the workshop of the hindrances


POSTCARD#439: Bangkok: Meditators fail to overcome the hindrances because they look for them in the wrong place. It is crucial to success in meditation to understand that the hindrances are to be seen at work in the space between the knower and the known. The hindrances’ source is the doer, their result is lack of progress, but their workshop is the space between the mind and its meditation object. Essentially, the five hindrances are a relationship problem.

Skillful meditators observing their breath also pay attention to how they watch their breath. If you see expectation between you and your breath, then you are watching the breath with desire, part of the first hindrance. If you notice aggression in the space in between, then you are watching the breath with the second hindrance, ill will. Or if you recognize fear in that space, maybe anxiety about losing awareness of the breath, then you are meditating with a combination of hindrances. For a time you may appear to be successful, able to keep the breath in mind for several minutes, but you will find that you are blocked from going deeper. You have been watching the wrong thing. Your main task in meditation is to notice these hindrances and knock them out. Thereby you earn each successive stage in meditation,  rather than trying to steal the prize of each stage by an act of will.

In every stage of this meditation you cannot go wrong when you put peace or kindness in the space between you and whatever you are aware of. When a sexual fantasy is occurring, put peace in the space and the daydream will soon run out of fuel. Make peace not war with the dullness. Place kindness between the observer and your aching body. And agree to a ceasefire in the battle between you and your wandering mind. Stop controlling and start to let go.

Just as a house is built of thousands of bricks laid one by one, so the house of peace (i.e., jhāna) is built of thousands of moments of peace made one by one. When moment after moment you place peace or gentleness or kindness in the space between, then the sexual fantasies are no longer needed, pain fades away, dullness turns to brightness, restlessness runs out of gas, and jhāna simply happens. In summary, notice that the five hindrances occur in the space between the observer and the observed. So place peace and loving-kindness in that space. Don’t just be mindful, but develop what I call unconditional mindfulness, the awareness that never controls or even interferes with whatever it knows. Then all the hindrances will be undermined and soon fade.

The Simile of the Snake

Many meditators complain of a pet hindrance, a problem in meditation that blocks them again and again. Recurring hindrances can be overcome using a method derived from the following simile of the snake.

In my early years as a forest monk in Thailand, I would often return to my hut late at night barefoot because there weren’t any sandals, and I would use the light of the stars to guide me because there were no batteries for my flashlight. Though the jungle paths were shared with many snakes, I never got bitten. I knew they were there in great numbers and that they were very dangerous, so I walked very carefully on the lookout for them. If I saw a suspicious dark band on the path, though it could have been a stick, I would leap over it or else go by another route. Thus I successfully avoided the danger. In the same way, on the path of meditation there are many dangerous hindrances waiting to grab you and disable your progress. If you would only remember that they are prowling and that they are dangerous, then you would be on the lookout for them and never get caught.

The Nālāgiri Strategy

Some meditators claim to experience all the five hindrances at once and in great force! At the time they think they might go crazy. To help such meditators with their acute and intense attack of all hindrances, I teach the Nālāgiri Strategy based on a well-known episode from the life of the Buddha. Enemies tried to kill the Buddha by releasing an intoxicated bull elephant named Nālāgiri in the narrow street where the Buddha was walking for alms. Those who saw the mad elephant charging shouted warnings to the Buddha and his following of monks to quickly get out of the way. All the monks fled except for the Buddha and his faithful attendant Ven. Ananda. Ven. Ananda bravely moved in front of his master, ready to protect his beloved teacher by sacrificing his own life. Gently the Buddha pushed Ven. Ananda to the side and faced the immensely powerful charging elephant alone. The Buddha certainly possessed psychic powers, and I believe he could have grabbed the great elephant by the trunk, twirled him three times in the air above his head, and thrown him over the river Ganges hundreds of miles away! But that is not the way of a buddha. Instead he used loving-kindness/letting go. Perhaps the Buddha thought something like “Dear Nālāgiri, the door of my heart is open to you no matter what you do to me. You may swat me with your trunk or crush me under your feet, but I will give you no ill will. I will love you unconditionally.” The Buddha gently placed peace in the space between him and the dangerous elephant. Such is the irresistible power of authentic loving-kindness/letting go that in a few seconds the elephant’s rage had subsided, and Nālāgiri was meekly bowing before the Compassionate One, having his trunk gently stroked “There Nālāgiri, there…”

There are times in some meditators’ practice when their mind is as crazy as an intoxicated bull elephant charging around smashing everything. In such situations please remember the Nālāgiri Strategy. Don’t use force to subdue your raging bull elephant of a mind. Instead use loving kindness/ letting go: “Dear crazy mind of mine, the door of my heart is fully open to you no matter what you do to me. You may destroy or crush me, but I will give you no ill will. I love you, my mind, no matter what you do.” Make peace with your crazy mind instead of fighting it. Such is the power of authentic loving-kindness/letting go that in a surprisingly short time, the mind will be released from its rage and stand meekly before you as your soft mindfulness gently strokes it “There mind, there…”

When the Hindrances Are Knocked Out

The question often arises as to how long the hindrances remain knocked out. When they are overcome, does that mean forever or just during your meditation? At first, you overcome them temporarily. When you emerge from a deep meditation, you’ll notice that those hindrances have been gone for a long time. The mind is very sharp, very still. You can keep your attention on one thing for a long time, and you have no ill will at all. You can’t get angry with someone even if they hit you over the head. You aren’t interested in  sensory pleasures like sex. This is the result of good meditation. But after a while, depending on the depth and the length of that meditation, the hindrances come back again. It’s like they’re in the boxing ring and they’ve just been knocked out. They are “unconscious” for a while. Eventually they come round again and start playing their tricks. But at least you know what it is like to have overcome those hindrances. The more you return to those deep stages—the more often the hindrances get knocked out—the more sickly and weak they become. Then it’s the job of the enlightenment insights to overcome those weakened hindrances once and for all. This is the age-old path of Buddhism. You knock out the five hindrances through meditation practice in order to provide an opportunity for wisdom. Wisdom will then see through these weakened hindrances and destroy them. When the hindrances have been completely abandoned, you’re enlightened. And if you are enlightened, there is no difficulty in getting into jhānas because the obstacles are gone. What was between you and jhānas has been completely eradicated.

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