The Five Hindrances
By Rhonda V. Magee
Overcoming Obstacles: Strengthening Your Meditation by Working with the Five Hindrances
There are many kinds of meditation programs, but the type of mindfulness meditation that I practice, study and offer is not merely Insight Meditation nor what some call Concentration (Tranquility) practice. It’s traditional mindfulness meditation, which combines both of these, along with compassion practices such as lovingkindness, all in service of helping you live/deploy your education and skills in more wholesome and sustainable ways.
In this approach to meditaiton, there are five traditional hindrances to a mindfulness meditation practice. Below is a quick overview of those hindrances, along with a brief discussion of some of the ways that you might work with them as you explore a meditation practice yourself.
1. Sensual desire
For example, you sit down to meditate, and all of a sudden, you just can’t stop thinking about wanting a glass of water, or what you’ll have for dinner. It could be any kind of sudden lust – for each of us, we have some idea of what this can feel like. One way to minimize this (and other hindrances, by the way) is by simply noting that it is there, and then bringing yourself back to your chosen object of awareness (the breath, the body as a whole, the parts of the body in a Body Scan, whatever it is at the moment). If you really do need to address whatever this is — you can just decide to address it (drink water, eat) and come back to meditating later. But be sure to come back, if you’ve made a commitment to exploring the benefits of meditation for you.
You might find you can’t meditate because you’re annoyed at the very idea of meditating at the moment; or, if you just happen to mad about something that happened that you haven’t let go of and keep thinking about. As with sensual desire, this can look differently for all of us. And yet, we all know something about how anger – and certainly rage — can be a big distraction when we are trying to focus on anything else. Again, sometimes just noting that this is what’s distracting you is enough to allow you to gently bring your mind back to the chosen point of focus. (After all, you can always be angry again later!) 🙂 But if it is persistent, maybe going for a walk, talking about what is bothering you, journaling, or in a given case, seeing a counselor would be worth doing before sitting down to meditate again.
3. Sloth and torpor
This is fatigue or listlessness or even boredom. Feeling slothful may be particularly common these days, when we have all been bearing up against too much of just about everything – from digital connections and the onslaught of information to overwork. And feeling numb is also one version of a stress response. Because feelings like this are so common, many people – myself included! – have a regular habit of engaging in a few Qi Gong moves, yoga poses (asanas), mindful walking steps or other movement practice specifically before sitting down to engage in mindfulness meditation. Breathwork, for example, taking a few quick energizing breaths; or tapping practices may also help. Each of these aim at invigorating the autonomic nervous system, and are among the practices that help me shift my energy in the direction of supporting me in my meditation practice.
4. Restlessness and worry
Underlying this one is sometimes fear (or something else), but it feels like a mind that won’t stop racing or other feelings of unsettledness, perhaps amounting to anxiety. If just noting the signs of this in your body isn’t enough to bring you back to being able to focus (or, to sit in “choiceless awareness”), then you might just allow yourself to feel them and then notice what other feelings are also present. You might investigate them further to determine which are existential, based on things you can control but haven’t address, which need to be addressed/where action needs to be taken; OR ON THE OTHER HAND, discerning which are neurotic, arising out of focusing too much on things beyond your control. Drop the neurotic worry (“What about world hunger????”) and do what you can to address the existential concerns (stop procrastinating on your own “to do” list, and take one step, for today, towards accomplishing a goal that seems too big even to start).
In some sense, perhaps this should be at the top of the list! Doubt means questioning whether or not the practice is of benefit to you, to the degree that you just can’t get yourself going or stick with it for more than a few seconds. If doubt arises when you begin to sit, take a moment to reflect on your motivations for practicing. Inquire within: are you willing to explore whether this practice might be of benefit to you? Be honest! If you are not willing or open to have a little faith that these practices might help you, or assist you in helping others with whom you seek to work or collaborate — in some way — then consider setting aside the effort to practice mindfulness meditation until you do.
In solidarity and support!
Rhonda V. Magee