We know non-duality, non-conflict, no struggle; life is just as it is, and is not at all “about us”. One doesn’t have to be fully enlightened to experience such enlightened moments. At many other times, however, we seem to lack clarity; we are dragging our feet heavily through a bog of confusion, frustration and conflict.
At the edge of enlightenment Gautama, a Buddha to be, faced a similar experience. As the myth goes, Mara (known as the evil one, the opponent of liberation) decided to test him and push him away from achieving his goal. Mara sent armies of fear and lust on this mission. Gautama saw vivid visions of scary wild animals approaching to kill him- testing his way with fear, then he found himself surrounded by irresistibly beautiful nymphs and young woman in a dance of temptation – testing his way with desire and lust, but he did not tremble for or against. He only moved his hand slightly to touch the earth. What a beautiful gesture. Acknowledging the power of the mind, the potential to get carried away by circumstances, knowing the uselessness of conflicts and the pain of chasing the impossible – he kept sitting, touching the earth, grounding himself in the present moment, connecting to the earth element within – that which is not concerned, excited or upset by nothing whatsoever that comes and goes.
We are all Buddhas to be, facing difficulties on our path towards liberation. When we are lucky, we remember to touch the earth. This may allow us to rest again in peace and clarity. At other times it’s not quite so easy. We have to look closely at the cause and nature of discomfort, know the mental hindrances we are facing so that we can deal with them skilfully.
The Five Hindrances to Insight and Clarity, known in the Pali language as nivarana, is a practical and useful paradigm to refer to in this context. The intention in this work is to discuss each of these hindrances, describe their qualities and nature and offer some inspiration as well as practical suggestions for relating to them in a skilful way.
The five hindrances appear on the ground of a mind affected by dualistic thinking. In this context we are talking about two areas of duality. The first one is the duality of preferences - what we want and what we don’t want. In a beautiful metaphore from the Pali canon the mind is referred to as a pond full of water, with the potential to reflect perfectly what’s in front of it. Each of the hindrances, however, effect the water in a different way and prevent it from doing so. Desire (kamacchanda) is like water mixed with manifold colours, aversion (vyapada) is like boiling water. Desire and aversion often prepare the ground for the arising of the other pair of opposites – the duality of energy. Restlessness and sleepiness are two extremes on this spectrum. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha) are like water covered with moss, restlessness (uddhacca-kukkucca) like agitated water. When these four conditions are not seen with clarity and transformed, they, in turn, give rise to the fifth hindrance: Sceptical doubt. Doubt is like turbid and muddy water. In the same way that water affected by any of these conditions will not reflect back clearly what’s in front of it, so the mind affected by any of the five hindrances will lack clarity, insight and joy.
There is, however, a crucial key-point to be understood. Our understanding of life is based merely on interpretation; the only reality we know is mind-made. The perception of a hindrance is, therefore, a matter of opinion. With the same validity one can choose to give these mind states a positive, conducive value. We can see desire, aversion, restlessness, sleepiness and doubt simply as stepping stone on the path of meditation. As such, they indicate a location, and not a problem. Further, we can relate to these mind states as gates on the path leading to liberation. Like when watching a Rorschach stain- what is our habitual reaction to a gate? What interpretation do we give it? A gate can be locked on a heavy lock; the key may be hidden away, maybe forever lost. This kind of a gate can hinder our progress on the path. On the other hand, some gates are only seemingly locked but practically open. All we need to do when facing them is to lift the handle, step in and keep walking past. We may be forced to slow down and pay attention, but there is no reason at all for our journey to stop then and there. What is referred to in the tradition as the five hindrances can be given another interpretation – five open gates on the path of calm and insight. These gates do not stop our progress, they just indicate a passage way. They present the walker with the opportunity to go beyond the limitation of first impression-interpretation. In the light of insight and clarity nothing is a problem. What seemed to be an obstacle is transformed into the path – it is material to work with, an opportunity to expand and deepen one’s sense of freedom and joy. The five hindrances are nothing but non existing open gates on the path of liberation. As mind-made illusions they may force you to slow down, listen more deeply and explore life more intimately. Once you’ve done this, there is nothing left to stop you, no hindrances, and no problem.
The Duality of Preferences: Desire and Aversion
All beings seek happiness and wish to sustain pleasure. In the same way, all beings try to avoid and reduce unhappiness and pain. From this simple principle arise all kinds of desires and aversions.
