Working with the Five Hindrances

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo

Working with the Five Hindrances

In our Dhamma practice, many of us may choose to work with the five hindrances throughout our day. And we should pay attention to these hindrances and work with them because, not only are they an obstruction when we sit down to practice meditation, but they’re also very concrete manifestations of the underlying tendencies of greed, hatred and delusion, tendencies that keep us moving through Samsara (cyclical rebirth). Examining the hindrances is a good way to see how these underlying tendencies manifest themselves in our daily life.They are quite concrete if we get to know them and start to work with them in a constructive way.

Often times, with practice, we can get hooked into the paradigm of just being mindful of a particular state of mind that is happening. This paradigm is correct in some ways, but maybe not complete. We may think that if we’re aware of being with a mind state then that, in and of itself, is sufficient to deal with it. In other words, if we know that it’s there, then, presumably, we can watch its rising, its maintaining, and its cessation. That’s a primary skill of mind that we need to develop: a straight-forward, nonjudgmental awareness of a particular mind state.

With these hindrances, though, there are also real, concrete antidotes that we can use to work with them. It says in the Satipatthana Sutta that the five hindrances are to be known like all the other objects of mindfulness. But one can also reflect on how it is that an unarisen hindrance arises, how one can deal with or tend to a hindrance that’s already arisen, and how one can prevent its future arising. It’s a little bit more than bare noting of a particular hindrance. We can actually know more about it: how it comes to be, what encourages it, what nourishes it, what denourishes it, and how to work with it in a real, active sense when it’s overwhelming and doesn’t respond to bare attention.

It’s really important to know how to recognize these hindrances. Although we probably have experienced most of the hindrances many times, we often have our own tendencies. We might tend towards escaping from discomfort by using sensual gratification and indulgence. Or we may react to challenging situations with immediate irritation by using a verbal retort or with resistance by having an internal sense of heating up. Likewise, we may become confused and doubtful, or shut everything out by annihilating ourselves with sleep, or worry and become restless and anxious.

We need to take note of where our buttons get pushed and the responses that tend to be most habitual, and to start working with those aspects throughout the day. We do this to help prevent those hindrances from arising. People may also need to work with a hindrance like aversion or irritation, even when it’s not present. We can do this by learning how to develop its antidote: loving kindness. You develop this, for example, so that the strength of that antidote is within your reach to access any time you need to use it. We also work with the hindrances by developing some of their counterparts, even when we’re not experiencing such a hindrance. This can create great strength and balance so that it’s available when there is a need to bring it into action.