Traditional tips for when you hit a brick wall
Methods of Working on the Five Hindrances
an out-take from the previous version of 'Buddhist Meditation'
Any of these antidotes can, theoretically, be applied to any one of the hindrances, but, in practice, each hindrance has its own peculiar character - some antidotes work very well for certain hindrances, but not for others. It is therefore useful to get a more exact idea of how specific hindrances work. So in this supplementary chapter we're going to go through each one individually, looking at the most effective ways of counteracting them.
The list is extensive. It is not necessary for you to know it all but there will probably be items which you find especially interesting or relevant. The principal idea behind this section of the book is to give an impression of the nature of the hindrances, their strengths and weaknesses. If you do not feel like reading the whole section, you can skim through it to get a general idea - it may perhaps be useful some time as a reference for checking your meditation experience.
note on the categories
With each hindrance we will employ, as broad approaches, the five traditional antidotes mentioned in Chapter Three. They are 'cultivating', 'considering', 'sky-like mind', 'suppression', and 'outside meditation'. Here the first two categories have been reversed, changing the traditional order. This allows the main samatha methods, those of 'cultivating', to be given before those which are broadly vipassana, i.e. 'considering'. The three that remain are in general samatha methods, though vipassana reflection can of course also be put to use very effectively 'outside meditation'.
You will also see that three of the categories have been extended in scope. 'Cultivation' now includes all methods of active cultivation of mental states rather than simply opposing the hindrance concerned. 'Considering' here includes every kind of reflection likely to diminish the current hindrance, and not simply reflection on its consequence. The fifth category, `Going for Refuge' has been replaced by methods to be adopted outside formal meditation practice. This is for purely practical reasons and is by no means meant to indicate that Going for Refuge, or active trust in the efficacy of the principles of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, is unimportant in Buddhist meditation: indeed it is fundamental to any successful practice.
1. sense desire
Sense desire (kamacchanda) arises because we are drawn to a pleasant sense experience. From the point of view of developing concentration, this is a potential trap which will dissipate our energy and sense of purpose. We need to recognize that sense desire is to be avoided if we are to get any further with the meditation. The five methods below will help.
Note: This now extends beyond the `cultivating the opposite' category. It consists of methods of active cultivation. These include methods of self discipline, or methods which direct or transform energy, or through which we deliberately move our mind away from a hindrance and towards something deeper.
Recognize that this is sense desire - it’s a hindrance to concentration which you need to start working on immediately.
Simply to concentrate more strongly on the object of meditation may bring your energies together and disperse the distracted state of mind that you are in.
You can learn to observe the quality of your breath: once you know your typical patterns, the way you are breathing may indicate when you are distracted. If you concentrate on the experience of the breath in the lower part of the body - at the navel, for example - this may help stabilize your concentration, taking it away from thoughts towards a more `grounded' experience of yourself.
You may be able to refine your desire by channelling your excitement towards a less gross and stimulating object - such as the object of your meditation, or the breath. In fact, you can develop as much `greed' for meditation as you have invested in the object, thus channelling the emotion towards something positive.
Note: This category is no longer being used in the simple sense of `considering the consequences'. It now also includes every kind of reflection, many of which are traditional vipassana-type contemplations.
With this method we reflect on the real nature of subjective desire for sense experiences, as well as the real nature of the object we happen to be desiring. By reflecting in these ways we may be able to sublimate our interest in the object claiming our attention.
Reflect on the nature of the hindrance of sense desire. You could simply ask yourself where you think this emotion (which is essentially what it is) is likely to lead you. If you consult your experience, you will probably find that such thoughts merely tend towards further distraction and attachment to sense experience. You could also reflect that indulging in sense desire does more than waste your precious time; it also deepens a particular kind of habit, and deepens your resistance to meditation in the future.
You could also reflect on the impermanence of the hindrance - remind yourself that this emotion will not last. Nothing ever does last, so you can be quite confident that the sense desire will dissolve in time. If you spend some time reflecting deeply on this you will become more firmly convinced that the hindrance of sense desire is not worth pursuing.
You could apply the fact of impermanence to yourself too. Reflection on death - and, in particular, the inevitability of your own death - may provide a very effective antidote to sense desire by putting your life into a clear perspective. Reminding yourself that you only have so much time shows how important your present efforts in meditation are. We often entertain sense desire when we forget the significance of what we are doing, and our thoughts, wandering from this interest to that, become more interesting than the meditation once the sense of urgency is lost. Reflection on death can re-establish that perspective, so that you lose your attachment to the thoughts and again become interested in the practice.
Then sense desire is clearly not `yours' or even really a part of you - in reality, you cannot own anything for very long. By reflecting on the `ownerlessness' of all things, you may eventually be able to let the hindrance go and continue with meditation. When it is seen in the lightness and freedom of this higher reality, craving may become less insistent.
Lastly, this feeling can obviously never bring lasting satisfaction. By reflecting on its ultimately unsatisfactory and frustrating nature you will see its nature more clearly, and so, perhaps, feel less interested in pursuing it.