Desire takes many forms, some of which are evident and easy to identify (lust, for example) and some are subtler and therefore harder to recognize (like attachment to views and opinions). The subtler the desire, the more likely it is to mislead us, and therefore it is important to recognize and understand it. In this context the term desire refers to a wide spectrum of objects and ideas that we are fascinated by or feel attraction towards. The fact that we have preferences and feel attraction is in itself a natural and important part of life. Look at nature in springtime. See how the abundance of colours and odours attracts insects to flowers. This attraction sets in motion the dance of fertility: pollination, seeding and reproducing life. If only we could be like insects in spring.
The flower invites the butterfly with no mind;
The butterfly visits the flower with no mind.
The flower opens, the butterfly comes;
The butterfly comes, the flower opens.
I don’t know others,
Others don’t know me.
By not knowing we follow nature’s course. Ryokhan
The dance of nature isn’t problematic. The shift from attraction and gratitude to attachment and possessiveness, however, can be quick and tricky and is potentially destructive. We know we have crossed the lines when we feel anxiety mixed with pleasure. Gratitude and appreciation intensify our experience of the present moment, and heighten our perception. Desire and attachment, on the other hand, take us into the realm of fantasies, fear and idealism; none of which support, in any way, clarity and peace of mind.
The story goes that the Buddha’s son, Rahula, 18 years old at the time and already ordained as a monk, was once walking behind his Dad when the order of monks went together on an alms round. He became aware of the beauty and attractiveness of his father’s body. ‘Being his son, I, too must be lovely looking and attractive’ he thought. This gave rise to thoughts about the beauty of the feminine body and from there the way to sexual fantasies was short and fast. We are told that the Buddha, with his supernormal faculties, read his son’s mind.
“…Then the Blessed One, looking back at Rahula, addressed him: "Rahula, any form whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: 'This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.”
We can imagine how this kind of instruction brought Rahula back to basics. He was caught up in a chain of thoughts, which started with seeing an attractive form, and ended up in desire and clinging. Knowing the painful potential of this process, the Buddha encouraged his son to see things for what they are. The body is a physical form, and as such it is conditioned and therefore cannot promise everlasting happiness; with age and sickness the shape and health of the body change; it isn’t eternally attractive or healthy. The body changes, comes and goes. Clinging to such an object will inevitably end up in disappointment and pain. For your own sake, the Buddha says; don’t look at it for refuge and safety.
This way of looking at things is known as vipassanupekkha: equanimity based on clear understanding. It is an antidote to both desire and aversion. Instead of trying to push the thought away or deny its existence, we are encouraged to look at it wisely, with proper attention. When we attend to the feeling, rather than being run over by it, we can hold it in our mind-heart and investigate its nature. In particular we ask ourselves: Is this permanent or impermanent? Is it conditioned or is it beyond conditioning? Does the pleasant feeling exist within the object that triggered it? Can the same object trigger the opposite feeling? Are feelings intrinsic to the object? And so on. Through reflection we can check and find out for ourselves how to relate to the object and the feeling. This kind of clarity brings a sense of ease and lightness. The equanimity that grows from it is based on wisdom and conviction rather than second hand knowledge or suppression.
In the same sutta the Buddha continues: "Rahula, develop meditation that is like the earth… (so that) agreeable and disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind. Just as when people throw what is clean or unclean on the earth — faeces, urine, saliva, pus, or blood — the earth is not horrified, humiliated, or disgusted by it; in the same way, when you are developing the meditation that is like the earth, agreeable and disagreeable sensory impressions that have arisen will not stay in charge of your mind.”
There is so much love and compassion in these teachings given by a father to his adolescent son. Desire has already arisen in the young mind; it is a normal part of life. However, if we live life entirely ruled by desire, we are going to suffer and inflict suffering on others. This kind of suffering is avoidable if we can change our relationship with the mind and the thoughts. If we apply a bit of common sense (through reflection) and stability (like the Buddha touching the earth) to our desiring minds and bodies, we can live life whole-heartedly, joyfully and passionately, yet in harmony and deep peace.
