Five Hindrances to Awakening

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Below are Dhamma talks and a Dhamma article on Five Hindrances to be mindful of. Thes five hindrances arise in obvious and often quite subtle ways. The thicket of views common in modern Buddhism [14] has resulted from continued ignorance of these five hindrances first taught by an awakened human being 2,600 years ago.

Often this ignorance manifests by over-emphasizing these hindrances through the compulsion to embrace, cultivate, or investigate these hindrances. The Buddha teaches to simply be mindful of these hindrances so that they can be directly abandoned. Be mindful to recognize and abandon these five hindrances and all modern distractions to awakening can be avoided.

Five Hindrances To Be Mindful Of

In the Nivarana Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 9.64, the Buddha describes five specific hindrances to be mindful of. Hindrances arise from ignorance and aversion to developing understanding of Four Noble Truths.  

A mind rooted in ignorance of these Four Truths will grasp upon and cling to these five hindrances. Tenacious clinging to wrong, or ignorant views is subtle and pervasive. Tenacious clinging to wrong views is the strategy a mind rooted in ignorance uses to continue to ignore its own ignorance. This manner of circular deluded thinking is one of the three “defilements” of greed, aversion, and deluded thinking.

It is precisely deluded thinking that continues to cultivate the conditions rooted in ignorance that cause “all manner of suffering” described in the Paticcasamuppada Sutta, the primary sutta on Dependent Origination. [1]

The importance of recognizing and abandoning these Five Hindrances cannot be overstated.  The Buddha taught these to be mindfully aware of to fully develop the Eightfold Path.

The Nivarana Sutta

The Buddha addressed those gathered: “Friends, there are these five hindrances:

  1. Sensual desire is a hindrance.
  2. Ill will is a hindrance.
  3. Laziness, indifference, and drowsiness is a hindrance.
  4. Restlessness and anxiety is a hindrance.
  5. Doubt, uncertainty, skepticism (of the Dhamma) is a hindrance.  

“These are the five hindrances (To be mindful of).

“In order to abandon these five hindrances, one should develop the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: [2]

“This Dhamma practitioner remains focused on the body in and of itself always ardent, alert, and mindful while putting aside greed and aversion with reference to the world.  

“This Dhamma practitioner remains focused on feelings in and of themselves always ardent, alert, and mindful while putting aside greed and aversion with reference to the world.

“This Dhamma practitioner remains focused on the mind (mundane ongoing consciousness) in and of itself always ardent, alert, and mindful while putting aside greed and aversion with reference to the world.

“This Dhamma practitioner remains focused on the present quality of mind in and of itself always ardent, alert, and mindful while putting aside greed and aversion with reference to the world.  

“To abandon the five hindrances, one should develop these Four Foundations of Mindfulness.”

End Of Sutta

The Buddha’s reference to Four Foundations Of Mindfulness shows that dispassionately recognizing and abandoning these five hindrances is fundamental to fully developing the Eightfold Path.  

The Buddha’s teachings on Four Foundations Of Mindfulness establishes the fundamental mindfulness necessary to developing an awakened, fully mature mind. The importance of understanding the debilitating influence of these five hindrances is developed through the entire Eightfold Path [3] and supported by many suttas including, significantly, the Anapanasati Sutta, the Samadhi Sutta, and the Yuganaddha Sutta. [4,5,6]  

The second and sixth factors of The Eightfold Path, Right Intention and Right Effort, are of particular support with recognizing and abandoning the hindrances. Maintaining the strong resolve of Right Intention and engaging in Right Effort will provide the framework necessary to develop and maintain a Dhamma practice. Right Intention is holding in mind the intention to put aside clinging, aversion, and deluded thinking and gain the profound wisdom of Four Noble Truths. [7]  

Mindful Practice

Being mindful of Right Intention and Right Effort, you make a commitment to dhamma practice. Put aside set times, preferably twice a day, for meditation practice. It is most effective to meditate as soon as possible after waking before becoming distracted by your daily routine. Doing this consistently begins to diminish a conditioned mind’s desire to ignore ignorance.

Right Effort is characterized as joyful and consistent engagement with the Eightfold Path. Always allowing for impermanence, maintaining your physical, mental and spiritual condition is an aspect of Right Effort as well. Getting adequate rest, eating healthy, and physical exercise are all a part of Right Effort. Any mindful exercise is a support for Dhamma practice and walking “meditation” is a very skillful way to combine exercise and mindful movement, though never a substitute for Shamatha-Vipassana meditation. [8]  

Keep in mind that there is no effective substitute for sitting meditation. Bringing the body to stillness greatly supports a calm and tranquil mind.

