Tag Archives: hindrances

Meditation 14: The hindrance of doubt

There are two possible senses of ‘doubt’, just as there are two senses of ‘confidence’ as its opposite. Doubt can be a disabling paralysis preventing us engaging in actions we have decided upon, or it can be a liberating questioning of views that have previously been understood dogmatically. How do you tell the difference? Well, disabling doubt is disintegrating and disempowering, but liberating doubt is integrating and empowering. Disabling doubt is a voice making negative dogmatic assertions that undermine you without justification, whereas liberating doubt is balanced and merely makes us aware of our degree of uncertainty as embodied beings.

This distinction between two types of doubt is found in the traditional Buddhist discussion of doubt as a hindrance in meditation. Doubt as a hindrance is a translation of the Pali term vicikiccha, and is something every meditator will have come across regularly. Unfortunately this is sometimes badly translated as ‘sceptical doubt’, which can only be based on a major misunderstanding of scepticism: I much prefer the translation ‘disabling doubt’ which tells you about its practical effects. Sceptical doubt as I understand it is liberating doubt, enabling us to let go of attachments to dogmatic claims wherever they are found.

The way I experience disabling doubt in meditation is as a loss of confidence that meditation is worth doing, or is worth persisting in. For example, I could sit for a while, find myself going round a spiral of distractions, and conclude “There’s no point in sitting here any longer – I’m just wasting my time.” Or  maybe I don’t even start in the first place. Perhaps I get up in the morning, feeling a bit groggy, and “Oh, it’s obviously not worth trying to meditate this morning – I’ll never get anywhere.” At this point I also hear the voice of past meditation teachers from somewhere in my superego saying “Ah! But that just goes to show that meditation is the very thing you need most!”, but, if the disabling doubt is disabling enough, I will of course ignore them.Doubting Thomas Johann Jaritz

How do I know that this disabling doubt is not liberating, sceptical doubt? A case could be made. Perhaps I am hanging onto an idea that I should be meditating every day, regardless of the evidence. But perhaps it really isn’t very useful to try meditating at this juncture. Meditation is not a panacea for every situation, as you need a basic degree of starting integration to make any progress with meditation in the first place. Perhaps this doubtful voice is just saving me the trouble of wasting my time when meditation would indeed be fruitless? Perhaps I am also attributing dogmatic authority to the voices of past meditation teachers?

Of course, this is possible, but I think there are also some ways to spot disabling doubt when it tries to assume the mantle of liberating doubt. One, that I’ve already mentioned, is that disabling doubt is negative dogma. It won’t be open to real examination of the question of whether meditation would be useful – it will just be offering rationalisations to support a feeling of not wanting to meditate. If it’s liberating doubt, you should be aware of arguments on both sides, and be in a position to weight them up. Ask yourself whether that’s really the case. Another way of spotting disabling doubt is that it will probably be accompanied by quite a negative emotional state: a retractive, shrinking away from things.

The traditional Buddhist answer to doubt is usually ‘faith’ – involving at least an element of unconditional commitment to metaphysical claims, such as the Buddha’s enlightenment. Interpreted in this way, I don’t think that approach is any help at all. At best it is a way of experiencing group pressure to conform and do the things that the group does, symbolised by their metaphysical commitments. You might decide that some group pressure will help you stick to your commitments, but this will just be repressive if the commitments themselves are made under group pressure, especially if this is reinforced by appeals to tradition.

Instead, I’d suggest that, yes, we do need to commit ourselves to meditation practice, and follow it with some sense of discipline, in order to make it work. If we allow ourselves to re-assess that commitment every time we meditate, regardless of the mental state we are in, it will undermine the practice. However, in order for meditation practice to be justified by experience rather than group pressure and dogma, we do need to review it regularly and thoroughly. Is it really worth doing? Is it really making progress? The answer ‘no’ has to be a real possibility if you are really asking these questions, rather than just going through the motions to satisfy a group that claims to be open and critical but isn’t. If you know that you have thought through your commitment to practice for the time being, it makes sense to suppress (not repress) any contrary impulses for the moment, and just sit down and meditate regardless.

My personal experience is that sometimes I have answered ‘no’ when I asked myself if meditation was working for me. At that point it wasn’t. But I have always come back to it, because if I don’t do it then I miss it and notice the effects. By allowing doubt free enquiry in the appreciation of uncertainty, I am reasonably confident that my commitment to meditation is founded in experience rather than dogma.

Index of previous meditation blogs

Picture: Doubting Thomas photographed by Johann Jaritz  (Wikimedia Commons)

Meditation 13: The Hindrance of Restlessness and Anxiety

So far in my look at the hindrances I’ve worked through sense desire (meditation 7), ill-will (meditation 9) and sloth and torpor (meditation 11). So now I reach the fourth hindrance, restlessness and anxiety. This might be especially timely, given that  we’re approaching the time of year when many students face the anxiety of examinations.

