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Hindrances to Mindfulness and Clarity

By Gil Fronsdal

Five mental forces are singled out as challenges to mindfulness practice. Called the “Five Hindrances,” they are workings of the mind that hinder our ability to see clearly and our capacity to develop a stable, concentrated mind. These are sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. When weak or powerful, these forces hamper our mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Even with the best intention to stay focused, they can propel us into pre- occupation and distracted thought.

When strong, the hindrances hinder our ability to understand which thoughts, words and actions are harmful and which are beneficial. With its false promise of gratification, strong sensual desire can blind us to the consequences of inappropriate pursuit of pleasure. The pressure of ill will may cause us to act before reflecting carefully on the consequences. This is why Buddhist teachings strongly encourage people not to make decisions while under the influence of a hindrance. It is better, if possible, to wait to make a decision until the mind is more settled or clear.

The first two hindrances, desire and ill will, are forms of wanting, albeit in opposing ways. Desire wants to have, whereas ill will wants to push way. The third and fourth hindrances involve opposing 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 a combination of the other hindrances and can affect both body and mind.

Analogies for the Hindrances
The hindrances are “black holes” in the mind. A black hole is a collapsed star whose gravitational force is so powerful that light is sucked in and trapped. When a hindrance is strong, the light of awareness is pulled into its gravitational field and lost.

The hindrances can occur frequently in daily life, at times casting a powerful influence on our behavior. They can limit how well we function in life. Strong bouts of sense pleasure or ill will can result in actions one may regret for decades, maybe for the remainder of one’s life.

The Buddha used gold as an analogy for the mind, with and without the five hindrances. In order to shape gold into a beautiful object, gold needs to be soft and malleable. The more pure the gold is, the more malleable it is. The same is true of the mind. If we purify the mind of the hindrances then the mind is no longer stiff and rigid; it becomes wieldy and can be shaped into something beautiful.

Hindrances as Strategies
The five hindrances can be strategies to avoid challenges or discomfort. During difficulties, having sensual desires and fantasies is a way of escaping what is uncomfortable. Some people resort to ill will and blame as a way of repelling difficulties. Sloth and torpor can be strategies of resistance; they are ways to pull away and disengage. In contrast, some people become restless, agitated and distracted in order not to face difficult situations. The last hindrance, doubt, is sometimes used to avoid making decisions. The hindrances operate in everyone; their presence is not a personal failing. It is best not to look for quick fixes to overcoming them. Instead it is useful to include them as part of our mindfulness practice. They are important to examine and understand. The stronger the hindrances, the more important it is to understand them. They can be a basis for cultivating greater awareness and wisdom. They can become part of the path of practice, not a detour.

B.E.L.L.A. Practicing with the Hindrances
Mindfulness of the hindrances has five different aspects organized under the acronym BELLA, the Italian word for “beautiful.” When the hindrances are overcome and mindfulness is strong, the mind becomes beautiful.

Be
When a hindrance appears, it is useful to first let it be. This is not giving in to it or intentionally participating with the thinking it may involve. It means not acting on it or reacting to it. It involves training to stay present for our experience, without being in conflict with it. There is no need to be discouraged, angry or self-critical when faced with a hindrance. Letting a hindrance be is a practice of finding inner stability and equanimity in the face of destabilizing forces. The practice of letting a hindrance be becomes most effective when combined with a clear recognition and acknowledgment of the hindrance. The clearer the recognition, the more we pull ourselves out of the gravitational force of the hindrance and the greater is our freedom from it. Recognition also ensures our practice is honest and realistic.

Examine
The most important aspect of practicing with the hindrances is to examine. Just as spiritual freedom requires wisdom, so overcoming the hindrances requires understanding them well. If we know all their guises and tricks, we are less likely to be tricked by them.

We can examine the components of a hindrance, i.e. 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 involve pressure, a rush of restlessness or an upwelling of vitality. Emotionally, sense desire may involve pleasant emotions like delight, excitement, or eagerness. Cognitively, sense desire may involve beliefs and stories we tell ourselves. And, motivationally, sense desire may include a strong impulse to act, to cling, or to fix.

Investigating a hindrance’s absence is also important. Noticing its absence can also help us better appreciate the value of being free of a hindrance. Examining the absence of a hindrance can be a source of delight supporting the mindful life.

Learning how hindrances arise, how they are removed and how they can be prevented from arising requires attention and discernment.This is one way to overcome the hindering effect of the hindrances. With enough wisdom about them we learn not to give in to a hindrance no matter how strong.

The Buddhist word translated as “hindrance” literally means “covering.” This suggests we can examine what hindrances are masking. For example, desire can cover loneliness, ill will may conceal frustrated desire, sloth and torpor can hide fear, restlessness and worry may cover wanting approval, and doubt can mask a reluctance to commit. Uncovering what’s underneath the hindrances is effective for overcoming them.

Lessen
In addition to identifying and examining a hindrance we can lessen its strength. Relaxing both the body and mind are ways to lessen their intensity. We can soften any tension associated with a hindrance. If a hindrance is overwhelming, lessening its power may require removing ourselves from situations that reinforce it. It may be useful to direct one’s attention to something that has a calming effect.

Focusing on an antidote to the hindrance can be helpful. For example, cultivating loving kindness can help lessen ill will; contemplating the inner anatomy of the body may lessen sexual compulsion.

Let Go
Once a hindrance is understood well enough it can be appropriate to let it go. Sometimes this can be accomplished by letting up on the pressure fueling the hindrance, e.g., letting go of the thinking that perpetuates it. One might also let go of attachments to any self-identity connected to the hindrance. The ability to let go of the hindrances grows with practice. As mindfulness strengthens, a time comes when mindfulness becomes stronger than the hindrances. The same is true with our ability to let go. As the “muscle” of letting go strengthens, it is easier to leave a hindrance behind.

Appreciate
The path of freedom is nurtured by appreciating the times we are free. When we have been caught up in an attachment, it is useful to value how we are when not caught. When a hindrance is no longer present it is useful to take time to enjoy this absence.

To be mindful and present without being hijacked by the hindrances is a joy. The relief that arises when the mind is free of the hindrances is a delight. If you can feel this sense of well-being, you will know a type of pleasure that is better than sense pleasures, better than the energy of ill will. The mind will naturally want more freedom, rather than losing freedom to the hindrances.

Unhindered attention is a treasure. It is what allows mindfulness to do its most penetrating work of liberation. When the mind is settled and freed of the hindrances we can look more deeply into the functioning of the mind and discover the fullest possibility of liberation.

—Excepted from “Unhindered”