Habits of evasion: the hindrances

Once I started practicing meditation more routinely, I began experiencing the same basic frustrations about sitting that all practitioners do: dozing off in the middle of a session, doubt that it was doing me any good, restlessness about sitting with the pain in my feet, and so on.

These evasive mental habits and kick in because practice methods tend to be repetitive, mundane and focused in a way that isn’t immediately rewarding, causing the mind to get bored of them quite quickly. They are the close companion of all practitioners and are known to all traditions, though I use the Buddhist phrase of ‘the hindrances’.

Many practices include a beginning and ongoing effort to tame the mind, so the Buddhists have helpfully systematised the hindrances as they like to do. They are an issue for practice because they are barriers to the kind of calm, concentration and pleasantness that are both motivating and generally helpful, and specifically to the arising of absorptions such as jhana. The reduction of hindrances is seen itself as a marker of progress in Buddhism.

The problem is that being that way, and turned into concrete targets for me to shake my stick at, I began to see them as the enemy that needed to be conquered in order for me to become that blissed-out, enlightened bloke I wanted to be. I have always experienced a lot of doziness in meditation, and whether I fought to stay awake, planned my day so that I meditated in the most alert part of it, or gave up and curled up for a snooze, nothing much seemed to put a dent in it.

It became eventually clear, however, that this is what the mind does. Coming into contact with a morass of thoughts, feelings and behaviours is the beginning of enquiry into the nature of existence, suffering and the game of avoidance. Any tactics that oppose the hindrances directly only exacerbate them whether subtly or obviously. At their worst I got into a right muddle on retreat, unable to really follow the basic instructions.

Nearly everyone I know reports the hindrances as a major element in their practice and it is important to know that having ideal mental conditions is not a prerequisite for making progress. I caught myself thinking ‘if only I didn’t have all this craving and aversion, then it would be really easy to get enlightened’ on the cushion once, and I had to laugh. It’s obvious that the relationship with the hindrances is indicative of one’s contemplative progress in general.

I know people who have started to see practice as a bloody awful experience of tussling with these demons and blaming themselves for not being able to slay them, not realising this isn’t really practice. If this happens the only sane thing to do is take a break; practice will no doubt reel you back in later, older and wiser. If you continue any progress will be as a result of defeat humbling you profoundly, which isn’t being very nice to yourself, really. (I speak from personal experience.)

Instead, it is important to keep applying the cardinal rule, which is to include these experiences in practice. Take the unconditional, contemplative attitude however it is worded for you: hold fast to your faith, keep observing, be kind to all things. The hindrances are only really a problem in so far as you are unable to turn them into more fuel for the fire. Whether observing laziness in vipassana or continuing to pray in the face of doubts, evasive habits are not provided with the conditions in which to thrive. While they don’t disappear overnight, you can stop feeding them.

I find most treatments of how to ‘deal’ with the hindrances don’t really hammer home the ‘fuel for the fire’ aspect, instead suggesting things like splashing water on your face if you feel dozy. My preferred approach is to fold them into practice.

It is important to remember that though the hindrances cause emotional reactions felt in the body, such as the pang of loneliness or the warmth of a pleasant memory, they are in themselves mental habits. They can be differentiated from more honest physical problems. Doziness is not the same as being dog tired, and craving for a favourite food is not the same as true hunger, and so it becomes clear once you have attended to the body’s needs that a certain sensation is a hindrance if it remains.

As they are a mental defence mechanism, the mind will flit between various hindrances if you sit and watch. As practice tends to be everything the bodymind is not interested in doing (sitting still, being boring, putting in effort etc.) it can seem like the mind is doing its utmost to hide from the present situation, which is a lesson in itself.