Note: The hindrances are a large and important topic in meditation. This talk is divided into two parts. Part 1 gives an overview of the hindrances and how to relate to them wisely. Part 2 goes into the nitty-gritty of eleven specific hindrances the Buddha discussed with his cousin Anuruddha.
Jacob was jealous of his big brother, Esau. Esau always got better stuff. In fact, Esau was going to get the entire family inheritance: sheep, goats, tents… everything. In ancient times, that was the rule: the oldest gets it all.
Their father, Isaac, was 180 according to legends: old, blind, and maybe a little feeble. So Jacob was able to trick his father into giving him the inheritance.
To get his birthright, Esau would have to kill Jacob. And he was enraged enough to do just that. So Jacob ran for his life.
He found safe haven in a neighboring country. He took up shepherding, married, and began to raise a family: he prospered.
He was tempted to forget about Esau and his past. But his heart nudged him to face his trickery and reconcile with his brother.
So he packed his tents, gathered his family, servants, and flocks and began the journey back to the homeland. It took weeks.
Late one afternoon they came to the Jabbok River – less than a day’s walk from the old homestead. He set up camp for the night beside the river.
Then, in the dead of the night, Jacob awoke. The hair on the back of his neck was standing on end. There was something in the camp. Was it Esau come to kill him? Was it a wild beast? Was it a demon? Jacob couldn’t tell.
What would you have done?
Jacob roused his household and sent them across the ford of the Jabbok toward the homestead. Then alone, unarmed, in the black of night, and with no possibility of help, he went back into his abandoned camp.
Something grabbed him and threw him to the ground. Jacob grabbed its leg. Together they grappled in the dark. Jacob didn’t prevail. But it didn’t beat him either.
When the eastern sky turned grey with a hint of dawn it spoke, “Release me, for I must go.”
Jacob said, “No.”
The entity leaned over and with one finger dislocated Jacob’s hip. Wow! Jacob realized this being was more powerful than it had let on! With one finger it had popped his leg out of its socket. It hurt!
It said, “Release me, for I must go.”
What would you have done?
Jacob said, “No.”
“What must I do to get you to release me?”
Jacob answered, “You must give me your blessing.”
The demon turned out to be an angel. It said, “Your name shall no longer be ‘Jacob.’ You shall be known as ‘Israel’ and from you shall descend an entire nation.”
At that time and in that culture, that was the highest blessing one could receive.
So Jacob released the angel. It left. And Jacob limped into the sunrise.
On retreat I often spend the first day wrestling with demons. They may not be powerful enough to dislocate my hip. But they are good at dislocating my equanimity. And they are bold enough to come out in the broad daylight rather than wait for the dead of night. Their techniques may not be headlocks and half nelsons. But they don’t mind perturbing me with doubts, poking me with restlessness, dulling me with lullabies, and disrupting me with endless patter.
Tibetan Buddhism sometimes calls these disruptions “demons.” Theravadan Buddhism uses a more genteel term: “nivarana” which means “hindrances.” Nivarana are things that hinder our meditative progress.
As we meditate, we become familiar with a wide variety of hindrances. They are the energies that rise out of our depths – often the unseen aspects of our being. Like angels, they are messengers from beyond our normal awareness. Like oracles, their messages can be wise but cryptic and not easy to decipher. If the messages don’t fit our fancy, do we kill the messenger? Do we scold it and say, “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all”? Do we blindly give in to a surface understanding and say, “Yeah. I knew I was a bad meditator”? Or do we listen with open minds and hearts and learn.
How we engage hindrances is the most important aspect of meditation training.
If we treat them as demons to be conquered or corralled, we’ll be locked in an endless struggle. But if we treat them as angels with wisdom to bestow, they can be a blessing.
To better understand the gifts they offer, I’d like to look at hindrances from several angles: (1) crossed intentions, (2) personal teachers and friends, and (3) a split between Self and Other. Then in part 2, we’ll look at one of the Buddha’s lists of specific hindrances and how to relate to them wisely.
Before we get to those, let’s start with the question, “What’s the problem with hindrances?”