Like desire, aversion covers a wide range of feelings. These arise from an encounter with an unpleasant, unwished for object; pain or what is potentially painful. Our automatic reaction toward pain is aversion; we do everything we can to either push it away or to move away from it. At the root of any kind of aversion is the fear of pain.
The following dynamic is described in the sutta:
"When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one.”
So futile is our habitual reaction to pain. We over react with resistance and self-pity, which in turn gives rise to mental proliferation and emotional pain. This pattern can start with either physical or mental pain: physical pain in the back can lead to sadness and anxiety, and a broken heart to devastation and revenge. The fear of pain stops us from fully experiencing it, in trying to avoid pain we fail to realize how we shoot the second arrow, straight into our heart. Aversion is in itself a second arrow – it increases pain and yet avoidable.
Another aspect of aversion is its powerful energy as illustrated in the famous opening verses from the Dhammapada:
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts, suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.
The aversive, negative mind is as powerful as an ox pulling the cart down the hill. In this sense aversion is unwholesome, impure; if we are not aware of the initial discomfort, it is easy to get carried away with a chain of negative thoughts, each seemingly justified and right, and yet all together distractive and down pulling.
If we wish to face such strong energy we need sustained determination and skill. Realizing this dynamic is the first and essential step. Some times this is sufficient; we stop and see, and this much stopping is enough for the mind to change direction. Wisdom can cut through tendencies and make the difference. At other times, though, seeing is not enough, especially if negative thinking has already established itself in the mind as a pattern or a habit. This can happen if we are not skilled and fast enough in recognizing the tendency toward negativity and its built up in early stages. In this case we are dealing with a fully-grown ox pulling a cart already half way through a slippery slope - merely watching it being destructive is not enough.
The Buddha was once asked how to overcome negative mind-states. Though the question was rather general, the Buddha’s reply relates to the specifics, indicating that different negative mind states have to be dealt with according to their intensity, character and potential danger. We should use our common sense when choosing the appropriate response to the mind, rather than dogmatically insisting on non-judgemental observation being the only spiritual way to deal with everything. Amongst the options mentioned in this text are: paying attention, tolerating, putting an end or developing the opposite attitude. Some mind states have to be avoided, it is said, and beautifully illustrated with a list of metaphors: ‘There is the case where a monk, reflecting appropriately, avoids a wild elephant, a wild horse, a wild bull, a wild dog, a snake, a stump, a bramble patch, a chasm, a cliff, a cesspool, an open sewer. Reflecting appropriately, he avoids sitting in the sorts of unsuitable seats, wandering to the sorts of unsuitable habitats, and associating with the sorts of bad friends that would make his knowledgeable friends in the holy life suspect him of evil conduct. The fermentations, vexation, or fever that would arise if he were not to avoid these things do not arise for him when he avoids them. These are called the fermentations to be abandoned by avoiding.’
Only watching the mind get increasingly negative is as stupid and risky as knowingly entering the territory of a wild elephant or a dog, or stepping into an open sewer (the last can seem funny to us westerns, but even today it’s a common experience in India and other parts of the world). Sustained mindfulness, however, is necessary in any case; if we choose to avoid the negative mind we have to be on the guard, to watch the mind with strong determination and, as soon as we recognize even a seed of a negative thought – drop it. If the power of the negative mind is still strong, avoiding it can be difficult. In this case, we can use another strategy mentioned in the sutta –cultivating the opposite attitude. With mindfulness and intention we can differentiate mental energy from the emotions with which it is entangled. By so doing we are left with bare potent energy, which than can used for cultivating a more wholesome, helpful state of mind. Putting this into practice means that if the mind is affected by fear we think of love and kindness; if the mind is sad we remember joy, happiness and peace; if the mind is affected by cruelty we reflect on compassion and if the mind is out of balance we reflect on equanimity. Life is full of everything; at any given moment there is tremendous kindness and immense pain. Things are ultimately empty of any character- good, bad, pleasant of unpleasant. It is only the mind that chooses and colours and creates duality and separation through biased interpretation. Cultivating the opposite is a way of reminding ourselves that we are not bound by the mind with its unreliable moods; that we are innately truly free and we can interpret objects and events in more than one way. This insight is beautifully expressed in the poem Verses on the faith Mind:
If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. /When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind's essential peace is disturbed to no avail /The Way is perfect like vast space when nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. /Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things
Facing pain and discomfort offers the opportunity to explore freedom and liberation. We don’t really have to stop there. If we can bear the pain, stay with it, accept and explore it, we find it does not block our way to happiness. Like any mind made gate - it is wide open. No experience can bind us; only our concepts and beliefs do. We don’t have to go through life scared and detached: we can embrace life to the fullest, pleasant or painful. When we know each moment as it truly is, opposites cease to exist. Whatever obstacles or hindrances we face are nothing more than mind-made fabrications. They cannot stop us once we step beyond the mind.
