Right Concentration More
Abandoning the Five Hindrances
The description of the first jhāna always starts out with "Secluded from sense desires, secluded from unwholesome states of mind, one enters and remains in the first jhāna." As said earlier, seclusion from sense desires and unwholesome states of mind is the abandoning of the five hindrances. What we find in the Gradual Training, just prior to the description of the jhānas, is the Buddha's teaching on the abandoning of the hindrances. He recognized that sitting down and putting your attention on the breath wasn't all there was to it.
In describing the Gradual Training, he says "Having abandoned covetousness for the world, one dwells with a mind free from covetousness. One purifies one's mind from covetousness."1 So the first hindrance is given here as "covetousness for the world."2 Sometimes you see it expressed as the "desire for sense pleasures," kāma-chanda. It's the wanting mind. When you're caught in planning, it can be wanting. It might be other things: you might be planning out of fear, you might be planning out of boredom, but often there's wanting involved. You want to have a good holiday when you go to Spain, you want lunch, you want a good meditation. The Buddha compares this wanting sense pleasures to being in debt:
If you are in debt, you must continually work to pay back the debt. You can't simply call up the bank and say, "Well I'm going to go to Spain on vacation this month and I'm not going to make a payment. I hope that's okay with you." You can't even call them up and say, "I lost my job, I can't make a payment this month. I hope that's okay with you." As unfortunately far too many people discovered in the last recession, the banks have no sympathy for that. You've got to keep working. It's the same with our sense pleasures. No sense pleasure is ultimately satisfying. If you get something that is quite nice, you simply want to keep it, or repeat it, or get something similar to it. Like being in debt, we must continually work to satisfy our desire for sensual pleasures, our wanting. There is no fulfillment to be found by obtaining what you want. Okay, you get some fulfillment for a bit, but no ultimate fulfillment. We usually assume that when we want something and we get it and that feels great, that feeling is due to the fact that we got what we wanted. But have you ever stopped to consider that it might be due to the fact that you stopped wanting? The relief from the wanting produces quite a bit of pleasure. So perhaps a more effective strategy would be to let go of the wanting. The Buddha also compared sense desire to a bowl of water into which someone had poured many different colored dyes.4 If you try and look into the water, you cannot see into the depths.
Now this hasn't quite answered the question what to do about the wanting mind. It's just pointing out that it's a problem. Well luckily in the commentaries5 there are six things that are given to do to deal with each of the hindrances. For sense desire these are
learning the sign of the unattractive, i.e. repulsive nature of the body;
This is probably not the list you were hoping for. The first two are learning the sign of the unattractive, that is the repulsive nature of the body, and application to meditation on the unattractive. What this is referring to is that at the time of the Buddha if you had a lot of lust, a lot of sense desire, they would send you to the charnel ground to do your meditation. Now a charnel ground is not like a cemetery. A cemetery is actually a rather pleasant place; nice little statues, they cut the grass, a quite pleasant place to be as far as the five senses are concerned. A charnel ground was where they dumped the bodies of the people who didn't have enough money to pay for a cremation. The bodies got ripped apart and eaten, and they rotted. It was not a pleasant place, visually unappetizing and I imagine it smelled extremely unappetizing. They would send you there and tell you to sit down in front of a rotting corpse and meditate on that corpse, contemplate that corpse. The body that you were lusting after was going to wind up like that. Also recognize that your own body was going to wind up like that. Well we don't have charnel grounds around here. It is interesting and insightful to wander through a cemetery; notice that people can die at any age. But a cemetery does not have quite the same impact.
In the West I think what we need to do more than anything else is get a more realistic picture of the body. The media are basically telling us to never have a body that looks more than 25 years old; stay young forever. But that's not possible. So I think our goal in the West in terms of the body is more about getting a realistic picture of the body rather than looking at the disgusting nature of it. We in the West often have low self-esteem and for many people that's directly associated with their body. So to battle the low self-esteem, it's helpful to get a realistic picture of not only your body, but all the bodies.
Guarding the doors of the sense faculties this means that when you see something, hear something, smell something, taste something, touch something, or think something, you don't get lost in the sensory input and what follows from that. Far too often we see something and we are immediately off on a train of thought. There's all sorts of stuff stirred up by that, including quite possibly wanting (or rejecting). So what the Buddha says is that one should not get caught up in the signs, or secondary characteristics. In other words, when you see something, just simply see it and let it go without getting caught up in mental proliferation that leads to the wishing and the wanting.
