For those who are interested in going on a meditation retreat, you may prepare yourself by packing adequate clothing and toiletries, looking up the directions to get to the meditation centre, finding out about the centre, maybe even start doing some meditation each day, and of course, updating your Facebook status to say, “Going on retreat. Won’t have access to my phone. See you in a few days! Please feed my cat.”
Your mum may remind you, “Don’t forget your toothbrush!” Your dad may remind you, “Don’t forget your torch!” Your Buddhist teacher, on the other hand, may remind you, “Don’t forget about the Five Hindrances.”
“Five Hindrances?” you wonder. “Do they sell that at Coles?”
The Five Hindrances is a skilful teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha summarised the five major obstacles that we would come across in our Dhamma practice, and very often in meditation. It is as if the Buddha is giving you a ‘heads up’ on what to expect, so when it comes, you can say, “Ah, hindrance, I see you,” then proceed to overcome the hindrance.
However, the practice to overcome the hindrance should not start only when you are sitting on your meditation cushion; the practice should start right now, each time any of the hindrances arise. In fact, the whole path of Enlightenment as encapsulated in the Noble Eightfold Path culminates as a continuous effort to overcome the Five Hindrances. Yes, it is that important.
So, what are these Five Hindrances? In brief, they are:
- Sensual desire (In Pali: kamacchanda),
- Ill-will (In Pali: byapada),
- Sloth and torpor (In Pali: thina-middha),
- Restlessness and remorse (In Pali: uddhacca-kukkucca),
- Sceptical doubt (In Pali: vicikiccha).
The Buddha in the Samannaphala Sutta, describes vivid similes for each hindrance. Throughout the suttas, the Buddha gives advice on how to overcome each hindrance.
Sensual desire is craving for pleasant feelings experienced through the senses. The Buddha compared a person filled with sensual desire to a person who has incurred a debt. When his creditors come back for the debt, they may speak roughly to him, harass him, beat him up, and he can’t retaliate. Likewise, if a man is filled with sensual desire for a woman, he would bear the woman’s harsh words in the same way because of his attachment to her. Using another example, if a woman enjoys pleasure from what she sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches, she would inevitably need to repay such pleasure when the unpleasantness of separation and loss follows. After all, sensual pleasure is short-lived, and like interest attached to a loan, the pleasure from sensual desire is small compared to the suffering that needs to be repaid.
The Buddha taught a number of ways to overcome sensual desire. It goes beyond this article to describe each practice in detail, but here is a method that I have found most useful.
If your mind is overcome with sensual desire, turn your awareness to the object of desire and name it for what it is. If it is a story, a memory, a wish for something or someone, then know that all that is happening is you are thinking. It is merely a thought or a succession of thoughts. Name it, “Thinking. Thinking. Thinking.” No need to analyse it, or add to it, or beat yourself up for thinking. Replace the thinking with the single thought, “Thinking. Thinking. Thinking.” When the desire has lost its grasp on you, then you can drop the naming and return to observing your breath.
The same applies to the other senses. If you are caught up in a pleasant or unpleasant smell, sound, sight, taste, or touch, you can name it accordingly. You can start to see that the smell of tom yum that makes your mouth water and tummy growl is simply…smell, smell, smell.
Ill-will is the desire to be away from unpleasant feelings, which takes the form of a desire to get rid of what we don’t like, or to harm, control or punish people who we dislike (which may include ourselves). When our mind is filled with ill-will and aversion, our mind sinks into that negativity in the same way that our minds can sink into sensual desire. When our mind is filled with such negativity, everything we see or experience is similarly filled with negativity. The Buddha compared ill-will to a man suffering from a bilious disease. If this man receives the tastiest honey or sugar, he will not enjoy its flavour. He would simply vomit it out and complain that it is bitter.
The antidote of ill-will is loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is also known as “unconditional love” because it is a wish for someone’s wellbeing and happiness, without discrimination and without conditions. By filling your heart with this quality of love, it softens the tightness and narrow-minded selfishness that ill-will brings. By turning your mind towards loving-kindness away from ill-will and aversion, you can finally take off your glasses tainted by the bleakness of ill-will, and broaden your mind beyond your own likes and dislikes.