The problem is distortion. At the core of every hindrance is tension: we want something, we don’t want something, or we don’t want to deal with something: liking, aversion, or confusion. That tension distorts our thinking, perception, and decision-making. That is why they’re called “demons,” “defilements,” “taints,” “cankers,” “effluences,” and the like: they muddy the mind and heart.
But the distortion itself is just an innocent biological response. Rather than give it a moralistic name, I prefer a functional name: “distortion.”
Hindrances show us where we are distorted. The Pali term, nivarana, literally means “covering” or “veil.” It covers a truth. That is the bad news. The good news is that they show us exactly where the truth can be found: beneath that covering or veil. The angelic messenger is pointing it out.
It’s up to us to lift that cover and see what’s there. We recognize the hindrance and the tightness in it. It’s best not to get involved in the storyline. That’s a dead end. We just notice the tension in it. Release it. Relax. Smile. Return to sending out uplifted states. And repeat as often as our attention gets highjacked.
That is how to lift the cover. It works very well … most of the time. However, sometimes we six-R over and over, and the same hindrance keeps returning with vigor. Then we may need to lightly investigate and see if we’re missing something. We may need to spend more time with the Recognition step.
Sometimes what we miss are crossed intentions that invited the hindrance.
At first a hindrance may seem like a nuisance disrupting a pleasant afternoon, or a demon who snuck in under the cover of night, or as unshaven guests who arrive at the dinner table unannounced. We think, “I didn’t invite them.”
But we did. Nothing pops into our minds without an invitation. During quiet moments of meditation or peaceful walks through the fields, these distractions come at our beckoning. A summons was issued from the psychophysical energy system in which we live. Hindrances show up because some part of us invited them.
If we don’t remember enticing these creatures, then their appearance is an opportunity to explore parts of our system we’ve lost touch with. It’s a chance to peer into dusty corners of the psyche.
Imagine Jacob’s internal conflicts: homesickness, fear of Esau’s anger, guilt for ripping him off, determination to heal the wounds, anger at his father for favoring Esau, resentment at a culture that gave all the goodies to the oldest, contriteness for breaking the laws, pride in his success, worry about what the family thought, trepidation about the kind of welcome he might receive… There was ample material for nightmares filled with demons. In fact, a modern retelling of the story might set the wrestling match in a bad dream.
We rarely have only one intention. Usually we have many operating at once. Some we recognize. Some we try to ignore. Many conflict with one another. They populate our dreams. And they populate quiet waking moments.
In meditation we may go over and over a verbal wrestling match with our boss. “Go away,” we say to those thoughts. “I’m tired of fighting.” It may also be true that we’d like to win the fight and want some well-honed zingers rehearsed and ready to fire. We have mixed intentions.
I spent three days on a retreat designing a desk lamp. I kept telling myself I’d rather be meditating now. But part of me wanted the satisfaction of creating a lovely design. And part of me wanted a distraction from hours of trying futilely to focus my mind.
One of the reasons we have hindrances is mixed intentions. They will keep coming back until we see each intention clearly and six R them all. Hindrances show us distortions in our system that needs wise attention.
So if you feel dogged by a recurrent hindrance, ask gently if you have crossed intentions. As you notice one, gently Recognize, Release, Relax, Re-smile, Return to sending out metta and Repeat as often as needed.
One caveat: there are some hindrances we just don’t like: we have no mixed intentions. We want them gone, period. That disliking is also an unwitting invitation: a cause or condition that draws them forth.
The rule is we get what we put our energy into. If we invest in liking, that draws a hindrance. If we invest in disliking, that also invites a hindrance. If we invest in ignoring, that invites a hindrance.
Another way to look at hindrances is as teachers. They can be seen as a guide from beyond who knows us well and can point out clandestine tension. Rather than view hindrances as troublemakers or crossed intentions, we can view them as a teacher.
I started with my first piano teacher when I was in second grade. By high school, it was clear that I was deeply motivated. So my mother found a better teacher for me at a local conservatory. His name was Walter Giannini.
