Meditation 7: The Hindrance of Sense Desire

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.Fantin_Latour_The_Temptation_of_St_Anthony

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)
  • Suppression
  • 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.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

7 thoughts on “Meditation 7: The Hindrance of Sense Desire

  1. Hi,

    I think that there are many practical elements of Buddhism (especially with regard to mindfulness and meditation) that are very down to earth, accessible and useful – this is where my own interest stems from. There are some Buddhists that seem to believe that these practices should be kept firmly within the Buddhist tradition and I could not disagree more. If meditation and mindfulness can be beneficial, regardless of faith then I see no reason why they should be available only to a Buddhist elite.

    The hindrances cover a range of issues that anyone attempting meditation might encounter, and if the Buddha/ Buddhists have developed effective measures to combat them then they should be shared for the benefit of all. If someone does not find them useful then at least they have had the option to decide for themselves without subscribing to Buddhist doctrine.

    Robert, are you intending to write a series covering the other hindrances?

    Rich

    1. Hi Richard, Yes, I am planning to focus on each of the hindrances in turn in future posts. I’m not sure that I’ve met any Buddhists who wanted to keep information like techniques for dealing with the hindrances secret or restricted – they are the common heritage of humanity, that just happens to have been passed on by Buddhism.

  2. Hi Robert,

    I don’t think that there is a desire to keep knowledge secret or restricted, but I do think that some feel that the Buddhist teachings and practices should be kept in a Buddhist context.

    I first came across this attitude when I was attending a local Buddhist meditation group. That morning there had been an article on BBC Breakfast that discussed the benefits of meditation and I had found it to be very positive. To my surprise, when this was brought up over tea and biscuits (following meditation) some of the people there became quite angry with one exclaiming that they ‘had to turn over to another channel’ rather than watch the report. I was very new to the group and kept my opinion to myself, but the impression that I was left with was that they were disturbed by the dilution of Buddhism and even thought that stripped of its Buddhist context meditation might be dangerous.

    I have found a few articles that give a flavour of some of the debates surrounding this issue. I think that some concerns are valid, but many are merely dressed up fears of a watering down of the Dhamma.

    I am sure that those that oppose the use of Buddhist teaching outside of their religious context are in a significant minority – most retreats promote themselves as being for the use of people from any faith and background. However, there may be a risk that as Buddhist practice becomes more diluted criticism will increase.

    I feel that the use of any part of any faith, which has been shown to be beneficial is good thing and should be encouraged. But I also see why there is a desire to hold on to cultural and historical teaching and am largely sympathetic, providing that it is not at the expense of everybody else who might not want to be Buddhist, Christian or any other faith/ creed. (see my one and only Blog on the SBUK website (http://secularbuddhism.co.uk/2013/10/the-buddha-is-losing-his-religion-buddhism-is-losing-its-founder-a-secular-approach-might-just-help-keep-them-together/).

    http://howtopracticezen.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/phooey-on-mindfulness-based-stress-reduction/

    http://www.linkedin.com/groups/tensions-between-MBSR-Buddhism-2004449.S.174208597

    http://www.wiseattention.org/blog/2012/04/06/buddhism-the-mindfulness-movement-friends-or-foes/

    http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/04/21/the-battle-for-buddha/

    (Most of these are not examples of the kinds of attitudes that I am referring to, but they are a part of the debate).

    Rich

  3. I’m interested here in how sense-desire seems to be characterised: as sexual arousal (exemplified by Robert as sexual fantasising); as distracting thoughts or images; and that seems to be it. I imagine that pain, itching, hunger, thirst, wanting to pee or evacuate the bowel might also feature for some.

    If i get his right, Robert seems to advocate more concentrated attention on the lower body to divert attention away from the head, where (perhaps) thoughts and maybe sexual fantasies seem to be located. The lower body suggests everywhere south of the head.