Instead of the mental state of sense desire, you could reflect on the nature of the object which is drawing your attention. For example, you could ask yourself whether this thing which attracts you so much is really worth thinking about or listening to. Often, if we are honest, such things are rather trivial - and forcing ourselves to admit this may have the effect of resolving the conflict involved in our attachment to them.
You could reflect that in the ultimate analysis this object, though currently attractive, is impermanent. It may be surprising to see the change in your relationship with the object, which can be effected simply by introducing this reflection.
You might then go on to consider that since it is impermanent, this attractive thing actually has no real essence; it does not exist independently, in its own right. Your perception of it as an attractive object really depends on the various conditions which make up its existence - and your own too. Then, of course, because of its impermanence and conditionedness, it could never give you any full, complete sense of satisfaction!
You will probably need to be convinced in advance - through previous vipassana meditation - of the principles behind these reflections, otherwise they are unlikely to be very effective. But in combination with any already existing glimmerings of insight you have stimulated, these reminders will definitely begin to resolve your attachment to attractive objects.
You could ask yourself, finally, whether this thing you are attracted to is actually beautiful. Is it really attractive from an aesthetic point of view? You could compare it with the beauty of the dhyanas, or with the beauty of Enlightenment.
It is possible to apply the `sky-like' attitude to sense desire by adopting a passive, observational attitude while at the same time scrupulously avoiding the tendency to give extra attention to the distracting object.
This may be somewhat demanding, but in the right circumstances it can be a very effective method. In the same spirit - perhaps as a more long-term strategy - you could try to increase your awareness of the objects which come into your mind in meditation. This will tend to broaden your experience out from the narrow grasping which characterizes sense desire.
Suppression simply means saying `no' to the sense desire. Sense desire can be very strong and passionate indeed - the stronger the hindrance, the more difficult it is to suppress, so generally it isn't to be recommended. But if your tendency to distraction is not so much a passion as a general habit, then suppression could work quite well, especially if you are definitely convinced that you want to get beyond it. Suppression can be a good antidote to apply after using a `consideration'-type reflection.
Note: In this category we look at how we can work with the causes of hindrances outside meditation.
If you are prone to sense desire, then in your life generally you need to observe the effect of different sense objects and avoid those which stimulate greed and craving - in other words, you need to guard the gates of the senses. You need to be quite uncompromising with yourself as to whether something really does stimulate craving or not. Your speech, too, very much affects your mental state, so it may lessen your tendency to this hindrance if you talk less about attractive sense objects. Perhaps you could speak more in terms of the Dharma. Obviously you are also affected by what you think about, and, if you can, it may help counteract sense desire if you try not to indulge thoughts connected with craving.
As a general rule, we re-fuel the desire for sense experience whenever we indulge it; so you may be able to reduce it if you cultivate a little healthy restraint. Generally, it may help to be a little more moderate in appetites: you could pay special attention to your investments in food and sex, which make the strongest demands.
These demands are so strong that fast progress is unlikely. Indeed, it is probably unwise to deny yourself too much too soon - if you are unrealistic about your capacities for restraint there is very likely to be an emotional reaction. Take things gradually. You probably just need to be a little more moderate in your grosser pleasures - it is possible to enjoy life in moderation!
Coupled with this, you could also refine your sources of emotional satisfaction. You could, for instance, cultivate an interest in the arts, which may create a new appreciation of beauty - one less based in craving. Contact with other people is another area in which you could possibly channel your responses away from craving. See if you can improve the quality of your friendships and communication with others, and especially cultivate friendship with those who like you and support your efforts. Craving is partly the outcome of a feeling of insecurity, so if you can make sure your emotional needs are met, you may experience far less desire for external sense experiences. A traditional suggestion is to develop friendships with people who seem less sense-oriented.
2. ill will
Ill will (vyapada) is similar to sense desire in that the object of the hindrance is its dominant feature; this is not the case with the other three hindrances. In both sense desire and ill will we are strongly attached to an object which we are reluctant to let go. With sense desire we are trapped through our craving; in the case of ill will we are trapped through our aversion to it - yet the fascination of the object, the power of its spell over us, is no less strong.
You should recognize that this is ill will - a hindrance to meditation - and that right now you want to meditate, not to be irritated! Recognition is the primary antidote to any hindrance - sometimes recognition alone is sufficient to weaken it - but recognition can also be very difficult, since we often do not want to acknowledge that this is an unskilful state of mind.
We are very often attached to mental states, whether they are skilful or not, and this attachment is particularly common with ill will: we often feel justified in being bad-tempered. But even without discussing the issue of whether it is possible to justify some forms of anger from an ethical point of view, it is certain that we can never meditate in this state: ill will is simply not compatible with skilful concentration.
Having recognized ill will you can try to develop the opposite quality: developing some metta is an obvious antidote. In fact, if ill will persists in your meditation, and is hard to eradicate, then it is generally advisable to spend extra time, perhaps a lot of time, on the Metta Bhavana practice.
You might be able to `cool' the ill will if you physically relax and calm down. You could pay attention to the breath lower in the body, especially in the belly - or to your bodily posture generally. The hindrance of ill will is largely fuelled by thoughts, and this kind of method takes your attention away from your head.
