Chapter 33 of Meditator’s Field Guide copyright 2017, Doug Kraft.
Hindrances want to retire. They just don’t know how.
One summer during a retreat, restlessness seeped into my meditation. I didn’t like it. So I Six-R’ed to get rid of it. I wasn’t cognizant of the aversion. So there was restlessness, aversion to restlessness, and confusion about the whole dynamic. Hindrances tend to run in packs. My meditation went downhill.
Then I became aware of the aversion under my nose. I saw the meanness I was directing at the restlessness. I Six-R’ed the aversion — not to get rid of it (that would be aversion to aversion), but to release it, let it be, see it more clearly, and get to know how it really feels. I softened and observed kindly and openly. I wanted to see and understand. I was asking the restlessness, “What do you want?”
The restlessness wasn’t trying to give me a hard time. It wanted exactly what I wanted: for it to disappear. Restlessness was the result of too much energy. Physically it wanted to fidget, squirm, race around, and burn off that excess vim so it could relax. Emotionally, restlessness manifested as worry or anxiety. These too expended energy, but not as fast as physical movement might have. Mentally, restlessness manifested as thinking, thinking, thinking. This also burned calories, but less efficiently.
The problem was that fidgeting stimulated fidgeting, emotions stirred up emotions, and thinking triggered thinking. If I got caught up in restless stories, I was off into a fantasy and forgot to relax. The stress didn’t have the space to unwind itself.
Still, restlessness was doing its best to get rid of that hyper-energy. Its heart was facing the right direction. Rather than fight it, blame it, or blame myself, I could bring the wisdom it lacked. I could Six-R. When I did this, we became partners. Restlessness burnt off what it could. I relaxed as much as I could. I smiled to keep it light and impersonal and repeated as needed.
Gradually the confusion cleared, the aversion faded, and the restlessness melted into peacefulness.
I was struck by the realization that restlessness wanted to get rid of itself — it wanted to retire from a job it didn’t like. It just didn’t know how.
I wondered about other hindrances. Traditionally there are five: the one we just talking about, restlessness (too much energy), sloth and torpor (too little energy), desire (wanting something we don’t have), aversion (not wanting something we do have), and confusion (not seeing clearly).
As those arose in meditation, rather than see them as hooligans or incorrigible children, I gently and kindly looked into their nature.
Each hindrance had its own flavor and dynamic. But underneath, each wanted out. And each needed some guidance to do that. Consider:
Sloth and Torpor are the opposite of restlessness. They suffer from too little energy. Sloth is a loss of motivation. Torpor is a groggy, drowsy quality of mind. Both want a sabbatical if not full retirement and don’t know how to get there.
Sloth and torpor can arise from physical fatigue. In this case, the nap they long for may restore depleted reserves and bring energy levels back up to normal.
Sloth and torpor can also arise from sluggish mental states. Sluggishness has tension that’s hard to see because the mind is dull and thick. Still, it wants to relax. Its heart is in the right place.
If I blindly push against this lethargy, the situation gets worse. But if I look kindly and deeply into sluggishness, the tension becomes obvious. I can help it soften and relax with the Six Rs. With this, the mind-heart becomes clear and mellow and energy levels balance out.
Desire is another traditional hindrance that seems very different from restlessness or sloth and torpor. On the surface, desire just wants what it wants. If I’ve wanted a particular lovely piece of music for a long time, when I get that the desire vanishes because now I have it. The discomfort of wanting then fades into the lovely feeling of not wanting.
We routinely confuse getting what we want with not wanting. So after satisfying a desire, rather than letting it rest, we think, “Oh that was lovely. I want more.” What we really need then is not-wanting. But in our confusion, we go for another drink. And another. And another — until we’re bloated.
Desire wants to retire, but ends up looks for something else to desire. It’s up to us to see its deeper longing and help it ease up.
Aversion is the opposite of desire — wanting to be rid of something that we have or could have. When aversion is strong, it turns into anger or hatred. This powerful energy can be difficult to work with. So let’s look at an example.
Imagine that we see an adult yelling at a small child. The child looks frightened. But the adult seems not to notice and keeps pouring out invectives. Our face flushes as anger rises inside. The anger “wants” to yell at the abuser to back off.
On the surface, this anger feels natural and appropriate. It is a response to hurt and injustice. Let’s look below the surface.
