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Note: The hindrances are a large and important topic in meditation. This talk is divided into two parts. Part 1 gives an overview of the hindrances and how to relate to them wisely. Part 2 goes into the nitty-gritty of eleven specific hindrances the Buddha discussed with his cousin Anuruddha.

A one page pdf handout gives an overview of all this material. Both Parts 1 and 2 of this talk are available in pdf format here.

The Demon’s Blessing 2: The Grit of Specific Hindrances

I opened Part 1 of this talk with the story of Jacob wrestling the demon/angel. If you aren’t familiar with the story, can find it here. It provides a metaphor that will be used here as well. In Part 1 I looked at hindrances in broad strokes — what they are and an attitude toward them that is wise and helpful.

In this Part 2, I’ll shift gears to explore specific hindrances in detail. In the Upakkilesa Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 128) the Buddha mentions eleven hindrances. “Upakkilesa” is usually translated as “imperfections,” obscurations,” “defilements” or “mental impurities.” It really means hindrances or mental nuisances that pull our attention away from our chosen object of meditation.

 

Anuruddha

In verse 7 of the sutta, the Buddha leaves a fractious schism in Kosambi and wanders over to the Eastern Bamboo Park where he meets his first cousin, the monk Anuruddha. Anuruddha is living peacefully with two other monks, Nandiya and Kimbila. Fresh out of the brouhaha in Kosambi, he asks Anuruddha how it is they live in such concord.

Anuruddha says they are kind to one another; each places the others’ needs before his own; they look out for each other; share the chores; and so forth. He says, “We are different in body, but one in mind. … blending like milk and water and viewing each other with kindly eyes.” (verse 12) They play well together. And they meditate together.

 

Jhana

The Buddha picks up on this reference to meditation:

15. "Good, good, Anuruddha. … Have you attained any superhuman states, a distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, a comfortable abiding?"

"Venerable sir, as we abide here diligent, ardent, and resolute, we perceive both light and a vision of forms. Soon afterwards the light and the vision of forms disappear, but we have not discovered the cause for that."

“Superhuman states” don’t have super powers. The term “super” just means “above the norm.” It means “jhana” or “higher stage of meditation.” “Comfortable abiding” means “equanimity.” The Buddha is asking if they enter jhanas and rest stably there.

Anuruddha replies that they perceive “light and the vision of forms.” “Light” means radiance. “Vision of forms” refers to staying with the object of meditation or mindfulness.

In other words, they start off meditating well. The mind-heart becomes light and luminous. Their attention stays on the object of meditation comfortably. But soon it all collapses. And they don’t know why.

We all know that place: the good sitting that gets overrun by hindrances. We six-R. But they persist. Perhaps we’re mystified at what’s going on.

The Buddha says:

16. "You should discover the cause for that, Anuruddha. Before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I too perceived both radiance and the object of meditation. Soon afterwards the lightness and mindfulness disappeared. I thought: 'What is the cause and condition why the radiance and mindfulness have disappeared?' Then I considered thus: 'Doubt arose in me, and because of the doubt my stability of mind fell away; when my collectedness fell away, the radiance and mindfulness disappeared. I shall so act that doubt will not arise in me again.'

Let’s unpack this.

As I said earlier, when a hindrance highjacks our attention, the first thing we do is six-R. Sometimes after six-R’ing once or a number of times, the hindrance fades. And sometimes the hindrance returns again and again with the same strength.

The Buddha says, “You ought to ask why that’s persisting.” To do this, simply ask, “What’s going on?” or “Am I missing something?” Then let go of the question and go back to meditating. The question invites the mind-heart to pay closer attention.

The Buddha goes on to say that back in the old days before he was awakened, sometimes when he asked that question, he realized that doubt was a problem.

Perhaps doubt was the original hindrance. Or perhaps the original hindrance was something else – maybe restlessness. But as the restlessness persisted, he began to doubt the practice, doubt his ability to meditate productively, or doubt the Dhamma.