It is important to keep checking your progress against this hindrance, because it is difficult to eradicate once it has a hold. You should not be satisfied with just a little progress, but keep checking to see whether the ill will has really gone.
Turning to more analytical methods, you can reflect on the nature of the emotion itself (we will consider the object of the ill will later). Ill will can be a very difficult hindrance indeed to counteract, and reflection on its nature may help you to see through it.
First of all, you are indulging in ill will; you do not want to let it go. Ask yourself what the emotion feels like. Is it enjoyable? Ill will is often a very painful, barbed emotion. Some people feel that they actively enjoy mentally criticizing and inflicting imaginary harm. But the nature of this enjoyment can be questioned - look deeply and see if it is not a mixed pleasure. In any case while this hindrance is present you cannot settle down and relax. So why, you might ask, hold on to it?
You might also question what the likely result of ill will is. The result is likely to be more pain and suffering: ill will just worsens painful situations and relationships. Life can produce nothing but bitter fruit without some degree of metta, love, and friendliness. It is far better to do nothing rather than indulge ill will, because the more you indulge the more your ill will tends to escalate, and the more damage you do. Ill will is, indeed, very damaging; it is well worth doing whatever you can to combat this hindrance.
You could consider your own experiences in the past. Ill will separates you from others; no one is attracted to an angry person. Most people experience irritable people as unattractive, frightening, painful to be with. So as an antidote, you may consider how much you would like to overcome ill will, since it has never helped you, or brought you any worthwhile satisfaction. On the contrary it has brought shame and remorse, and complicated your relationships with others.
You could consider the outcome of ill will for the person with whom you are angry. It is likely that your dislike of them will continue, together with all the difficulties in your relationship with them. Surely you would prefer to reconcile the difficulties? This question may reveal the extent of your attachment to the ill will, since you may find out that you do not really want to be reconciled. Probably you think that you are right and they are wrong. But until you can see that there are rights and wrongs on both sides, there can be no lessening of the hindrance of ill will; you must be able to forgive, or at least forget for the time being, the other person's faults.
If you take a wider perspective and consider this emotion according to the Dharma, you can reflect, first of all, that the nature of your ill will is an irrational aversion. It is an unrealistic rejection of something you find threatening, yet which, were you more able to acknowledge it, would probably make you more balanced and happy.
You might try to analyse your emotion a little more deeply, and reflect that underneath the ill will is craving. Somewhere or other you feel deprived of something that you want; it may possibly be some sort of recognition or attention, or even some actual possession. Whatever it is, you can ask yourself whether it is worth craving for, and whether you really want to be in the narrow state of mind the emotion creates. You may even discover some genuine need that could easily be met.
You might try to analyse yourself at the deepest level, looking at ill will's basis in primordial ignorance. At base, ill will is your natural refusal to acknowledge things as they really are. If you can reflect on this quality, examining its connection with your present ill will, you may see through it; you may experience how utterly limiting it is.
Look at the situation in terms of the principle of conditionality - that you inherit the conditioning set up by your past actions, and that your present actions condition your future experience. You know that your present ill will is conditioned by some painful experience. Consider to what extent the experience has been, in some respects at least, of your own making. When you react with ill will, you are feeding a tendency which only creates further suffering for you in the future.
You can apply this to others too: other people also inherit the conditioning of their own actions. They may have faults which you find painful and irritating, but actually they suffer from them too. If you reflect, with compassion, on what this conditioning must be doing to them, how limiting it is, your ill will may dissolve.
You can consider your attitude towards difficult situations generally. You must be prepared to accept some things in life which you do not immediately like, otherwise you could never make any progress. In fact sometimes painful situations can even help you to develop stamina, strength, and patience. Some Buddhist teachers go so far as to say that you should feel grateful for the difficulties which other people make for you - feel glad that you have enemies - because it is only possible to develop patience in those testing situations!
From the ultimate point of view your emotion of ill will is impermanent. It is a reaction, on your part, to a painful feeling - and painful feelings, like pleasant ones, are conditioned by your actions. They are conditioned by the general trend of your way of life, or by specific actions which `set you up' for such a feeling. If you indulge the reaction, allowing yourself to get more angry in response, you are `setting yourself up' again; you are increasing the likelihood of painful feelings. But if you do not indulge it, but simply experience the painful feeling as it is, it may eventually subside, along with the temptation to react with ill will.
You can contemplate the hindrance of ill will from the point of view of non-selfhood. Ill will has no fixed nature of its own, but consists merely of the changing conditions which set it up. It is not `your' ill will, either, except in the conventional sense, because your own nature is equally fluid and unfixed.
You can also reflect on the nature of the object of your ill will. This `object' will usually be some person who has wronged you, either in your imagination or in actual fact. You could first of all be honest, and consider how much of your irritation with this person has to do with objective reality. It is probably mainly subjective, to do with you rather than them.
You can check whether or not this is so by trying to separate what has actually happened from your personal response to it. You may find that it is your subjective response which is causing you all the suffering, not the objective facts. You are attached to your view of the person concerned, and even though it causes you pain, you do not want to let go of your view of them, even if you grudgingly acknowledge that they have some good points.
