Often the number one thing getting in the way of meditation practice is our idea about how our meditation practice should be going. We have beliefs about how our mind ought to be during meditation instead of simply observing it as it is. Or we have an idea about the kind of progress we ought to be making, comparing our meditation today with how it was during certain moments idealized in memory.
The Pali Canon speaks of five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni) or obstructions during meditation: sense desire (kāmacchanda), ill-will (byāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīna-midda), restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vivikicchā). We have all had moments — perhaps eons — when these have been present in our sitting practice.
Sense desire includes wishing for our sitting space to be warmer, cooler, or quieter; wishing we were more comfortable or in less pain; wishing our nose wasn’t so stuffy or our stomach so full; wishing that attractive person had taken the cushion next to ours in retreat. Sound familiar?
Ill-will includes resentments from the day that carry over into our practice as well as anger arising from emerging memories of past hurts. We can spend countless cushion-hours imagining what we’re going to say the next time we see that so-and-so. We can rehearse rationalizations that justify our anger, and reinforce our narrative about being the aggrieved party. We can dig the hole deeper.
Sloth and torpor refer to mental states of dullness, boredom, sleepiness, and lack of alertness. These states are often due to physical causes such as sleep deprivation, exhaustion, or postprandial “coma.”
Restlessness has two facets: motor restlessness and mental restlessness. You may feel jittery or have an urge to get up or shift position. Your mind may race about without focus like a hyperactive mongoose. Remorse is a sore spot in memory where you wish that you could redo something — your mind keeps returning to it, endlessly replaying “woulda,” “shoulda,” and “coulda”.
Doubt could be doubt about the Dharma, the path, your teacher, or your practice. “Is this the right practice for me?” “Should I be trying something else?” “Does practice get you anywhere?” You may be doing mindfulness of the breath and wonder whether you should be counting your breaths, doing mental noting, reciting metta phrases, or engaging in choiceless awareness instead.
Calling these mental factors hindrances, however, is a fundamental mistake. It’s better to think of them as grist for the mill. They are the contents of our consciousness. Instead of wishing them away, can we invest them with interest and simply observe them as they are? When we do this, the hindrances become our very practice itself rather than obstacles in the way of practice.
If boredom presents itself, what happens if we investigate boredom? What are its qualities? What is its intensity? How does it vary from moment to moment? Is it just a quality of mind, or can it be experienced in the body as well? What happens if we don’t wish boredom away, but allow it to stay for as long as it wishes to be around?
If ill-will is present, what if we observe it in a friendly manner? What if we embrace ill-will with mindfulness, and treat it, as Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “like a kindly older sister or brother?” How is it experienced in the body? What thoughts act as accelerants to it? How is our sense of self involved? Can we observe how it makes us burn inside and adds to our misery?
If we keep drifting off into dreamy mental states, can we watch the process of beginning to nod off again and again, and invest energy in observing the process? Can we observe the very moment when we drop off? Were we experiencing an in-breath or an out-breath at that moment?
If sense desire is present, can we just watch desire? Can we “urge surf,” watching the desire arise, peak, and subside? Can we see how it catches and ensnares us, and then mysteriously fades away without our acting on it?
If these “hindrances” persist, if we remain “caught,” if we are the victims of a “multiple hindrance attack,” can we stay with this process without getting discouraged or disturbed? Can we let go of expectations that our minds will always be clear, calm, and steady? No matter how much practice you have had, it’s unreasonable to expect anything else. After all, our minds, like everything else, are affected by causes and conditions. Can we extend compassion and lovingkindness to ourselves in such moments?
It’s said that when we practice meditation we are actually practicing three separate skills: 1) staying with the object of meditation, 2) recognizing when we’ve drifted off, and 3) returning to the object without fuss or judgment. When we have a “good meditation,” i.e, when our concentration is good and we’re able to stay with our object of meditation, we are developing the first skill. When we keep drifting and returning, even if we do it 100 times in a sitting, we’re developing the second and third skills. These, in fact, may be the most important skills in terms of improving our daily lives: recognizing when we’re no longer present and returning to mindfulness.
The poet William Blake wrote in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” Keep watching your mind just as it is. Turning poison into wisdom is the path of the Buddhas.