Below our anger there is usually hurt. In this case, it may not be obvious. But with quiet reflection, we notice heartache — an empathetic resonance with the child. We feel the fear and hurt she must be feeling.
Underneath hurt, there is almost always alienation or feeling cut off from the flow of life. We don’t want to be part of a world in which small children get hurt unfairly. Yet it happens every day. We often come to feel disconnected from this part of reality.
On the surface, our anger “wants” to flare at the attacker. At the very least, it wants to protect the child. This urge can be forceful.
But underneath, the anger wants to soothe the child and itself and to reconnect with the flow of life.
If we feel and understand all this intuitively, the situation is still complex. But we have a chance to sort it out and respond from a wiser understanding.
The surge of anger encourages us to do something. If all we are aware of is the anger, we might attack the attacker. But if we feel the deeper hurt and alienation, we may be able to direct the anger into protecting the child without lashing out. And our heart might remain open enough to watch for hurt and alienation in the abuser to see if there is some way to connect with that person as well.
If this is possible, then our anger gets what it truly wants: protecting the child from harm and isolation and giving the abuser a chance to feel less hurt, frustrated, and alone. If this happens, the anger truly dissipates in a deep and gratifying way. And even if such a complete resolution is not possible, the situation is more likely to move in a way that’s life affirming rather than in a way that perpetuates violence and ignorance. We’re more likely to find a way to keep our heart open while still maintaining good boundaries and being firm where we need to be. This allows the mind-heart to find a natural peacefulness while engaged in the world or while meditating.
Doubt is the last of the five hindrances. It is sometimes called confusion or “ignorance” — not seeing things as clearly as they are. More than the other hindrances, doubt wants to make itself go away. We don’t like feeling doubtful or confused. Doubt and confusion have their own brand of discomfort.
Being doubtful and seeing it clearly allows the mind to relax and become more confident. Being confused and knowing we’re confused is the beginning of clarity – confusion starts to sort itself out. Rather than struggle against doubt or confusion, it is wiser to relax, open, and simply know doubt as doubt and confusion as confusion. This is where wisdom begins.
Confusion plays a role in all the hindrances. Without delusion, none of the hindrances could survive. They’d all go into retirement.
So seeing things clearly and wisely as they are is a powerful way to relate to any hindrance or distortion.
And speaking of confusion, in this discussion I personified hindrances — talked about them as if they had intentions and personalities, aspirations and fears of their own. But clearly they don’t. Hindrances are dumb, biological reflexes, wired into us, and shaped by experiences. Restlessness doesn’t “want” to burn off excess energy in the sense of self-reflecting on its best interest and deciding what to do about it. Rather, restlessness is a complex biopsychological pattern that, left unimpeded, tends to burn off extra energy. Torpor doesn’t try to talk us into revitalizing our energy by getting a nap or releasing a sluggish mental blockage. But it is a natural biopsychological complex that motivates us to do just that. And so forth.
Nevertheless, we do tend to personify our inner experience and relate to these complex reflexes with annoyance, exasperation, or aversion as if they were naughty or willful. That is an unwholesome reaction to natural processes. It puts unwholesome energy into our system and distorts it.
On the other hand, when we relate to hindrances with kindness, clarity, and the Six Rs as if they were benevolent though confused allies, a kind, pure, wholesome energy flows into our system. It helps us see the nature of the hindrances and our own deeper reality. Clear, undistorted seeing is wisdom. Wise-seeing helps hindrances unwind naturally until they rest in peace. We then can experience equanimity and dispassion.
Copyright 2017 by Doug Kraft
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How to cite this document (a suggested style): "Hindrances Want to Retire" by Doug Kraft, www.dougkraft.com/?p=HindrancesRetire.
Barbara S F Davis, August 22, 2022
Doug's sui generis way of teaching core principles removes the heavy, formal nature of traditional Buddhist teachings. This way of responding to our experience of sloth, torpor, desire, aversion and doubt is friendly. Easy-going. Doug's version or interpretation of the Refuges and the Ten Grave Precepts brings those closer, makes them usable. "Do not kill" becomes "I undertake the precept to refrain from harming intentionally." That version is even broader than the traditional admonition to not kill. In fact, I shared Doug's Precepts with a Zen sangha by zoom yesterday, August 21, 2002. Everyone was silent as they read and then a woman spoke: "That says it all!"
I am grateful for Doug Kraft.