The Five Hindrances

1. Kāma-chanda: sensual desires; an attraction to sensual objects. For the mind to be attracted to sensual objects, a sensual defilement such as passion must first arise within the mind, followed by longing, and then the sense of attraction for a sensual object. In other words, the mind longs for and falls for forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas, any of which can be either skillful or not.

2. Byāpāda: ill will. The mind formulates a desire for forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, or ideas, but is then thwarted and so feels ill will toward whomever it finds disagreeable. Thoughts of ill will are classed as a form of wrong view and wrong resolve, and thus are a hindrance.

3. Thīna-middha: torpor, drowsiness, depression, lethargy. Once this overcomes the mind, it prevents the mind from doing good and thus is a hindrance.

4. Uddhacca-kukkucca: mental restlessness and anxiety. The mind lets its attention stream out to take hold of external objects because it doesn’t know the true nature of the senses and their objects or the techniques for holding its attention on a single meditation theme. This mental state arises from sensual desire in that the mind forms a desire that is then unfulfilled, and so it becomes anxious and restless.

5. Vicikicchā: uncertainty, indecision, a lack of conviction. The mind has doubts about its objects, unable to decide whether they are good or bad, right or wrong. Assuming right to be wrong, and wrong to be right, it is unable to come to a firm decision.

Techniques for dealing with the hindrances are as follows:

1. Sensual desires can be dealt with in three ways (taking sexual lust as an example):

a. Examine the object of your desires until you see that it’s inconstant (aniccaṁ), continually prey to disease (dukkhaṁ)—examine it until you see all the way to the fact that it’s not your self or anyone else’s (anattā). Even if you were to gain the object of your desires, you wouldn’t hold any rights over it. Someday it would be sure to throw you away and leave you.

b. If the desire remains active, then focus on the repulsive aspects of the object, the aspects that are unappealing, filthy, and disgusting. See that it is full of disgusting things and is a dwelling place for worms and other parasites. No matter how you try to dress up the body, you can’t escape from its repulsiveness.

c. If the desire persists, then consider the true nature of the body until the mind realizes that it is just a compound of physical properties into which a deluded mind has strayed and taken up temporary residence, like a hermit crab moving from shell to shell: nothing with any truth or fidelity. Then forcibly focus the mind on a single meditation object until concentration of one level or another arises, and the desire will fade or disappear.

2. Ill will arises or becomes active when mindfulness is weak and you react unwisely or unthinkingly to whatever shows resistance to the will, giving rise to anger, thoughts of revenge, and ill will. When this happens, the following methods should be used to allay such thoughts:

a. Mettā-nimitta-uggaha: Give rise to thoughts of good will, either toward specific people or to all living beings in general.

b. Mettā-bhāvanānuyoga: Be intent on developing and radiating thoughts of good will, hoping for your own happiness and that of others.

c. Kammassakata paccavekkhaṇatā: Consider the principle of kamma, that all living beings are possessors of their actions and will meet with good or evil according to their actions. Make yourself see that ill will is a bad action and, since it’s bad, who in the world would want it?

d. Paṭisaṅkhāna-bahulatā: Be increasingly circumspect and astute in applying and using these various techniques.

e. Kalyāṇa-mittatā: Associate with virtuous people who are kind and considerate.

f. Sappāya-kathā: Be careful to speak and think only of those topics—such as the development of good will—that are congenial and useful to yourself and to those around you.

g. Sacca-dama: Make the resolution that you will keep your attention focused on your own faults—in thought, word, and deed—and not on the faults of others. Keep your attention right at the heart, with the realization that ill will arises at the heart and so will have to be cured at the heart.

Each of these seven techniques can work very well in shaking off thoughts of ill will.

3. Torpor and lethargy can be overcome in the following ways:

a. Atibhojanā-nimittakatā: Don’t eat heavily.

b. Iriyāpatha-samparivatta-gahatā: Maintain a proper balance among your postures of sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.

c. Ālokasaññā-manasikāra: Create in your mind an image of bright light appearing right before you.

d. Abbhokāsa-vāsa: Look for a place to stay out in the open air or in the forest, away from human habitation.

e. Kalyāṇa-mittatā: Associate with well-behaved friends in the holy life who aren’t given over to lethargy or drowsiness. If you can associate with someone who has attained jhāna, so much the better.

f. Sappāya-kathā: Think and speak only of congenial topics—making the resolution, for instance, to observe the ascetic practices and perform other similar acts of good.

