Disassembling the fabricated world
The historical Buddha described two qualities to be developed through practice: samatha ('calm abiding') and vipassana ('clear seeing'). (Very similar concepts show up in Zen in the form of the balance of stillness and clarity in Silent Illumination practice.)
These days, 'vipassana' is often used to refer to insight practice generally, but commonly means a specific type of insight practice, based around deconstructing sensory experience through increasingly fine-grained examination. It's an interesting mode of practice that brings deep insights into impermanence, and it can work well for people who don't get on with the Zen style. However, if you're a hardcore Zennist yourself, don't dismiss this out of hand - after all, no less a figure than Zen master Dogen said 'Impermanence is Buddha Nature.'
So how do we do it?
The process of deconstruction
The basic approach here is one of examining your experience in fine detail, with the intention of observing what comes and goes with greater and greater clarity. This approach can be applied to any object - the breath, the body sensations, a candle flame, a visualisation, whatever you like to work with. For the rest of the article I'll talk about using the breath, but if you want to try it with something else, go right ahead - the Vipassana police won't come knocking.
So you start by setting up your meditation posture, relaxing, settling in, and then directing your attention to the breath. Your task now is simply to see what's going on with the breath, as clearly as possible; any time the mind wanders, just let go of whatever the mind has taken an interest in and come back to the breath.
As you do this again and again, over time, you're likely to pass through a few stages along the way. (This model is heavily inspired by Michael Taft's podcast on deconstructing sensory experience, with a few tweaks.)
Before we get into the stages, it's worth saying that all meditation maps are approximations based on the most common things that people experience. Not everyone will experience all of these things, and it won't be hard to find a 'step 2.5' or whatever. Don't waste your time arguing about it - so long as you're moving in the direction of greater sensory clarity and deconstruction, you're doing it right, whether your experience is lining up with the stages or not.
We tend to relate to the world almost entirely through our concepts about the world as opposed to our sensory experience of the world. If the two phrases 'think about the breath' and 'pay attention to the breath' mean the same thing to you, that's an indication of what I'm talking about.
When we open our eyes and look around the world, we see coloured shapes. That's all the eye can ever see - the coloured shapes don't come with little name tags. But, fast as lightning, our conceptual mind jumps in and identifies those coloured shapes, splitting them up into the familiar world of distinct objects that we actually experience. (Notice, too, that there's no lag there - it isn't like you're constantly going through a process of having to figure out what each new coloured shape is. The world is given to you in your immediate experience already carved up into neatly labelled objects.)
So when you're contacting the breath at the level of the conceptual, you're primarily working with the intellectual knowledge 'I am breathing in', 'I am breathing out'. At this stage, meditation practice is likely to be mind-numbingly boring, and focus will be very difficult. The 'label' ('breathing in') doesn't change for the entire in-breath, and we're used to the idea that once we've successfully categorised something and it poses no immediate threat, we can ignore it and our mind can wander to something more interesting or relevant.
(Counting the breaths can help to make the practice a little more interesting at this stage, because at least the labels change from one breath to the next. But it's still pretty heavy going.)
In order to move beyond this stage, we must take the advice of the famous Zen master Bruce Lee - 'Don't think, feel!'
Rather than thinking about the breath, our task now is to feel the breath.
Consider what happens when you pick up a cup of coffee. Right away, without any effort whatsoever, you can feel whether it's hot or cold. At the moment your fingers make contact, there's an immediate, direct ***knowledge of the temperature. You don't have to think about it, and if it's too hot to handle you don't need to think the label 'hot!' before you can put the cup down again (although thoughts about having hurt your hand will most likely follow along a moment or so later).
Right now, close your eyes and move your fingertips slowly and gently over the surface of whatever device you're using to read this article. Notice all of the subtle details in the texture that you normally overlook because you're busy using the device rather than investigating it. Feel the tactile sensations that arise as your fingertips contact the device.
That's what I'm talking about. Don't think about the breath - feel the breath. Experience the sensations of the breath directly, without labelling them.
Once you make this shift, you'll almost certainly notice that the breath suddenly seems to be more interesting - and more involved - than it was at the previous stage. 'The breath' isn't just one sensation - it's lots of different types of sensations, changing over time. At this point, we might say that we've moved from 'the breath' to 'the collection of sensations making up the breath' as our object.