Moderation in eating there's not a lot of excitement on a silent meditation retreat. About the only excitement you get is eating and there is indeed a tendency, because that's your only excitement, to stoke up on it, get a lot of sense pleasure out of it. Generally that just tends to increase the wanting for food. If you're looking for your pleasure in the food, you do get some pleasure for what, twenty minutes, half an hour? How long does your meal last? And then you return to meditating and you're thinking about the food. So you should be moderate in your eating so that it doesn't become the most important experience of your day. I've heard it said that if you can eat until just before you feel full that's the perfect way to do it. Of course the problem is, you don't know when you're going to feel full until you get there. So it is a bit tricky.
And the last two things helpful in overcoming the desire for sensual pleasures are noble friends and noble conversations the discussion of these will be deferred for the moment.
This still hasn't addressed the question about what to do about sense desire when you're sitting there meditating and it comes up quite strongly. What seems to work the best is to get a realistic picture of what it is you are desiring, to see its limitations, to see that it's not going to bring lasting happiness. One of the ways that people can get caught in sense desire during a retreat is the phenomena known as a vipassanā romance. You are on a retreat and you see someone that you can tell is really serious about their practice because they walk like it and they sit so well and besides, they're very attractive. And the next thing you know, you are caught up in your fantasies. The idea of seeing what's really going on is recognizing that, one, you don't know anything about this person; it's just your ideas that are happening. And two, even if they were to turn out to be as wonderful as you are imagining them to be, it still wouldn't be totally satisfying. Furthermore the odds are probably a hundred percent that they won't turn out to be who you are imagining them to be. So working to get a realistic picture of what's going on is probably the best that you can do with sense desire. See it, name it, and really investigate the limitations and defects of any objects that are attracting your desiring attention.
It's important to remember that not all wanting is counter-productive. When I was at Wat Suan Mokkh in southern Thailand, they talked about wise wishes and foolish desires. Wanting to come on a meditation retreat, wanting to see the truth, wanting to gain insight these would be classified as wise wishes. Wanting dessert after every meal or wanting to experience some blissful state so you can hang out there would be considered foolish desires. There is indeed pleasure on the spiritual path; the Buddha frequently mentions the fact that gladness and joy are necessary components of the path.6 But you can't be hankering after that pleasure while working to generate deep concentration. The idea is to see where you are, to know what the instructions say to do at that point, and just do that without what Ayya Khema called "result thinking." As part of the practice for entering the first jhāna, when you recognize the mind has gotten to access concentration and been stabilized there for a bit, then the next step is the focusing on pleasure. That's just part of the path. Just stay focused on the pleasurable sensation and enjoy it. There's nothing wrong with enjoying. It's the grasping and seeking that causes the problems; being there and just staying focused on it is not a problem. But if you are actively wanting the jhāna while you are meditating, that's a hindrance and it's going to prevent you from attaining access concentration, and with no access concentration there's no jhāna possible. This is actually a great example of the second noble truth: dukkha arises from craving.
The second hindrance discussed in the Gradual Training is "Having abandoned ill-will and hatred, one dwells with a benevolent mind, sympathetic for the welfare of all living beings. One purifies one's mind from ill-will and hatred."7 So the second hindrance is ill-will and hatred. It's pushing things away, not wanting, the opposite of the first hindrance. This covers everything from ill-will and hatred to sadness and fear. In fact fear is probably at the basis of most hatred. I made that statement in a retreat and somebody wrote me a note and said "I hate broccoli, but I'm not afraid of it." And what I responded was "you're afraid of the unpleasant taste you will experience by putting broccoli in your mouth." You're not afraid it's going to attack you, but you are afraid of the unpleasant vedanā8 that tasting it will generate. It seems that fear is really at the basis of all of our aversion. Fear that we will for some reason experience some unpleasant vedanā. The Buddha compares ill-will and hatred to being physically ill.
When you are overcome with ill-will, it's very much like being physically ill. You don't feel well. You can't think straight. You're hot. You can't really do what you want to do. This is a perfect description of physical illness as well as of ill-will and hatred. The Buddha also compares ill-will and hatred to a bowl of water which is over a fire and is boiling10. If you try and look into the depths, you can't see what's there.
There's a story about a Brahmin who came to see the Buddha and he was very upset11. His younger brother had come a few days earlier to see the Buddha and the Buddha had "corrupted" him, because his younger brother had become a monk. So this Brahmin insulted and cursed the Buddha with rude, harsh words. The Buddha replied, "Do friends and colleagues, relatives and kinsmen come to you as guests?"
