Let's look at some of the obstacles to our spiritual growth. Let me ask you this: have you ever been stuck in traffic and thought to yourself, “If it weren't for all these other cars on the road, I would get to work (or home) much faster”?
Well, spiritual development is similar to that. If it weren't for the mental and emotional obstacles, we could develop mindfulness much faster.
There are several common obstacles, and by becoming aware of them, we can minimize their effect on us. In Buddhism, these are called the Five Hindrances:
Sensual desire. This is our desire to please our five senses and emotions.
Aversion. This is a dislike for someone or something. It is the opposite of desire. We naturally try to avoid things that are unpleasant.
Lethargy. This is a mental dullness that arises from boredom, or lack of mental stimulation. It is the result of not being able to enjoy the present moment.
Agitation. This is essentially the opposite of lethargy. It is the over-stimulation of our mind.
Doubt. This is a lack of conviction or trust in our meditation practice.
In order to understand the Five Hindrances better, it might be helpful to understand some of our basic human instincts. Growing up, most of us develop some concept of what happiness is, and how to attain it.
In our society, we are encouraged to pursue our dreams, because we’re told that they will bring us happiness. These dreams usually consist of a successful career, home-ownership, finding a mate, and settling down. For some people, their dreams may consist of something entirely different. Whatever the case, these achievements bring us some form of emotional gratification, or a pleasing of our senses—that is, they fulfill our desires.
Sensual desire becomes a hindrance because it occupies a tremendous amount of our attention. We spend a great deal of time, money, and effort chasing our desires. The way sensual desire manifests itself during our meditation is through fantasizing. We think about things like food, sex, money, or anything else that brings us gratification.
What's more, we begin to develop a tolerance to the objects of our desires. So when the pleasant feelings wear off, we need even more of these objects to bring us the same level of satisfaction. This is especially true in intimate relationships. The cycle never ends because there is no end to our wants and desires. Some people spend their whole lives chasing material possessions, only to find out that they don't bring them lasting happiness.
This approach to achieving happiness may have served us well in the past. But now that we're on a spiritual path, we want to grow beyond this level. Through the practice of mindfulness, we can achieve an inner peace that is more stable. Our happiness will no longer depend on outside conditions, which we don't have control over, but rather our spiritual condition, which we do have control over.
Aversion works almost the same way as desire, only in the opposite direction. We try to avoid anything that triggers unpleasant emotions, so we spend a great deal of our time seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
Aversion can also manifest itself into anger, or ill will. We usually get angry when someone hurts our feelings, or does something we don’t like. Anger can be quite seductive and addictive because we sometimes get a rush from it. It’s easy to justify our anger because of someone else's injustice. We can also use it to manipulate others into doing what we want.
If we never forgive people for harming us, we'll continue to carry our anger in the form of resentment. In extreme cases, that anger can turn into a deep hatred. Hanging on to anger and resentment will prevent us from growing. As somebody once said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Lethargy is a state of mental dullness that arises from boredom. I know from personal experience that sleepiness can be a problem when meditating. The degree of lethargy can vary from simple drowsiness to utter torpor. It's usually the result of doing, or being exposed, to something that doesn't stimulate any of our senses or emotions. Now, there’s a difference between lethargy and physical fatigue. Lethargy comes from boredom, and fatigue comes from lack of sleep.
Some of us are addicted to excitement. We need to have something exciting going on all the time. If there isn't, then we get either restless or bored. So we try to create some excitement, and that excitement doesn't necessarily have to be positive. We sometimes even create chaos in our lives to keep the adrenaline going. This is how we become addicted to drama.
Agitation is essentially the opposite of lethargy. It is the over-stimulation of our mind. To avoid getting bored, we do things to occupy our mind, such as watching TV, listening to the radio, or getting involved in many activities. Now, these activities aren't necessarily bad, but we often unconsciously use them to create noise in our mind, so that we keep uncomfortable thoughts from arising. We sometimes play the radio or television in the background to keep us company. This stimulates our mind so much that we're not able to sit still. Then we need more noise to drown out the noise that's already there. It's a vicious cycle.
Agitation also manifests itself in the form of worry. We worry about losing the things we think will bring us happiness, such as relationships, money, and material things. We also worry about our health and our mortality. There is never a shortage of things to worry about. The way to stop worrying is to change our understanding of what creates happiness.
The fifth hindrance, doubt, is a lack of conviction and trust. It is the inability to decide on which course of action to follow because we don't know which is best. In meditation, it takes the form of questioning our practice. We start wondering if this meditation stuff really works, or if it's a big waste of time.
Doubt has its roots in fear and ignorance. If we don't understand a situation very well, we become afraid to make the wrong decision. So we begin thinking too much, and become unable to make any decision. This may be more common in the beginning of your practice, but will diminish once you have some experience.
How to Overcome the Five Hindrances
So how do we overcome the Five Hindrances in our meditation practice? It's actually quite simple. What we're essentially going to do is watch them to death. Of course, this is easier said than done, but not as hard as you might think. Here's how it works: think about a time when you were doing something wrong, for example, driving too fast.
Now suppose you drove past a police officer parked on the side of the road, and he watched you as you drove by. What was your first reaction? You stopped speeding, of course. That's a natural reaction.
When we know someone is watching us do something wrong, we immediately stop. We will deal with the Five Hindrances in the same manner. We're going to stand guard like the police officer on the side of the road, and watch for that speeding motorist when he passes by. That is, we're going to be mindful of the hindrances when they arise, and when they dissipate.
We have to be especially mindful of lethargy, because it can gain momentum very quickly, and before we know it, we're falling asleep. In the beginning of our practice, we need to learn how to identify the hindrances when they arise by consciously naming them. After some practice, we'll be able to recognize them more easily and just be mindful of their presence.
By practicing this way, we'll remove these obstacles of our meditation, and begin to develop mindfulness much faster. Remember, meditation is like any other skill—the more you practice, the better you'll get at it.
The last thing I would like to say about the hindrances is that we may get upset with ourselves when we lose our concentration or mindfulness during meditation. Don’t expect perfection. Maintaining our concentration and mindfulness can be challenging. The good news is that with practice, the hindrances will become less of a problem. In addition, when we observe the hindrances as they arise, we are actually practicing mindfulness. By being aware of them, we are being mindful. So let them come up. Eventually, they will diminish.
Adapted with permission from the book
"Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple"
Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple: Your Guide to Finding True Inner Peace
by Charles A. Francis.
About the Author
Charles A. Francis has a master's degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, with a focus on health care management and policy. He is the author of Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple: Your Guide to Finding True Inner Peace (Paradigm Press), and co-founder and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute. He teaches mindfulness meditation to individuals, develops mindfulness training programs for organizations, and leads workshops and mindfulness meditation retreats. Learn more at MindfulnessMeditationInstitute.org.