Probably, what you basically want to do is vent your ill will; you want to think about that hateful person, and about the things they have done which have harmed you. If you can only recognize your attachment and its futility, you may then lose interest in ill will and be able to interest yourself once again in meditation (which, you may need to remind yourself, is what you are trying to do at the present moment!).
Remember that however strongly another person hates or is angry with you, their dislike cannot harm you; it is your own reaction which will do the damage.
Even a person who is definitely acting badly has some good qualities. This applies even when someone causes suffering to you or others you love. Your acknowledgement of their good nature doesn't mean that you have to accept them uncritically, but you should strive for objectivity, trying to see them as they really are. If you are indulging in ill will, your view is inevitably one-sided and cannot be trusted. You can only see a person as they actually are by looking for and acknowledging any positive qualities they possess. Your emotional response towards them may then become more balanced and objective.
It is important to be clear that you are meditating, and that for the time being you are concerned only with your own state of mind - you do not have to be concerned with what another person should or should not do.
Then there is the possibility that you could develop compassion. The person you have in mind may have caused another person suffering - or even harmed many people. But human beings have an almost infinite potential for negativity, and you also are constantly causing harm to others. The result of unskilful behaviour, which sets up certain predispositions and tendencies of mind, is inevitably going to be unpleasantness, both for you and the hated person. So even if the person you are hating really has been behaving badly, compassion is the appropriate emotion, not ill will. They really harm only themselves, so ill will is quite out of place.
The above reflections might seem rather involved. Simply to ask yourself if you have things in perspective can be very effective. Could you possibly be taking it all too seriously? Just that thought might be enough to burst the whole bubble.
From a wider point of view, you could quite effectively apply the same considerations to the object of your ill will as you applied to the hindrance of ill will. This person is just an impermanent, conditioned human being, devoid of permanent selfhood, and was never capable of giving you any permanent satisfaction anyway! In this way you can strive to view them with the eye of wisdom, and the heart of compassion.
Sometimes this method can work with ill will, especially if the emotion is persistent and you are fairly convinced that you do not want to be in an irritated state. If you are so convinced, then you can simply observe its effect on your mind in a detached way. It is important not to get involved, to let your thoughts come and go quite freely, yet without attachment. Eventually, if you are patient and truly non-reactive, the ill will may lose its power and dissipate itself.
Suppression will probably not work for strong ill will, but it might in the case of persistent, habitual, rather weak negative thoughts which you are already convinced are useless.
If you often experience the hindrance of ill will in your practice, you must be prepared to do some work. It may help if you deliberately try to develop some counteractive qualities outside meditation - qualities such as forgiveness, patience, peacefulness, faith, and inspiration - in order to redress the balance. Developing these may involve your activities at home, at work, and in every part of your life.
It is especially valuable to pay attention to your speech. If you do your best to speak in a helpful, harmonious, graceful way, you will avoid encouraging your irritable side. Cynicism, or rough, crude speech, even in the form of little asides and comments, has a strong effect, as do habitual grumbling and complaining, or expressions of resentment. You could try to avoid these, as well as criticisms of others, and malicious gossip.
You would also be well advised to develop friendships with people who are positive and loving, rather than `hate types'. Buddhism makes a rough-and-ready division into psychological types: there are `greed types', who are primarily motivated by their desire for enjoyable experiences, and tend to be emotional rather than intellectual; `hate types', who are motivated by their aversion to pain and tend to be more intellectual; and `deluded types', who sometimes seem motivated in one way, sometimes another. In fact people are usually rather a mixture.
If you are predominantly a `hate' type (which might well be so if the hindrance of ill will is persistent), it could go rather against the grain to make friends with those whom you may find unbearably jolly, friendly, positive people. People tend to be attracted to their own type on the whole. Yet if you are prepared to open up, put aside your prejudices, and enjoy such company (at least sometimes), it will certainly do you good by helping to balance your personality. This is part of the aim of the Buddhist ideal of spiritual community. Contact with spiritually committed people brings you into contact with very different temperaments to your own, and this can radically change your habitual attitudes.
3. restlessness and anxiety
The first thing to do is actually to recognize that you are restless and/or anxious. A few facts about restlessness and anxiety may help with the recognition.The two aspects of this hindrance, restlessness (uddhacca) and anxiety (kukkucca), may each arise independently of the other. `Restlessness' means physical restlessness and turbulence, or arousal; the more `physical' antidotes may well work on it. `Anxiety' is excessive associative thinking which is essentially irrational; it often returns to the same topic repeatedly, but does not think matters through, and in fact avoids doing so.
Having recognized the hindrance, you can then recall that restlessness and anxiety is a hindrance to meditation, and that since what you really want to be doing is meditating, you need to work to counteract it.
Since restlessness and anxiety is such a persistent mental state, you should still continue to check even when you feel it has been eradicated.
One characteristic of restlessness and anxiety is that it pulls your attention away from the object of meditation; so you can sometimes counteract that if you make a stronger effort to concentrate. In doing so, you need to take particular care to work appropriately and avoid a hard, forced effort; there is a tendency to become tense with this hindrance, so this antidote needs to be accompanied by receptivity and kindness towards yourself.