"Yes, certainly they do."
"Do you serve them with staple and non-staple foods and delicacies?"
"Well, of course I prepare nice food for my guests."
"And if they don't accept them, to whom do those foods belong?"
"If they don't accept them, Master Gotama, those foods are all mine."
"Just so, Brahmin, I'm not accepting the harsh words you offered." In other words, the Buddha didn't take on the anger that this Brahmin was expressing towards him. The Brahmin was so impressed that he decided to become a monk as well.
When someone is angry at you, there is no law that you have to become angry back. If you can keep your equanimity, you have a much better chance of diffusing the situation without things escalating into an even worse situation. Of course sometimes when you don't get angry back, the person who is angry at you becomes even more angry because you are not angry as well. But that's their problem, not yours.
Luckily, however, there are six things mentioned in the commentaries to do for overcoming ill-will and hatred. These are:
learning the sign of loving kindness,
Learning the sign of loving kindness and application to meditation on loving kindness If the hindrance you are experiencing is aversion, then the thing to do is to stop the practice that you were doing and start doing mettā meditation. Suppose you are working with following your breath and some aversion arises. If you can set that aversion aside and continue on with the breath, fine. But if it keeps coming up and it really isn't something that you can set aside, then forget about the breath and start doing mettā meditation. Now it may be far too difficult to do loving kindness practice for the person that is generating this negativity. You don't have to do it towards any particular person at all. If you can do it for the person that's generating the negativity that's pretty powerful practice, but just do mettā for somebody. It doesn't matter who. Do it for yourself. You certainly need it at this point given the fact that this aversion is coming up and is preventing your meditation from going well. Do it for somebody that you care about. Do it for the Dalai Lama. Just simply get your mind off the aversion and then get it into a positive state. Mettā is a very powerful practice. I have said that if they were to come to me and say "you can only do one practice, choose," I would unhesitatingly choose mettā practice. It's a very transformative practice as well.
Reflection on the ownership of action Ever do something when you were angry that wasn't really the wisest choice? Well you still have to reap the results of that action. It's not like you can later phone the karma gods and say, "Oh, sorry, I was angry then. Can we just set that aside?" No, basically when you're in an angry state, when you have ill-will and hatred, you are putting yourself in a position where you will probably not act in the wisest fashion. You are disempowering yourself and yet you will still have to reap the results of this action. So recognizing that this angry state is not an empowering state, but a disempowering state may help you let it go.
Abundance of wise reflection Simply pay attention to what the aversive state feels like. Feel how unpleasant it is. Feel how the unpleasantness that you are experiencing with this aversion is not really solving the problem. If you are sitting here and are mad at somebody who's a hundred miles away, your anger in no way is affecting them. It's affecting you, but it's not doing anything to solve the problem. So just reflect on any angry experience that you're having and see the limitations of it.
And again, lastly comes noble friends and noble conversation, which again will be deferred.
If you are a prisoner, you can't do anything. You just sit there missing out on all the good things of life. If you are overcome with sloth and torpor, you can't do anything. You just sit there not able to get concentrated, not able to gain any insight, not able to follow the spiritual path. It is like being in prison. The Buddha also compared sloth and torpor to a stagnant bowl of water, one that is covered over with slimy moss and water-plants.14 Again you can't see into the depths. But luckily, there are six things to do for overcoming sloth and torpor. These are:
recognizing that overeating is the basis for sloth and torpor,
Recognizing that overeating is the basis for sloth and torpor there is a reason why there are no meditation periods right after a meal on a retreat. It's not just because someone is needed to wash the dishes. After you have eaten, your system is busy digesting the food. And the more food you eat the longer it's going to take to digest it. If it takes a long time to digest it, then when you sit down you are going to fall asleep. So once again, eat less food. Eating less food actually helps you overcome two of the hindrances.
On most retreats that I teach, about forty percent of the students mention that they are dealing with sleepiness at the beginning of a retreat. I suspect the actual number dealing with sleepiness is actually even higher. This is not surprising since so many people in this culture have a chronic sleep debt. So if that is part of what you are dealing with, just eat less food. After all, how many calories do you need? If you are on retreat, you're spending your day sitting around. You do burn quite a few calories with your brain while you're trying to concentrate, but not all that many. Skip the entertainment value of the food; just get some nourishment. Don't overeat and you will be dealing less with sloth and torpor.
