Brutal Honesty Regarding the Hindrances to Awareness
In Buddhism, these five hindrances (nivarana in Pali—the dominant language of the historical Buddha’s time and region) are described in the Pali canon as impediments to the development and deepening of one’s meditation practice. They “hinder and envelop the mind in many ways, obstructing its development.”
They are obstacles on the path of concentrative absorption
weaving toward enlightenment and arising for all who choose to walk the path of cultivation of awareness.
Specifically, these hindrances are traditionally listed in the following order:
Desire (kamacchanda): This being the wanting of people, places, things, and experiences leaving us always hungry for more.
Anger / Ill Will (byapada): The wrestling we do out of frustration and resentment for the wrong we believe others (or life in general) have brought us.
Sloth/Torpor (thina-middha): The wilting we experience in body and mind when fatigue and sluggishness cloud our faculties and weigh us down.
Restlessness (uddhacca-kukkucca): The worrying we do when our minds and agitated bodies get lost in what might be based on a constricted view of what’s been, our thinking anytime but now.
Doubt (vicikiccha): The wavering as we stiffen, hold back, second-guess, and, at least temporarily, lose our way.
These inner obstacles do not require you to be a Buddhist, or even a meditator, in order for them to take hold. They are not ancient mystical concepts, but rather, contemporary, mundane, and familiar emotional companions to us all.
The hindrances are not a mere list of feelings. They are pointers toward the conditioned patterns of reaction in each of us, clouding clear seeing and binding us from effective action. They are made of thought as well as our felt senses, and they are, in simplest terms, a self-protective “closing” from the pain we’ve learned to move away from over time.
Sidestepping Cookie Monster: Learning to Dance with Desire
When in your own life has desire not ultimately disappointed—fallen short of its promise?
According to the psychotherapist and author Mark Epstein, “desire must confront the gap that our clinging wishes to eradicate. How we handle this gap makes all the difference in our own unfolding lives”.
We grab and cling in response to desire to stave off pain and clutch at pleasure. As a result, we condition ourselves (i.e., create karma) into ever-swirling whirlpools of craving. Choice and peace are lost as we slip unwittingly into these currents of consumption.
Are we willing to come to at least a brief rest in that “gap” between desire and fulfillment—between anticipation and satisfaction—and hang out there a bit? Are we willing to relate with this ill-at-ease state and thereby claim a more fluid and flexible approach to our daily lives?
The pull of desire may be inevitable and even assistive in our enjoyment of life. The suffering and slavery of craving can become optional if we learn to insert mindfulness into the mix.
So let’s put our smartphones to the side and mindlessly stroll through the kitchen—passing the cake deposited like a dark brown fudgy black hole with immense gravitational pull there on the counter. Desire comes in all shapes, sizes, and decadent textures for us to struggle against and perhaps learn to practice with.
The Boiling Point: Opening Up to Turn Down the Dial on Hostility
Fifty thousand years ago, the human species relied on reactive hostility to eke out survival in a harsh landscape. Though this is our inheritance, does the current state of human affairs require such easily sparked angry flames to light our way?
When it comes to this hindrance, it helps to create some specificity. Anger, ill will, and resentment cover a lot of ground. For the sake of convenience and clarity, I’ll refer to them all as “hostility.” The Buddha’s language for this hindrance was vyapada, which translates as “a desire to strike out at something.”
That’s the essence of this obstacle we all experience. Something or someone is blocking our way forward or causing us pain, and we want to lash out. And in this shoving, it’s less that we’re wanting the circumstances to change (though we might say we are), and it’s really that we don’t want to feel the sting of aversion, of pain. That’s where the importance of opening comes in—learning to step into the experience of pain or discomfort, regardless of whether we take action to impact the circumstances we find ourselves in.
In order to really understand opening to this obstacle, not to speak of practicing it, we need more nuance, more specifics. Though there might be other approaches of equal merit, we can benefit greatly from what Buddhist traditions offer in terms of the specific nature of mindfulness and acceptance, as well as concrete practices for cultivating and elevating opening around hostility as a core virtue of the heart with the capacity for creating a wellspring of well-being.