For the first nine months with him I did nothing but exercises to build up my hands and coordination. We started with the Hannon School of Velocity and worked through Czerny, Scarlatti, and other classical training methods without looking at one actual piece of music.
But within a year and a half he had me playing Debussy and Gershwin preludes that I hadn’t dreamed I could master.
Part of his talent was recognizing my motivations, weaknesses, and strengths. He was able to push me to the edge of what I could do without pushing me over that edge. It was a delicate balance. But he was sensitive and masterful.
Nevertheless, I had to do the work. He could only show me what to work on and offer tips. But I had to practice.
The difference between Walter Giannini as a piano teacher and hindrances as a spiritual teacher is that Mr. Giannini had a great personal sensitivity and social intelligence. Hindrances, by contrast, are angels with Asperger’s Syndrome: they don’t understand social cues. They’re not sensitive to our likes and dislikes, personality and mood, preferences and peeves. They just point out where we’re out of balance. If we’re tired or frustrated or don’t feel like looking at those difficulties, it seems like they are rubbing our noses in dirt.
However, if we are truly ready to move along quickly, they are wonderful guides, trainers, and even friends.
For me, a friend is someone who is able to call me on my games. A friend is someone who has the clarity, kindness, and willingness to say, “Doug, you’re deluded on this one.” If they can say that honestly and wisely, then I know I can trust them.
Hindrances have no problem showing us we’re deluded. However, they are clueless about social niceties.
Would you rather have someone politely say you’re brilliant when you’re confused? Or have them show you you’re deluded when you think you’re brilliant?
We’ve looked at hindrances as crossed intentions and as guides, trainers, and friends. We can also view hindrances as a split between self and other. To see this, let’s look at their family tree: how they relate to one another and where they got started.
In the beginning was the great grandfather and great grandmother of all hindrances, the primal source of our unhappiness, the Goddess of our discontent. It’s name is … ?
In Pali, it’s name sounds like a flourish of trumpets: “Tanha!” The term literally means “thirst.” It is most often translated as “craving.”
Tanha can be as brash as a brass band. Or it can be as subtle as a disturbance in the Force – a quiet fluctuation in our equanimity. It runs the spectrum from a demon to a subtle thickening of mood.
Tanha is a pre-verbal, pre-conceptual reflexive tightening. It’s the gripping of your hands on the steering wheel when someone cuts you off, the sudden focus on someone attractive, the quiet pining for a little more free time, the frustrations at the jingle in your mind.
If we relax tanha, it dissipates. If we don’t, it begets two children: Self and Other. They dearly love one another. Without Other there was no Self. Without Self there was no Other.
The sense of self and other, of “me” perceiving something “out there,” is so familiar that we may think it’s basic to life. But it’s not. In our deepest, purest experience there is just the flow of phenomena: experiences arise and pass.
But when tanha gets strong, it divides experience into categories: “This is me. This is not me.” “This is mine. This is not mine.” “This is myself. This is not myself.”
The Buddha offered a very simple meditative tool to use when we get stuck in a hindrance. Ask, “Is this me? Is this mine? Is this myself?” The question is not one to figure out. It directs our awareness to take a closer look and see directly.
Here’s a simple exercise:
Notice your sense of self. Where does it reside in the body. For most people, our feet are “down there” – our self looks down at our feet. Likewise or knees and our belly seem to be “down” below the center of the self.
The top of the head seems to be “up there.”
The self looking down at the knees and up at the crown feels to be somewhere in between.
So close your eyes and see if you can locate the center of the self.…
For most people, it is in the middle of the head perhaps about the level of the eyes or a little lower. From here we “look out” into the world or “listen” out for the sounds of the world.
This location of self is somewhat arbitrary and can be different for different people. For some it’s more in the chest.
What’s important is not to think where it should be but feel where it seems to be.
Once you have found it, bring your attention to it. Let the awareness seep into the center of the self. You’ll probably notice some tension there.
Now allow that tension to soften. See what happens as it relaxes.
Some people may begin to feel a little spacious with that relaxation. See what you notice.