The Duality of Energy: Sleepiness and Restlessness
As the story goes, Mogalana, a middle-aged man met the Buddha after years of determined, long spiritual search. It’s easy to imagine Mogalana’s great relief and excitement when he found this great teacher and knew that the goal is, for the first time – at reach. The wanderer Mogalana received meditation instruction from the Buddha and retreated to a remote cave to practice. With some poetic allowance we can imagine his resolution ‘Only fully liberated should I come out of this cave’. So he sits crossed legged in the cave, establishing mindfulness in front of him and… all of a sudden he hears his teacher’s voice: ‘Are you nodding off, Mogalana, are you nodding off?’ This must be enough to shake off any remain of sleepiness the determined student, and yet, the question is repeated twice, showing us that the poor bloke was so sleepy he didn’t even notice the Buddha appearing out of the blue in front of him. And Mogalana had to admit: ‘Yes, great teacher. I’m nodding off; I’m sleepy and can’t keep the practice going. I’m so sleepy I didn’t even notice you entering the cave.’ (This, in fact, should not surprise us too much. The text tells us that the Buddha used his superhuman powers to see what his student was doing and, out of compassion, flew into the cave to help him. Entering the cave this way does not make much noise anyway!).
Let us stop here and rejoice in the fact that we are not alone. Soon after Mogalana regained his alertness and vitality of mind, he grew to become Maha Mogalana, Mogalana the Great – one of the two chief disciples of the Buddha, who was fully awake, enlightened and a great teacher (the other chief disciple was Maha Kassapa). A mind affected by sloth and torpor, we learn from this story, is not a hopeless case. Yet, the graphic image of a pond covered with moss reminds us that it isn’t possible to see reflections in such water, that we have to overcome sleepiness if we are to wake up.
Sloth and torpor, sleepiness or low energy are all very common experiences well known to the meditation practitioner. The myth of Maha Mogalana reassures us that sleepiness does not necessarily indicate lack of motivation. The Buddha teaches Mogalana ways and means to overcome sleepiness. These are easy to read and understand and I’m sure the reader will appreciate the light heartedness and practical manner in which they are presented. In this context, however, I would like to start from the beginning by looking into this physio-mental condition.
Sleepiness may be a result of two different sets of conditions. The first is lack of sleep or rest; it is, therefore a physical condition with potential mental repercussions. We are sleepy and tired because we are tired. Sometimes it looks as if meditation makes us tired. ‘I was fine until I started meditating, only then did I become so tired’ is a common, though not accurate, remark. Most of us walk through life half asleep because we simply don’t sleep enough. When the body and mind are kept busy and hyped-up we may not even notice this accumulated tiredness. It’s only when we relax that the exhaustion come to the surface. It may happen when we finally go on a holiday, fall ill or practice meditation. All the extra adrenaline that’s been pumped into the system to keep us going is not needed now. As it drops, we feel what has been buried underneath – a thick layer of tiredness. There is a lot of moss in the pond of our body and mind. Meditation may, in this case, serve us as a stop sign, an inverted wake-up call. We may eventually get the message and try to find a better balance in our life, a balance that takes into consideration the body and its needs and not only the mind with its greeds. However, we often have to hit the wall of tiredness pretty hard before we are willing to change. We are so stubborn and short of compassion towards ourselves, or we just lack the required imagination for changing habits and patterns. So we may know we run ourselves down and still do it for a while.
For this reason, it is crucial to see how tiredness comes about and how it conditions the mind. It’s important to differentiate between physical tiredness and the mind states that may accompany it. The experience of tiredness can be quite pleasant. One feels a sense of lightness and ease both in the body and mind. We may feel a bit spaced out when the intensity, density and demands of our (ab)normal endless stream of thoughts eventually slows down. We may even be aware of the shift in the mind as we actually drift into sleep: thoughts become more random, less coherent and often fascinating, original and amusing. It’s a nice break from it all.