At this point, the practice becomes about increasing our level of clarity about that collection of sensations. That can mean different things to different people - perhaps you find it interesting to get very specific about the shape, size and spatial location of each breath sensation, or perhaps you want to dig deeper until you can notice ever-more-fleeting sensations, arising and passing with incredible rapidity, or perhaps it's actually the ever-changing quality of the breath as a whole that draws you in.
Whatever your approach, sooner or later, you will arrive at...
At this stage, any sense of 'the breath' as a distinct entity dissolves, and you're left instead with a continual flow of micro-sensations. If you're going down the route of noticing individual sensations that are shorter and shorter, the breath might 'break up' into flickering vibrations. If you're tuning into the flowing quality, the breath might instead take on a 'fluid' quality with no beginning, middle or end, just an ungraspable, ceaseless river of experience.
Either way, you've gone pretty deep at this point. You've tuned your attention in such a way that the mind is no longer fabricating the 'usual' perceptions of sensory experience. This is clear evidence of the mind-created nature of perception - and it can feel pretty cool, too!
But even this isn't the end of the story. We can go deeper still - to the complete cessation of conventional experience, an experience which, if recognised and understood, can bring about the shift into awakening, called stream entry in early Buddhism and kensho in Zen.
There are actually a few different ways that conventional experience can come to an end, depending on the type of practice you're doing. (Here I'm indebted to my friend Ron Serrano for producing a beautiful model that brings these three seemingly disparate experiences together.)
A common inquiry practice in Tibetan Buddhism is to investigate 'stillness, movement and awareness' - noticing what stays the same in our field of experience, noticing what moves or changes within it, and noticing that which is aware of both stillness and movement.
The kind of 'deconstruction' practice I've been describing so far in this article is focused on movement - we're looking at the comings and goings in experience, noticing the impermanence of the events associated with the breath. If we take this deconstruction and investigation of impermanence far enough, we will eventually arrive at a cessation - a moment where we have no 'movement' in our experience at all. Experientially, this is felt as a kind of 'gap' in our experience - like a few frames were deleted out of the movie of our life.
If you're more of a samadhi or jhana practitioner, you're focused primarily on stillness - resting, calm abiding, absorption. And, in just the same way that we can go progressively deeper by tuning more and more closely into the movement of impermanence, we can also go progressively deeper into stillness. In this case, we will eventually arrive at a pure consciousness experience - a moment where we remain fully aware but consciousness is totally devoid of content; simply pure, bright and undefiled.
If your style of practice is more along the lines of Silent Illumination/shikantaza/open awareness (welcome back, Zen people!), then as the practice matures you'll find yourself becoming interested in the mind itself - that which is aware of both the stillness and the movement. We rest in this open awareness, simply observing the mind's natural functioning without interfering with it in any way. And as the practice reaches maturity, we arrive at a moment of non-duality - a recognition that the events and the awareness of those events are not actually two separate things, but are one and the same. Our conventional dualistic experience ceases, and we recognise our Buddha Nature clearly.
What's the point?
So this is all well and good, but why would you want to do it? Is this just some elaborate way of getting high without having to locate some psilocybin? And haven't I previously written about how these grand experiences aren't necessary for insight?
The experiences described above are indeed not the only way to open the door to awakening - but they do work, they're time-tested, and they're widely practised, so it's worth knowing about them if only to understand what people are talking about when they describe their own wacky enlightenment experiences.
The basic point of all of these 'end points' is that they shift the mind far, far outside its usual mode of operation. Then, as the experience comes to an end, our mind returns to normal - in this crucial moment, we can actually watch ourselves reconstructing our conventional experience, and thus see beyond a shadow of a doubt that the conventional perspective is just something that the mind is fabricating for our convenience, as opposed to the absolute, undeniable truth of things.
In particular, as we reach an end point, our sense of being a separate, individual self 'in here', with everything else 'out there', is totally gone, and in the moments that follow we can watch this 'autobiographical self' putting itself back together. We see clearly, beyond any doubt, that the self is what my Zen teacher Daizan describes as 'a kind of optical illusion', as opposed to a real, enduring entity.
