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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

Only connect

I was 18 when I read E.M. Foster’s novel Howard’s End and it was one of the most powerful books I had ever read. It was as if he were speaking to me, was speaking my own thoughts and feelings. It was as if he were me.  It was uncanny. And it was this quote that resonated most with me. The idea within the novel that it was connections that matter – not status or wealth or possessions, but human connections. And that one has to live as a whole person, to connect with all of oneself, not split off into the ‘monk’ or the ‘beast’ but to let those energies coexist and nourish a total sense of being.

As a teen still in the closet, it spoke to me of the fear of sex and intimacy, the tendency to see it as the beast, the desire to be good, to gravitate to the ‘light’ of spirituality away from the ‘darkness’ of sensual desire. For a teenager living in the shadow of denial about his sexuality how ironic that it was a man from 100 years earlier, who had lived in the same shadow for much of his life, who should speak so eloquently to me in my place of fear of the need to open to all of who I was. I heard and it spoke to my heart, but the lesson didn’t take effect at once and in some ways I am only realising now the significance of what he was saying. Coming to sexual maturity in the1980s didn’t exactly help me to open to all of my being! The sex education I had at that same time was about HIV and AIDS and as I slowly began to realise that I wanted to have sex with men this was fused in my mind with the thought that sex would kill me.

Reading ‘Straight Jacket, How to Be Gay and Happy’ I was struck that the author had the same experience as a teen in the ’80s: seeing the tomb stone safe sex ads for HIV and taking away the lesson that sex kills. I still remember the fear after my first sexual encounter, and the first of many trips to the GUM clinic to be tested, convinced that I was now going to die.

It’s hardly surprising then that after a few years of being out and tentatively exploring my love and sex life my interest in Buddhism and spirituality fused with a subtle inner homophobia that had never been addressed and was able to use my genuine commitment to the spiritual path as a screen to create the duality of the monk and the beast, as I then attempted to push the ‘beast’ underground through 12 years of celibacy, culminating in 6 years of literally being a monk! I wonder how many of us in our own ways have done this? Perhaps not become celibate but found our own way to split off the monk and the beast: going to one or other extreme, but never finding that middle way that celebrates them both?

Even on leaving the monastery there was still a sense that the real spiritual work was to be done in a solitary retreat, that living here in London I was selling out to my ‘base’ desires for sex, a relationship, a man. But why create this duality? This idea that there is the spiritual – pure and undefiled, and the worldly – tainted by desire and corporeality. It probably wasn’t helped by having grown up with one of the few Medieval judgement murals still in existence in a British Parish church, showing the blessed and the damned! It certainly fed my child mind with the idea that one is either good and saved, or bad and damned. It’s not entirely clear in the image below as part of the mural is damage, but on the right are the souls being dragged into a the gaping mouth of Hell, whilst to the left the souls of the saved go up to Heaven. How often do we carry this sense of the damned and the saved with someone sitting in Judgement on us?


Last week I went to a presentation organised by Dean Street for a new organisation in London. It’s been set up as an affiliate of a group running events throughout the United States and other countries. It’s run by a group of young gay men, and one woman. Its intention is to find new ways to raise awareness of how to live a fulfilled and healthy life as a a gay man, to enjoy sex but to be aware of how to stay healthy and safe. As such it celebrates the enjoyment of sex, but seeks to promote awareness of the options around for staying healthy.  It was so refreshing to hear the young men talking as they explained what they were setting up, to hear them say without shame, “I love sex” but to then want to explore how to share a message with all gay men, but especially younger men of how to explore their enjoyment in a way that minimises the risk to their health and mental well being. It made me think of my own struggles and how I wished I could have met others who could have given such a sex positive message when I was in my 20s, to counteract the shame I had taken in as a child and teenager.

And this is not just about having good sex. As Dr Downs expresses so well in ‘The Velvet Rage’, if a core part of my self identity, my sexual drive, is seen as being wrong or tainted then in effect I believe myself to be wrong or tainted and the choices and actions I perform will grow out of this self-belief. I may see myself as the beast, never able to be good enough to be the monk, and so choose a path that takes me into suffering through low self-esteem and lack of self-worth. Or I try desperately to prove I am not the beast and in my own way be the perfect, good gay. If I believe I am unlovable, how will I ever open to anyone to love me? And if someone does – then they must be a fool to love someone so bad, and so are not worth trying to get to know further. Instead I will chase those who give me the message that meets my inner truth: the ones who do not really want me, who treat me with some form of disdain, for this, on some subtle level, is how I feel I deserve to be treated. And if I think on some subtle level gay sex is wrong, how can I love another man who is so flawed? All we can have is passing encounters.

It is for each of us to find what we want in our love and sex lives so I am not saying we should all fit one model – but to have sex without shame, whether monogamous, polyamorous or casual or not at all (but out of a free choice and a deep sense of contentment rather than due to shame) is something I believe will bring a greater sense of self worth to us all and open us to loving the other men we are meeting along the way, connecting from the heart and not only the groin. This starts with learning to love ourselves and so we continue in the group to explore how to open to embracing all of who we are, to let the monk and the beast no longer fight but embrace and give us all of their energies. As part of that exploration the Impulse initiative may provide some of us with support and a place to meet others who share this wish. To find out more about Impulse London click here 

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