Current Open Circle 6:30 Group Focus: The 5 Hindrances

To know that all that arises and passes away is much like the weather that comes and goes in the vast spaciousness of the sky, can liberate us from grasping and aversion and the associated “afflictive emotions” that arise. We increasingly recognize the insubstantial, composite and impermanent nature of what is arising in our mind.

For many of us, this conceptual understanding is extremely helpful.  We are truly an ongoing, flowing dance of coming and going… in both our bodies and our minds. Occasional glimpses of seeing this reality softens us.  We are inspired. But despite these wonderful moments of seeing, we still get caught!  Painful emotions arise in us. In response, we tend to all we can to escape them, yet they are arising in our own minds.

Dogen said, “to study in this way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to be liberated from attachment to one’s own body and mind and to those of others.”

How do we study the self?  We begin by watching the comings and goings in our own minds. We acknowledge and become increasingly comfortable with our own irritability/anger, anxiety/fear, sadness/despair, indifference, etc., and we see with increasing clarity how these emotional reactions to ourselves and others cause a great deal of our suffering.  As we cling to our attachments and aversions, we distort the reality of what is happening in our lives.

We tell ourselves long involved stories about how things should be with our friends and family, with the world around us, and with ourselves as well. Lost in “should be” we can’t really see what is. We become distressed that things aren’t as we think they should be.  The same type of distortion also occurs with attachments to attractive (to us!) things in the world, such as certain people, shiny objects (such as automobiles or attractive clothing), delicious food and so on. As we anticipate obtaining things, we tend to see them with “rose-colored glasses”. After we obtain these things, they quickly begin to lose their luster, and become “ho-hum.”  Disappointment, sometimes to the point of anger or despair, may arise. (Think of certain relationships you may have had, or your experience after you actually got that shiny object you were lusting after.)

(Please note: seeing things as they are and no longer responding to them with emotional reactions does not mean being passive in the face of injustice or other types of suffering.  We can stop the destructive actions of the school yard bullies of the world from a place of understanding and compassion and be even more effective than if we do so from a place of anger or fear.  And yes, that may involve blunt words or physical restraint at times.)

States of mind that distort and obscure the reality of the world around us are sometimes referred to in the Buddhist literature as “The Five Hindrances.” The Five Hindrances act as obstacles in our meditation practice and also to our capacity to be genuinely present in our relationships and activities.  The Five Hindrances are:

  • Sensual desire. This includes harmful desires for all types of sensory objects. There are helpful, healthy desires, which benefit the world, the desire for peace for example, or that the hungry are fed.  There are simple, personal desires, such as a yen for a cup of coffee in the morning.  The question arises: how distressing is it for you to discover you are out of coffee?  Also, harmful desires are very good at masquerading.  Impulsive spending and stalking are examples of behaviors driven by this Hindrance.

  • Ill will. This manifests as wanting to attack, push away, or turn away from some object and includes some feeling of hostility or related emotion. Aggression and unskillful avoidance can result.

  • Sloth and torpor. These are treated together as one hindrance. These are forces in the mind the drain that vitality and limit effort. “Tiredness refers to a natural physiological condition of tiredness or fatigue. Sloth and torpor refers to low energy states related to an attitude we have.  Discouragement, frustration, boredom, indifference, giving up, hopelessness and resistance are some of the psychological causes of sloth and torpor.” (From Unhindered, by Gil Fronsdal, the book we will be using in our group as we look at these factors together.)

  • Restlessness and worry. These are also treated together as one hindrance. Restlessness and worry tend to make it difficult to concentrate or to see a situation clearly. Misunderstandings and poor decision making can result.  When severe, one can be incapacitated by panic.  Restlessness and worry may be in relation to experiences of the past or future.  (Worry about the present is really worry about what might happen next, that is, the future. Fear when the bear is actually chasing you is not a Hindrance.)

  • This hindrance includes such aspects as indecision, uncertainty, and a lack of confidence. It can vary from mild lack of clarity to strong distressing feelings and inner conflicts regarding one’s capacities in various ways.

Some of you may recall working with the Seven Points of Mind Training, in which the third Point is “Taking Adversity as the Path,” or “Transformation of Bad Circumstances into the Way of Enlightenment.” Working with the Five Hindrances is a direct application of that concept. The practice is to accept and even embrace the difficulties that arise in our lives, and the emotions that arise with them, as opportunities for deeper understanding, acceptance and transformation of ourselves. As we become more familiar with the Hindrances and their associated emotions, seeing what they are made of, watching them arise and fall away, their power and solidity begin to diminish!  We become more comfortable and less reactive when they do arise, allowing us to choose what to do rather than being helplessly directed by them.

Beginning Wednesday, May 23 we will begin exploring the Five Hindrances together, using Gil Fronsdal’s book Unhindered (99 pages, and a pleasure to read!) as our primary teacher.  This exploration will probably last for three months or so, we’ll just see how it goes. As always, there are no restrictions in terms of needing to be present for any given group gathering, or any commitment to stay through until the end of the exploration. There is also not a requirement to buy the book and read it as we go. On the other hand, to make the most of these teachings, both coming to the group and using the book will be very helpful in developing consistency and ease with the practices both in your meditation and your daily life. Hope to see you there!

Link to book: click Unhindered

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