93 - Buddha's Teachings 12: The Five Hindrances – Part 2
95 - Lineage in Buddhism: The Intersection Between the Individual and the Collective Tradition

The Buddha taught that there are five main “hindrances” we encounter in our spiritual practice: 1) Worldly desire; 2) ill-will; 3) sloth-and-torpor; 4) restlessness-and-worry, and 5) uncertainty (or skeptical doubt). In this 3rd episode of 3, I go into detail about sloth-and-torpor, restlessness-and-worry, and uncertainty, and recommended ways to abandon them.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
The Hindrance of Sloth-and-Torpor
Abandoning the Hindrance of Sloth-and-Torpor
The Hindrance of Restlessness-and-Worry
Abandoning the Hindrance of Restlessness-and-Worry
The Hindrance of Uncertainty, or Skeptical Doubt
Abandoning the Hindrance of Skeptical Doubt
Relying on the Teaching of the Five Hindrances

 

This is the third episode of three on the Buddha’s teaching of the Five Hindrances. In the first episode I introduced the teaching as a whole and defined the hindrances. In the second episode I went into more detail about the nature of the first two hindrances, worldly desire and ill-will, and described the recommended ways to abandon them – or, at least, decrease their influence on your life and meditation. In this episode, I’ll offer the same kind of exploration for the remaining three hindrances: sloth-and-torpor; restlessness-and-worry, and uncertainty (or skeptical doubt).

The Hindrance of Sloth-and-Torpor

As I mentioned in the first episode, the hindrance translated as sloth-and-torpor is a compound word in Pali: thina-middha. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains this term in his book A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma:

“Sloth (thina) is sluggishness or dullness of mind. Its characteristic is lack of driving power. Its function is to dispel energy. It is manifested as the sinking of the mind. Its proximate cause is unwise attention to boredom, drowsiness, etc…

“Torpor (middha) is the morbid state of the mental factors. Its characteristic is unwieldiness. Its function is to smother. It is manifested as drooping, or as nodding and sleepiness. Its proximate cause is the same as that of sloth.

“Sloth and torpor always occur in conjunction, and are opposed to energy (viriya). Sloth is identified as sickness of consciousness (cittagelañña), torpor as sickness of the mental factors (kāyagelañña).”[i]

In other words, we’re caught by the hindrance of sloth when we lose interest in making a positive effort. Sloth is a conscious choice to give up striving and instead indulge ourselves in what’s easy or comfortable. As I discussed in the first episode on this topic, it’s obviously important to take care of ourselves, get enough rest, and avoid getting too caught up in striving for specific results. At the same time, the concept of “striving” has a somewhat negative connotation that fails to capture the importance of making an effort to fulfill our own aspirations – including maintaining our peace of mind, physical health, and wholesome human relationships.

Sloth could also be called laziness, which from a Buddhist point of view is failure to apply what is wholesome. I like that definition of laziness because it’s not about a character flaw, it’s about the choices we make when we actually already know better. We know making time to meditate or exercise is good for us, and part of us wants to do the healthy thing, but instead we let frivolous activities expand to fill our available time. We know our life is short and it’s a waste of time to daydream about the plots of television shows while we’re meditating, but it’s easy and vaguely pleasurable to daydream, whereas making an effort to concentrate or let go in meditation takes work and might set you up for disappointment.

Here’s a description of laziness from Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva:

“An inclination for unwholesome ways,
Despondency, and self-contempt.
Complacent pleasure in the joys of idleness,
A craving for repose and sleep,
No qualms about the sorrows of samsara:
These are the source and nurse of laziness.”

Torpor, then, follows sloth: Our lack of effort leads to a dullness of mind and body, which in turn makes us feel even less inclined to make an effort. Therefore, these two factors – thina and middha, sloth-and-torpor, are seen as a pair that always occur together.

Abandoning the Hindrance of Sloth-and-Torpor

How to we abandon the hindrance of sloth-and-torpor, or at least decrease the influence it has on us? As with the other hindrances, we first become mindful and aware of the hindrance, “Oh, the hindrance of sloth-and-torpor has arisen in me.” Just recognizing a hindrance takes away some of its power, because, when we’re unaware, the hindrances have an intoxicating, self-perpetuating quality (they convince us to surrender to them more and more).