Sloth and Torpor is the sluggish and dull state of mind that often leads the meditator to fall asleep. The Buddha described this state using the analogy of a person being gaoled on a Festival Day. When this person is released the following day and hears others praising how delightful the festivities were, this person would not be able to reply as he was not present at the festival. Likewise, the Buddha went on, if a monk is overcome by sloth and torpor during a most eloquent Dhamma talk, he cannot reply to the praises of how wonderful the Dhamma talk was afterwards, because he was not awake to hear the sermon! So when you go on your meditation retreat and you sleep right through it, or you drift in and out of consciousness, you would miss out on what was happening literally right under your nose, because you are simply not there to witness it.
The obvious antidote to sloth and torpor is arousing energy, but how is this done? The key is to arouse interest and to develop joy. No matter how many times you have gone on retreat, attended Dhamma talks, sat in meditation, adopt the “beginner’s mind” to experience whatever arises as if it the first time it is occurring, because in reality, it really is the first time it is occurring. Every breath is different from the last, and although it is simply a slight movement in the body, upon careful examination, you will start to see a lot more subtle details that you did not notice before. Why did the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta instruct us to sit in an empty place, establish mindfulness in the object of our meditation being the breath, and to know when one is breathing in long or breathing in short? Next time you sit in meditation, remember these simple instructions and with keen interest, observe and see what happens. If you fall asleep, like the prisoner who misses the festival, you would not be able to observe what happens.
Restlessness is often compared to the monkey mind that jumps from one distraction to another, never content to settle on simply one object. The Buddha compared restlessness to being a slave wanting to enjoy the festival, but who must obey his master’s unlimited requests to perform one chore after another. This slave runs around from one place to another, and never has the chance to stay long enough to enjoy the festival. Likewise, if your mind is continuously jumping from thought to memories, to plans, to imaginary stories, and to sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touch, you would not be present long enough to experience what was happening right here and now.
If we investigate deeper into why we are restless and distracted, it is because we are not happy staying with what is happening right here. If you were interested in a movie, you would be engrossed in it as if you are one with the main character. If you weren’t that interested in it, your mind would start to wander. When we are patient with our practice, our minds would start to settle and all the ‘noise’ would fall away leaving a deep peacefulness where joy can spring from. Sometimes that peacefulness is only subtle and we don’t notice it, but the longer we stay with it, this peacefulness becomes more pronounced and joy often raptures. That joy allows our minds to become engrossed in the present and just like when we watch a very good movie, our mind wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
Sceptical doubt arises when we question the teacher, the instructions, or even ourselves. Although the Buddha allowed open inquiry, if we are lost in these questions, they become obstacles to our progress. The Buddha compared this to a person lost in the desert, feeling anxious and fearful of robbers. This person would take a few steps, hesitate, stop, and may even turn back. This slows down his progress to safety, or he may not even reach safety at all due to his hesitation and fear.
So the way of overcome doubt is to find a good roadmap and/or a guide to show us the way. Immerse yourselves in the Buddha’s teachings, put it into practice in your daily life, and investigate into cause and effect. With wholesome conduct do wholesome results arise? With unwholesome conduct do unwholesome results follow? Your own investigation and spiritual development in line with the Buddha’s teachings becomes your anchor point, so that if sceptical doubt arises, you can pull out your roadmap for instructions and draw on your own experience for confidence.
As you continue your spiritual cultivation, your faith and confidence in the Buddha, his teachings (the Dhamma) and the wise ones (the Sangha) should arise. This faith dispels doubt. Sometimes we judge too quickly the teacher, the practice, or even ourselves, because we haven’t yet seen the fruits of our practice from what we have learnt, or we have received the fruits but the fruits aren’t ripening as we expect it to. In those times, we can give ourselves permission to lay aside our questions and doubts for the time being, and trust that the Buddha-Dhamma will guide us if we allow it to.
Life throws up many unexpected lessons for us to learn. Each of the five hindrances trains us in our mindfulness, loving-kindness, energy, contentment, faith and wisdom.
Your task if any of these hindrances arise is to know that they have arisen, how they have arisen, how they can be abandoned and how unarisen hindrances would not arise in future.
In abandoning these five hindrances, you would be like a person free from debt, rid of illness, awake to the present, free from slavery, and finally arrived at a place of safety and ultimate happiness.