Indeed, it might help you to calm down if you focus on contentment and acknowledgement of yourself as you are now, perhaps with the aid of the Metta Bhavana practice. You could try focusing on one calming thought to achieve this, perhaps with the aid of a phrase like `let yourself relax'.
It may also help to bring the focus of attention (perhaps with the aid of the breath) down more into the body, and away from the chaotic mind. In your imagination, look for the quality that is missing, and anticipate enjoying the simplicity of concentration in contrast to the present complex chaos.
Another very good antidote can be to pay special attention to your posture, being mindful of every bodily tension and small movement. It is especially effective to sit very still. In order to do this you could resolve to sit motionless (apart from inner relaxation and adjustment of posture) for the whole of the session, resisting every impulse to move.
Your mind and body may be racing if you have been exerting yourself with work, travel, or exercise immediately before the meditation session. The effects of these efforts can last for some time afterwards, perhaps for an hour or more in the case of strenuous exercise, and for considerably longer if you have been travelling. In these circumstances it is almost impossible to concentrate the mind until some time has passed, so allowances should be made. On intensive meditation retreats it is important to allow time for adjusting to the effects of travel, and wise to avoid heavy work and strenuous exercise.
You could first of all reflect that very often with this hindrance you are not actually worrying about anything specific. It is just a habitual state of mind which is looking for an object to fasten on to and worry about. Once you see that this is what is happening, you can acquire the confidence to move beyond it. Sometimes the mere act of seeing that it is a habit will enable you to leave it behind; at other times, having seen, you can move on to using a different antidote.
If you do have something specific that is worrying you, remember that there is nothing you can do about it while you are meditating. The best thing to do is put it aside for the duration of the meditation, and think about it later.
If the restlessness is manifesting physically so that you are full of nervous tension, you could try to see the cause of the tension. There could be many causes; perhaps some thought in your mind at present, or the result of something you have done or which has happened. If you can discover the cause of the restlessness, you may be able to counteract it either now, outside the meditation, or both.
Reflecting from the broadest possible perspective, restlessness and anxiety is impermanent; it will go away eventually. It depends on its `fuel' of previous actions for its present existence, and if you don't provide it with any more fuel, perhaps by using the `sky-like' method in conjunction with this consideration, it will eventually dissolve.
You can also consider, of course, that this hindrance is unsatisfactory. While it is perfectly obvious that anxiety is not `satisfying', it can nonetheless be worthwhile reflecting on the universality of its unsatisfactoriness: that it is unsatisfactory in the same way that all other conditioned things are. You could think about the potential satisfaction of unconditioned reality and in that way create a truer and more inspiring perspective from which to work with this hindrance.
Like other conditioned, changeable things, restlessness and anxiety does not have any essence; neither is it part of us. All these considerations will gradually provide you with the means of letting go of this anxiety and restlessness.
If it is very strong, the `sky-like' approach can work well for the mental aspect of this hindrance. Anxiety tends to create a narrow prison-like world consisting only of thought. By being aware of every thought, feeling, and emotion which enters your mind, without trying to hold on to any of them, and also by being mindful of physical sense-experiences, you will eventually develop a broader awareness of yourself that extends beyond this mental prison.
It may sometimes be possible to stop this hindrance through the power of resolve alone. However, it will probably be rather difficult unless the restlessness is relatively weak.
When this hindrance predominates it shows an unsettled, possibly an undisciplined, disposition; it can therefore be counteracted if you pay special attention to regularity of practice. You could try, for example, to meditate at exactly the same time, and preferably the same place, every day.
You could try to lead a more regular life-style generally: doing basic things, like getting up and eating, at the same time every day helps meditation generally. A restless life-style certainly tends to create a restless mind.
If you are chronically `speedy', you perhaps ought to consider what else you could do to become more steady and grounded. For example, you could deliberately spend more time with friends who are not restless, but who are calm and self-possessed.
In your speech, you can especially try to avoid frivolous, useless speech, speaking only when you have something to say, and then only when that is going to be useful and helpful to the situation generally. It is always difficult to make major changes like this, but any progress at all will make a substantial impact on your mental state and your meditation. Working with your speech is a very powerful method.
You might then try to develop more steadiness and regularity in your thinking; a restless mind is superficial, unable to go beyond its concern with surface appearances. So trying to be more mindful of your thoughts will have the general effect of calming you down and taking you deeper. This will require some dedicated work - writing down your thoughts is a great help, perhaps by keeping a journal. Once you are more aware of your thinking, you can try to be less at the mercy of your thoughts, less passively driven along by them.
A fundamental condition for this hindrance is basic mental confusion - something we all suffer from in varying degrees - and a very good way of tackling it is through the study of Buddhism. It is best to study regularly, and also to study with others, so that your understanding is tested. The main thing you need to be clear about is your understanding of the principles of ethics. If you can gain a clearer understanding of the relationship between causes and effects - between your actions and their results - you will then become less confused in your thinking; you will become happier, less agitated, and less anxious.
4. sloth and torpor
The hindrance of sloth and torpor consists of two aspects: physical sloth (thina) and mental torpor (middha). Its antidotes are a range of methods, from the subtle to the gross, of getting yourself to WAKE UP!