People often misperceive this state to be a deep relaxation or meditation. Actually it’s nothing very profound, only a not yet deep sleep. In relaxation and meditation the body does relax significantly; mussels ease their tension, the metabolism slows down and the breath becomes slow and shallow. Yet – the mind is utterly sharp, alert and focused. The thinking processes as well as the mind itself are seen vividly and clearly. From mediation you don’t sneak into sleep. After all, it’s a rather well known tool for bringing about wakefulness - awakening.
The pleasantness of tiredness is also to be aware of. As discussed before, desire and clinging often follow pleasant feelings. Pleasure and relaxation are indeed very much liked effects of meditation. In a beautiful metaphor the Buddha describes a person searching for heartwood for his use. . This person does not know what heartwood actually is- his knowledge of the heartwood is merely second handed. So he collects leaves, barks and branches, mistakenly assuming this is what he needs. Using the wrong materials he fails to create whatever he needs. So it is with the spiritual life; it brings many benefits- in the same way a tree give lovely leaves, branches and so forth. But it would be a mistake and a great shame to take them as signs for achieving the final goal and drop the search all together. The Buddha urges the listeners with this simile not to be satisfied with any less than the best; ‘so this holly life, Brahmin, does not have gain, honour, and renown for its benefit, or the attainment of virtue for its benefit, or the attainment of concentration for its benefit, or knowledge and vision for its benefit. But this is this unshakable deliverance of mind that is the goal of this holly life, its heartwood, and its end’
Ease and relaxation are lovely effects of meditation practice, but they are only ‘by- product’ effects not to be mistaken with the much better treasures still awaiting one along the path.
Sleepiness is not totally and entirely pleasant; the Buddha often reminds his listeners that whatever is conditioned is subject to change and therefore is Dukkha- actually or potentially unsatisfactory and unpleasant. When we feel tired we simply want to lie down and sleep. With sleepiness, therefore, there is a strong desire. And like with any desire, not being able to fulfil it is potentially painful. Some years ago there was a rather clever advert for a soft drink. A guy goes to a pub every night, sits at the bar and orders the same soft drink – Kinley. He sits there for sometime and leaves without ever touching his drink. After some time the barmen dares to approach the guy and ask; ‘why do you always order Kinley, if you never drink it?’ To which the young man replies: ‘with Kinley being thirsty is fun.’ It may make a good advert, but in reality being thirsty, hungry or tired can only be fun if it doesn’t last too long. With these, as any other desire, all we are really looking for is its end. It’s fun being thirsty for a short time, when we know we can easily have a tasty drink, but going thirsty for too long is far from being fun. So it is with tiredness; being aware of sleepiness as a desire to sleep gives us a chance to see the dynamic of desire, craving and clinging. In seeing these patterns and tendencies lies the potential for liberation from unconscious grip.
Watching tiredness and the way we handle it can teach us a lot about the mind and our relationships with it. Think of the end of a long day’s work. You are way overtime; you’re tired and hungry and can’t wait to go home. As you are just about to leave, someone comes in with ‘a very long and important document you need to read and sign’. If you are reasonably aware of your mind-body state you won’t be rushed into signing anything just now, especially not if its long and important. You know your mind is not clear; you’re not on the guard. You may misread, misunderstand or write the wrong thing in the wrong place. In your working environment you will only (or so one would hope!) attend serious document when sufficiently clear and alert. It’s the same with being tired whilst meditating, only more difficult to recognise. You still need clarity of mind to watch the documents in front of you, only that they are not in front, out there on a desk, but parts of the mind, part of ‘you’; and this is why it’s harder to see them clearly. Even when you are at your best it isn’t always easy to watch the mind, let alone when you are exhausted. Tiredness makes us vulnerable and reactive. We are not on the guard; we may misunderstand, overreact or get off the track altogether. It’s useful to differentiate between the tired mind and all the ‘documents’ in front (ideas, thoughts, and emotions). When we know not to take anything the mind is telling us too seriously; we don’t rush to sign anything just now. We know we’d better leave it for the moment and, if necessary, come back to it some other time, when we are clear and fresh.