Punching a hole in the illusion of the self is the key to stream entry/kensho - it's one of three 'fetters' which are described as falling away at stream entry, along with sceptical doubt about the teachings (once you've had a transformative experience like this, it's hard to argue that the practice doesn't do anything) and belief in the efficacy of rites and rituals to bring about awakening (you had this experience because of your own practice, not because you paid a priest to pray for you).
So what then? Well, we have a lifetime of habits built around the self, and it takes a while to shake that off. At first, we will continue to find ourselves continuing to behave pretty much the same as we always have, even though we might feel a profound inner lightness or relief from suffering.
Over time, however, our view realigns. We come to see that we're not really the small, separate creatures that the conventional perspective would have us believe - we're part of the great network of interconnection that is the universe, no more or less important than any other part. Our self-centred stress begins to fall away, and our behaviour becomes more naturally compassionate and altruistic as we find ourselves wanting to make this shared life that we all live better for everyone, not just ourselves. Ultimately, we completely let go of the fixations and hang-ups which have caused us such difficulties in the past, and merge completely into the stream of life, with nothing held back.
So don't delay - deconstruct today!
Did Buddha fail?
According to the most well-known traditional story of the Buddha, he grew up as a wealthy prince, cut off from the outside world, surrounded by every sensual pleasure imaginable. Yet one day he decided to travel beyond the palace walls, and encountered an unwell person, an old person and a dead person. His upbringing was so sheltered that this was the first time he'd ever encountered such things, and they shocked him to the core. He asked his charioteer if he, too, would become unwell, grow old and die, and his charioteer said yes, these things were inevitable.
The young Buddha-to-be was thrown into an existential crisis, and decided to leave home in search of an answer to these fundamental problems. In later years he would frame his teachings in terms of 'dukkha and the end of dukkha' - usually translated 'suffering and the end of suffering'. In his first formal teaching, he defines dukkha as follows:
Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha.
That's a pretty broad definition! And, to make matters worse - and despite his claim to teach 'dukkha and the end of dukkha' - the historical Buddha did, in fact, grow old, become unwell, and eventually die.
So did he fail in his spiritual quest?
Suffering = pain ✕ resistance
One standard answer to this most fundamental of all Buddhist problems is to redefine suffering ('dukkha'). And while this might seem like a bit of a dodge, it really works, so let's take a closer look at it.
The move here is to make a distinction between 'pain', which is the physical sensation that results when you stub your toe, and 'suffering', which is the psychological anguish that ensues when you experience pain, or more generally anything you don't like. Looked at in these terms, any situation can be broken down into two parts: the situation itself, and your relationship to it. We're often not in a position to change the situation itself, but through meditation and mindfulness we can learn to adjust our relationship to what's going on - with powerfully liberating consequences.
Modern mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young has captured this dynamic beautifully in a simple mathematical equation: suffering = pain ✕ resistance. What does this mean?
You stub your toe. Your foot now hurts. That's what happens when you have a body and you collide part of it into a solid object at speed. Sorry. It'll most likely stop hurting in a while, but for now you have pain. That's the situation.
But you don't stop there. 'Owww! That really hurts! I really wish I hadn't done that!' 'Argh, I'm so clumsy, why don't I watch where I'm going?' 'Who left that there? I've told them not to! I'm going to find them and yell at them, because this is their fault!' That's your relationship to the situation - wishing that it were different, filled with self-criticism, judgement or anger.
What we can do to counteract this is to cultivate a practice of non-judgemental awareness, where we see clearly whatever is arising moment to moment, without trying to change it, without overlaying an expectation that it should be different. In other words, a mindfulness practice.
As we begin to develop some insight into our mental activity, we can see how we create and then prop up our own mental anguish through indulging in repetitive thoughts and negative emotions. Of course, we don't generally mean to do this - but we have the habit of reacting that way, probably because we learnt it at an early age from the people around us. And as we see into our patterns, we realise how much time we spent resisting what's here.