Tai Chi and QiGong are particularly supportive of Dhamma practice. [9]

To reiterate: Five Common Hindrances to Practice

  1. Sensory or Sensual desire.
  2. Ill will.
  3. Laziness, indifference, or drowsiness.
  4. Restlessness and worry.
  5. Doubt, uncertainty or skepticism.

The first hindrance to be mindful of when establishing a meditation practice is distraction from sensual desire. Distracted by things that appeal to the senses prevents the meditator from being mindful of practice. Often your mind will want to remain distracted by the many activities of your day. You tell yourself that you are simply too busy or your activities too important to put aside for a few minutes of meditation.

Your mind, at first, may want to avoid meditation. When you meditate despite this common tendency, you begin to gain control of your mind and your life. You begin to interrupt ongoing conditioned thinking.

In meditation, you may be distracted by an infinite number of craving thoughts. Whatever craving thoughts arise, recognize desire as a distraction. Remain mindful of the thought or thoughts, recognizing that they are a hindrance to practice. These thoughts are as impermanent as any other thought. Clinging to any thought or view is ongoing conceit or I-making. This is why the Buddha taught that useful insight is insight into Three Marks Of Existence. [9]

When you find that you are caught up in your thoughts, dispassionately acknowledge the distraction and return your mindfulness to your breathing. This method of detaching from thoughts (and feelings) as they arise follows the instruction mentioned in the previous suttas. Consistent continued practice will diminish sensory desire and settle your mind to a calm and well-concentrated state.

Ill will, or holding harsh judgments, anger and resentments at others, or yourself, (remorse, self-loathing) can make it almost impossible to develop a Shamatha-Vipassana meditation practice and increase concentration.

The Eightfold Path cannot be developed to completion without an effective Shamatha-Vipassana meditation practice.

Recognize that the cause of the ill will is your own desire that the people and events of your life be different than they are, or that you perceive them to be.

If persistent thoughts of ill will arise, dispassionately stay with the thoughts for a moment or two, and return your mindfulness to the sensation of breathing. Again, this interrupts ongoing conditioned thinking that seeks to continue distraction and ignorance by regurgitating perceived “wrongs.”

As your awareness of the origins of ill will increase, maintain a mind of equanimity. As best as you can, remain free of judgment of the people and events of your life. This takes Right Effort and consistent practice, and with time you can free yourself of the hindrance of ill will.

Practicing Metta Meditation [11] is a skillful aid in releasing harsh judgments. Practice Metta whenever harsh judgments of yourself or others is making it difficult to quiet your mind. Once your mind has quieted using Metta, resume Shamatha-Vipassana meditation.

Laziness, indifference, and drowsiness affect everyone at one time or another. It is most skillful to recognize these hindrances as aversion to practice. It is your ego’s way of avoiding the freedom that will arise from consistent practice.

If drowsiness or sleepiness is an occasional problem, it is appropriate to rest for a while and then resume meditation. Check your posture. Lying down or not sitting up straight can contribute to drowsiness.

Drowsiness is another hindrance to Dhamma practice that is to be dealt with through equanimity and persistence. Recognize that these hindrances are affecting you and your practice, and continue your practice. Drowsiness, as with all conditioned experiences and these five hindrances is impermanent.

Restlessness and worry can be difficult hindrances to overcome. Persistence will show results. If restlessness and worry have risen to the level of chronic or clinical anxiety, it may be best to meditate for shorter periods of time and more often.

Remind yourself that putting aside hindrances is initially only for the meditation period while cultivating your mind to eventually release the underlying conditions causing anxiety.  Fully developing the Eightfold Path will bring cessation of your own contributions to a troubled mind.

See the Sallatha Sutta [12]

Shamatha-Vipassana meditation has proven to be a very effective method of putting anxiety causing thoughts aside and staying mindful of what is occurring. There is no restlessness, worry or anxiety when remaining mindfully dispassionate of your life as your life unfolds.

This not to imply that anyone should immediately abandon medication or therapy that one may find effective.

