Updated: Nov 11, 2020
This is an excerpt from my free course: The 31-day Meditation Challenge. In that course, you get a newly recorded meditation each week, and lessons every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The meditations build on each other and the lessons will help you with everything from creating a meditation space, giving you book and app recommendations, and more. This is a great course for beginners but also a good one if you've fallen out of habit.
Meditation takes work, and there are often things that get in the way. These can be things that interrupt you during the actual practice, as well as things that keep you from starting at all. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, we all can agree that the Buddha had some excellent advice for meditation, and most of what you hear these days about mindfulness or meditation came from him. One lesser-known lesson was about the things that may negatively impact your practice. He called them the Five Hindrances. And even though some of the language is a bit formal and weird, I'm going to break that lesson down for you and you'll see that it's still very relevant.
Even though it was thousands of years ago that he gave us these teachings, people really haven't changed much. Human nature is what it is! The good news is that he also gave some advice for overcoming these blocks. So, what are the five things that can stop your meditation practice in its tracks? It's important to note that these five things can come up during your practice, but they can also come up at other times, and prevent you from practicing.
Sensory Desire - you know what this feels like; you are trying to meditate, and all you can think about is breakfast. Your mind starts to detail each and everything that you are going to eat that morning. But Sensory Desire is not just hunger, its any desire that comes from the five senses. Sight, sound, feeling, hearing, and smells. It always arises as wanting.
Ill-will - this is any anger, resentment, or hostility. It can come from thoughts, but it could also arise from other things. Imagine that you feel a sensation in your back during meditation that your brain categorizes as pain. You may start to feel uncomfortable, and then begin to get angry and resentful towards the teacher. Ill-will can arise in all sorts of situations.
Sloth and Torpor - this is when you start feeling sleepy or tired during meditation. This can also look like a lack of motivation and even depression. It's a feeling of heaviness.
Restlessness and worry - we all know what this feels like, your mind can't settle, you can't stop thinking, you feel like you are going to crawl out of your skin. Again, this can be during meditation or just during your day. This is often something that keeps people from trying to meditate in the first place.
Doubt - Lack of conviction or trust. Last week I mentioned that setting an intention was important for decreasing a lack of faith. This is all of those thoughts that start to creep in... "am I doing this right?", "what's the point?" "Why even bother?" Doubt can be towards the practice, or yourself.
Those are the five blocks to meditation. No matter what you are experiencing during meditation, or how your mind is keeping you from practice, it will fall into one of these categories. If you are struggling right now with your practice, take a moment to think about how, and figure out which hindrance is blocking you. For each of these hindrances, there are different things prescribed. Each one has a particular way that it is dealt with. If you find yourself struggling with any of these, take a moment to see what you can do to work with it. 1. A powerful antidote to sensory desire is gratitude. When you begin to feel wanting and desire, stop, and instead reflect on what you are grateful for. Another thing that we can do is to remember that everything is temporary. In Buddhist recovery programs, they have a term called "urge surfing" this is noticing the desire, allowing space for it, breathing through it, and noticing when it goes. We don't have to give into it, but we also don't have to pretend that it's not there. 2. Every time ill-will arises, it's due to our desire to physically separate from something that is causing us pain. Sometimes, simply recognizing that this ill-will is coming from a desire, and then applying the steps above for desire is enough to help. But sometimes ill-will hooks us and doesn't let us go. For this, if you find yourself dealing with anger and resentment a lot, a compassion practice is essential. Continue with the meditation program here, but know that compassion meditation may be the next step for you after this challenge is over. 3. Sloth and Torpor are often just addressed by realizing that you are tired and doing something about it. If you always fall asleep during meditation, you may need more sleep. Be sure not to only practice before bed, and not to practice lying down. You can get up and splash some water on your face, then return to practice. You can also meditate with your eyes open, or try walking meditation. We need to be careful not to confuse the pleasurable state of sleepiness and relaxation with higher states of meditative consciousness! Meditation takes concentration. It takes effort. 4. Restlessness and Worry - almost an opposite state; this is the proliferation of thoughts when we are spiraling out into the future and finding many, too many things to think about. For this mindstate, it is essential to recognize it's happening. Taking the time to step into an observing mind is crucial. The worry and anxiety are still there, but you are noticing that it is there. Know that these thoughts do not require your attention. Come back to your intention. Come back to your practice. Know that if you can focus your mind even for a split-second, you are succeeding. 5. Finally, doubt can be a powerful deterrent to practicing. An antidote is to remind yourself of your intention. Be open and curious. You don't know what is going to result from your practice; no one does. Remind yourself that many other people have found peace through these practices. Finding a trusted teacher or guide can be helpful here too.
So, there you have it, simple yet thorough advice. Being able to identify the hindrance is sometimes enough for us to overcome it. But other times we will have to apply some work. That is ok, this is a practice, which means of course that sometimes it feels like work.