Another relationship we can watch is the one between body and mind. Tiredness is primarily of the body; however, as we’ve seen before, it can easily set in motion a chain of thoughts and influence the mind’s clarity and efficiency. A key concept in Buddhist thinking is the one of dependently co-arising. Things exist only in and due to relationships with other things. A mother only exist in relation to a child, trees only exist due to the contact with air, earth and water, thoughts only exist on the base of mind faculties and so on – everything coexist depending on conditions. If we don’t realize this we develop unrealistic expectations and beliefs, which in time, will bare the fruits of disappointment and frustration. On the other hand, when we see things for what they are, (which is the same as seeing them in the context of what conditions them) we can appreciate them without delusion and clinging; meeting them without becoming bound by them.
Tiredness, like all phenomenons is impermanent. It’s a state that comes about due to causes and conditions; it’s nothing personal or intrinsic. It comes and goes like everything else. In turn, tiredness supports the appearance of some mental states like desire, negativity, agitation, anger and hurt. But because tiredness is (one of) there conditions it is not the same as these mind states. In other words, when we are able to see the causality of body and mind, we are enabled to create space between them. We can be very tired and yet neither miserable nor angry. This is a truly liberating insight, especially for those of us spending so much of our life being tired. Realizing only this level of freedom is enough to opens another non-existing locked gate on our way to happiness.
So far we have looked at tiredness as a physiological phenomenon and its effect on the mind. It’s interesting, however, to look at this relationship the other way around. At times, we feel tired and sleepy, the hindrance known as slot and torpor is well present in our meditation, despite the fact that we are not lacking sleep and are actually not physically tired. Yet we drift off; we nod, yarn and fall asleep. We can call this a secondary sleepiness, an acquired slot-like behaviour. This kind of sleepiness is there to hinder or cover over something else. The bodily sensation may still be the same and yet when we investigate, discriminating body from mind, causes and conditions we see that sleepiness follows an unpleasant sensation, emotion or thought; it is an escape mechanism. Applying the principle of dependently co-arising again, in a reversed order, we chase back what came prior to sleepiness, rather than identifying what follows it.
Seeing sleepiness as a result of an unpleasant feeling is the key. Chasing back our thoughts, feelings and emotions we realize that a split second before we dozed off, a memory triggered an unpleasant emotion such as shame, hurt or frustration. Alternatively, we may discover that it was some bodily discomfort or even mild boredom. Aversion can take many different forms – subtle or gross – but, unless we see it with clarity, we will automatically try to escape it. If we only could, we’d find hundreds of ways to get away from the unpleasant. We would nit an amazingly elaborated crochet of fantasies, hopes or plans. Or, unable to do any of these, we quietly close behind us the doors of consciousness – we don’t have to feel any of this anymore; we’re gone, asleep.
Luckily, change is always part of life. Somehow it happens that we wake up and see how unsatisfying this pattern is. As the American writer and singer Suzan Vega put it in her song ‘Tired of sleeping’:
The dreams are not so bad,
It’s just that there’s so much to do
And I’m tired of sleeping.’
We know that we are not tired; if at all, we are tired of disconnecting from life. Dreams are not so bad; we’re so used to them anyway. Just that there’s life in and out there, and we hate missing our only chance to be alive. The desire to live, to be, is stronger than the fear of life, stronger than the desire not to be or the drive to escape.
When we see the pattern of sleepiness as an escape mechanism we become aware of everything we miss sleepwalking through life. We also realize that selective wakefulness is not an option; it is all or nothing. Being awake, available and engaged means we are going to experience both sukkha and dukkha – the desired and agreeable as well as the unpleasant and unwished for. Life is a package deal, or rather a gift well rapped, which we accept with both hands, openly and whole-heartedly. Being awake and available to life is the greatest privilege. But more than that, it is a commitment and a victory of the courageuse heart over fear and withdrawal, as the poet and mystic Rumi puts it:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.
In the model of the five hindrances, restlessness appears as the opposite of slot and torpor. Like any pair of opposites – they are rather alike despite the external differences. We recognize restlessness when we simply can’t keep still even though there isn’t any major physical discomfort. Restlessness is primarily a mental phenomenon, with a physical expression so it makes sense to tackle it from both perspectives.
The physical causes for restlessness are rarely the real starting point. However, if you find yourself restless it may be helpful to attend to your bodily experience and move the body if and as needed.
