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The Five Hindrances

Last week I was talking about dreams and how we can wake up within the dream to a state of lucid awareness. In the previous weeks I’ve been looking at how we can bring greater clarity to our emotional world though recognising our habit patterns when in a relationship – being avoidant, anxious or secure. The key to both lucid dreaming and lucid living is to be able to rest into a clear awareness of our present moment experience as we meditate. Mindfulness practice is not about controlling the mind or making it other than how it is – but of resting in a state of open attentiveness to the present moment, recognising how certain movements of the heart-mind lead to greater well being and calm, whilst others lead to stress, unhappiness and upset.

In a way it is not that we meditate to make the heart-mind better and different to how it is right now, but  rather our meditation allows our heart-mind to settle into its natural state, which is calm, expansive and luminous – just as the ocean will be still and calm when the winds stop whipping it up into towering waves.

The winds that disturb the natural clarity of our heart-mind have been described as the five hindrances. Each hindrance has its own flavour and over the next five emails I’ll explore each hindrance. But first, to give an overview here are all five:

1. Sensual desire
2. Ill-will
3. Lethargy and drowsiness
4. Restlessness and remorse
5. Doubt

Each hindrance is compared to the natural clarity of the still heart-mind, which is said to be like clear water. Sensual desire is said to be like water filled with dye. The bright colours make it impossible to see the natural clarity of the water in its pure state.

1. Sensual desire

The Buddha taught that what ‘we think we become’. In the opening verses of a collection of teachings called The Dhammapada the Buddha says:


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Whilst food, beautiful sights, sex and sensual experiences can all be enjoyable in the moment, allowing the attention of our heart to dwell on the desire for them is not helpful to resting into the natural state of calm abiding that can be experienced through meditation. If you really investigate how it feels to be sitting in meditation with desire you’ll notice a subtle aftertaste to the sweetness of desire that is slightly sour. The grasping heart-mind that looks outside of itself for pleasure presents us with the belief that if I can find what I want then I will be happy. But in the act of wanting there is a sense of frustration with the present moment experience that makes it hard to feel the peace that is here right now. 

If we are eating a meal, then the experience right now in the moment is of noticing the flavours, the scent of the food, enjoying each mouthful. If we are having sex then the experience in the moment is of savouring the taste, smells and physical contact we are experiencing in the moment. As soon as this experience becomes a memory or a desire for some similar experience in the future, it takes us out of the present moment and into longing and desire. 

If I am sitting in meditation and a sexual fantasy starts to play out in my mind, or a memory of a recent experience presents itself, it can feel very alluring to go with this thought. It seems to promise a sense of pleasure and excitement. But if I investigate what is actually happening I see that this sensual desire for something that is not here right now creates a movement in the heart-mind which is like the storm winds stirring up the calm surface of the ocean and leads away from any feeling of calm abiding I may have been experiencing. 

Wanting something I cannot have right now does not give me an experience of pleasure, but of lack. It makes the heart-mind restless, thinking about how it can get what is desired. In contrast, the moment of letting go into being here right now with the simplicity of bodily sensations and the happiness in the heart of being content in the moment gives a subtle sense of joy and peace that needs nothing outside of itself. 

As you meditate, notice what it is like to have desire for something that is not here right now – the sense of longing, slight feeling of lack of contentment, the increased sense of arousal it might cause that makes it harder to rest attention on something as simple and subtle as the breath. 

This is not to say you have to deny yourself that cream cake when in the tea room – enjoy the experience of it when it is there, but also notice that desire for a cream cake when no cream cake is present as a subtle form of suffering. The thought I want, I do not have, I desire all creates a sense of unfulfilment. The Buddha never told his followers that sex or luxury were wrong. Monks and nuns were expected to be celibate but not his lay followers. What he did say was that pursuing desire would not lead to the end of desire, whereas meditation can lead to a state fo freedom from wanting anything. Notice that however many cream cakes you have, or amazing sex, once this experience becomes a memory, there is an almost immediate desire for it to repeat.

I have never found the end of a desire by pursuing desire. There’s always that wish for just one more wafer thin mint at the end of a delicious meal! It becomes a case of the middle way – if we are not going to embrace a life of monastic celibacy and sensual restraint, how can we enjoy the pleasure of the world, without letting them become a source of distraction and dissatisfaction? In meditation we can notice what it is like to have desire for sensual pleasure arise as we sit, notice how it starts to stir the calm ocean of the heart-mind, how agitation and longing can arise and how these feel in contrast to a heart-mind that is at peace in itself. 

Another aspect of this hindrance is that by pursuing thoughts of sense desire we may then act in ways that lead away from peace of mind and heart. Think of the issues in the news right now of sexual abuse by people in positions of power, or our own unskilful actions when we attempted to grasp at something we were desiring without thought for how it might impact on another, these are all examples of how sensual desire may lead away from peace, ease and contentment.

I remember I was traveling through Italy when I was 19. I was in an hotel in Southern Italy where I had had a coffee on the last evening of my stay. It was in a lovely large mug and saucer. I had it in my room, and suddenly I felt desire to have it. I washed it and put it in my ruck sack. Latter the owner was so helpful in making arrangements for my journey back home I felt really bad about having taken the mug, but also embarrassed at putting it back out clean and washed in case it was obvious I had planned to take it….so I left it in my ruck sack. But on getting home I gave it away as it could no longer give me pleasure knowing I had taken it without permission and with greed in my heart. This was before I learnt to meditate or knew anything about Buddhism, if I had been meditating at that time I may well have felt in my meditation how the desire for this object was giving rise to suffering rather than pleasure and might well have just left it in my room rather than take it away. 

In contrast, when we let go of sensual desire for things of the past or anticipated in the future or desired right now, we can rest in a state of calm abiding that is pleasant and easeful right now without needing any external source or stimuli to give rise to the pleasure. As this happiness is based on the heart-mind resting into its natural state rather than reaching put for some external thing to give us happiness  the happiness of the heart-mind at peace is a state of freedom, as we can rest into it at any time without needing to find an object or sensory experience to give rise to our experience of pleasure.  

For a more detailed essay on the stages of calm abiding mediation click here

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