Then, with mindfulness, we take note of the nutriments of the hindrance – that is, what’s feeding it. Even the ancient scriptures pointed out that overeating contributes to sloth-and-torpor, and most of us have a pretty good idea of what other kinds of habits encourage laziness and dullness, such overindulging in alcohol, drugs, television, or social media, or procrastinating healthy activities instead of giving them priority in our daily life. To whatever extent possible, we deprive sloth-and-torpor of its nutriments. Then, as with the other hindrances, we seek out the support of noble friendship and suitable conversation. Rather than hanging out with similarly lazy friends, we find a way to spend time with people who know how to avoid being overcome with sloth-and-torpor, or people who inspire us to greater things.

What about fighting sloth-and-torpor in a particular situation, within our own minds and bodies? In the case of this particular hindrance, we may need to do this internal work, at least to some extent, before we can even motivate ourselves to change our habits, seek out noble friendship, or limit ourselves to suitable conversation. The essence of abandoning sloth-and-torpor is arousing energy instead – doing whatever works for us in a given time or place. For example, in the “Nodding” Sutta, the Buddha gave some very basic recommendations for fighting drowsiness during meditation: Recalling inspiring Dharma teachings, or even reciting them out loud; pulling on your earlobes or rubbing your limbs; getting up and washing your face; practicing awareness of light, or doing walking meditation. At the end of his list of recommendations, the Buddha suggests, if nothing else works, taking a short and mindful nap.[ii] Another recommendation for convincing yourself to abandon sloth-and-torpor are to contemplate impermanence, or how brief your life is and how precious a practice opportunity this moment is.

When dealing with sloth-and-torpor, it often helps me to imagine how much energy I would suddenly have if I found out my life was going to end in a few hours. When we’re caught up in laziness and dullness, we usually feel like this is a physical phenomenon we can’t do much about beyond slacking off or taking a nap. It’s certainly true that we’re often sleep-deprived in modern society. However, if we really believed we had only a few hours left to live, regardless of our physical condition we’d most likely feel wide awake and incredibly focused on what’s going on. This proves that, at least to some extent, the amount of sloth-and-torpor we experience is at least partly a mental and spiritual matter, not a purely physical one.

When you’re dealing with sloth-and-torpor, what would help wake you up? What would motivate you? Chances are good you have some ideas, and it’s just a matter of summoning enough energy to move toward those positive actions instead of letting yourself slide further into laziness. Maybe you need to join a support group, or get advice from a teacher, or commit to classes at a gym, or prioritize reading things that arouse your deepest aspirations. In a moment of meditation, maybe you need to temporarily let go of meditative techniques that are meant to cultivate stillness and equanimity, and spend some time contemplating more energetic mental factors. In the “Right and Wrong Times” Sutta, the Buddha explains,

“…when the mind is sluggish it is the wrong time to cultivate the enlightenment-factors of tranquillity, concentration and equanimity, because a sluggish mind is hard to arouse through these factors… But, monks, when the mind is sluggish, that is the right time to cultivate the enlightenment-factor of investigation-of-states, the enlightenment-factor of energy, the enlightenment-factor of rapture. What is the reason? A sluggish mind is easy to arouse by these factors.”[iii]

I don’t have time to go into detail about what the Buddha meant by cultivating the enlightenment-factors of investigation-of-states, energy, or rapture during meditation. If you’re curious, I’m sure you can search Access to Insight website for suggested meditations. However, you’re welcome to experiment and try things that work for you – maybe imagining as vividly as possible that this is the last day of your life, or recalling and contemplating your deepest aspirations, or doing Metta practice for the people you care about.

One last thing about abandoning sloth-and-torpor: I really don’t think it helps to beat ourselves up when we’re faced with this hindrance. Feeling guilty or crappy about ourselves is only going to discourage us and further sap our energy. Instead, it’s valuable to turn toward something that naturally gives you joy in a wholesome way – something that will help lift you out of the cycle of sloth-and-torpor.

The Hindrance of Restlessness-and-Worry

This brings us to the hindrance of restlessness-and-worry, uddhacca-kukkucca. This is another hindrance with a name formed by a compound of two words: uddhacca (restlessness) and kukkucca (worry). Bhikkhu Bodhi defines these terms in A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma:

“Restlessness (uddhacca): Restlessness (or agitation) has the characteristic of disquietude, like water whipped up by the wind. Its function is to make the mind unsteady, as wind makes a banner ripple. It is manifested as turmoil. Its proximate cause is unwise attention to mental disquiet.

“Worry (kukkucca): Kukkucca is worry or remorse after having done wrong. Its characteristic is subsequent regret. Its function is to sorrow over what has and what has not been done. It is manifested as remorse. Its proximate cause is what has and what has not been done (i.e. wrongs of commission and omission).”[iv]

It’s interesting that the Buddha presented uddhacca-kukkucca as one hindrance instead of two, because restlessness can have a very different quality than worry or remorse. It may be helpful to go ahead and think of these as two separate hindrances, but I think what the Buddha was getting at was that uddhacca-kukkucca includes all of our compulsive fault-finding and problem-solving thinking. Restlessness-and-worry is the manifestation of dukkha, the dis-ease or suffering we experience because life is never exactly how we want it to be.

