The Buddhist tradition has identified five types of hindrances that get in our way when trying to practise meditation: sense-desire, ill-will, restlessness and anxiety, sloth and torpor, and doubt. The point of this list is to help people identify particular kinds of appropriate remedies for the kinds of problems they might meet in meditation. However, this list is also very useful beyond formal meditation, as the five hindrances could also analyse the kinds of distraction that stop us attending to any focused activity. For the next five of my contributions to this meditation series, I’ve decided to focus on each of these hindrances in turn, and particularly to explore the remedies recommended for each of the types of hindrance, assessing whether they seem to work. As always, I have only my own experience to go on, and will be glad to hear others’ perspectives in comments.
Sense-desire (or ‘greed’) is perhaps the classic caricature of a hindrance. When someone is seriously distracted, we might easily imagine that they were having a sexual fantasy, or drooling in anticipation over their lunch. The numerous depictions of the temptations of St Anthony in Western art (such as this one by Fantin Latour) show this caricature. In my experience, however, this kind of caricature of sense-desire is fairly rare in practice. When they have sat down to meditate, most people don’t immediately go into something quite as obviously irrelevant and self-indulgent as a sexual fantasy. The kinds of sense-desire we’re actually more likely to meet are more subtle and more likely to sneak in looking initially a bit like part of the meditation. Perhaps we anticipate the approval of the person leading a meditation class, or return to some activity we have been doing regularly in recent hours, such an engrossing novel, a film, a game, or a conversation.
Sense-desire, like the other hindrances, seems to be just a matter of habit. If you don’t spend your days having non-stop sexual fantasies, then you’re not too likely to start when you meditate. If, however, you are very used to being stimulated by a particular kind of experience and responding to it – whether that’s a colleague’s words, an idea in your mind, your Facebook messages, or whatever – when you withdraw that stimulation your mind will carry on with the habitual response regardless. But these habits then get into conflict with the part of you that wants to meditate.
How can we resolve such conflicts? Traditional Buddhist sources give five kinds of possible response, which are explained very well in Kamalashila’s excellent book Meditation. These are:
- Cultivating the opposite quality and/or re-directing the energy
- Considering the consequences of indulging the hindrance
- Sky-like mind (observing passively)
- Work on changing habits outside meditation (e.g. being less self-indulgent)
These are all possible strategies, and I wouldn’t want to rule any of them out. However, suppression (which needs to be distinguished from repression) is a relatively uninteresting one that’s less easy to reconcile with balanced effort (see previous post). Changing your habits outside meditation is also too big a topic to tackle here, so I’m going to focus on the first three.
Cultivating the opposite strikes me as a classic Middle Way strategy, as long as you interpret it as reminding yourself about the opposite perspective and making it meaningful, rather than reacting against your hindrance merely to adopt the opposite extreme. The opposite of sense-desire is ill-will, but you only need to cultivate it to the same extent as your hindrance if you want to avoid over-shooting the mark. So, for example, if you keep thinking about that novel you’re engrossed in, cultivating the opposite might mean, not thinking how much you hate the novel (which would be rather forced, to say the least), but rather what might be drawbacks or limitations of it as a pursuit. Very often, this is just about giving yourself a wider perspective.
A more basic way of cultivating the opposite is to think of the ‘opposite’ in direct physical terms, so rather than pursuing a high energy hindrance like sense-desire ‘in your head’ you could concentrate lower in your body to try to connect to more basic experience. This kind of approach fits well with the embodied meaning thesis. In a sense, here, you’re dissolving the metaphors that have become over-important and bringing them back into central experience. Personally, I’d say that this is by far the most successful strategy for me with any kind of obsessive, high-energy hindrance.
Considering the consequences works less well for me. It involves thinking through what will happen if you carry on with this hindrance, the patterns that you will help to set up, how it will be harder to change them in future, etc. However, it’s difficult to stop this turning into a Jiminy Cricket superego figure wagging his/her finger at you. It might also distract you from the meditation and lead you down quite different trains of thought involving further conflicts.
The ‘sky-like mind’ option is the zazen-type approach to hindrances. You stand back (as it were) and merely note each passing sense-desire as a cloud in the sky, letting it float off. My experience is that this approach requires you to already be relatively concentrated. If you’re stuck in sense-desire you are unlikely to be able to carry this off. But perhaps it’s a more successful approach deeper into a meditation, when you’re already quite concentrated but a hindrance starts to rekindle. If you have a basis of awareness, it may be possible to just let go in this way.
So, my personal verdict from experience is that breathing low in your body and returning gently to the object of concentration is far more likely to start integrating sense-desire than any other approach. But I’m sure others must have rather different experiences, or the diversity of approaches listed wouldn’t have developed. Also, sense-desire isn’t my main hindrance – ill-will and anxiety tend to loom larger. Those who encounter sense-desire as a major problem may well have a different view of how to approach it.