For mental torpor, which is a dull, sleepy, stiff, rigid state of consciousness, you can first of all try to counteract it by stimulating energy. You could reflect on the inspiring quality of sympathetic joy, for example. Or if need be you can interrupt your current practice and start actually practising Metta and Mudita Bhavana. Or you could try to make your experience of the object more vivid and energizing: if you are visualizing a form, for example, you could imagine it as shining and vibrating with light and colour. If you are concentrating on a sensation such as the breath, you could pay attention to its more stimulating aspects, for example, finding the place in the body where the sensation is strongest.
For physical sloth - which may range from a slight lack of vitality, through head-nodding, to complete collapse and sleep - strong medicine is often required. You will have to make a very strong resolution not to give in to drowsiness, because it could take all your energy just to keep awake. The very nature of sloth is to avoid working in meditation; the desire to do absolutely nothing is remarkably strong.
For this reason it is vital to recognize this hindrance right from the beginning. Recognition can be a major step, even a breakthrough! Even though you recognize sloth and make efforts to work against it, sloth will still persist in `hiding' from your awareness.
Even when you begin to get it under control, you need to keep checking to see whether sloth is still there.
It may help if you have your eyes open, at least enough to let in sufficient light to stimulate you.
You could also have as much light around you as possible - at night, for example, you could have all the lights switched on. What is more, you should not hesitate to break your meditation to get up to switch them on, provided your action will not disturb others meditating with you. Getting up will not harm your meditation - under the power of this hindrance you were not meditating anyway. On the contrary, by opening your eyes and switching on the lights you are doing something to enhance your practice.
If staying awake gets very difficult, you could try gazing at a source of light, for example a candle; or, if it is daytime, try gazing into the sky (not, of course, directly at the sun) and meditating.
You could open a window: you could get up, interrupting the meditation, and open a window, and breathe fresh, cool air. Perhaps you could wear less clothing, too - if it keeps you awake, it is better to be a little cool rather than let sloth get the better of you (though for some people coldness encourages sloth - so they might need to warm themselves up).
It may also help if you concentrate on the breath high in the body, for example at the nose or imagined at the top of the head - this can work very well. Indeed, paying attention to your body can be a very effective method indeed.
If the sloth is very strong, you may be able to prevent yourself from completely `going under' if you concentrate entirely on your posture.
The tendency with this hindrance generally is to sit very slackly, with very little bodily awareness; in particular there is a tendency to lean too far forwards, with the head bowed and nodding. A good physical antidote is to lean slightly backwards, and to tilt the head back a little.
If you are definitely sleepy, you can stop meditating for a while and stimulate yourself physically. You can rub and massage your limbs, change your posture, pull your earlobes (a traditional recommendation), or pinch yourself!
Something of this kind may revive you - but if it does not, it is best to give up for the time being, have a break, and sit again later. You could take a short break, perhaps washing your face in cold water before returning almost immediately, or walking mindfully up and down outside for half an hour or so.
In the last resort, you will have to conclude that you need sleep! So then you should lie down and sleep, continuing the meditation later when you are refreshed.
Or you can try to remain aware as you fall asleep in the meditation. Allow yourself to drop below the threshold of consciousness, yet remain curious about the state of mind (which after all is deeply mysterious) – try to experience what is happening as you dip down and come back up again. In this way you don’t really break off from the practice.
Taking another approach, sloth can often be transcended if you chant or recite out loud, which is both physically and emotionally stimulating. For example, you can chant traditional verses, of which there are some very beautiful ones in the Buddhist tradition.
There are also a number of visualization techniques traditionally recommended for dissolving sloth and torpor. You can, for example, visualize light - brilliant white light - inside your body and head, and then imagine it glowing and radiating outwards from your body. Tibetan teachers sometimes recommend visualizing a point of white light inside your heart which shoots upwards out of the crown of your head, merging with the sky.
But finally, if the standard antidotes do not seem to be working, you can try calming down and relaxing! Sometimes sloth and torpor is caused by underlying tension: you may not be allowing yourself to experience some emotion, so that the effort of repressing it is absorbing all your energy. If this is the case you should try to relax and experience whatever emotion is there, releasing the tension and bringing back your energy.
The hindrance of sloth and torpor is not a very suitable basis for Dharmic reflection. Theoretically it is possible to contemplate the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and insubstantiality of sloth and torpor just like the other hindrances, but it cannot be generally recommended. Anyone who wishes may try reflecting in this way if they like - if they can!
Sloth and torpor probably requires a much more down-to-earth course of action. You are half asleep, stuck in dullness - so you need to wake up; you really need to give yourself some kind of positive shock. Traditional Buddhism can provide a number of suitable reflections.
You can reflect, for example, on the shortness of your life, and on how precious the opportunity of life is. Readers of this book have probably been born into a very favourable situation. Not only are you alive and in a position to develop yourself spiritually, but you even have some idea how important spiritual development is. How few people have this - how few are in a position even to think about it! Most people have little time to think of anything but supplying their immediate wants and needs. But you are able to function more fully as a human being; in our present world that is a privilege, not a right.
