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Hindrances in Meditation

Traditionally in Buddhism, hindrances were considered obstacles or things that get in the way of concentration in meditation. Here is one list of hindrances that I found.

1.  Sensual desire

2.  Ill-will

3.  Torpor and sloth

4.  Restlessness

5.  Doubt

Some of these—such as “torpor and sloth”—may sound a bit out of touch with our current meditation practice. “Doubt” here, I believe, refers to a lack of faith in the practice. These were considered conditions that got in the way of your meditation practice in the short term; they might appear in a particular meditation preventing strong concentration. They are not meant to be the same as the fetters: attachment or aversion to things, our views of self, or ignorance of how things are—deep conditions that tie us to samsara.

As I thought about this list, it came to me that I might come up with a few of my own that seemed to fit my current experience. So this new list is not meant to be exhaustive and not meant to fit everybody’s experience but I thought it might be useful to list them so that others might be able to identify them in their own meditation or perhaps create their own list.

Before I introduce my list, I wanted to mention that we tend to think of these conditions as negative—things to get rid of—but in our approach here, they are merely conditions or states for us to reflect on and examine. The problem, I think, is that these conditions, are ones that are easy to get stuck in and prevent me from moving around freely. They may also be conducive to losing interest or to devaluing what is happening in our meditation experience.

First, control. If I try to exercise too much control in my meditation, then not only does it take a lot of energy to manage what really does not want to be managed, but also limits the range of my experience. One of the goals in this approach is to broaden the possibilities of our experience so exercising too much control, trying to make your experience go in a certain way, prevents that.

Second, avoiding. I have found in my own experience that there are times when I avoid certain thoughts or states of mind—boredom, sleepiness, or thoughts about a particularly embarrassing episode in my memory. In this approach it would be more beneficial to allow these states, thoughts or feelings into my meditation so that I get to know what they are like.

Third, self-criticism. An obstacle I’ve noticed not only in myself but also in reporting groups is excessive self-criticism. Some self-criticism is healthy but if it becomes excessive and ongoing, I find I get discouraged, lose interest, and that it becomes a loop that’s pretty hard to get out of. Self-criticism is a rich area for investigation, looking at such things as the voice of the criticism and the conditions that cause it to come up.

Fourth, ill-will and self-justification. Ill-will appears on the original list and I find it a wide-ranging term that can include all kinds of angry reactions. The problem here is, again, that it’s easy to get into an obsessive loop of self-justifying thoughts when angry. This happens to me when I feel I’ve been unjustly criticized. The engine of self-justification gets started and it’s hard to stop.

In the discussion that followed the presentation of this list, several other possible hindrances were mentioned. The one that I most closely identified with was looking for an epiphany in our sitting. I can recall meditations where I kept looking for that sudden revelation that would make my life go easier and when it continued for a long period, I was unable to see or recall what else might be happening.

As I thought more about this list, it occurred to me that as certain qualities arise in our sitting, there is less likelihood of getting stuck. For example, as the quality of tolerance has increased in my meditation, I have been able to tolerate a bit more the difficult memories or thoughts that come up—stay with them longer, see what feelings they bring up. So there may be a relationship in our meditation—not necessarily in opposition to each other—between certain qualities and hindrances.