Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Five Hindrances

Imagine you’ve just taken off in a jet airplane. You felt the lift-off, noticed how the aircraft was nosed upward, and were obeying the crew by not attempting to get out of your seat. Once the plane reached its cruising altitude, the seatbelt sign was turned off, and you were told you could move about the cabin.

Since you were sitting in a window seat, you took interest in the scenery below the aircraft – cities, farmland, rivers, lakes, mountains. It looked like a giant patch work quilt. Unfortunately, the experience didn’t last for long. The pilot was given new orders, including a change of direction and an increase in altitude. The result was that your aircraft was suddenly flying through clouds and you could no longer see anything below. Instead of peacefully watching the scenery, you were now straining to catch glimpses through the clouds.

This story describes what the experience of a hindrance is like. Hindrances disturb our peace and tranquility when meditating or carrying out any task mindfully. They seem to appear out of nowhere, and dominate our experience of reality – just as the clouds obstructed our view. The Buddha identified five hindrances, and it’s important to know a few things about all of them before looking at each in more detail.

The first thing to note is that hindrances are things we do. Just as the pilot followed an established habit of obeying an air traffic controller and raising the altitude, our hindrances are well-worn habits of mind that we choose when the right circumstances present themselves. The clouds don’t suddenly lower to the path of our aircraft. We fly right into them.

The second thing is that we shouldn’t judge ourselves for the arrival of a hindrance. Such judgement can lead to a compound effect of doing a because of a hindrance – ill-will about worry for example. There are specific things we can do to address each of the hindrances, and judgement doesn’t apply to any of them. It only makes things worse.

The third thing should come as some hope: by developing enough wisdom to see what we’re doing to create hindrance, it is possible to stop doing them – permanently. In the Third Noble Truth we are taught that there is a way that leads to the overcoming of suffering. That includes the hindrances.

So what are these hindrances, and what should we do about them? The first is sensual desire — desiring the experience of something other than what you are doing. Perhaps you are on a week-long meditation retreat and it’s terribly hot. You turn your thinking to the swimming pool at home, and how wonderful it would be to go in for a dip. Perhaps you are working late one night at the office on a report your boss needs, and you turn to thoughts of seeing a movie with your partner, or watching some television at home with a hot drink. Mentally, you’ve turned away from the task at hand and you suffer as a result.

Sometimes, a hindrance like sensual desire will pass on by simply noting it and letting it go. However there are times when a more direct approach is needed. With sensual desire, focus on the undesirable characteristics of what you desire. Watching a movie would provide some entertainment, but it can be costly for tickets and snacks. Watching TV at home might be relaxing but solitary – your partner may not like TV — and you might be hard-pressed to find an enjoyable show. Looking at the downsides of our desires gives us a more balanced perspective.

The second hindrance is ill-will. It’s known by many names in the West – frustration, anger, irritation, rage, and resentment to name a few. Perhaps your boss took the report you wrote for him and gave you no feedback or thanks at all. You choose to sit in your office and brood about his lack of gratitude. Or maybe you go on a vacation with your partner and spend your time complaining about the poor service you are getting at the resort. In both these cases, your own ill-will is spoiling your experience of the day.

As with sensual desire, ill-will can stop, at least for a time, by letting it go. If that doesn’t seem to be working well, you can take a few minutes and contemplate on exactly how ill-will is disadvantageous to you. Ask yourself what ill-will is costing you right now. You might also consider how ill-will is affecting those around you and how that affects you as well.

Sloth and torpor is the third hindrance. When you put too much effort into your practice, you pull your mind onto it. In response, the mind becomes thick, heavy, and unmovable. Pushed further, and chances are you’ll fall asleep. To address this hindrance, you need to get up and move around – take a walk, smell the flowers, and gain a little distance from that feeling of fatigue and laziness.

The fourth hindrance is worry. In doing this hindrance, you look back at past actions and chew them over in your mind. In the middle of a retreat you might worry about what your colleagues might think of you for spending your vacation this way. You might worry about whether or not your neighbour will take in your mail and feed your cat as promised. Sometimes it’s hard to separate worry from legitimate concern. Worry, like other hindrances, can often just stop upon recognition of it but sometimes we ruminate about things.