In other words, he had an unwholesome response to an unwholesome state: a hindrance attack. Hindrances draw other hindrances. They like to run around in gangs.

If this is the case, it helps to let the original hindrance run off and do what it wants while we attend to the doubt, release it, relax any tension, smile and return to our object of meditation.

As we relax the tightness in the doubt, it will gradually subside. Along with that, the original hindrance (doubt) may begin to run out of gas.

 

Other Hindrances

Verse 17 is exactly the same as 16 except he speaks of inattention rather than doubt. Other verses follow suit until he has mentioned 11 hindrances.

I’d like to look at each of these from verse 16 to 26 starting with the key Pali term and what it means. Then I’ll suggest how to relate to it with kindness and wisdom when the Six Rs themselves don’t seem to be enough.

 

Doubt

As I mentioned, the first specific hindrance the Buddha refers to is doubt – a loss of confidence or loss of faith in oneself or the practice. There is nothing wrong with a healthy skepticism if it motivates us to look more carefully into what’s going on or encourages us to investigate our experience more openly. The doubt the Buddha is concerned about is a cynical closing of the mind and heart — a turning away out of a negative bias.

One antidote for this doubt is curiosity — taking more interest in our experience. It may also help to reflect on our motivations. Curiosity and investigation are awakening factors that can bring us out of the dead end of overbearing doubt.

 

Inattention

In verse 17, the Buddha moves on to a second hindrance called “inattention” or “non-attention.” This means having more interest in something other than meditation while we’re meditating. Earlier I mentioned wanting to develop some zingers to win an argument and designing a desk lamp while on retreat. I can blame the fight or the desk lamp for hindering my progress. But they were only a problem because I was more interested in them than meditation. These are examples of what the Buddha meant by “inattention” or “non-attention.”

As with doubt, antidotes for inattention include taking more genuine interest in the object of meditation and reflecting on our underlying motivation. It doesn’t help to criticize ourselves for mixed motivations. But it does help to honestly and kindly acknowledge what is going on. Wholesome recognition of unwholesome qualities brings more wholesomeness into the mind-heart.

 

Sloth and Torpor

Torpor is dull or sleepy awareness. The mind can feel like a fog. Sloth is a loss of motivation — a kind of “ho humming.” Often they arise together as in, “Ho hum. My mind is dull. I’ll six-R in a few minutes.”

Anything that perks up the mind or motivation can help. Energy, joy, and investigation are awakening factors that bring more energy. Sometimes it’s enough to just invite more energy into the system — not pushing or grasping but just opening to it. Smiling is one of many ways to invite some joy. Investigation might include looking more closely at what we’re actually experiencing. For example, when I feel groggy, I can sometimes notice a dull ache in the back of my head and thick awareness. Taking more interest in seeing the sensations we’re calling “grogginess” or “dullness” can bring clarity.

If this doesn’t help the mind lighten, there are other strategies. Taking a few deep breaths brings more oxygen into the body and increases its energy. Meditating with the eyes open or meditating while standing up brings in more alertness. Meditating outside can freshen the system. Shifting into a walking meditation can help the blood circulate and raise energy levels. Walking backwards can sharpen attention.

If these kinds of strategies fail, ask “Am I a bit sleep deprived?” The mind and body are truly interdependent. If our physical energy is just too tired, the best thing may be to take a nap and start again when we’re fresher.

 

Fear

In verse 19, the Buddha talks about fear. Fear is a signal that something is threatening the integrity of our organism. Fear tries to protect us. We can be grateful for this. Usually we’re not because it’s … well … frightening.

Fear comes in many varieties: some are real and immediate; some are real but loom in the future or drift like ghosts from the past; and some are imaginary. Nevertheless, feeling itself can be quite compelling. When it is too enthusiastic or unwise, it can make meditation and life miserable for no good purpose. So I’d like to spend a little extra time with this hindrance to sort out ways to engage it wisely and compassionately.