Restlessness is mainly a mind made state and as such it’s very similar to the secondary sleepiness described above. The only difference between the two is that instead of urge to lie flat; here we are drawn to move in all directions, and often at once. We deal with restlessness, therefore, mainly through observing, embracing and training the mind, as mentioned before. When you are aware of restlessness try to chase back your experience to just a split second before. As with sleepiness, you may find some discomfort, anxiety, pain or any other unpleasant sensation.
When the Buddha instructed Mogalana as to the hindrance of sloth and torpor, his first advice was not to give any attention to a thought of drowsiness. We can apply this advice here: when you become aware of restlessness – firmly ignore it and don’t pay any attention to it. Keep sitting still remembering your meditation object. It’s interesting to mention that the Buddha gave exactly the same advice as to dealing with fear ; One should be aware of bodily posture as fear arises, he said, and not change it despite thoughts and emotions. This is a seemingly simple and yet powerful advice. With any experience there is always a sense of it being pleasant or unpleasant. If it’s pleasant we wish to make is last and increase, if it’s unpleasant we wish for it to decrease or pass. This movement for or against often has a bodily expression; and it often manifests in a physical gesture or change of posture. The Buddhas advice here is to differentiate between body and mind. Even if fear is there and the tendency is to change position, for example get up and keep myself busy doing something – stay sitted. Don’t run away from feelings neither let it run your life. Keep doing what you’re doing and let the emotion accompany you for as long as it will; and remember anica – everything is temporary and transient. Underneath restlessness can be hidden all kinds of unpleasant feelings, which trigger the wish to escape. Don’t move for or against. Keep the body still despite the need to move, until the situation changes.
As said before, restlessness feels like too much energy to contain. On the lacking side of the same spectrum is sloth and torpor- not enough energy to keep one going. The art of meditation is finding the middle way. Restlessness is a bit too much of a good thing. When we develop sufficient concentration and skill in meditation, we gradually learn how to balance our level of energy. When there is not enough energy – reflect on something that is bright. On the other hand, to pacifying too much energy focus your attention on watching the out-breath; you may find this calming and helpful in settling the mind.
Apart from watching the mind, one may choose to attend to restlessness on face value. The most commonly given instruction is to make a clear determination to keep still for a fixed duration of time. If you choose to deal with restlessness in this way its important that you keep some regularity and continuity in your practice. Give yourself a fare chance to gradually change in this direction until it becomes a habit.
Restlessness can form one’s beliefs about the ability to meditate. When restlessness is present it’s easy to identify with it and cling to it as being who I am: ‘I am restless. This is my problem and my obstacle to meditation.’ Thinking in this way can lead to self-doubt. Look for example at this not so far fetched chain of thoughts during meditation:
I’m uncomfortable… I need to move. I can’t find the right posture… No one else around me moves that much… I’m so restless… I‘ve always been and always will be... I’ll never be able to meditate… It’s a waste of time... It’s not for me.
Please don’t go that far. Remember that, like anything else, restlessness is an impermanent condition, which has nothing to do with you. All restless meditation practitioners look the same. They all keep fidgeting and often feel ashamed – nothing personal about it. All meditation practitioners get restless at time and all have moments, however brief, or beautifully extended, of stillness and calm.
Reading this article you may have already established bit by bit that you have all the hindrances; you may even have mastered them all and therefore it’s time to quit the whole experiment of meditation and liberation altogether. When you think you’ll never be able to live free from hindrances, the fifth of them – sceptical doubt is simply carrying you away. This is your chance to go beyond it. The path of liberation is not about escaping difficulties but rather seeing clearly into their empty nature. All the five hindrances are mind made fabrications, how can they hinder you anyway?
The story goes that the Buddha was walking together with Ananda, his personal attendant, from one place to another, when in a mid hot summer day they came to a village and headed towards its well in order drink some water. Some hostile villagers saw the two recluses from a distance, and wishing to cause them harm filled the well up to its top with leaves and branches. On arrival, the Buddha addressed Ananda thus; ‘fetch me some water from this well, Ananda, to ease my thirst’. To which ananda replied: ‘I can’t to that great master. The water is dirty and unfit for drinking. Have some rest and then we can walk on to the next village where we can get some pure water. On hearting this, the Buddha repeated his request and Ananda his reply, for the second time. When the Buddha insisted for the third time, saying ‘Please fetch me some water…’ Ananda had to obey. Heavy heartedly he fetched some dirty water and handed it to his master to drink. To his great surprise and disbelief, as soon as the Buddha held the bowl once filled with dirty water in his hand, the water instantly became clear and fit for drinking. After the Buddha drank this delicious water and satisfied his thirst, Ananda did the same.
