What prevents us from doing things?
Especially the things that we would like to do, and know are in our best interests?
What causes us to fall short?
In traditional Buddhist writings the causes are called Hindrances.
Unlike the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, they are five in number, and we all have our favourites.
Hindrances are states of mind that get in the way of our being mindful. They prevent us from being present in the here and now. Originally described in the context of formal meditation practice, hindrances actually affect everything we do. They are psychological assassins that undermine happiness, reduce productivity, and take away the joy from life.
As universal phenomena they affect everyone. Most of us are not even aware when they are present. These negativity ninjas stalk our lives, hamper our work, destabilise our relationships, and leave our mindfulness practice in tatters.
It helps if we can spot the hindrances before they take over. However, by the time we notice their presence, they are often in full swing. We need to be on friendly terms with these unwanted guests, and avoid reacting to them with another hindrance, if we can.
To get angry with ourselves for being angry is never going to help!
They are psychological assassins that undermine happiness.
The traditional names are a little formal and out of date. These hindrances arise from emotions and beliefs about ourselves, and the world round us, that we learn as we grow up in our family, in our home, in our culture. The five themes cover a wide area of human psychology.
This represents the wish for something to be different. We want more of one thing and less of another. This is a problem for many of us – try meditating next to someone you fancy, and see how easily sense desire can take over! Lust and sexual desire are only one form of sense desire. This hindrance causes much unhappiness as it underlies addiction.
Addiction to drugs and alcohol are easiest to see, we all take substances to change our mental state. A glass of wine, a double espresso, or perhaps a tab of ecstasy at a party. We seek to create pleasant experiences, or to blot out unpleasant ones. There are many subtle forms of addiction, some of which are socially acceptable. So we spend hours every day watching television, or getting texter’s thumb on social media.
Subtle forms of addiction can also cause us difficulty, and have a considerable impact on the quality of our life. Some are addicted to the adrenalin rush of danger, others to the experience of being a victim.
We live in a capitalist society, where growth in the economy is vital if nations are to thrive. Or at least this seems to be the main measure used to determine the success of a country. Growth comes from consumer spending, and for this reason much thought is put into getting us to part with our hard earned cash. Big business does its best to foster sense desire, otherwise companies will fail. A multi billion dollar business has been designed with this one aim in mind, advertising.
Millions are spent every year persuading us that one phone is better than another, and that if we don’t have the latest model our life is over! So we are presented with scantily clad models draped over cars, all designed to appeal to our virility and persuade us to buy the latest gas guzzler, we spend millions on cosmetic surgery, and follow the latest (expensive) diet fad, all in the name of sense desire.
Clinging is another aspect of this hindrance. We won’t let things go, the failing marriage, the job we wanted that does not suit us any more, the image of ourselves as still being young. We struggle to change our current lifestyle, even when it is killing us with obesity, lung cancer, or diabetes. It represents the fear that if something changes it is bound to be for the worse. Better the devil you know…
Ill will has two main causes.
1. Aversion to things that are happening right now.
2. Fear of what may happen in the future.
We end up planning for the divorce before the marriage proposal is made.
Although ill will may be directed at other people, it is common to direct it towards our self. Living in a world where many people have such low self-esteem that it verges on self-hatred, this ill will causes much mental distress, and may lead to mental illness. It makes it very difficult for us to enjoy the good parts of our lives, and we can develop aversion to joy, happiness, or closeness. We push people away, or sabotage our own success.
It is hard to balance the pleasure and pain of life. If we dislike one sensation yet fear another, we end up planning for the divorce before the marriage proposal is made. Fear comes from aversion to things that have yet to happen. What might others think about us, if we were to change our hairstyle, shave our beard, or alter our lifestyle? This is a recipe for living a life determined by other folks rules.
This extends into mindfulness practice as well. Many people have concerns about taking up the practice:
- What if I change too much?
- Will my partner still like me?
- What hidden horrors might be revealed from the depths of my psyche?
- Enter your own fear here………
The mental stillness that comes from mindfulness, allows space for thoughts and emotions to reveal themselves. For this reason it is important to have an experienced teacher, or therapist, who can guide us through such bumps in the road. Sometimes mindfulness should only be used with a very light touch, if some of us are not to decompensate.
Fortunately this is very unusual, and mindfulness is positive for most who practice it. It is one of the main components of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, used to help those with a history of complex trauma and emerging personality disorders.
SLOTH AND TORPOR.
These two wonderful old terms refer to physical and mental fatigue respectively. Sloth conjures up the image of a slow moving, Amazonian creature, and is seen in a heaviness of the body, with accompanying lethargy. At its extreme it can include falling asleep on the meditation cushions! In life it is seen in our physical resistance to change.
Torpor, for me, always triggers an image of lazy summer afternoons, picnicking by a river bank. Bees humming among meadow flowers, while the lunchtime beer lulls us to sleep. This can be both pleasant and unpleasant, representing the mental version of snuggling back down under the duvet.