 

Real and Immediate Fear

The simplest fear is about things that are real and immediate. For example, we can’t remember if we turned the stove off. With this kind of fear, we needn’t bother to six-R. It’s best to take care of the threat: get up and check the stove.

When we return to meditation, the fear may linger. It can take a while to metabolize the hormones that stimulate fear sensations. If so, we can simply observe those sensations and six-R them.

 

Real and Looming Fear

Another type of fear is real but looms in the future: we’re worried about an upcoming job review, we wonder if a friend was offended by an off-hand comment we made, we’re concerned about what may show up in our blood tests just sent to the lab.

We might ask, “Is there something wise to do about it now?” or conversely, “Would I be better off meditating now and tending to it later?”

The questions aren’t meant to start a mental debate. They are used to direct awareness from the thought content to deeper intuitive wisdom.

If it is wiser to meditate now, this doesn’t mean the thinking will stop. Evolution has bred the mind to figure out solutions to dangers. There’s no need to beat ourselves up or beat the mind up for trying to do its job. However, we don’t want to indulge the thinking either. The mind can make up endless stories to justify what it feels. That is not helpful.

Rather than trying to stop the thinking or indulging it, we just notice the worry and relax into it. We drop the storyline without trying to expel it. This feels like letting it go outside and run around on it’s own while we bring awareness back to the present moment. How does the mind-heart feel? What are its textures, its moods, its tensions? We let tightness soften.

As the tensions soften, the mind will gradually unwind itself. Meanwhile, we aren’t feeding the thinking. Patience helps.

 

Nebulous and Unclear Fear

With another variety of fear, the source of threat it less clear. Like Jacob waking in the night, we feel anxiousness or urgency without knowing what it’s about. The mind will quickly start looking for culprits. In our world and lives, there are lots of candidates willing to step into the spotlight.

Before we assign a culprit, it’s best to six-R the sensations themselves. It’s best to see if we can sit openly with the feelings rather than jump up and blame a villain for them.

Sooner or later most of us meet a demon in the night — a fear that is both large and difficult to see clearly. A common one is the growing realization that the ego-mind is not in charge. We don’t have the control we thought we had. Something else is piloting the plane. We are only the navigators.

If we had a stressful day, it is likely to show up in our meditation practice whether we like it or not. Our lives are governed by natural, impersonal laws that don’t care about our preferences.

Other demons are old feeling tones from a long time ago. They arise out of our history and conditioning.

For example, I grew up in a family with a flat emotional affect. I thought that placidness was normal and the feelings swirling through me were defects. Attempts to stifle them contributed to a diffuse, chronic, low-grade depression. I was in my late 20’s before I realized there was more to life than shades of grey.

It took me a dozen years of therapy, bodywork, and meditation to finally break the clinical depression.

Some years later I went to Thailand to learn meditation from Ajahn Tong, a Thai forest master. Every week or two he asked me to meditate around the clock without sleeping for three or four days at a stretch. As the mind became more and more peaceful, a pervasive sense of aloneness emerged.

It didn’t help that 95% of the people around me didn’t speak English and my family was on the far side of the planet. But it didn’t feel like an adult loneliness. I felt abandoned and helpless, like a baby left alone in a cold darkness.

These were the hidden origins of the clinical depression I had broken fifteen years earlier. These were the subtle roots deep inside. It was quietly overwhelming.

We all have our stories. Some stories are worse than mine. Some are not as difficult. But this side of enlightenment we all have imbalances. As the mind quiets down in deep meditation, these soft, distant voices may be heard for the first time in years.

They are the demons in the night that Jacob felt. How do we relate to them?

I spoke to a monk. He smiled empathetically and said, “Yes, I once touched such a place. It was so terrible that I ran out of my kuti (meditation hut) and across the rice field to get away. But the feelings traveled with me. So I went back to my kuti to meditate. There was no escape. I had to face them sooner or later. Why not face them now.”