So, instead of resisting, we learn to find an attitude of acceptance. We recognise 'Oh, I stubbed my toe, now my foot hurts. No sense wailing about it - it's too late to take it back.' And so our experience still includes the physical pain of the hurting foot, but no longer includes the additional psychological misery caused by trying to wish the pain away or find someone to blame for it. As we shift into acceptance, the resistance drops to zero, and the suffering falls away with it.
Sidebar: what acceptance is, and isn't
Acceptance can be a red flag for some people. So, what, you're telling me I have to just lie down and let life roll over me? People should stay in abusive relationships and just accept them? We should accept social injustice and environmental destruction?
I'm not saying that at all. The kind of acceptance I'm talking about is not a passive submission to other people - it's simply a recognition that this is what's here right now. It's a willingness to see this situation for what it is, without that layer of how you thought it was supposed to be. You've already lost that battle. The universe has unfolded a certain way, it didn't go the way you wanted, and there's no Undo button.
However, in each moment we have a choice about what to do next. And we can make that choice most effectively if we aren't tying up most of our mental energy in wishing for a better past leading up to this moment.
If we can see this moment utterly without resistance, then two things happen. One, the suffering vanishes. And two, we're in the best possible position to make wise choices about how to respond to the situation - which can include taking action to address injustice, escape a toxic relationship, or whatever else needs to be done right now.
Going deeper: perception is reality
Up to this point, we've been talking about standard mindfulness 101. If you're a bit more experienced, you might be tempted to dismiss this as 'beginner stuff'. But do you actually put it into practice? All day every day? In all situations, no matter how difficult? Actually developing continuous mindfulness even of this 'basic' variety is a major undertaking - and one with transformative power if it's taken far enough. I have a long way to go on this myself, but I've gone far enough to know that it isn't just talk - it really works. But it's hard!
Even so, we can go further down the Buddhist rabbit hole. The model presented above - the situation, and our reaction to the situation - is useful in its own way, but it's also misleading in an important way. At the deepest level, the situation and our reaction to it are not separate at all - in fact, they're two sides of the same coin.
What we experience, moment to moment, is not actually 'reality in itself', but a representation of reality - a fabrication, in Buddhist technical jargon. One way of looking at it is that our senses take in information about our surroundings, which is fed up to the brain, and the brain's job is to assemble it all into a coherent picture of the world, which is what we then experience consciously. Our eyes are making tiny movements all the time, but our visual field typically appears to be stable rather than jerky - this is one of the ways you can tell that we aren't seeing anything as simple as 'things as they are'. Going deeper still, even concepts like 'sense organs' and 'brain' are also part of the fabricated experience - for all we know we could be brains in jars, or a line of code running in the Matrix, or whatever.
Making a distinction between 'the situation' and 'our reaction to the situation' can help us to disentangle ourselves from identification with thought and emotion, and find relief from suffering in the process. But ultimately both the situation and the reaction to it are part of the same representational experience - changing any aspect of it changes the whole thing.
As we come to see this more clearly, we may have a sense that reality is losing its substantiality. That's because the 'realness' of our perceptions is - here it comes again - just another part of the representation. And through practice we can learn to fine-tune that representation, and consequently experience things in different ways. We can learn to colour our experience with love, contentment or beauty; we can learn to see beautiful, awakened qualities in the most severe situations. The teacher Rob Burbea, who died last year from cancer, was a master of this kind of practice, and speaks very movingly about it in his final interview with Michael Taft.
This view of things might seem a little scary at first, like the rug has been pulled out from under us. But in the long run it's good news - we aren't victims of a merciless, implacable external world, of 'things as they are, and if you don't like it, tough'. Our experiential reality is a co-creation - mysterious, constantly new and fresh, full of possibilities. We can learn to see life as beautiful, no matter what's going on. And that's true liberation from dukkha.
Two notes of caution
Sometimes people find another way to use mindfulness practice to deal with pain: through distraction. After all, we spend all this time training our minds to go where we want to go - so why not put our mind in a nice safe warm bubble where we can totally ignore the pain? In fact, if you're good at jhana practice, after a while you can fairly easily escape to states where you have no perception of your body at all - so why not just do that?