My teacher said that the solution to worry is happiness. Be around people who know more about the dhamma and can help you with your thinking. See your teacher and talk about what worries you. Read uplifting books that encourage you in your practice and give you some distance from your worries. A very successful businessman once told me that two of the most powerful levers for personal change are the books we read and the company we keep.

The final hindrance is doubt. It can have many forms: doubt about your ability to do something, like progress in the meditation; doubt in others, like one’s spouse or teacher; and doubt in things, like the teaching itself, to name just three. You might find yourself at an evening lecture by your teacher thinking that you’ll never understand all the terms and instructions you’ve heard. You might look at some other meditators you know and doubt that you can ever get the grasp they have.

Worry does come and go, but when it’s troubling, the solution is the same as it is for worry. Spend time with people who can help you. Make a time to see your teacher. Try to apply the suggestions you are given. If you are teachable, then there is every reason to believe that you can make real meditative progress in this lifetime. That’s what the Buddha’s teaching is for – enlightenment in this lifetime.

Eventually, your flight will leave the clouds for good, and your pilot will follow instructions that lead to your destination – nibbana, the end of all suffering, no longer any desire for things to be different than it is, the highest happiness, the place that travellers seek.

Jason S.

Jason Smith is a Customer Analyst at Economical Insurance doing process analysis, business analysis and business consulting. He is also an insight meditation teacher and author currently taking on new students. Anyone who wants to learn about and practice the Buddha’s way to enlightenment can reach him at Jason lives in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and is willing to consider working with students from outside this area by phone or Internet.

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HOW to Be a Successful Meditator

My first year of recovery was filled with new learning – about the nature of alcoholism, about the living problems I had, about the twelve-step program, and about applying those steps in my life. I also learned about the components of recovery – meetings, sponsorship, service to others, and slogans.

One slogan, an acronym called HOW stood out for me. It’s short for Honesty, Open-mindedness and Willingness. I was told that each of these terms is connected to different steps and that, together, they are necessary conditions for recovery.

Honesty is needed to admit powerlessness over alcohol, complete a moral inventory, ask for help with character defects and continue to take an inventory of character assets and liabilities on an on-going basis. Open-mindedness is needed to take beginning steps with a power greater than oneself, review one’s moral inventory with someone else, making a list of people harmed, and beginning a life of meditation and prayer. Willingness is needed to put one’s life in the hands of the higher power one chooses, to become ready to have that higher power remove the defects of character identified in the moral inventory, to make direct amends to the people harmed, and to carry the message of recovery to others willing to receive it.

That’s a tall order. Fortunately, the steps are put into an order for good reasons, and one doesn’t have to do them all at once or rush through them with great speed.

HOW also provides some keys to being a successful meditator. One needs to be honest about what one is experiencing during meditation periods and between them. A teacher can’t help a student that isn’t disclosing how his or her practice is actually going. One needs to be open-minded about new concepts and not dismiss them out of hand. Sometimes it is necessary for a teacher to present concepts like transience to students and have them begin to try to see them in their meditation. Being closed-minded about these concepts can severely impact one’s meditative progress. Finally, one needs to be willing to do what his or her teacher says to do – within reason, of course. Specific guidance from a teacher needs to be tried out and only disregarded after being given a good try.

How to be a successful meditator? HOW is how!



Jason Smith is a Customer Analyst at Economical Insurance doing process analysis, business analysis and business consulting. He is also an insight meditation teacher and author currently taking on new students. Anyone who wants to learn about and practice the Buddha’s way to enlightenment can reach him at Jason lives in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and is willing to consider working with students from outside this area by phone or Internet.

The Circus Fun House

I remember, years ago, going to a very large exhibition in Toronto. It had many of the usual things one might see at a carnival – games of chance and skill, exhibits by members of the Canadian Armed Forces, roller coasters and other rides, food vendors, a home show, and so on. There was also an air show, with combat and civilian aircraft flying overhead.

