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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