future. To live feeling continuously weighed down by guilt and remorse is unskilful. We need to practise self-forgiveness and move on, living life as skilfully, lightly and happily as possible.

 

5. Sceptical Doubt (vicikicchā):

 

There are many types of doubts. One may doubt the teachings (are they true?), the teacher (is he/she any good?), the method (is it correct or is it suitable for me?), and oneself (I don’t think I can do this).

 

When doubt arises we notice it and see how we can reconcile with it. Usually, if you continue to practise as well as you can, doubts can be cleared up along the way. In a retreat, a meditator can seek clarifications from his/her teacher during the personal interview time or during the evening Dhamma talk given by the teacher.

 

In general, we can study the basic teachings of the Buddha on the four noble truths which include the noble eightfold path. These days there is a myriad of books available and a wealth of information on the internet. In exploring the teachings, you can accept whatever you find rational and helpful and leave alone what you cannot accept or are uncertain about. Over time our relationship with the teachings will change. This is a process that everybody goes through: we modify our understanding and approach to the practice and teaching as we progress.

 

We need to have some faith and confidence in a teacher. The teacher is expected to conduct himself or herself well, i.e., behave ethically and compassionately, and have sufficient knowledge and experience to teach. If you find faults or shortcomings too serious for you to continue practising with a teacher, it is understandable, even advisable, if you were to seek another guide.

 

We have to be comfortable with the method of meditation taught by the teacher. If you still have doubts after practising it for a period of time, you naturally cannot continue and will seek out another method which is more suitable for you.

 

As regards self-doubt, if we are determined to succeed we can. It is a matter of time. No matter how slow we are, if we keep practising we are certain to make some progress. We just have to be patient and persevere. Also it may be helpful to look at the practice from a perspective of not just one life but many lives. Hence, we are planting the seeds, laying the foundation, building the structures and walls, etc., for our continued progress in the following life and all the lives to come before we attain our final goal of Awakening.

 

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It is interesting to note the following similes given in the Buddhist text as regards the five hindrances. Sensual desire is compared to colour dyes in a pot of water. Ill will is compared to boiling water, laziness and drowsiness to algae-filled water, restlessness and worry to water whipped up by the wind, and doubt to muddy water. In all instances, the disturbances destroy the clarity of the water.

 

These five hindrances are said to be inhibited by the five factors of the first jhana, i.e., when one attains the first of four stages of deep meditative absorption. The five factors of the first jhana are (1) initial application of mind to the object, (2) sustained application of mind on the object, (3) rapture, (4) happiness, and (5) one-pointedness of mind.

 

Applying the mind persistently to the meditation object breaks up laziness and sleepiness. Keeping the mind on the object inhibits doubt. Rapture that arises during the meditation overcomes ill will. Happiness that is present at the same time counters restlessness and worry. One-pointedness of mind, i.e., the mind being well concentrated on the meditation object, checks the craving for sensual pleasure. The meditator is content and seeks no sensual object at the time.

 

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During a retreat, a teacher will normally address these hindrances, explaining how they arise and how they may be overcome. Generally, the Buddha attributed the cause of the arising of the hindrances to unwise attention or consideration. Consequently, the way to check and dispel them is through wise attention and consideration.

 

When the five hindrances are overcome, the mind becomes concentrated and absorbed in the meditation objects. We experience inner calm and peace which serve to weaken the mental defilements and deepen our insight into the impermanent, suffering, and not-self nature of phenomena.

 

It is worthwhile pursuing this inner calm and peace that lead to insight and liberation of the mind from all forms of mental suffering. The Buddha urged us to seek a higher form of happiness than that of sensual pleasures. The way is open to us but we ourselves have to walk the path that will lead us to true peace and happiness.

 

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“A first beginning of ignorance cannot be conceived, (of which it can be said), 'Before that, there was no ignorance and it came to be after that.' Though this is so, monks, yet a specific condition of ignorance can be conceived. Ignorance, too, has its nutriment, I declare; and it is not without a nutriment. And what is the nutriment of ignorance? 'The five hindrances,' should be the answer.”

- Anguttara Nikaya 10.61

 

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“When he knows the five hindrances are absent within him, gladness arises, and being glad, rapture arises. Because of rapture his body becomes tranquil, with his body tranquillized he feels happiness, and with happiness his mind becomes concentrated. Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, he enters and abides in the first jhana which is characterized by rapture and pleasure born of seclusion, and accompanied by initial and sustained thought.”

– Digha Nikaya, Samannaphala Sutta