Hindrances to Spiritual Awakening

An essential part of dharma practice is awareness of mental states--especially those mental states that lead to suffering. The Buddha taught that suffering was caused by craving (greed), aversion (hatred) and delusion (ignorance). He taught that delusion can take three primary forms: unconsciousness (sloth), agitation (worry) and doubt. These five mental states became known as the Five Hindrances. We will explore each of them in this blog. Craving (also referenced as greed or clinging) could be defined as the physical and mental grasping for some experience that does not exist in the present moment. It may be grasping for some physical, emotional, mental or spiritual experience; or it may be grasping for some external possession, relationship or circumstance. No matter how it is defined, we all know what craving feels like!

In rural India monkeys are sometimes caught by placing food inside of a gourd that is tied to a stake in the ground. The opening of the gourd is large enough for the monkey to slip its hand in but is small enough that once the monkey has made a fist he cannot extract it. So the monkey is trapped unless he is willing to let go. However, it seems that letting go does not occur as an option to the monkey so he remains trapped by his own grasping. How often do we do the same thing--just in a different way!

Aversion (also referenced as hatred) can be defined as resistance to an experience that is present in the body, in the mind, or in our life conditions. Once again, the experience is easier to recognize than to describe; it’s that mental state that says, GO AWAY! Craving and aversion are often intermingled. An aversion to something is simply craving that it ceases. For this reason, in some teachings the term craving includes aversion.

The hindrance of unconsciousness is sometime referred to as sloth or sinking mind. In our sitting meditation it can appear as sleepiness or drowsiness. In our everyday life it can appear as dullness and spaciness, or as daydreaming and fantasizing. Indulgence in intoxicants and mindless entertainment will exacerbate this hindrance.

The hindrance of agitation is also referenced as worry or restlessness. In its mental form it is sometimes called the monkey mind. Agitation is characterized by an inability to sustain concentration and by a state of continuous distraction. This condition is endemic in our culture today and is catalyzed by our addiction to the cell phone and the internet. Our minds are becoming habituated to distraction!

Doubt is the hindrance behind a belief that our spiritual practice is not worth the effort. It can appear in subtle forms such as becoming “too busy” to do our practice or telling ourself that “I’m too scattered” or “I just don’t feel up to it.” It can also appear as questioning if our practice is “doing any good.” If it is not recognized it’s the hindrance that can most effectively stop our practice in its tracks. Anytime you find yourself wanting to skip or shortchange your spiritual practice, be on the alert for this one!

How can we overcome the hindrances? In one sense we should not even try because any effort to “destroy” them only makes them stronger. The hindrances tend to dissolve on their own when we see them clearly and directly as they are. This is because the hindrances are rooted in delusion and the only way to overcome delusion is to wake up to reality—to see things as they really are. And thus we practice Insight Meditation (vipassana) to see things as they really are; we look at each experience with clear, direct awareness and with complete equanimity. The recognition of an illusion is the first step toward the experience of reality. The mind that recognizes delusion is not deluded.

It’s very important to not perceive the recognition of a hindrance as a mistake or as something gone wrong. It’s perhaps more appropriate to feel a sense of happiness because we have recognized something heretofore hidden and that recognition itself is the first step to freedom. The apparent bad news is really good news!

A very useful meditation is to simply recognize and name each hindrance as it arises. We can do this sitting on our cushion or active in our daily life. Again, it’s very important to not create any stories or judgments about any of them but to objectively see and name each of them as they arise. This practice can lead to greater freedom from suffering.