The Five Hinderances to Concentration
1. Greed (Kamacchanda, Pali)
We constantly search for pleasing objects with our five senses. Superficially, one can say that we want to have pleasant sensations in order to repress disagreeable things. Ultimately, we strive for the stimulation of our sexual sensibility, because all of our sense cravings serve the purpose of preserving our human existence.
After satisfying our wishes and needs, we quickly realize that this satisfaction is not quite sufficient, so we go in search of something new. We would like to constantly quench our thirst, but in this way we create exactly the kind of energy that brings us down the road of ruin. Metaphorically, we behave like the person who is thirsty and drinks salt water, believing it will quench his thirst.
The more we give in to our sense cravings and the more we direct our life toward their satisfaction, the more we lose touch with reality (1). One who strives only to satisfy his needs throughout life behaves – in the Buddha’s words – as unrealistically as one who takes out a big loan without any hope of paying it back.
If we receive pleasing sense impulses, we develop pleasant feelings. Because everything is impermanent, however, this wonderful feeling lasts only a short time, so we chase after it like a hungry ghost through the world. As practitioners, we should be aware of our five senses with full mindfulness, in order to see where they direct us. For example, a young man who is always looking for a woman has to recognize that he continually produces new stimuli and therefore is not able to transform his greed. In fact, we tend to believe that our five senses serve us, but the opposite often applies – i.e., we serve the five senses! This is because we are not mindful enough and therefore cannot recognize if sense perceptions are harmful or not. We accept everything that our senses offer, without a filter.
The Buddha explained that the perception of the five senses creates our world. In order to break out of this illusionary world we need to be steadfast. This state can only be reached through the samatha method, because in this practice we are centered in ourselves and no longer affected by the five senses. If we succeed in overcoming momentary craving, we no longer need to chase after pleasant impulses, and instead we can develop the inner calm to examine ourselves and ask, “Where do we come from?” If we can answer this question, we can also let go of greed.
Anger refers to people, objects and situations. The angry person focuses his destructive power on those things or people that have destroyed his idealistic views or expectations. Anger can also be directed towards one’s self – in this case created by feelings of guilt or inferiority. Finally, a practitioner can also project anger onto his object of meditation, because he has the impression that the object does not promote his spiritual development (2).
An angry person always has an explanation for the cause of his anger, because he feels he is absolutely in the right, and from his point of view the other person is always wrong (3). The energetic potential of anger is very high, and the angry person uses it to differentiate himself from other people, as well as make it outwardly clear who he is.
When someone harms us, we normally ask, “Why is this being done just to me?” A practitioner should ask the question in a different way, namely, “Why am I drawn into this situation with this person?” If we can change our perspective in this way, we can use anger as an opportunity to discover our own faults. When we practice loving kindness at the same time, we develop compassion for our self and can eventually forgive ourselves. If we are able accept our weaknesses and forgive ourselves, then we can begin to practice mercy for others and forgive them. In this way we see that the practice of loving kindness is an effective tool against anger.
If we constantly feel anger in our meditation practice, we cannot develop inner calmness or peace, so our practice does not lead to the results we desire and makes little sense. In order to rid ourselves of the presence of anger in our meditation, we should deliberately turn our attention to the breath, and make it clear to ourselves that breath is not harmful. When we breathe in, we tell ourselves that breath sustains our life, and when we breathe out, that breath supports our practice.
The angry person should understand that only he is responsible for his own well-being, which includes learning to accept his shortcomings. He can then recognize the idealistic views he has created for himself, with what means he maintains them, and what defensive strategies he employs out of fear that these illusions will be destroyed.
3. Torpor (Thina-Middha, Pali)
The energy of torpor lies deeply in our physical body and our mind, and causes a state of drowsiness and frustration. If a meditator succumbs to torpor, he has the feeling of falling apart, feels faint, and in the worst case, wants to lie down and go to sleep. Torpor can also become habitual in one’s meditation practice. Torpor exists in everyone, but if we allow our selves to succumb to it and do not correctly identify its cause in our actions and perceptions, dullness will spread through our mind and our analytical thinking capacity will be hampered. The Buddha explained that a state of torpor resembles the situation of a person who stays in a dark room although the sun is shining outside.