Desire, aversion, sleepiness and restlessness are like water somehow polluted. Like in the story – dirty water are not the best one can drink. However, understanding the hindrances transforms them into the path – this is how we open the gates to liberation, this is the way of purification. Often we don’t believe this is possible. Upon seeing dirty water, we immediately loose hope and look for other sources. We often don’t take the time to investigate; we don’t dare fetching dirty water and holding it in our bowls, touching it with our lips. We are so much like Ananda. Can we try the Buddha’s way? Can we say ‘I know the water is dirty, yet this is not going to kill me. Water with branches and leaves are still better than keep walking thirsty in a mid hot summer day, maybe it’s worth trying.’ Overcoming doubt is not only about enduring the unpleasant; it’s about knowing that I never know it all, that whatever the mind is telling me can only be part of the picture, and yet there is a bigger perspective. Overcoming doubt is often about, despite ourselves, believing in miracles.
A thought of doubt often starts with the words ‘it’s impossible’. Doubt can appears in relation to one of three objectives (or, too often, all of them at once): Doubt in oneself, Doubt in the teacher and Doubt in the teaching. Doubt in oneself may result in statements like ‘It’s impossible for me to ever forgive that person’, or ‘Its impossible for me to be happy’. In relation to a teacher, doubt can manifest in a statement like: ‘It’s impossible for a 30/50/80 years old to teach me anything!’ Or ‘It’s impossible for him / her to help me with my practice.’ Doubt in the practice and the teaching may bring thoughts such as ‘It’s impossible for such simple system to describe my complex life’ or: ‘It’s impossible to ever go beyond suffering anyway.’
This mental expression of doubt is contradictive within. We are full of doubt and yet what we say to ourselves is that there is not doubt, no way, no use in trying. Can we see how what we say (even privately, mentally to ourselves) conditions our perception? Can we see how words form minds? When doubt is expressed as conviction it shuts us down below an opinion. When we recognize this process we may give a chance to a more open statement, one that is honest to the fact that we don’t know, and yet leaves some space for exploration, investigation, surprises and even miracles. A more conducive statement in this spirit may be: ‘I don’t know yet how to keep my mind still’, or: ‘I find it difficult to connect to this teacher’ or ‘this theory does not sit well with my experience so far’.
Not knowing, however, is not that easy. Our survival and orientation in the world depends on what we know about ourselves, situations and object around us. Every bit of new information we perceive is instantly categorized and ‘stored’ according to its character and the existing knowledge we have. It is as if we had a hard disc on which the whole universe is stored in archives, folders and files. Every new document has to be saved somewhere, or otherwise will be lost. For any information we need we have to look in the right folder and file. The process of filing is not only crucial but also efficient and effortless.
The practice and experiences during mediation often challenge the solidity and stability of this mental structure. Meditation is a disintegrative process; views, feelings and even the physical world in and around us loose their rigid borders and characters. Whether we are aware of it or not, the process of meditation involves some level of disintegration of the fabrication we call ‘my self’, which inevitably leads to loosening of all other mental structures. When our awareness and concentration are enhanced, things are no more what we though they are. In other words, we are increasingly more likely to contact objects, feelings and thought that will not fit into any or our existing files. More and more we wonder around the twilight zone. When there is an underlying resistance to the unknown, it can appear destabilizing and scary. In other words the neutral unknown is perceived as unpleasant and unwished for. In order to avoid the unpleasantness we twist the doubt into a solid view, which feels familiar and safe.
This process may be comforting, but it’s actually unhelpful. Pretending that we know we stop asking, looking, touching. With time not only that we loos contact with what actually is, but also we miss our opportunity to grow and expand. Doubt is one more gate on our way to liberation. It’s up to us whether we keep it close, sit by and pretend that there is nothing beyond it, or whether we dare to keep walking, out and beyond the limitations of the known – into the wide open space of liberation and peace.
Truly I know
Our part is not knowing,
But looking, and touching,