Restlessness and anxiety is the biggest hindrance for me, and, I suspect, for many other people. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that our age is sometimes described as the ‘age of anxiety’. As Steven Pinker documents, in most of the developed world outward conflict has declined. The long-term trend is for Phone_calls_can_cause_anxiety_in_select_individuals Nervous Nedless violent crime and fewer deaths in war. But perhaps that sense of safety has been purchased at the expense of anxiety, which is a sign of inner conflict. There is constant pressure on us to meet social expectations in a rather unpredictable environment, whether that’s through examinations, the market, sexual expectations, responsibility for vulnerable children, or the whims of powerful bosses. Our social environment is increasingly fluid, but also increasingly competitive, and competition breeds anxiety.

So, it’s not surprising that when we sit down (or even stand up) to meditate, anxiety is one of the things that readily surfaces. The distinction between restlessness and anxiety is an incremental one, resting on whether it’s more of a physical twitchiness or more of a mental rumination. The way I experience restlessness is just a sense that it’s impossible to stay on the cushion. Sometimes I even get up without reflection. Anxiety, on the other hand, is likely to take the form of a list of things to be done, or things that ought to be said, or other expectations that need to be met, all of which pile into your awareness, and make it apparently impossible to gain the basic stillness needed to settle into a meditation practice.

In my experience there is only one way of tackling this hindrance that has any chance of working, and that is physical awareness. The thing that can unify your divided, speedy, unreflective thoughts is simply the fact that you have a body, and that this body has sensations. Particularly, the centre of your experience in the lower middle of your body can act as a focal point for physical awareness. This might be aided by scanning all the parts of your body systematically and noting your sensations, or by focusing on the movements of your diaphragm as you breathe.

A good posture can really help this sort of awareness. Assuming that you are doing a sitting meditation, your sense of secure seatedness can also be given an edge of positive energy by aligning your spine in an upright but not rigid posture, and allowing energy to rise up your spine. In my experience, that energy by itself can begin to calm anxiety.

If you’re a bit more of a greed-type and less of a hate-type than I am, you might also find it helpful to reflect on something that inspires you. Rather than scrappy little ruminations that just reflect group pressure on your life, think about something that you really want and that nourishes you in the longer-term. It might be inspiring ideas, inspiring people, great works of art, awe-inspiring landscapes. If you realise that you’re anxious before you start meditating, reading a poem beforehand, or listening to exactly the right sort of calming music, might help you get into the right frame of mind.

Each reasonably successful meditation, where you find a centre, makes it slightly less likely that you will be quite so anxious next time round. But there are always still pressures of anxiety in our lives that make it likely that it will return. A lasting answer to anxiety requires heroic persistence and commitment.

Index of previous meditation blogs

Picture by Nervous Ned (Wikimedia Commons) – Creative Commons licence

Meditation 11: The hindrance of sloth and torpor

Anyone who has meditated will have met this one at some time or another: the irresistible urge to fall asleep! If you are sitting in an upright posture, you won’t actually drop off, but rather keep starting to flop and then waking yourself up with a start as you do so. I find it a painful, uncomfortable state to be in: not sleeping and not meditating either, but unhappily careering from one to the other, and feeling confused and trapped in the cycle.

That experience is sloth, which (strictly speaking) can be distinguished from torpor. Torpor is not exactly falling asleep, but hovering in a sort of blank, half-resolved state just short of it. I haven’t really experienced torpor much myself, and sloth seems to be very much the product of specific circumstances. So one of the best things one can do about sloth, in my experience, is just to avoid those circumstances. It’s just a list of meditation no-no’s really:

  • Don’t try to meditate straight after a meal
  • Don’t try to meditate after consuming alcohol, even a small amount
  • Don’t try to meditate after a long walk or other soporific exercise
  • Don’t try to meditate lying down

Of course, your experience may be different. You may be able to break all of these rules. But my experience of thinking “I don’t need to worry about that: it was only a small glass of wine/ I’m not sleepy really/ I don’t need to be so rigid about this” and attempting to meditate under any of these circumstances, is that it really doesn’t work.

Then there’s the afternoon sag. Perhaps it’s later on in the afternoon, and you’re on retreat, so you sit down to meditate with everyone else because it’s on the programme – but then the irresistible tentacles of sleepiness begin to creep around you and gradually haul you towards them. That octopus of oblivion is just about to engulf you when… Oh yes, I was supposed to be meditating! But the afternoon octopus only goes and hides behind a weak intention for a short while. He’ll be back shortly. Octopus

There are only two ways I know to avoid the afternoon octopus. One is to drink the right amount of caffeinous drink beforehand, so that you’re awake but not over-stimulated. The other, probably more wholesome method, is to have a preparatory afternoon nap.

There are lots of other ways you’re supposed to be able to deal with sloth and torpor. Imagine lots of cold water splashing on your face. Raise the awareness higher in your body. Even visualise your body as full of light. None of these really work for me. In some cases, a degree of sleepiness may just be a way that some other kind of resistance is expressing itself, and if you just work through it, suppressing (but not repressing) the sleepiness, you might end up having an especially rewarding meditation because you’ve found a way of integrating that resistance. But in my experience, that’s exceptional. Most sleepiness is just about the immediate physical situation or one’s immediate bodily state. The usual solution if all else fails is very simple: get up, go off and have a nap!

Index to previous meditation blogs

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.