A question came up Monday night about the five hindrances in meditation. We all agreed that there are really more than five hindrances to practice, but these are considered the most prominent.
Hindrances in Meditation
by Traleg Rinpoche
When we meditate we need to be aware of certain hindrances or obstacles in meditation. There are five different kinds of hindrances:
The first is the hindrance of craving. This is important because it is normally translated as desire, but I think that is a bad translation. If we obliterate desire then we will not be able to function as human beings. It is impossible to overcome desire, but it is possible to overcome craving. For somebody who has no desire whatsoever there is no point in doing anything, for example, why get out of bed in the morning, why not just lie there? I think people do not understand that difference. It is possible and it is important to overcome craving, because craving causes all kinds of mental afflictions.
As long as there is craving, then we develop attachment, greed and all kinds of things, whereby our mind is robbed of its peace. In meditation we can see the same thing happen, even with our spiritual aspirations. We may crave a nice, peaceful state during meditation, and if we have an experience like that, then we may want to cling on to it, we may not want to let go of it. If it is not there we may get worried, we may get frustrated and think we are not making progress etc. etc.
So from a Buddhist point of view we should be aware of craving, both in terms of material things, as well as pursuits and aspirations. Trungpa Rinpoche, for example, calls it spiritual materialism, if a sense of attachment or craving comes in. Even if we are doing something spiritual it becomes contaminated and polluted by all kinds of our emotional afflictions.
The second hindrance is, ill will or aggression. That tendency to think that whatever is pleasurable is something that we should pursue and cultivate. All the little irritating things, even the very simple and very basic irritating discomforts are something to be avoided at all costs, we must reject them. We must avoid pain as much as possible, and pursue pleasure as much as possible, at all times in any place.
This has to be dealt with during meditation. When we meditate we do not try to run away from irritating things. You know, it is not a very comfortable position to be sitting, it is much more comfortable to lie on your back. When we sit we get pains in our knees, our back, our shoulders. Instead of trying to will this pain away, or trying to change our position, always shifting and always trying to make ourselves a little bit more comfortable all the time, we try to deal with that pain. Getting angry and agitated, thinking “this stupid body of mine it can’t sit properly, my knees are not flexible enough, I can’t do lotus position,” (or whatever thoughts come in,) is not important, What is important, is to deal with those little irritations, so that one is not always trying to run away from pain and discomfort. And the same thing with the mind, whatever happens in the mind.
If there are a lot of disturbing thoughts coming up during meditation, we do not react to them with a sense of anger or frustration, but we stay with them and work with them. That is what happens in meditation. As we begin to sit with our physical discomfort and our mental irritation, gradually we discover that it is workable. Actually, trying to be with irritations and discomfort makes the whole thing more pleasant. Always trying to run away from them, one has no level of tolerance at all, and any little thing can irritate you . I mean one might look at everything as being something annoying or irritating or upsetting or whatever. So in meditation we can deal with that.
The next in the list is, stupor. So when we meditate, a lot of the time we feel drowsy, we feel sleepy, there is no sense of mental clarity and the mind is sort of foggy. Even though the mind is not agitated, nonetheless there is no sense of mental clarity. We need to be aware of that during meditation. One way to deal with that is to straighten ones position and pay more attention to the shoulders, chest, and the position of the head. If this persists try to get some fresh air, and it is sometimes useful to have a wet towel or something that one can use in order to wash ones face with etc. It is also recommended not to eat too much. And so basically one tries to increase the sense of alertness during meditation.
The other obstacle or hindrance that arises during meditation is mental agitation, which comes from worries and all kinds of what Trungpa Rinpoche calls subconscious gossip. So in meditation we are thinking about doing the shopping, or thinking about cooking, or all kinds of little things that come up. We have to be aware of those mental agitations. When they arise we try to pay more attention to the lower parts of the body, the position of our legs, buttocks and abdomen, so that the general attention is moved to the lower portion of the body. Also we generate a sense of being grounded and being earthy.
The last obstacle or hindrance is what is called skeptical doubt. Which means that as human beings it is very difficult for us to develop trust or confidence, either in people, or what we do. Sometimes this sort of skeptical doubt can become extreme; whereby it is almost impossible to trust anyone or to believe in anything we do. If that happens, even when we meditate, we may start wondering what benefit there might be. One might start to think, “how do I know meditation works, how do I know that sitting like this is not just wasting time? Maybe I should be doing something else, maybe I should be jogging instead, I mean that might be more beneficial than just sitting here doing nothing.” All kinds of doubts and uncertainties may arise which would disturb the mind, and also take enthusiasm away in the practice of meditation.
So those five hindrances are the main hindrances, of course as we know there are, (I mean if you have been doing meditation) all kinds of hindrances. But the five main hindrances are something that are persistent, and something that we are all familiar with. When we practice meditation we have to be aware of them at all times, so that we do not become victimized by them, and yield to them, and get carried away and loose focus and attention.