A dreamy state may be pleasant but produces a state of unawareness. It produces sluggish thinking, the mental equivalent of wading through treacle. The result is a lack of engagement with our practice and our life, we find it hard to use our energy, generating a sense of laziness, ennui, and procrastination. Everything becomes an effort, trying to carry mindfulness off the cushions and into the rest of our life just isn’t going to happen.
We feel a strong resistance to practice, and want to be somewhere else, doing something more interesting. This can be a protective response to avoid strong, hidden emotions, or to avoid reliving past, abusive experiences. More often than not it is resistance to change that is represented here.
Thinking becomes sluggish, we worry how much longer til we can get on with something else?, “Did I set the timer?” We become preoccupied with a sense of discouragement and failure. We ruminate on our past, and spend time planning our day, or worrying about our past mistakes. We are full of regrets for opportunities that we have missed, or those things we have done – or have left undone.
Events in our lives, or abuse and neglect, can also generate strong feelings of regret. For the life we might have had, the places we might have gone, the person we might have been.
RESTLESSNESS AND ANXIETY.
These are in-built features of modern life, and are show themselves in dissatisfaction and a feeling of being unsettled. They are hindrances that affect both the body and the mind.
Mental signs include: self judgement, worrying, planning, and nervousness. These are often triggered by suppressed emotions. We feel regret for the things we may or may not have done, and for the things that have been done, or left undone by others. Often this is accompanied by a strong sense of remorse, or a sense of impending doom.
Anxiety shows itself in concerns about the future, and the fear that specific events might come to pass. Physical restlessness reflects an unsettled mind. There is tension in our posture and body, with pain, and tightness in our joints and muscles, and we find ourselves unable to settle down to work.
This is perhaps the most subtle of the hindrances. It is also the most problematic, as it is difficult to recognise when it is at play.
Doubt leads us to feel drained, and disconnected from the things we do, and we find ourselves giving up almost before we start. With mindfulness, this presents with concerns about the practice itself, will we be able to do it right? Questioning if it is the right thing for us to be doing.
In life, this doubt induced indecision causes us to vacillate, and to find it difficult to make up our mind. We become unable to apply ourselves to a task, or get lost in rumination about our abilities, or if we are doing the right thing. This leads to lack of clarity about our purpose, which in turn fuels our sense of doubt.
The mental version of snuggling back down under the duvet.
Threads of each of these hindrances are present in our mind to varying degrees, for much of the time. Small amounts are relatively easy to overcome, but when they have a stronger hold we need to use other techniques to overcome or reduce their effect.
The first process, if we are to deal with a hindrance, is to become aware of what is happening. Using a technique such as Michele McDonald’s RAINapproach, as outlined by Tara Brach and others, can be very effective in helping us to do this. Like mindfulness this approach can be used anywhere.
First, we need to be aware that a hindrance is present. If we notice what is happening in our inner world, that may be all that is needed for it to dissipate, as long as it does not have too strong a grip. Whether we are on our meditation cushion, or holding a conversation with a friend, if we find one of these psychological assassins at play, the first thing to do is to acknowledge its presence.
So, if we can spot the very early signs of irritation, we are in a position to do something about it, and we may avoid an angry outburst later. We might not yet sense feelings of anxiety, but instead, notice the increasing tension in our neck to be an early sign.
We come to recognise what is true about our inner life.
Acceptance does not reflect a sense of having to put up with things, but is a process of allowing whatever feelings or thoughts that we are having, to be present, without judging them or ourselves. We allow ourselves to feel or think the things that we do. They are what they are, and we do not have to act on them.
If we recognise and accept how we feel, we can choose a different response. If we do this repeatedly we can change how we feel in similar situations in the future.
Investigation is about exploring the nature of what we are feeling. It is not about judging what we feel, or who we are. We use our own natural interest in the world to explore our experience.
- How do we feel?
What thoughts does this feeling bring into existence?
- Is it my fault?
- How dare they treat me like that?
Is there a physical component to our experience?
- Where are they located?
- What effect does it have on our motivation?
- How is our energy effected?
- How long does it last?
- What helps it pass?
- What makes it worse?
Analysing our experiences in this way leads to greater relaxation, less pain and more awareness.
This is the final, and most important element when we deal with the hindrances. It comes from a sense of natural awareness.
We come to recognise that we are not our thoughts, feelings etc. They do not define who we are. They arise and pass away. They are called into existence by a particular set of circumstance, and once the conditions change, our thoughts and emotions will inevitably change.
If we can become aware of the role these hindrances have in our life, we are freed to live more creatively. No longer only reacting to the moment by moment changes and upsets that life throws our way, but instead, we can start to unravel the unconscious, automatic patterns of behaviour with which we usually approach life. We can choose to set up the conditions for a happier life.
We are free to take life as it comes – warts and all.