The danger here is that we become cut off from the world. We practise anaesthetising ourselves to our experience, turning away anytime anything comes up that we don't like. In the long run, we become numb, and that isn't a good thing. The point of this practice is not to take us out of life so we can sit in a peaceful grey void until it's time to die; the point is to enrich our lives and give us greater freedom to move throughout all conditions, whether pleasant or painful.
So, don't do that.
The other question that can come up, particularly for people grappling with the deeper aspects of the fabricated nature of existence, is 'Does that mean the whole world is just in my mind?' And that's a dangerous line of thought, because it can rapidly turn into 'So it doesn't matter what I do, I can do anything I like and nobody gets hurt!'
Again, don't do that. Please don't become what one of my students once memorably described as 'an ethical husk'. When dealing with other people, you should always adopt a view that they're just as real as you are and just as worthy of respect and kindness. And if that perspective seems difficult to reconcile with the 'perception is reality' view described above - yeah. Learn to hold two opposing views in mind at the same time, or at least to shift back and forth as appropriate. At some point much further down the line you may find a way to integrate the two perspectives, but when you're starting out, there's still a lot of egocentric programming in your system and it's much too dangerous to allow yourself to believe that you can do anything you like without any consequences. At some point you'll wake up and realise that what you thought was a dream was actually a nightmare.
So please practise responsibly. If in doubt, work on cultivating all-day-every-day mindfulness, and take care of your relationships and ethics. With a solid grounding in engaged, compassionate action in the world, you can then reap the benefits of freedom from suffering.
May all beings be happy.
When the mind doesn't want to cooperate
Talking about difficulties in practice is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can be helpful - especially if you're new to meditation - to hear that the challenges you're facing in your practice are universal experiences, rather than a particular failing which indicates your personal unsuitability to meditate. On the other hand, focusing too much on the difficulties that can arise can make you more sensitive to them, and thus make them seem like bigger problems.
In the tradition of early Buddhism, they clearly weren't worried about the latter point, because the early discourses regularly talk about the Five Hindrances, a set of common challenges that all meditators encounter sooner or later. Naming and shaming the Hindrances in this way can be very powerful, both for better and for worse. By giving them names and specific descriptions, we develop a language to talk about our practice, to identify more easily what's going on and what we're finding difficult, and to work with the challenging condition that's coming up. On the other hand, giving something a name (and especially a capital letter!) makes it feel more like a Big Real Thing, and thus can actually make it more difficult to deal with.
We don't want to get to the point where, as soon as we recognise a Hindrance, we simply throw in the towel - 'Oh no, the Hindrance of Restlessness, I'm done for!' Rather, knowing about the Hindrances is useful precisely because it can help us to work through them and keep going with our practice.
So, with that in mind, let's take a look at a meditation session featuring a multi-Hindrance attack.
The worst meditation session EVER
So I sit down, get comfortable, start paying attention to my breath. So far, so good.
After a couple of minutes, I notice my mind is wandering. Specifically, it's wandering to cookies. I like cookies. And I know where I can get the good ones, the triple chocolate ones. Maybe I'll go and get some as soon as this meditation session is over. When's that going to be, anyway? Because I really want these cookies!
Uh oh. I see what's going on here. This is the First Hindrance, Sensual Desire. I'm caught up in wanting something - specifically those lovely, lovely cookies. But OK, I've been doing this a while, I know how it goes. I recognise the arising of craving and gently let go of it, coming back to the breath.
And it works. Maybe not at first, but after a few lettings-go, my mind gets the message. The cookies are set to one side for now. (They'll come back later.)
But then a car draws up outside, stereo blasting loudly enough to make my teeth rattle. I hear the car door open - the stereo still going, the engine still running. Someone come to visit a friend? Yep, I can hear voices. And the engine is still running, and the stereo is still going. That's pretty annoying, not to mention bad for the environment. How inconsiderate! Maybe I should say something? Maybe I should go out there and give that guy a piece of my mind! How dare he interrupt my meditation session like this?
Oh. Right. The Second Hindrance, Ill Will. The noise is annoying me and that's leading to anger directed at the source of the noise. The trouble is, I can't just 'let go and come back to the breath' this time - the noise is way too loud, and my attention might as well be glued to it.