Encouraged by his words, I went back to my kuti to meditate. Rather than run from the loneliness, I tried to open to it with kindness and compassion. Gradually, with time and many ups and downs, the ancient loneliness that had gripped my heart began to loosen.

This is how I think it works:

Underneath fear is hurt. It may be the hurt of abuse or abandonment or failure. There are many varieties of suffering. But beneath fear there’s always hurt or the anticipation of hurt.

Under hurt is tenderness. Without sensitivity, we wouldn’t hurt.

Beneath the tenderness is spaciousness. Without openness, there would be no tenderness.

The spaciousness is the equanimity and quiet joy we seek. It’s the demon’s blessing. We can’t find it by running from the fear or running from the hurt or numbing out the tenderness.

The enveloping peacefulness won’t jump up and down and wave its arms to get attention. That’s not its nature. It is quiet and patient.

We can only relax through the layers of fear, hurt, and tenderness to find that immeasurable peace that has been waiting quietly all the time.

It’s up to us to find the wisdom and courage to relax through the disturbances to find what’s always been here.

Many years later, while leading meditation retreats, I saw different versions of this process in other yogis. One might come to me and say, “Horrible images seep into my meditation: dark, bloody, gut wrenching. I feel like I’m going crazy. How can I get rid of them? I don’t want them.”

If I’m confident in their basic emotional stability, I say, “What you want it not relevant. The only thing that’s relevant is what’s true. And the truth is these images and feelings are arising.

“I don’t think the meditation is creating them. It’s just revealing them. They’ve been hiding. Your awareness is getting strong enough to see into dark shadows.”

At this point, I like to quote a children’s story, Where the Wild Things Are, where Maurice Sendak wrote, “And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, ‘Be still’ and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”[1]

Then I suggest to the yogi, “If you feel up to it, you can go back into meditation and call the fear’s bluff. You can look into its yellow eyes and say, ‘Thank you for showing me that deep holding. I’m not going to fight you. I’m not going to run any more. So go ahead and do your worst.’ Then open your heart and relax as best you can into the fear. Surrender into it and see what happens.

“Don’t pay attention to what you’re mind says about the fear. That’s not helpful for relevant. Just open to the pre-verbal sensations of the fear itself and let them flow through you. Fear will generate lots of stories to justify itself. You can ignore those and just soften into the feeling itself.

“See what happens.”

You don’t have to do this all at once. You can open bit by bit, little by little. As you get your sea legs in these larger energies, you’ll naturally relax and open more and more.

This may take you through the fear, hurt, and tenderness into the great luminous spaciousness which is the demon-angel’s blessing.

So far, no one has gone crazy. And some have felt a transformative relief. Most fear is just resistance to fear. As we open to what’s here, the mind-heart’s natural luminosity emerges out of the dark clouds.

This is what happened to me in South East Asia. The Doug who came home from Thailand was not the Doug who went there. I still have plenty of neuroses. But when I came back I knew freedom was tangible and closer than I imagined.

 

Elation

The next hindrance the Buddha describes is elation. Some translate the term as “jubilation” or “excitement.” Basically it means having too much energy. The energy may feel very good, but we are happy to the point of wanting to think about it or describe it to others. We like it and hold onto it.

These days as my meditation settles in, my body often chuckles as it relaxes. It’s involuntary. And it’s not a problem. It becomes a problem only if I obsess about it.

The first remedy for elation is to six-R. Let go of the storyline. Then let the good feeling soak into your bones.

It also helps to intentionally open to some of the quieter awakening factors: equanimity, tranquility, and investigation. They can help balance the mind-heart.

 

Staleness

In verse 21 the Buddha talks about inertia or inaction as a hindrance. Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of it as staleness. It’s a sort of “ho hum-ness” as the mind just goes dully through the motions of meditation without real interest. It’s a form of boredom.