Waking the Wilting Mind: Managing Sluggishness and Dullness
When asked if he were a god or just another man, the Buddha is said to have looked at his inquirers and said, “I am awake.” How much of your daily life is spent in a mind dimmed by fatigue or thickened by dullness? What might it look like to wake up inside a withered and wilted mind?
Nasrudin wanted to steal some fruit from a stall, but the stallholder had a fox that kept watch. He overheard the man say to his fox: “Foxes are craftier than dogs, and I want you to guard the stall with cunning. There are always thieves about. When you see anyone doing anything, ask yourself why he is doing it and whether it can be related to the security of the stall.”
When the man had gone away, the fox came to the front of the stall and looked at Nasrudin lurking on a lawn opposite. Nasrudin at once lay down and closed his eyes. The fox thought, “Sleeping is not doing anything.”
As he watched, he too began to feel tired. He lay down and went to sleep. Then Nasrudin crept past him and stole some fruit.
As this tale suggests, sleep is something after all—it is a doing, and it’s obviously very important to our well-being. But there were two aspects of sleeping in this story: Nasrudin’s ruse of sleep in order to sneak forward and steal the fruit, and the wilting mind of the fox that allowed it to happen. It’s the latter that we’re concerned with here—the mind on molasses that keeps us from seeing clearly and doing with energy and daring.
Worrywarts: Restlessness and Leaping Forward
Does all your worrying about the future and beating yourself up over the past ever, in and of itself, open things up in your life in the here and now?
If there’s a hindrance requiring clarity of view (from both contemplative and scientific perspectives), restlessness may be it. According to the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, restlessness arises when we’re less than wise about our habits of consumption—what we allow into our minds and bodies.4
In The Path of Purification, the Buddha describes restlessness as having the “characteristic of disquiet, like water whipped by the wind. Its function is unsteadiness, like a flag or banner whipped by the wind. It is manifested as turmoil, like ashes flung up by pelting with stones.”
This latter image is particularly gripping. Nothing says “I need a change of scenery” like whipping up sparks by chucking rocks into a campfire. The Pali canon suggests that the primary cause of this agitation of the body-mind is frequently giving attention to unsettledness of mind (avupasantacittassa).9
We “nourish” restlessness by giving unwise attention to it when it’s present, and we therefore make it more likely it will pop up again in the future.
In addition to self-compassion, what the restless mind needs is a counterbalance to its imbalanced and excessive energy. In Buddhism, the antidote to restlessness as a hindrance to awareness in one’s meditation practice is to cultivate three specific factors of enlightenment: concentration, tranquility, and equanimity.
When we build these complementary muscles of concentrative focus, inner calm, and virtuous action without an agenda, restlessness abates and clarity naturally emerges. We see our accurate reflection in the still, clear waters.
Becoming a Know-(Nothing)-It-All: Working with Doubt
Bertrand Russell once said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”
When it comes to your history with doubting, which company do you keep? The Buddha used the metaphor of a pot of water to describe the mental experience of the hindrance of doubt.
He taught that doubt is similar to the inability to see one’s face reflected in the surface of the pot’s water after it has been stirred up and clouded with muddy sediment.
It’s the deeply and personally skeptical form of doubt that’s the real hurdle to overcome. “Skeptical doubt closes us off, removes us from experience, and keeps us from actually practicing, from actually living.”
Instead of relating to our experience directly, we allow the mind to mediate with doubts, and it pushes us to the sidelines of our lives. We’re ushered over to warm the bench
instead of learning to get ourselves into the game. Doubt of this variety makes us focus on the bad feelings that crop up along with it. We pursue more runaway thought trains trying to analyze our options and (all in our minds, mind you) end up consuming our mental and emotional resources, which could have been helped by us swing away at the plate.
While it may not be much fun to sit with whatever arises when you face doubt squarely, the effort is well worth it. In guiding meditators, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg write, “Doubt is an inability to make a commitment, or to take the risk of finding out for yourself where a certain path might lead. Doubt is especially detrimental when it keeps us from truly listening.”
This is why this uncomfortable straight dealing with doubt is important—it gives us more capacity to decide in our daily lives from a foundation of clarity and confidence. We can learn to wield our lens of attention in ways that put doubt into more accurate (and less hindering) focus.