Fine. I have another move - I can accept that this new state of affairs has arisen, and incorporate it into my practice. Rather than staying narrowly focused on the breath, I can shift to a more open awareness practice which includes both the breath and the noise from outside. Much better - now I'm not fighting with the sound to get back to my breath; even the anger is allowed to be there, but actually now that the struggle has stopped, the anger quickly evaporates too. Cool.
...What? Oh yeah, meditating. Think I might have dropped off for a moment there. Feeling... pretty tired actually. Each time I blink my eyelids take a little longer to come back up.
...Whoops, another lurch. Nearly fell off the cushion that time.
Oh, dang it. This is the Third Hindrance, Sloth and Torpor - dullness, drowsiness, falling asleep. I have to be a bit careful with this one, because when I've previously tried to accept it, I've just fallen asleep. This time I might need to take a more active step to counteract it.
So let's investigate - let's really go into the experience. What, specifically, does it feel like to be drowsy? How are my mind and body different to their non-drowsy condition? How clear can I become about how it feels to be drowsy?
Ah, good, that seems to be working - I'm getting a bit more energy now.
...Hmm, actually, maybe a bit too much energy. I'm now feeling kinda antsy, like that time at university when a friend had just bought a new espresso machine and we drank about eighteen cups each and didn't sleep for three days. I'm getting fidgety and uncomfortable. Surely it must be time for the bell to ring - I must have been here at least three hours by now. (I sneak a glimpse at the timer.) Fifteen minutes? You've got to be kidding me! I don't think I can survive to the end of the meditation session. Maybe I should stop early, or get up and do walking meditation, or think about something else to distract myself to make the time pass more quickly...
Oh, good grief. The Fourth Hindrance: Restlessness and Worry. OK, let's try letting it go. Nope. Accepting it? I'm going to tear my own face off if this carries on much longer. Investigate it? Yup, that's really unpleasant. So unpleasant that it's making me even more restless.
OK, it's time to bring out the big guns. Each of the Hindrances has a set of traditional antidotes. The one I like best for Restless and Worry is the practice of contentment, so let's flip over to cultivating contentment. (Fortunately, I practise both the Brahmavihara of Equanimity and the third and fourth jhanas, so I have some tools available to connect me with contentment without too much difficulty.)
Ahh. That's better. Relaxing into contentment. After a few minutes of that, I'm settled enough to go back to the breath.
Except... Good grief. This session has been a bit of a train wreck, hasn't it? I started out trying to focus on the breath but I've spent nearly the whole time dealing with Hindrances instead. Maybe I'm just not cut out for this meditation stuff. Maybe I'm doing it wrong, or maybe I've chosen the wrong teachers, I'm not sure, but either way it isn't working. Maybe I should give up meditating entirely and spend more time focusing on Tai Chi or something. I should at least try to find something I'm good at rather than persisting with this ridiculous endeavour.
This is the Fifth, and most insidious, Hindrance: Doubt. Doubt in yourself and your own abilities; doubt in the teacher; doubt in the path of practice. According to the early discourses, this kind of doubt was the final obstacle that the historical Buddha faced before his enlightenment.
But then I think of my teachers; Leigh, Daizan, Michael. They're all pretty remarkable people, each in their own way. It's evident that the practice has helped them, and I've seen them working tirelessly to help me along the path too. And even if I'm having a hard time right now, maybe I can trust that it'll get better, that not every meditation session will be a multi-Hindrance attack like this one. Maybe I can just focus on following the instructions, and put these thoughts to one side. Wait, hope, trust. Keep going, no matter what.
And then the bell rings.
The Five Hindrances
So let's go through those again.
More generally, any kind of attraction - any kind of strong 'movement towards' something.
More generally, any kind of aversion - any kind of strong 'movement away from' something.
Drowsiness, dullness, going blank, drifting. At a subtle level this one can be hard to spot because it can feel like your mind is becoming calmer, but actually you're just losing clarity. At a stronger level, it can be a real battle to stay awake.
It's worth saying that most of us are chronically sleep-deprived, and if you regularly find yourself falling asleep when you meditate, you might want to get a bit more sleep. On the other hand, if you're drowsy in meditation but then feel fine as soon as the bell rings, that's a sure sign that you were experiencing the meditative Hindrance of sloth and torpor.