One remedy is to take more interest in the meditation — really see what’s going on. Another is to take a break. On longer retreats Bhante would come pick me up every week or two to take me and a few other yogis out of the meditation center for the day. We’d drive through the Missouri Ozarks and visit deep hot springs or historic sites — something to break up the routine.

The next day when I went back to meditation practice, the mind felt refreshed and ready to go.

Staleness can seem a lot like sloth and torpor. And it is somewhat. These hindrances are not completely separate phenomena.

However, staleness is something that is more likely to occur when we’ve been meditating so much that it has drifted into inertia. We’re doing the practice okay, but progress has slowed down and we’ve lost the sense of freshness.

Taking a break from the routine or just going off and having some fun may do the trick.

 

Excessive Effort

The next hindrance is excessive effort. Excessive effort leads to excessive energy. This often comes from a desire to make something happen or to push something away. We are putting more into controlling experience than into observing it. The most common mistake Western yogis make is trying too hard.

It can help to be less of a meditation student and more of a field naturalist. A good naturalist is more interested in quietly seeing what the animals do than in shaping their behavior. A skillful meditator is more interested in seeing what the mind does than in shaping it. We remind ourselves, “What happens doesn’t matter.” This helps us let go of the subtle pushing.

Sometimes the excessive effort can creep up so slowly that we don’t notice.

During the first few years of my meditation training, I felt I was making progress. It felt good. Then an inner swirling showed up on longer retreats. I felt spun around and around. I even had vertigo.

To get rid of the feeling, I tried to hold onto the sensation of the breath to steady myself. But that made it worse. In fact, everything I did made it worse except distracting myself with wandering thoughts. My progress was coming to a halt.

After about a year of this (I’m a slow learner) I wondered what would happen if rather than struggle against the whirlwind, I surrendered into it. What if I just let it take me for a ride? I wasn’t confident this would help. It would be like standing on the deck of a ship in a storm and letting go of the railing. But everything else had failed, so that was the only other option I could think of.

So I relaxed into the storm. Almost immediately, it slowed. That excited me. The excitement started the whirling again. But I was beginning to learn that relaxing into the sensation allowed the storm to relax.

This is similar to relaxing into fear. Relaxing into fear or swirling allows them to spread out and get bigger and bigger. As it grows, it thins out. Eventually it dissolves like a mist evaporating in the morning sun.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya asks, “What do meditation, going to sleep, and going to the toilet have in common?” The answer is: they all work better if we don’t try too hard.

 

Weak Effort

The opposite of excessive effort is too little effort. This is less common in the West and perhaps more common in cultures that are more devotional in temperament. However I do see it here.

It is similar to sloth and torpor. When we’re physically tired the mind may grow dull through lack of effort. However the solution for weak effort is simply developing more interest in the object of meditation. We can also bring in some of the energizing awakening factors: energy, joy, and curiosity.

One evening on retreat, I couldn’t sleep. My mind was just too alert. So I got up to meditate. I ended up meditating through most of the night.

At 5:30, I was supposed to come to a group sitting in which we recited the refuges and precepts. I was very tired from lack of sleep. The 5:30 meditation period officially ran until breakfast time at 7:00.

I knew that after reciting the refuges and precepts, it was perfectly fine for me to go back to my kuti and sleep. But something in my German blood or my Taurus personality kicked in. I was determined to sit still until 7:00 even if I was on the edge of falling asleep.

Rather than force myself to sit there, I decided to see what would happen if I invited joy into my sitting. I wasn’t forcing it, just inviting it.

My energy came up just fine and I had a clear and still meditation with a fair amount of joy. It felt balanced.

After breakfast, I went back to my kuti and slept for two hours.

The moral of this story is not to try harder when we’re tired. It’s never to try harder. But if the effort is weak, bringing in more energy can bring the mind into balance. If we can bring in more energy or curiosity or joy, they may enliven our system.

And if they don’t, then a nap is good.