One of the attractions in the midway was a fun house. Inside it was a room of mirrors. The mirrors were designed to distort whatever was in front of them. One such mirror made one look short and grotesquely fat. Another did the reverse, making one look very tall and thin. Turning the body at different angles to the mirrors produced some interesting images. People found this funny and not at all disturbing because, after all, they were just looking at mirrors designed to produce distorted images. No one, except perhaps small children, took the images produced by the mirrors seriously.

But what if someone had? What if someone had looked into a mirror that makes the viewer look terribly overweight and believed in what he or she saw? What if he or she mentally held onto this belief of their being overweight despite all other evidence to the contrary? Further, what if he or she decided that it was necessary to go on an extreme diet in response to that view from the fun house? It seems like a logical course of action if you believe strongly in the distorted image you saw there.

People with untreated eating disorders often act like people who have been in the fun house. Despite how they actually look, how much they actually weigh, and the input from the people around them, they hang onto a distorted image of their own body and engage in extreme behaviours that can lead to death. Ironically, they may see themselves in a distorted way, while not having the same distorted view of others.

People in a manic phase of bipolar disorder often behave in extreme ways because of distorted views. Some have been seriously injured or killed because they mistakenly believed in a view of their own invincibility. Others spend hours and hours surfing the Internet or writing, convinced they have discovered a new conspiracy theory or received a new divine revelation.

But are all such distortions of view so extreme? No. Do more people than psychiatric patients need to correct their beliefs to reduce or eliminate the suffering in their lives? Yes.

The Buddha taught that all things in reality have three characteristics: they are transient, they are disatisfactory, and they are not our self. We crave, hate, and ignore because we haven’t seen the truth of these characteristics for ourselves. We keep ourselves from true seeing by the actions we take.

A materialist continues to accumulate wealth and possessions far beyond his or her need. That’s not to say that having such things is wrong. The problem occurs with the belief that things bring happiness. If that were true, each of us would be very happy with a few simple possessions that helped us with our needs. Unfortunately the world, driven by ignorance, doesn’t work that way. Some people do simplify their lives and discover they are happier for it. Still others are driven to acquire.

Many workaholics work extreme hours with the mistaken view that if only they get their current projects finished, things will be better around the office. They don’t consider that more work is almost always coming down the pipe, and that managers learn to give that work to people who have proven that they are capable of getting the job done. So, any lull in the workload of a workaholic is often short-lived.

Those who take on additional work and long hours often do so for a chance at promotion and what that brings in terms of salary and benefits. Some even justify their work efforts by telling themselves they are doing it to make a better life for their families. They may get that promotion, only to find that the new position isn’t as enjoyable as they hoped, and they are spending even less time with their families – when time with the workaholic is what the families really want.

Alcoholics and addicts often take a drink or a drug when in a difficult situation. They conveniently ignore their own drinking or using histories to do so. The drink or drug provides no help with the situation, and may make it worse. The short-lived benefits of feeling good often result in their choosing this way of dealing with the next situation.

We could go on and on looking at the behaviours and views of different people – gamblers, adulterers, people with anger and control issues, and so on. We would find that their views are distorted by a misunderstanding of one or more of the three characteristics. They struggle and suffer, on and on.

Fortunately, the Buddha left us with a spiritual path that addresses our suffering. If we learn to keep our morality in check, as presented in The Five Precepts, and undertake effective meditation practices, we will begin to see the characteristics clearly for ourselves. With consistent application, we will see what we do to create our suffering and how our distortions play a role. Eventually, we will let go of all of our desires for things to be different then they are. What’s left is enlightenment, the highest happiness — right in front of us where it has always been if only we looked.



Jason Smith is a Customer Analyst at Economical Insurance doing process analysis, business analysis and business consulting. He is also an insight meditation teacher and author currently taking on new students. Anyone who wants to learn about and practice the Buddha’s way to enlightenment can reach him at Jason lives in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and is willing to consider working with students from outside this area by phone or Internet.