Changing the postures, attention to the perception of light, living in the open air if you are feeling sleepy, open your eyes, rub your cheeks, pinch and pull on your ear lobes. If you know where the acupressure points are on the sides of your ears, you can squeeze them very hard to wake you up for at least a few minutes. Make sure you have fresh air. And if all else fails, stand up. You are not going to fall asleep standing up with your eyes open. Now if you're doing standing meditation, make sure that you flex your knees. If you lock your knees, you might pass out. That would be most unpleasant for you and for whomever you fall upon, so keep your knees flexed. You can continue to follow your breath, or you can put your attention on the subtle adjustments that you are making to stay standing. You may think that when you just stand there you are not moving, but actually there is a little bit of subtle motion that you are doing all the time to keep your balance. You can pay attention to those subtle motions and use them as your meditation object, which will help keep you awake.
Definitely the first thing to do when you find you are getting sleepy is to get yourself out of it. Continuing to pursue deeper concentration is probably not useful, because that will just make you sleepier. If you know a practice that you find is a little more energizing, switch to doing that practice. You might find mettā practice a bit more energizing. If you know the body scan, you might find that a bit more energizing. It is said that if you do the body scan from the feet up, it's more energizing. I never have noticed much difference, but you can try it out and see.
It really is quite important to balance your energy and concentration. If your energy is too low, working to become concentrated is quite likely to lead to you falling asleep. If you know when you sit down to meditate that your energy is low, it's probably best to not work on deep concentration during that sitting, but rather see if you can generate a bit of calm and collectedness and then begin doing some insight practice.
And then there are noble friends and noble conversations, which again will be deferred.
A slave is compelled to go there and do that, come here and do this. The slave is always doing what the master wants done, not what the slave wants to do. If you are overcome with restlessness and remorse, you are unable to do what you want to do even though there is this huge amount of activity, either physically or mentally. The Buddha also compared restlessness and remorse to a small bowl of water where there is a strong wind blowing over the surface and the ripples prevent you from seeing down to the depths.17 But luckily, there are six things to do for overcoming restlessness and remorse:
Much learning sometimes the restlessness arises simply because you don't know quite what to do. So you are struggling to figure out how you should be doing this practice, what's going on here? Learn all you can; both about the Buddha's teachings as well as the practices.
Interrogation ask questions. The Buddha felt that it was very important to ask questions; he encouraged his monks and nuns to ask questions.
Skill in the Vinaya skill in the precepts. The Vinaya is the rules for the monks and nuns; in the Theravāda tradition, 227 for the monks, 313 for the nuns. But as lay people, we really only have the five precepts to worry about. Skill in keeping the precepts means you have much less to be remorseful about. To take a gross example, if you are out robbing banks and then you sit down to meditate, you are probably going to be restlessly worrying about the authorities coming and hauling you off to jail.
Associating with senior monks Hang out with people from whom you can learn the Dharma and the practices that provide progress on the spiritual path.
What's really being addressed in these suggestions from the commentary is more about the remorse aspect. The physical restlessness aspect can sometimes be helped by going for a vigorous walk. If you feel like you have too much energy, then go burn some of it off. Just make sure it's a mindful, vigorous walk. Interestingly enough, going for a vigorous walk can sometimes be helpful for the opposite hindrance. If you're overcome with sloth and torpor, wake yourself up by going for vigorous walk.
And once again the discussion of noble friends and noble conversations will be deferred.
If you have a doubting mind, you are not sure what to do. If you are on a perilous desert journey, you think maybe we should go this way, but wait there might be bandits. Better to go that way, but no, there won't be any water. So there is more starting and stopping than actual progressing.
You set out on the spiritual path and you are following the Theravādan tradition, the Vipassanā path, but it's kind of dry. You want something a little more colorful, exciting. Well the Tibetans, I mean have you seen what they've got? They got the horns and they got the colorful paintings. So you switch to Tibetan practice and you start doing that, but it turns out to be a little too baroque, a little too catholic. Zen, that's where it's at. I mean look at their gardens. This is really cool and they got all these great stories, so you switch to Zen practice. It turns out they hit you with a stick. Sufi dancing, that's where it's at....