What is more, you have actually come into contact with the spiritual path, something that most human beings are unlikely to do. Moreover, you could hardly be in a better position to put its teachings into practice. You may, perhaps, be relatively healthy, and with the political freedom to practise as you wish. For most readers, Buddhist literature and Buddhist teachers will be widely available. If you do not practise the Dharma now, when else will you have such an ideal opportunity, when else will you be able to make any progress?
Traditional Buddhism would point out that if you neglect these opportunities, you are likely to forget that they exist, and become even more immersed in the endless round of cyclic existence - you are unlikely to come across something like this again for many lifetimes, and, even then, are you any more likely to take advantage of it, since at this moment you are responding lazily to an insignificant difficulty like this hindrance?
You may not accept the traditional Buddhist idea of rebirth, but these arguments do not really depend on the idea of future lives in any case. There would be no point putting things off to some future life, even if it did exist, because if you don't make an effort now, when will you? There really is no excuse for laziness once you have accepted the need to develop yourself.
Another approach to the `positive shock' is to consider the inspiring qualities of others, in particular their heroic qualities of energy. The Buddha, for example, was a wonderful example of energetic dedication to his work. From his youth he worked on himself, until at the age of thirty-five (some say twenty-nine) he gained Enlightenment. After that he simply gave himself for the benefit of others, travelling and teaching constantly, often in very trying circumstances, right up until his death at the age of eighty. Even on his deathbed he gave an ordination, and immediately before his death the few last words he uttered, in front of a great crowd of disciples, summed up his entire teaching. He said, `Monks, all conditioned things are impermanent. With mindfulness, strive on.' Together with the cultivation of awareness, he clearly regarded the putting forth of effort as absolutely vital for human progress.
Some people might possibly be able to use this method for sloth and torpor, but since the most likely outcome is simply an increase in the hindrance it cannot be generally recommended.
Sloth and torpor is generally a `passive' hindrance; there isn't really anything there to be suppressed. Suppression is brought about by actively cultivating an antidote.
If you are habitually slothful or torpid, there are bound to be factors at work in your life which are encouraging it. You could look at the traditional classification of body, speech, and mind: as far as your physical body is concerned you need to get enough but not too much exercise, so you are neither sluggish nor constantly tired.
You should be aware of how much you eat; again, the ideal is not too little, not too much. The type of food can also be important; it is a good idea to avoid too much stodgy, fatty food.
You also need to get sufficient - though not too much - sleep. Too much will make you dull and dreamy, but too little will have a similar effect; either extreme can cause sloth.
Regarding speech, it may help if you try to avoid being passive and dull in speech. You could have a policy of always saying what you think, and of not being afraid to speak out. Perhaps you could also try to speak more energetically, and only get involved in lively conversations! Avoid speaking dully and pessimistically.
Mentally, you might be able to alter the tendency towards torpor if you cultivate the friendship of energetic, active, lively people, and motivate yourself through Dharma study.
5. doubt and indecision
First of all - as always - one must acknowledge that this is indeed the hindrance of doubt (vicikiccha). In the case of this hindrance, it is the implications of recognition that are important, because as soon as you have recognized that the hindrance of doubt and indecision is present, that it is a hindrance, and that you do not want it - you must decide, firmly, that you are going to do something to change things.
You can recognize doubt and indecision by the fact that you are holding back; you are not really putting yourself into the practice. It is as though you do not trust the meditation - which probably means that you lack confidence in your own potential. Possibly, you are a little afraid of your own power. But anyway, whether this is the case or not, you certainly lack trust in either the practice or your ability to engage in it. This lack of trust causes you to hold back from committing yourself to a line of action; and your not engaging has the effect of laying you open to the other hindrances. You can sometimes see this ability of doubt to `underlie' other negative states when you successfully ward off a hindrance such as restlessness, only to discover doubt lurking underneath.
Since this hindrance is essentially a lack of resolve, to develop a positive sense of resolve is an important counteragent. You might be able to develop this by impressing upon yourself the seriousness of what is happening to you. Doubt and indecision is certainly a very serious obstacle to your progress: its nature is to maintain a chronic state of unresolvedness, in which you actively resist the idea of clarifying your attitude. You continually allow yourself to avoid facing up to and clarifying important issues. This is why most of the methods recommended are either of the consideration type or are to be employed outside meditation.
The hindrance of doubt and indecision could be worked on with the more `vipassana'-like considerations of its impermanence, nonselfhood, and unsatisfactoriness, which have been applied to some of the other hindrances. These can certainly be experimented with, but in practice it seems more useful to work more `psychologically'. Your basic need is to develop confident resolve, so you can consider ways of clarifying the unconscious confusions which sap your confidence.
You could try to discover, through conscious reflection, whether anything is not clear to you - perhaps something to do with the practice you are doing, or something about Buddhism, or the path of development generally.
Having isolated a specific doubt, you can then put it aside, deciding to think it through later. But if it seems there is no chance of getting into the meditation otherwise, you might as well think it through now.
