Anyone practicing mindfulness knows there are forces in the mind that can make it difficult to stay attentive to one’s present moment experience. Ranging from weak to very powerful, these forces hamper our ability to remain mindful, develop concentration and have clear insight. They pull our attention away from our efforts to meditate. Even with the best of intentions to stay focused, these forces can propel us into the world of pre-occupation and distracted thought.
Rather than reacting to these difficulties as being “bad,” “distractions,” or personal failings, it is important to be mindful of them. In that they are happening in the present, they can be a basis for cultivating greater awareness and wisdom. They can become part of the path of practice, rather than a detour.
It is important to investigate the forces of distraction and agitation carefully to understand their nature and how they work. It is easier to find freedom from something when we know it thoroughly. Ancient Buddhist stories tell of Mara, the Buddhist personification of temptation and distraction, approaching the Buddha. Each time Mara arrives, the Buddha simply says, “Mara, I see you,” and Mara flees. Recognizing Mara was effective in bringing freedom from Mara.
Of the many forces of distraction, five are traditionally identified as particularly important for people practicing Buddhist mindfulness and meditation. Known as the five hindrances, they are workings of the mind that can hinder our ability to see clearly and our capacity to develop a stable, concentrated mind. The hindrances are sensual desire; ill will; sloth and torpor; restlessness and worry and doubt.
As you can see, the list is actually made up of seven factors, but four are always paired. One explanation for the paired items is that they represent closely related physical and mental factors.
The first two hindrances are related by being opposite qualities. Desire and ill will are both forms of wanting, albeit in opposing ways. Desire wants to have something, whereas ill will wants to push something way. The third and fourth hindrances are similarly seen as opposing tendencies. They both involve levels of energy or vitality. Sloth and torpor are low energy states while restlessness and worry are high energy states.
The fifth hindrance, doubt, is not specifically connected with any of the other hindrances or distinguished into physical and mental aspects. This is because doubt is often entwined with any combination of the other hindrances and can cast its influence in many ways on our whole being.
The wisdom needed for working with the hindrances is discovered through mindfulness of them. This wisdom is acquired slowly, requiring much patience. It also requires an interest in studying the hindrances as they appear. Reading about the hindrances cannot substitute for the time and effort needed to understand how the hindrances operate. As each person has his or her own path through the hindrances, you will have to find yours.
It is best to respect the hindrances and their power. This is not to acquiesce to them, but rather it is a way to overcome their sway. Through developing one’s mindfulness, the hindrances begin to lose their power. With the growth of wisdom, equanimity, and concentration it is possible to be free from their influence.
It is also possible to be free of the hindrances themselves; they do not have to be present. One’s mind can be hindrance-free. Without the obscurations of the hindrances, such a mind can become clear, perhaps like a translucent pond in which everything is seen clearly.
Buddhism recognizes a hindrance-free mind as a beautiful mind. In fact, for some people this mind is one of the most beautiful experiences they know. Because all other forms of beauty are perceived through the mind, when the mind is clear and peaceful, what we perceive will be perceived within this clarity and peace. It is like having the light turned on after living in the dark for a long time: the marvel of sight becomes more wonderful than whatever is seen.
On the path to freedom, the primary function of a hindrance-free mind is to teach us about non-clinging. When the hindrances hinder it is because we are clinging to something. When the hindrances are absent we are then free of their accompanying clinging. By seeing the difference between clinging and non-clinging we learn that freedom is found in non-clinging. When this lesson is learned well, we understand that clarity, peace, beauty and other experiences on the path to freedom are not the point of the path; they are stepping-stones to more and more thorough degrees of freedom from attachment.
The milestones along this path are measured by release from attachments. In relationship to the hindrances this may begin with letting go of anger, discouragement, or dismay that they are present. A further step is giving up judging oneself negatively because of the hindrances. Another signpost is letting go of any belief that justifies the importance of the hindrances. The most significant milestones is being released, even temporarily, from the hindrances themselves.
With a strong enough experience of non-clinging we come to a fork in our path. One direction leads to more clinging, the other to freedom. As practice becomes deeper the path of freedom becomes more obvious. At some point it becomes clearly the easier path. When we are new to practice it is clinging that may be easiest, one day it becomes non-clinging. Freedom supports further freedom. It empties the mind of obstructions and agitation until, in the beauty of the mind’s clarity, we are free of ourselves.
This article is an excerpt from Gil’s new book, Unhindered: A Mindful Path Through the Five Hindrances, which can be purchased on Amazon.com. Click through the Recommended Books page on our website when making a purchase on Amazon, and help support IMC.