 

Longing

In verse 24 the Buddha talks about longing. Longing is soft and sweet desire. Often it is longing for something wholesome, like equanimity, compassion, ease, heart, or even nibbana. There is nothing wrong with the objects of these desires.

But the desire itself can be a problem. The trick is to take our attention off the longing for a vacation, a good sitting, an open heart, or whatever. Rather, let the attention come to the longing itself. See it as clearly as we can. And six R to return to the primary object of meditation.

This allows the longing to expend itself without us getting entangled in it.

 

Variety of Perceptions

In verse 25, the Buddha talks about a variety of perceptions. The key word is often translated as “perception of diversity.” But the diversity is not the problem. The problem is that the mind keeps moving from one thing to another.

This may show up as desire to have a different spiritual friend or desire to do several different kinds of practices at once or the urge to think about Buddhist concepts or wanting something more entertaining. Sometimes the mind is a little bored and looks for amusement. This is a form of restlessness — a dull expression of too much energy.

The solution is to relax and six-R the subtle restlessness.

Other times the mind is just following its natural inclinations. So let’s look more closely at these inclinations.

Evolution bred curiosity into the human brain. Our pre-human ancestors were scavengers. To survive, they needed a wide knowledge of where food and dangers were in the environment. Those with a natural curiosity were better at mapping the world around them. They were more likely to survive long enough to pass on their inclinations.

One sign of curiosity is youthful play. The young of intelligent species enjoy imagining different scenarios and acting them out. The human brain enjoys thinking. It’s part of its design.

We have the nature of scavengers. When the mind jumps around from topic to topic, elaborates on stories, imagines different possibilities, envisions various situations, it’s just doing it’s job. It’s not helpful to fight this fundamental property of the human organism.

However, having a mind that jumps around is not conducive to peace, wisdom, and compassion.

There is a simple solution that we have seen with other hindrances. If the mind is busy thinking, we can let go of the thoughts and stories and notice how the thinking feels. If the awareness feels tense, relax and six-R. However, if the mind genuinely feels good — if it’s enjoying the variety — we don’t have to stop it. Rather, we can shift awareness from the thought content to the enjoyment itself. If it’s a good feeling, it’s a wholesome quality. There’s no need to get rid of it. Instead we can let it soak into our bones.

If the mind is grasping for good qualities, the grasping is a hindrance to be relaxed. But if it’s just an uplifted feeling, we can savor it. It’s what the mind-heart wants and it is wise and helpful to let it soak in.

As this happens, the mind-heart will naturally soften and expand. The thought content will gently dissolve.

 

Excessive Meditation On Forms

The last hindrance the Buddha mentions in this sutta is called “excessive meditation on forms.” This is in the same family as excessive energy and excessive effort.

Excessive meditation on form is too much seriousness. The awakened mind is light, clear, uplifted, and peaceful. Sometimes we can get too serious. This may cause the practice to get thick and heavy.

The simplest solution is to just see the seriousness and smile. This is a smiling practice. The lighter the mind, the clearer it becomes.

We can also shift our attention off of the object of the meditation that we are taking seriously and on to the serious attitude itself. Bringing clear awareness to the seriousness helps it lighten up.

It feels like taking our foot off the gas. We trust that things will arise in their own time. We don’t push the river. We cannot hurry the mind-heart’s natural unfolding. But by taking it too seriously, we can slow it down.

 

Closing

We tend to view hindrances as if they were demons in the dark, party poopers, or mangy dogs with muddy feet. We tend to view them with aversion, tightness, confusion, or aggression.

In wisdom practices there are no hindrances. In one-pointed practice, hindrances take us off our one point. But in wisdom practice, whatever arises is just fine if we can see it clearly and impersonally.

The bottom line is: be aware of your attitude toward your experience. If the attitude is unwelcoming, see it kindly. Release it, relax and smile. When we can receive a powerful demon with the same openness as a beloved friend, then we are free.

Ah so.


Footnote{1]: Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, (Harper & Row, 1963).

Copyright by Doug Kraft

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