Fidgety, itchy, incessant mind-wandering, irritability, any kind of agitation - all of these are signs of restlessness and worry. Most people have one Hindrance that predominates in their practice, and this one is mine for sure, so if you struggle with it too, I feel your pain!
As mentioned above, this is the most insidious of the lot, because it corrodes your practice from the inside out. Over time, you find yourself sitting less and less, maybe looking up articles on the Internet about how meditation isn't all it's cracked up to be, worrying about scandals involving meditation teachers and so forth, building up a body of evidence to justify your inevitable decision to stop practising.
Please don't do this. Find a good teacher, and/or some trusted friends who are into the practice. Connect with others, and let them support you through the hard times. Traditionally, we talk about the Three Jewels of Buddhism - the Buddha (symbolising the teacher), the Dharma (the teaching and path of practice), and the Sangha (the community of fellow practitioners). Many of us in the West are solo meditators, living without a Sangha of any kind, but that's a hard path to walk - it's much easier with friends.
Dealing with the Hindrances
All the big-name teachers seem to have cute little formulae for their teachings these days - Stephen Batchelor's ELSA, Tara Brach's RAIN - so I'm going to offer a formula for dealing with the Hindrances that I'll call RAGU, like the pasta sauce. (Mmm, pasta.)
Throughout the early discourses, Mara, a devil/tempter figure periodically shows up and tries to discourage the Buddha from doing whatever he's doing. The Buddha's response is always 'I see you, Mara', and poor old Mara ends up walking away, feeling sad and dejected, having failed to work his mischief yet again.
Sometimes, all we need to do to deal with a Hindrance is to notice it. 'I see you, Ill Will,' and back to the breath - job done. Simply deal with the Hindrances the way you would any other distraction in meditation - notice them, let them go, come back to the practice.
Sometimes a Hindrance just won't go away despite your best efforts to recognise it and let go of it. In that case, if you keep trying to drop it, you're setting yourself up for an internal struggle - you're essentially saying that the present moment is fundamentally wrong due to the presence of the Hindrance, and you're going to fight and fight until you fix it. But this kind of rejection of the present moment runs counter to the deep acceptance of reality that we must ultimately cultivate in our practice, in addition to being very unpleasant at the time.
So, if simply recognising the Hindrance isn't enough to shift it, you might need to adjust the scope of your practice to incorporate it. Generally speaking, more open practices are better for this - for example, if you try to pay one-pointed attention to your breath at the nostrils in a busy airport lounge, you're probably going to have a hard time, but something like Silent Illumination or a gently radiating metta is likely to be much easier.
Sometimes our 'acceptance' of a Hindrance turns out to be a sort of sneaky way of making it go away, as opposed to a genuine acceptance. Unfortunately, we can't fool ourselves in this way. True acceptance of a situation will tend to make that situation much more workable, but 'pretending' to accept the situation may actually make it worse.
If you can't get all the way to genuine acceptance of the Hindrance and you're still stuck with it, you might as well work with it directly. Investigate it - really go into it in detail, in the same way that you might investigate the breath or a koan. Get to know it in precise detail. Explore it, see what's going on.
As you make the shift into an active exploration, you're more likely to reach a place of genuine acceptance - in order to investigate something, you actually need it to stay around long enough to be investigated, which means it's OK for it to be there, at least for now.
(As an aside, if you struggle with boredom in your practice, use the opportunity to investigate how it is to be bored. Once you get interested in being bored, you'll never be bored ever again...)
There are various lists of antidotes for each of the Hindrances - you can find a great big list on Access To Insight.
Some of my go-to antidotes:
Final word: don't take the Hindrances too seriously!
The Hindrances are universal human experiences. They show up for everyone from time to time. But don't worry about it - you'll get through them. Everyone does, sooner or later. If it helps you to name them, or to use RAGU, or to have a list of antidotes memorised, then great; but if all that just gets in the way and gives you something else to worry about, forget about it - just keep sitting, doing your best to follow the instructions of the practice you've chosen to undertake. If you take care of the practice, the benefits will take care of themselves.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.