Once you can notice where the subjective center of the self is, you can let it relax. When a hindrance arises, rather than relax that hindrance, relax the self that experiences the hindrance.
This has the same effect as relaxing the tension “in” a hindrance. Without a self, there are no hindrances — just a flow of phenomena. It is tension that divides the flow of experience into categories of “self” and “other.”
If we are not able to relax the barrier between Self and Other, then Other begets three children: triplets. They have been called:
The Three poisons
Attraction, Aversion, Confusion
Liking, Disliking, Ignorance
Lust, Hatred, Delusion
Lobha, Dosa, Moha (Pali)
I like the Pali terms because they imply a greater range than any English equivalent. Lobha includes everything from the craving of a drug addict to the subtle daydream of a vacation. Dosa includes everything from rage to sullenness. Moha includes willful ignorance and innocent misguidedness or bad information.
I also like them because they sound like Larry, Curley, Moe: the three stooges. They get into trouble, suffer a lot, and yet have innocent hearts. All hindrances are like this – innocent and confused.
Lobha, dosa, and moha soon beget five children. These are the five hindrances or five nivarana. They are:
Desire — the urge to move toward something or to draw it to us.
Aversion — the urge to get away or to drive it off.
Restlessness — more energy than we can manage.
Sloth and torpor — too little energy to stay aware, wisely engaged, and motivated.
Doubt — including doubt in ourselves, doubt in the practice, and our inner critic.
If these five are not relaxed, they go forth and multiply. They beget multitudes.
In the next part of this talk we’ll look in detail at eleven hindrances the Buddha described.
For now I’d like to summarize the first part of this talk by emphasizing that the problem with hindrances is not the hindrance itself — the veil or covering that conceals or distorts our experience. It is our attitude toward them that can be problematic.
There is a story that captures a wise attitude in a simple phrase.
Once there was a monk who lived in a little hut just outside a small fishing village.
One day, a young, unmarried woman in the village got pregnant. The people were upset and demanded to know who the father was. She loved the young man and didn’t want to get him into trouble, so she said the father was the monk living just outside of town.
When her child was born, a delegation of elders gathered up the child, marched to the monk’s dwelling, and rapped on his door. He opened the door and looked at them with a quiet smile.
They frowned back and said, “Here. This is your child,” and handed it to them.
“Ah so,” he said bowing slightly. They turned and marched away.
Fifteen years later the mother became ill. She knew she was dying. She didn’t want to have this terrible lie on her conscience. So she confessed the truth.
Shortly thereafter a delegation of elders walked quietly to the monk’s cabin, knocked softly on the door, and stood contritely.
The monk opened the door and looked at them with a quiet smile. Behind him was a teenager with sparkly eyes. The elders said, “We are so sorry. We know this child is not your responsibility. We have come to relieve you of this burden.”
The monk replied, “Ah so.”
If this were a story about living in the world, the next day after the elders left the baby and quieted down, the monk would have walked into town to discuss with them what was going on. Living in the world, there are often things to be done in response to events.
But this is a story about meditation. Sitting in meditation, there is rarely anything to be done outwardly. We just view the disturbance, the fascination, the fear, the hindrance with a gentle “Ah so.”
It’s a simple acknowledgement of what is true in the moment: “Here is a distortion. Ah so.”
Given the stresses in our lives, it is no surprise that desire, aversion, restlessness, sloth, torpor, doubt, and many other things arise when we sit down to meditate. If we fully understood them, we wouldn’t rail against them. We’d just say, “Of course,” or “No big surprise this arose,” or “Ah so.”
So when distractions grab your attention, greet them with, “Ah so.” In it is recognition and release. It’s relaxed. It has a quiet smile. And it gently radiates metta.
To study the way is to study the self.
To study the self is to lose the self.
To lose the self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barrier between self and other.
Copyright by Doug Kraft
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How to cite this document (a suggested style): "The Demon’s Blessing 1: Overview of the Hindrances" by Doug Kraft, www.dougkraft.com/?p=DemonsBlessing1.