Doubt, uncertainty, and skepticism can be a hindrance at any stage of Dhamma practice. Doubt can deepen one’s practice if the doubt is allowed to be a dispassionate aspect of practice, rather than cultivate doubt through over-emphasis or distracting analysis. There is nothing gained in this common practice save for continued distraction. Let doubt be doubt while mindfully continuing with Dhamma practice.

Other people’s skepticism can be a hindrance as well, especially people that do not understand the Buddha’s Dhamma or the purpose of Shamatha-Vipassana meditation practice.

Be wary of “teacher’s” or “dharmas” that diminish the importance of Shamatha-Vipassana meditation or encourage substitute or alternative “meditation” practices such as “walking meditation,” topical contemplation, visualizations, “just sitting,” chanting (as a singular aspect of practice) or any ritualistic practice appealing to “god”s or “devas.”

Fortunately, awakening as the Buddha describes awakening is not and cannot be “transmitted,“ or bestowed, or granted from another human being or outside agency.

Fortunately, the Buddha discovered and taught a Dhamma that any human being who wholeheartedly engage with could awaken in this present life.

The most effective way to work through uncertainty, doubt and skepticism is to engage in practice wholeheartedly without any unrealistic expectations.

Examine your motivations for practice. Is your motivation to “fix” a flawed, broken, or incomplete view of self? This is a view that is rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths. The Buddha’s Dhamma is taught to recognize and abandon all views rooted in ignorance.

Uncertainty and skepticism will arise if your view or intention is to fix a broken or flawed self. The proper intention for engaging in Shamatha-Vipassana Meditation practice is to deepen concentration in order to interrupt ongoing conditioned thinking rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

Be mindful that the Buddha taught Shamatha-Vipassana meditation as one factor of an Eightfold Path. It is the concentration developed in Shamatha-Vipassana meditation that supports the refined mindfulness necessary to integrate and develop the Eightfold Path. You meditate to mindfully develop concentration and develop awareness of clinging, craving, aversion, and desire as these mental fabrications arise.

Hindrances or distractions will arise. They will have no permanent effect on your practice if you persevere. Hindrances are recognized mind states to be aware of. Be with them as dispassionately as possible. As long as you continue with your practice, hindrances will arise and subside until they no longer are a part of conditioned thinking.

By putting aside aversion to meditation practice you will strengthen your resolve and begin to diminish your mind’s natural tendency to resist the calm and quiet spaciousness developed by an authentic and effective Dhamma practice.

Always avoid judging yourself or your practice harshly. Do the best you can and be gentle with yourself. Maintain a consistent Shamatha-Vipassana meditation practice within the framework of the Eightfold Path and you will develop lasting peace and happiness.

Be mindful of an awakened human beings purpose for spending the final forty-five years of his life teaching his Dhamma. He taught that any human being could develop the profound wisdom of  Buddha, to become awakened as he had, in this present lifetime, by recognizing and abandoning ignorance and the effects of ignorance. He taught a simple and direct Eightfold Path. Avoid the accommodations and embellishments that have developed since the Buddha’s passing. When looked at from Right View these are seen as continued I-making arising from these Five Hindrances.

One last thing: joining a like-minded community of Dhamma practitioners whose focus is on the actual Buddha’s Dhamma greatly supports an individual practice. Joining a community of Dhamma practitioners will provide a necessary structure to your practice. A qualified teacher will notice if you are losing direction or focus, and the community as a whole will support you with their own insights, and you will be able to support your sangha. A well-focused sangha is the third of three refuges the Buddha teaches in the Ratana Sutta. [13]

Peace.

[1] Paticcasamuppada Sutta

[2] Four Foundations of Mindfulness

[3] Eightfold Path

[4] Anapanasati Sutta

[5] Samadhi Sutta

[6] Yuganaddha Sutta

[7] Four Noble Truths

[8] Shamatha-Vipassana Meditation

[9]  Three Marks Of Existence

[10] Matt Branham’s Healing Path Acupuncture

[11] Metta Meditation

[12] Sallatha Sutta

[13] Ratana Sutta

[14] Modern Buddhism A Thicket Of Views

My Dhamma articles and talks are based primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight. (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/)

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.  

Every teaching the Buddha presented during his forty-five-year teaching career was taught in the context of Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths. I have made contextual edits to the suttas from the Sutta Pitaka for further clarity, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths supporting concentration and refined mindfulness developing skillful insight of Three Marks Of Existence.

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