You are trying one thing after another. You are never finding out where any of these paths actually lead. I've heard it said that if you really want to find out where a path will take you, it's necessary to follow it for five years. Now this doesn't mean that if you start out down a path and you realize this is not the right path for you that you have to stick with it for five years before you can change your mind. But if you do find yourself trying one practice and then another and then another and then another, it might not be the practices that are at fault. It really could be that you are not sticking with a practice long enough to find what's really going on. The Buddha also compared skeptical doubt to a bowl of water that's very muddy,20 which prevents you from seeing into the depths. Once again there are six things to do for overcoming skeptical doubt. And they are very much like those for overcoming restlessness and remorse:
To overcome your doubt, learn what you can about the practice. Learn what you can about the Dharma. Ask questions. This can be quite helpful. If you think your practice is not working, ask questions to find out what you can about what's going on, what it's supposed to be like.
Skill in the Vinaya try out keeping the precepts. See if this makes your life better. In many spiritual traditions, ethical practice is based on "Behave, or you'll wind up in hell," or something equivalent to that. You can find that in Buddhism, but really the depths of the Buddha's teaching on ethics is "this is the way to behave that actually works the best." It just makes your life go easier, if you don't go around killing living beings, or taking what's not given, or misusing your sexual energy, or telling lies, or getting intoxicated. Practicing the precepts and experiencing first hand the benefits of doing so helps you gain confidence in the path and in yourself.
Resolution resolve to stay with the practice until you've explored it and see where it leads. It's the only way you are going to find out. Reading about a practice, talking to other people about a practice can be helpful, but the real proof is in actually doing the practice and seeing what happens. But it's probably going to take a while to follow through and see where it goes. So resolve to stay with the practice until you can learn its benefits first hand.
Noble friends and noble conversations These are helpful for dealing with all of the hindrances. They are not so helpful while you are practicing silent meditation, obviously, since you are not going to be having any kind of conversation with anybody at that point. But they are helpful for getting yourself to where the hindrances are much less likely to arise when you are practicing. There is a sutta where Ānanda, who was the Buddha's attendant, was having a discussion with another monk.21 According to the commentaries, what they were discussing was what was the most important aspect of the spiritual path. The other monk was the meditation master and he felt that meditation was the most important part of the spiritual path. Ānanda was a very outgoing, gregarious soul an extravert and he felt that noble friends and noble conversation were the most important part of the path. And so they discussed it back and forth and, as always happens with these things, they went to see the Buddha. They saluted the Buddha and sat down at one side. Ānanda said, "Venerable Sir, I say that noble friends and noble conversations are half the holy life." The Buddha replied, "Do not say so Ānanda, noble friends and noble conversations are the entire holy life." It's really difficult to practice this path without having likeminded people around to share supporting each other. And this support is very important for helping you overcome these hindrances.
So these are the basic categories of hindering things that can arise when you are trying to get concentrated: the wanting mind, the aversive mind, the tired or lazy mind, the restless or remorseful mind, and the doubting mind. You should apply the antidotes as best you can. A general antidote is substitute with the opposite. For hatred, the opposite is love. For wanting it's seeing that the object of your wanting isn't going to bring ultimate fulfillment. For sleepiness it's to do things to wake yourself up. For too much energy, try and see if you can get yourself calmed down. And for the doubting mind, learn as much as you can so that you actually have the fortitude to stick with the practice.
These are the five hindrances; pretty much anything that is blocking your development of concentration falls into one of these categories. Now the words that name each hindrance point to the more extreme end of these useless mind-states, so it may not always be obvious why some mind-states are grouped under a particular hindrance. For example, how is sadness related to ill-will and hatred? Well, the second hindrance is really "not wanting" and sadness arises when you don't accept that some unpleasant thing has occurred; it's a pushing away of reality, a not wanting. If we think of the five hindrances as "wanting", "not wanting", "too little energy", "too much energy" and "doubt" it might make things more obvious.
"When one sees that these five hindrances are not abandoned within oneself, one regards that as a debt, as a sickness, as confinement in prison, as slavery, as a desert road. But when one sees that these five hindrances have been abandoned within oneself, one regards that as freedom from debt, as good health, as release from prison, as freedom from slavery, as a place of safety. When one sees that these five hindrances have been abandoned within oneself, gladness arises. From gladness, rapture arises. When one's mind is filled with rapture, one's body becomes tranquil. Tranquil in body, one experiences happiness. Being happy, one's mind becomes concentrated. Quite secluded from sense pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states of mind, one enters and remains in the first jhāna, ... second jhāna, ... third jhāna, ... fourth jhāna."22
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