The five hindrances

In Buddhist thinking, there are “five mental hindrances.” According to Wikipedia, the Buddhist scripture with which I’m most familiar, these hindrances “hinder progress in meditation and in our daily lives.”

When I meditate (currently, forty-five minutes a day, at least), I pay close attention to which of these hindrances is/are most present. The hindrances are (again, per Wikipedia – there are different translations for these, but I’ll just stick with the ones that have made it through the Wikipedia gauntlet):

– Sensory desire (sometimes called “clinging” or simply “desire”)
– Ill-will (sometimes called anger, and sometimes grouped together with desire and called “aversion,” which is itself a sort of desire – a clinging to the hope, wish, or fantasy that things might be other than they are)
– Sloth/torpor (sometimes called “laziness”)
– Restlessness/worry (sometimes called “listlessness”)
– Doubt (always, as far as I know, called “doubt”)

So I pay attention to the thoughts that come through my mind. I try not to judge them, not to follow them, but rather, simply to label them (“desire,” “planning,” “hungry,” etc.) and then, to categorize them within the rubric of the five hindrances. This latter step I typically do subsequent to the meditation. Sometimes, I’ll write myself a note: “Meditated for 45 minutes; all desire.” Other times, I’ll just think those words.

The nice thing about this rubric, and about the practice of meditation, is that it provides an opportunity for me to become intimate, in a non-judgmental way, with the patterns and ruts of my mind. And boy, do I have patterns and ruts.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, when I meditate, the first fifteen or twenty minutes are all about sensual desire. I find myself thinking about sex, about specific partners, about specific acts, about general fantasies, what have you. It often devolves into concrete planning, but if often doesn’t. Usually, after fifteen or twenty minutes, though, my fantasies give way, and I find myself in a sort of open, clear space, one in which my thoughts are far less intrusive, far less present. I am better able to notice the sensations of my breathing in my belly, and often, I’m simply in a open, non-dualistic space in which my sense of my own body recedes somewhat, and I simply am. Often, though, what follows the desire, or what alternates with it, is restlessness. “How much time more?” “Is my timer working?” “I really want to stop, to do what’s next.” Not infrequently, I’ll open my eyes, check a clock. Sometimes, I’ll even stop my meditation 90 or 120 seconds before the timer is set to ring, just because I can’t tolerate my impatience.

This is instructive. I’m not a patient man. I want what I want, and I want it now. In those instances, what I’m calling “restlessness” is actually its own form of desire: I want to be done.

I know (from talking with other humans) that different hindrances predominate for different people at different times. I have a friend who’s all about anger. Another, doubt.

As I said, I like how meditation makes one’s habits of thought inescapable. It softens one’s (my) judgment: I don’t choose to do so much wanting. It just happens. Inescapably. And while I can spend lots of time and energy wondering how, why that came to be, and more wishing it weren’t so, at the end of the day, it just is. There’s something liberating in just noticing how things are.