Torpor and lethargy can be overcome absolutely, once and for all, only with the attainment of the path to arahantship, but we have to start overcoming them step by step right from the beginning of our practice, using the above methods.

4. Restlessness and anxiety can be dealt with using the following methods:

a. Bahussutā: Make a habit of reading books and listening to others talk about the practice.

b. Paripucchatā: Make a habit of asking questions about what you have learned and experienced, and then put the answers into practice.

c. Vinaya-pakataññutā: Be knowledgeable and scrupulous concerning the precepts and practices you have undertaken.

d. Vuḍḍha-sevitā: Associate with those who are mature in their virtue and circumspect in their knowledge and behavior.

e. Kalyāṇa-mittatā: Associate with friends you admire.

f. Sappāya-kathā: Speak of matters that put your mind to rest, e.g., of what is right and wrong.

Restlessness and anxiety are abandoned once and for all only with the attainment of the path to arahantship, but we have to start overcoming them step by step right from the start.

5. Uncertainty can be dealt with using the following methods:

a. Bahussutā: Make yourself well-read and well-informed concerning the practice.

b. Paripucchatā: Make a habit of asking questions of those who are experienced.

c. Vinaya-pakataññutā: be expert with regard to the precepts and practices you have undertaken.

d. Adhimokkha-bahulatā: Work on increasing your enthusiasm for what is good.

e. Kalyāṇa-mittatā: Associate with good people.

f. Sappāya-kathā: Speak only of topics that will allay your uncertainty. For instance, discuss the virtues of the Triple Gem. (Uncertainty concerning the Triple Gem is abandoned once and for all with the first attainment of the stream to nibbāna.)

What all this comes down to is that the five hindrances all disappear when you focus on the body to the point where it becomes clear, and focus on the mind to the point where it becomes firm and resolute—because the hindrances arise right at the body and mind, and where they arise is where they should be dispersed.

The hindrances are an intermediate level of defilement. Only when the mind attains concentration to counter them are they overcome. They are also called the direct enemies of concentration. The indirect enemies are the five forms of rapture (pīti), the meditation syllable, and visions—both those that arise on their own (uggaha nimitta) and those that are brought under the control of the mind (paṭibhāga nimitta). These phenomena, if you are wise to them, can foster the paths and fruitions leading to nibbāna. But if you aren’t wise to them, you’re bound to get wrapped up in them, and they will then turn into enemies of right concentration and discernment.

These are the intermediate enemies of concentration. The subtle enemies are the ten corruptions of insight (vipassanūpakkilesa). If, when any of these arise, your mindfulness and discernment are weak, you’re bound to misconstrue them. You then let yourself get taken in and carried away by them, to the point where they seem unassailable in one way or another, finally leading you to believe that you have become an arahant. If you aren’t wise to these things, you’re bound to fall for them and won’t be able to attain the highest form of good. For this reason, you should let go of all such knowledge in line with its true nature. Keep your powers of circumspection in firm place. Don’t let these enemies come in and overcome your mind.

These various enemies will be discussed below, following the discussion of concentration, because they arise as phenomena following on the practice of concentration. Actually though, they’re already present in the mind, but we’re not aware of them until the mind is made firm. Once the mind attains concentration, they are bound to appear in one form or another, either as visions or as intuitions. And once they appear, we tend to get all excited and pleased, because we think that something new has happened. But if we understand that they’ve been there in the mind all along, we won’t get carried away by them—or feel excited, pleased, or upset—and so they won’t cause our concentration to deteriorate.

Before we make the mind firm in concentration, we first have to learn about the meditation exercises, because they are the objects of concentration. And before we learn about the exercises, we have to acquaint ourselves with our own propensities, because these propensities are like the factors causing a disease. The exercises are like the medicine for curing the disease.