“Beware the tendencies that hinder your awareness,” says Gil Fronsdal.
Anyone who practices meditation knows that there are forces in the mind that can make it difficult to be mindful. Rather than reacting to these difficulties as being somehow “bad,” or as distractions, it is important to investigate them. It is easier to find freedom from something when we know it thoroughly. Ancient Buddhist stories tell of Mara, the personification of temptation and distraction, approaching the Buddha. Each time Mara approached, the Buddha simply said, “Mara, I see you,” and Mara fled. Because the Buddha knew Mara thoroughly, his act of clear seeing was effective in bringing freedom.
Of the many forces of distraction, five are traditionally identified as particularly important for meditators to be familiar with. Known as the five hindrances, they are forces in the mind that can hinder our ability to see clearly or to deeply concentrate. The hindrances are: 1) sensual desire, 2) ill will, 3) sloth and torpor, 4) anxiousness and worry, and 5) doubt.
An ancient metaphor for how the hindrances obscure clarity of mind is a pond. When the pond is clean and the surface still, the water reflects our image. The effect of sensual desire is like looking into a pond that has been dyed; we are predisposed to see unrealistically—that is, “seeing with rose-colored glasses.” When the heat of ill will is present, it is as if the pond water is boiling; no reflection is possible. Sloth and torpor are like having thick algae growing across the pond; again, no reflection is possible except by doing the difficult work of pulling out the algae. Anxiousness is like the wind churning up the pond’s surface. And doubt is like water filled with mud.
Because we tend not to see clearly when the hindrances are present, the Buddhist teachings strongly encourage people not to make decisions while under their influence. If possible, wait to make a decision when the mind is more settled or clear.
The hindrances operate in everyone; their presence is not a personal failing. Rather, it is useful see their occurrence as an important opportunity to investigate them. Sometimes it is wise not to quickly attempt to get rid of a hindrance but to use it as a chance to learn something. The stronger the hindrance, the more important it is to investigate it.
The Buddha taught five areas that are useful to explore when investigating a hindrance: the hindrance itself, its absence, how it arose, how it is removed, and how to prevent it from arising again.
Exploring the hindrance involves recognizing the components of a hindrance; that is, its physical, energetic, emotional, cognitive, and motivational aspects. For example, strong desire may be experienced physically as a leaning forward, a tightening of the solar plexus, or a sense of lightness. Energetically it may be experienced as a rushing or lifting. Emotionally it may involve pleasant emotions like delight, excitement, eagerness, or an effort to fix unpleasant emotions such as emptiness, loneliness, or fear. Cognitively it may involve beliefs and stories that we tell ourselves. And motivationally it may come as a strong impulse to act or to cling.
Noticing a hindrance’s absence is also important. The contrast between when it is absent and when it is present can help us to perceive the different aspects of the hindrance more clearly. Noticing its absence can also help reinforce a state of being free of hindrances.
Appreciating the passing of a hindrance can be a source of joy that can feed the spiritual life. I believe the Buddha was pointing to this joy when he offered the following similes: being freed from sensual desire is like being freed from debt; being released from the grip of ill will is like recovering from an illness; being free from sloth and torpor is like being freed from prison; freedom from anxiety and worry is like freedom from slavery; and passing beyond doubt is like completing a perilous desert crossing.
Noticing how hindrances arise, how they are removed, and how they can be prevented from arising is the same as knowing how you got into trouble, how to get out of trouble, and how to avoid getting into trouble in the future. It requires attention and discernment to overcome the hindering effect of the hindrances. Given enough experience with them we learn not to be tricked into giving up our presence of mind—no matter what hindrance may appear.
To be present without being hijacked by the hindrances is a joy. Unhindered attention is a treasure. It is what allows mindfulness to begin doing its most penetrating work of liberation.