By Dr. Rohi Shetty
During the ten-day Vipassana retreat, we learn how to practice three different meditation techniques. First, we learn how to concentrate the mind using awareness of respiration. Next, we learn how to develop mental equanimity based on awareness of physical sensations. Finally, we learn the practice of metta, in which we share our positive feelings of love and goodwill with all beings.
During the meditation course, we also come face to face with the five formidable enemies of meditation. These are mental obstacles that hinder the practice of meditation. After the course, during our daily meditation practice at home, learning to deal with these five hindrances becomes a part of our meditation practice.
The Buddha called them nivarana—mental factors that hinder our progress not only in meditation but also in every worthy endeavor that we may choose to undertake. So they are enemies not only of meditation but also of our health, our harmony, and our happiness. They are:
Craving means strong desire that upsets our mental balance. This is one of the strongest hindrances we have to face. While meditating, we may develop an intense desire for a chocolate-chip cookie. At other times, we may want to watch TV instead of meditating. Or more commonly, we may want our mind to be still and calm instead of chattering all the time. 🙂
Aversion means to be dissatisfied with the present reality, both internally and externally. We may feel it’s too noisy or too cold or too hot to meditate. At other times, we may feel that we are too hungry or too full to meditate. Sometimes, we may feel strong ill will or even hatred towards anyone who has upset us in any way.
This is a common obstacle. We may feel guilty about past mistakes or worried about the future or stressed by some immediate challenge—“I don’t have time to meditate today.” Or we may feel we are too agitated or distracted to meditate—“I’m just not in the mood to meditate. I’ll do it later.” Or even if we start meditating, strong agitation may make it impossible for us to continue.
Among the five hindrances, doubt is the most dangerous. If we feel we are not benefiting at all from the meditation, we’ll find it increasingly difficult to continue the practice. Sometimes, impatience may be masked as doubt.
The doubt may be about the meditation technique—“This isn’t working for me.” Or it may be about our own abilities—“I can’t do this. I tried hard enough but it’s not working for me. I’m just too distracted to do this.”
Laziness may take the form of sloth (physical lethargy), torpor (mental sluggishness) or sometimes, drowsiness. It’s not rare for us to find ourselves snoring on the meditation cushion. It’s even more embarrassing when someone else has to nudge us awake!
Lethargy is different from the other four hindrances. While sense desire, aversion, agitation, and doubt are forms of discursive thought, lethargy is often the inability or unwillingness to exert any mental effort.
How to overcome the five enemies of meditation
The simplest way to overcome the first four enemies of meditation (craving, aversion, agitation and doubt) is merely to be aware of their presence. This simple awareness with thoughts such as “my mind has wandered,” or “at present, my mind is distracted,” is usually adequate to deal with them.
However, in the case of lethargy, we have to raise the level of our awareness. We may have to breathe deliberately (slightly harder or faster) or stand for a while. If we feel extremely drowsy, we should sprinkle cold water on our eyes and practice with our eyes open. Or we can practice walking meditation.
As we continue our daily practice, we are able to recognize and progressively overcome these five mental hindrances during formal meditation. Gradually, we are able to apply this wisdom in our daily life and defeat these five destructive mental tendencies whenever they arise. This is one of the key benefits of the regular practice of meditation.
Join the conversation:
Which among the five hindrances bothers you the most?
Or is it different at different times?
Let us know in the comments below.
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(3 May 2017)