In order to overcome torpor, we should increase our effort – a possibility that we always have but do not always recognize. If we are torpid, we should set small targets for ourselves in daily life. When we carry out these small, planned steps, we feel that we have more strength than we believed. This gives us the motivation to continue. If we also focus on the positive aspects of daily life, we can increase our motivation to create new impulses. In general, developing curiosity is helpful, because in this way new perspectives can be discovered that also encourage us to practice.
A person that can never find rest or be content – no matter where they are – is restless. Restlessness is an energy that leads us to constantly look for mistakes in ourselves; therefore we are never content with what we have. Subsequently, we turn to the outside world, hoping to find or reach perfection there; however, the perfection we aim for – from our perspective – cannot be found in the near future. Because we fear that we will not be able to achieve our purpose at the given time, we always feel the need to run. The Buddha compares the restless person to a slave who runs around for his master day after day, never allowed to rest.
Because our present action cannot make us content, we think of the next one while still busy with the first. For this reason, we are uneasy during walking meditation and try to finish it as soon as possible.
Feelings of guilt and regret are our constant companions, occurring as karmic results of previously unwholesome actions. For example, after we attack and insult other people – a characteristic behavior of restless people – we feel guilty and regret the action a short time later. We then try to forcibly remove this feeling of guilt from ourselves, and generate intense aggression against our self and our surroundings.
For the meditator, restlessness embodies the greatest danger. In the practice of Samadhi, a restless person struggles in an effort maintain previous expectations of calmness. It’s difficult for him or her to recognize that success in meditation occurs when one is relaxed, with one’s consciousness directed on the object without expectation. Because the restless person wants to achieve all the stages of Samadhi meditation as fast as possible, he cannot differentiate between what part of the practice is real and what is projection; consequently, he creates illusionary jhanas. Furthermore, since the self-created image in his jhanas is an illusion, he cannot generate concentration because the image is constantly in motion.
The restless person should learn to accept everything as it is and be content with little. He is then free from the need to always look for faults. If he practices frugality, happiness can be achieved with very few things. Because he no longer seeks “more and more” bliss, it is important to feel gratitude in each present moment (4).
5. Doubt (Vicikiccha, Pali)
A doubting person continuously questions his abilities and actions, which creates a state of bewilderment and a lack of inner peace in himself. In fact, he tries to find clarity again and again by looking for ways to orientate himself, but through this constant scrutiny just goes around in circles. The doubting person questions not only himself, but also the people around him; he or she is skilled at discerning the faults of others and denouncing them.
For example, we try to find the perfect Master on the spiritual path, and when are finally sure we found him, he loses this value for us because our perception is marked by compulsive doubt. Then, we ask ourselves if we have really found the right Master and if the method he uses is the right one for us. As soon as we have problems with ourselves or with our practice, we criticize the Master, and lash out at him – for instance – by pointing out his faults to others (6). Essentially, the goal of our action is to find an excuse for the fact that we do not progress in our practice. Actually, we – not our Master – are to blame! In general, we give the responsibility for our problems to others and demand that they manage absolutely everything for us.
The situation of a doubting person can be compared to that of a somone who gets lost in the desert and is hungry, thirsty, and lacking all orientation. Indeed, the doubting person longs for other individuals and groups, but is not really in the position to engage in relationships, so he finally prefers to stay in the desert.
Of all the above hindrances, doubt is the greatest barrier for the practitioner, and can only be transformed with lots of patience and time. Doubting people need distance from everything, in order to see that their problems come from the inside; therefore, they have to take charge of them, without expecting others to solve them. They will hold long inner dialogues with themselves and attempt to justify their behavior. But, in the end, they will have to face and deal with themselves. They will then recognize that deep in their heart they are afraid of getting hurt. In order to lessen the fear of being wounded and to overcome doubt, they should develop inner stability (7); however, this will only succeed if they admit their mistakes to themselves.
(1) Abuse in the family, for example, can be explained by exactly such a loss of reality.
(5) This begins the instant he starts to organize his personal things.
(7) Meditation, therefore, is an important method.