You could try to develop, through conscious reflection, a sense of confidence in yourself. You need to believe that you are justified in having confidence in yourself. Many people find this almost impossible, so to overcome this obstacle you must assess yourself quite objectively - that is, not negatively (`obviously I'll never be able to meditate'), nor over-optimistically (`I really am wonderful')both are clearly unreal. In Buddhism it is considered a great virtue to rejoice in objective merits and good qualities - including your own. You might well need others to verify your self-assessment in order to believe it yourself; you can then encourage yourself much more.
You can reflect that through practising meditation you develop yourself, and that there is no limit to the extent you can develop. Buddhist teachers say that you can never be sure of the results of any worldly undertaking - but spiritual practice inevitably has good results! The sincere will to develop always produces fruit, because that is the way of human development: intention is everything. If you have been meditating for a while you can ask yourself - and your friends - whether you have actually made any progress. You will inevitably find some improvements in your life, however small.
You can ask yourself whether it is objectively possible to grow and develop. The answer has to be `yes'. Then you can ask, well - do you yourself want to develop? If again the answer is `yes', then the obvious thing to do is decide to make a little effort towards it! As soon as you accept that you want to grow (emotionally accept it and its implications, not merely acknowledge the idea), then you have begun to clarify your confusion and are in a position to make a decisive effort. Then, if doubt rises up again (as it probably will), you can again work through these reflections. But if the answer to either of the questions above is `no', you have not thought it through clearly!
Or perhaps you are stuck in the present moment; perhaps right now you are not in the mood. But even that really evades the issue, for in the long term, if you understand what personal development is, you surely want it. Or perhaps that is the problem; you don't know what it means to `grow and develop'. But that is a manifestation of doubt too! You need to work at it again and again until you see more clearly. It will obviously help to talk with friends (the more positive ones, rather than the cynics) about the issues it raises.
This can be a useful way of experiencing your doubt and indecision, once you have recognized it. It can be useful to `size up' its character by allowing it some space.
This is similar to sloth and torpor in that there is nothing to suppress - except your resistance to doing something. So to suppress doubt and indecision, be decisive!
Generally, you need to understand your doubt and indecision more deeply; you need to become more aware of its nature and its effect on your life.
All its manifestations are merely the products of a mental state, not rational thoughts - it is not that you genuinely do not understand something, not that there is a definite reason you are unsure. The hindrance of doubt and indecision is an emotional state which always looks for reasons to doubt things. If you look more rationally at the doubts themselves, you may be able to see the deep irrationality of this most poisonous hindrance.
In doing this it is necessary to generate a special mindfulness of the way that you think and use ideas. It is especially interesting to observe how you receive new ideas. In what ways do you accept or reject them? When they seem true to you, do you really accept them, or are there further reservations? And if there are, do you examine what the reservations are, and voice them to others?
Keeping ideas to yourself, to avoid the risk of having them challenged, is a typical ploy of this hindrance. So as a counteragent, you can make a practice of speaking out when ideas do not seem right to you. Even if at the time you cannot articulate your objection precisely, a lot may be gained by mentioning that you are not sure about something, or that you feel that something might be wrong. When you practise thinking more critically like this, you should not be closed-minded either, but open to discussion.
Through this practice you learn to monitor your thinking and to notice the emotions which lie behind your thoughts. It is the uncomfortable emotions which cause you to hold back from decision-making, so having realized this you can try to unify your thinking and your feeling, both by bringing more clear thought into your actions generally and by trying to have more emotion in support of your decisions.
Another approach you could take is simply to be more decisive outside meditation - you can do this by being more aware of your indecisiveness, recognizing symptoms like wavering, dithering, and lack of clarity.
It will also help combat this hindrance if you form associations and friendships with people who are helpful and encouraging. You should recognize that you need support - you need friendship and the confidence that friendship gives. A lot might be said about how to acquire friends, but the most effective method is simply to be one.
You can also try to make a connection with an experienced spiritual teacher. This need not be some famous `guru'; all you need is as frequent contact as possible with somebody a little more developed and experienced than yourself.
It will also increase your confidence in yourself generally if you think less about yourself - and, instead, affirm and give your support to others. You can let them know how much you appreciate them, praising them for their virtues, and surprising them with your expressions of esteem! `Rejoicing in merits' can be astonishingly powerful. Many people never seem to receive any appreciative comments about themselves from anybody.
It will definitely help your clarity of thought to develop a better intellectual understanding of the principles of Buddhism. You need to be quite sure that your understanding is correct, so that you can trust and use it. This can be achieved particularly through discussion and by formulating questions.
Finally, you can view the need to overcome doubt in terms of developing trust or faith in the spiritual path. Faith in Buddhism is never `blind' faith; it is always based on a modicum, at least, of experience. So faith is developed through reflection - but once that has been awakened, even to a tiny extent, it can also be greatly strengthened if you perform devotional practices such as pujas and chanting, in which you not only celebrate your understanding of the Dharma, but try to contact the potential for Enlightenment within yourself directly. Devotional ceremonies exercise your more artistic, playful, imaginative energies. As an antidote to your chronic doubt and indecision, you could perhaps be really lavish with them, with special shrines, offerings, or whatever else appeals to your imagination.