    I favour meditating with eyes (and ears) open, indeed encouraging pervasive attention to all forms of sensation arising everywhere at once – tricky at first, but possible with practice. It’s my experience that thoughts arise much less as other sensations are attended to (thoughts being usefully characterised as another sensation – a ‘brain sensation’ if you like).

    This is one piece of Buddhist teaching that has always struck me as very helpful. In relation to meditation, there’s no good reason why thought should be afforded a higher value than any other sensation, and every reason for letting thought find its place at the end of an orderly queue of body sensations, waiting to be attended to.

    I’ll write a bit more about this next week, as a counterpoint to Robert’s treatment of the hindrances, and I’m grateful for his invitation to another perspective, or set of perspectives on practice and technique.

    I recently made a ‘pastoral’ visit as hospital chaplain to a Buddhist patient who had requested it. They said early on that they were having problems meditating, and I asked what the problems were, how they were experiencing the problems, and what help they thought I might be able to offer. After some discussion around distraction, frustration and meditation as a regular and comforting feature of their practice, they decided that not being able to meditate wasn’t the problem they thought it was. The problem, they decided, was their making not being able to meditate into a problem.

    I’ve had this conversation many, many times with Buddhist patients (including individuals who know they are dying) in hospital who say they want to continue their regular meditation practice in hospital, and find it hard or impossible to keep it up, but also distressingly hard to let go of it. I certainly don’t raise the issue myself, but very often patients do themselves express a spontaneous insight into their unaware attachment to meditation as a sine qua non aspect of practice, express deep relief in letting go of it, and experience release of healing energy in the process.

  4. In the garden this morning I desired to be a botanical illustrator for a short time, to carefully study a hyacinth that I was about to draw then paint, something that I would in real life find very difficult to achieve accurately, because it demands a certain skill of very close concentration which I don’t possess. I saw how the pink/lavender coloured bell- shaped flowers clustered along the single stem from it’s tip down to the level of the soil protected by long green leaves. As I stood there admiring the plant the perfume from a group of hyacinths gave off a delicate perfume, not too strong, it can be over powering sometimes, but light because a slight breeze wafted it around. A few minutes of mindful awareness, then I heard birds singing, spring may have arrived, its annual dance begins. Magical.

    1. A lyrical account of your garden-time, or hyacinth-time, or bird-breeze-time, or altogether-out-of-time Norma. How spring lifts the spirits!

      In our garden a small creature seems to have made a burrow under the concrete slab of a log cabin we’ve installed there. He/she/it left a neat pile of gravel round the entrance, evidence of very hard work by a systematic and tidy burrower. The entrance to the burrow is only wide enough to admit a small hen’s egg. I think my burrower may be some kind of vole. It might be a small rat. I don’t think field-mice burrow, do they? Anyway, it has my blessing.

  5. I think that I would find a direct, thought based approach quite distracting but I like the idea of focusing the attention elsewhere and I think that I may do a version of this already – usually by focusing on the sensation of my hands.

    The techniques that I usually employ are Mahasai ‘noting’ and Zazen ‘sky like mind’, with the former, in my experience, just being a structured version of the latter. I don’t find lack of concentration (which I have frequently) too much of a problem, especially with the ‘noting’ technique, but I do find that it needs perseverance and patience. I drift off frequently, sometimes for long periods, but it is the persistent attempts to recognize when this happens that form a large part of my practice.

    Norma’s experience reminds me that the hindrances are not things with which we must do battle, but are normal (sometimes pleasant and fruitful) aspects of the human condition that it might be better to accept and understand rather than suppress or ignore.

    As always, I look forward to Peters ‘alternative’ blog. I was recently reading that there are many Buddhists that never meditate, instead they just try to live their lives according to Buddhist teaching. I am no expert but I think that a Buddhist view might be that ‘Meditation’, or an attachment to Meditation, like any other attachment, is something that one must be able to let go of – especially if it is source of suffering.

    Rich

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