The five hindrances
I’ve been back in New Zealand for the month of September, and with the Auckland Insight group, we’ve been exploring the Five Hindrances, five particularly unhelpful states of mind that get in the way of clear seeing, of insight. They appear in the Satipatthana Sutta under the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, as qualities of mental energy that we need to learn how to relate to wisely, and eventually, to overcome completely.
These are the five:
sloth and torpor
restlessness and remorse
sceptical doubt 1
Over the years, I’ve heard dozens of dharma talks on these five hindrances, because – as you may have recognised – they show up pretty frequently: not only in formal meditation practice, but in daily life too. And because they are so common, we need to find ways to relate to them skilfully so they don’t totally hijack the practice.
Sloth and torpor
Of these five hindrances, I’d always thought “sloth and torpor” was the most straightforward, referring just to sleepiness and dullness, or the sinking-mind that happens so often during meditation. But as I was getting re-acquainted with sloth and torpor for the evening course, I started to understand there are many different aspects to it.
The first and most obvious level is the drowsiness and mental sluggishness we often experience in formal meditation, and which in daily life extends into apathy, inertia, and lack of energy. The animal known as the “sloth” embodies this quality because of its very slow metabolism. Living in the jungles of Central and South America, it spends most of its life hanging upside down in trees, moving only when absolutely necessary, and even then, very slowly. Apparently, it moves so slowly that it provides excellent habitat for moths, beetles, cockroaches, fungi, and algae. I love that description, because when then mind is under the influence of sloth and torpor, many other energy-sapping qualities breed in there, too!
On a more subtle level, this hindrance can show up as a habitual tendency to avoid facing difficulties. I hadn’t considered this as an aspect of sloth and torpor before, but in his book Mindfulness, a Practical Guide to Awakening, Joseph Goldstein describes it as:
… not merely the feeling of sleepiness, but rather the deeper pattern or tendency of withdrawing from difficulties. This is the habit of retreating from challenges rather than arousing the energy and effort to engage with them. In these situations, sloth and torpor are like the reverse gear in a car, never going forward to meet experience but always pulling back. This pattern of retreating from difficulties strengthens the tendencies toward laziness and inactivity, passivity and lethargy. At these times, there is no energy or power to do or accomplish anything. Here, the factors of sloth and torpor keep us from drawing on the strength that we actually have. 3
When I started to tune in to this aspect of sloth and torpor in my own life, I was surprised to see how often it showed up. Just in the last week, I noticed it in the form of habit-mind: meditating mostly just to get it done … because it’s what I do … out of routine … without much real engagement or interest … more-or-less just waiting until the next time I can go on retreat … and then I’ll do some real practice …
This is perhaps an example of the tendency most of us have to stay within our comfort zones, and to be wary of challenging ourselves too much. Now that I’m recognising it as a form of sloth-and-torpor though, I feel a bit more motivated to make the effort to overcome it.
Antidotes to Sloth and Torpor
One strategy for doing this can be to develop a more conscious commitment to the practice, to set ourselves small challenges as a way to maintain interest and motivation. Especially at first, our motivation to practice needs a lot of support, if it’s to withstand the pull of all the other aspects of life that absorb our time and energy: work, relationships, parenting, family life, social life, entertainment, etc. Otherwise, it’s easy to drift into complacency, just go with the flow of everyday life, and eventually, lose momentum altogether.
It’s a bit like growing a tree seedling. In the beginning, we have to make quite a bit of effort to protect the young plant from being damaged by wind, and frost, and harsh sun, and insects, and animals, until it develops strong roots and can grow by itself, unsupported.
Setting your own curriculum
One way of providing this support could be to write yourself a kind of curriculum, where you set goals to aim for over the next year or two – or perhaps five! In setting these goals, you might consider a balance between three aspects of the practice:
sitting, study, and sangha (community).
Sitting means formal meditation practice, in daily life or on retreat. Study can be very helpful to deepen understanding of the key techniques and philosophies that meditation practice is founded on. And sangha or community is the relational aspect of daily-life practice, the network of supportive friendships that help strengthen our development of wisdom and compassion.
Each person’s curriculum will look different depending on level of experience and stage of life, but below are some possibilities to consider, based on samples I’ve worked on with students over the last couple of years.
101 – Beginning meditators
If you’re fairly new to practice and don’t yet meditate regularly, you might consider trying to meditate every day for a set period – for example ten minutes each morning, for just one week. If that’s successful, extend it for another week. If not, experiment with doing it at a different time of day, or try for five minutes instead. Then gradually increase to fifteen or twenty minutes.
Listen to a dharma talk or podcast and/or read a few chapters of an inspiring book once or twice a week.
Sit with a meditation group at least once a month, if you can find one nearby.
Attend a one-day workshop or non-residential weekend retreat every three months.
201 – Meditators with some retreat experience
Experiment with increasing your daily sitting meditation by five or ten minutes, or add a second shorter session in the evening or during a lunch-break.
Once a month, take a half-day self-retreat: put aside technology for the morning and spend it sitting and walking in silence. If you have a friend to do this with, you could then have lunch together and time for dharma discussion.
Sit with a meditation group, weekly if possible – or if you can’t find one nearby, considering setting one up.
Take an on-line study course or join a dharma book group.
Attend a residential weekend retreat every three months, and a one-week or nine-day retreat twice a year.
301 – Experienced meditators
Aim to sit twice a day for at least thirty minutes, and/or add in a session of formal walking meditation.
Take a more active role in a meditation group where appropriate: perhaps facilitating some sessions, giving instructions for beginners, or setting up a discussion group for more experienced meditators.
Take more advanced study courses, on-line or on-campus.
Try to find a meditation teacher who might be available to offer individual guidance for your practice on a somewhat regular basis, perhaps once a month or so.
In addition to regular nine-day retreats, plan to do a longer retreat – perhaps one, two or three months – every two to three years if possible!
Don’t be afraid to dream
Perhaps for some, these suggestions sound daunting, but with increased commitment to practice, most people experience an exponential increase in the benefits they gain from it. (And conversely, when it’s just something to fit in around all of life’s other demands, the benefits often aren’t so apparent)
Longer-term meditation retreat practice isn’t for everyone, but if you have any interest in it at all, it doesn’t hurt to set the aspiration. Even if your life circumstances might seem to make it impossible, I’ve often observed that when there’s clarity of intention, unexpected opportunities can materialise out of left-field and the necessary support magically becomes available. So don’t be afraid to dream!
(I wrote about an example of this in my own life in an earlier blogpost here: Generosity part 4: Giving and Receiving
May we all experience the benefits of overcoming sloth and torpor …
1. If you’re not familiar with the five hindrances and ways of working with them, there’s a simple overview here:
3. Goldstein, Joseph Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening Sounds True Kindle Edition (p. 142)