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 teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!