The preoccupations of uddhacca-kukkucca may be serious, like anxiety about our financial security. They may involve finding fault with the self, blaming ourselves for our shortcomings and mistakes, and experiencing fear we won’t be able to cope with the future. Uddhacca-kukkucca may also be fairly subtle or superficial – an unwillingness to face the dukkha of this moment, resulting in the mind generating whatever random thoughts it can in order to provide us with some distraction and entertainment. In a Dharma Talk on the Five Hindrances (I have a link to the talk on the website), Ajahn Brahmavamso suggests this hindrance “is caused by the fault-finding state of mind which cannot be satisfied with things as they are, and so has to move on to the promise of something better, forever just beyond.”[v] As I mentioned in the first episode, I see this hindrance as being similar to the “default mode” identified by modern psychological research: Our minds are consumed with self-referential processing whenever we aren’t actively engaged with a task or being entertained.

Restlessness-and-worry may, at times, be difficult to distinguish from the hindrance of worldly desire. In reality, when we’re feeling hindered in our practice – in daily life or in meditation – we may be caught up in more than one of the hindrances! It certainly seems like they can feed on each other (like sloth making us less likely to refrain from dwelling on ill-will, and then getting caught up in worry about how to deal with the subject of our ill-will). In any case, when it comes to the difference between restlessness-and-worry and worldly desire, I think of it as a difference in feeling tone. When we’re caught up in worldly desire, there’s an outward-facing, positive attraction toward something we anticipate will be pleasurable or exciting. When we’re caught up in restlessness-and-worry, we may be preoccupied with obtaining or accomplishing “worldly” things, but more as solutions to problems and deficits.

I was reflecting on this quality of restlessness-and-worry and realized that my main hindrance in meditation might not be worldly desire after all, as I suggested in the last episode. Part of me may feel worldly desire for the satisfaction of improving my Zen center or podcast or garden, or coming up with a better way to explain something, but for me, pleasure and problem solving are rather conflated (because I genuinely enjoy problem solving). Therefore, I sometimes can notice a restless compulsion for constant improvement underneath my desire to do beneficial projects, which has something of a negative feeling tone – arising from a subtle belief that nothing is ever good enough just as it is.

Abandoning the Hindrance of Restlessness-and-Worry

The value of teasing apart our hindrances and categorizing them, as I just did, lies in developing clarity about what to do about them. In the case of restlessness-and-worry, we of course go through the standard course of action when dealing with a hindrance: becoming mindful of it, depriving it of any nutriments we can, seeking out noble friendship, and limiting ourselves to suitable conversation.

One of the things we may discover in this process is that our behavior is causing problems in our life. Ajahn Brahmavamso states, “It is virtually impossible for the immoral or the self indulgent to make deep progress in meditation.”[vi] A classic recommendation for dealing with restlessness and worry is deepening your familiarity with the Buddhist codes of moral conduct. Fundamentally, if we’re making a karmic mess of our lives by lying, cheating, stealing, being irresponsible, etc., it’s going to be pretty much impossible to calm the mind in meditation, or focus on the more subtle aspects of our spiritual practice. This is why the Eightfold Path as presented by the Buddha from the outset emphasized appropriate behavior as much as it did meditation or understanding, as I explain in Episode 22 – How Buddhists Should Behave: Evolution of the Buddhist Precepts Part 1.

Assuming your life and moral conduct or more or less in good order, then how to you deal with restlessness-and-worry? Buddhist scriptures recommend more Dharma study, as well as focusing on practices meant to calm the mind and cultivate equanimity. However, the most striking and accessible approach to abandoning restlessness-and-worry I discovered in my research – and in my own practice – is cultivating contentment or spiritual happiness. In his Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma Bhikkhu Bodhi describes the Pali term sukha, or happiness, when used to refer to a meditative factor:

“Happiness (sukha): This jhāna [meditative] factor is pleasant mental feeling. It is identical with somanassa, joy, and not with the sukha of pleasant bodily feeling… [The jhāna factor of] sukha, also rendered as bliss, is born of detachment from sensual pleasures; it is therefore explained as nirāmisasukha, unworldly or spiritual happiness. It counters the hindrance of restlessness and worry (uddhaccakukkucca).”[vii]

So, we can work to abandon restlessness-and-worry by cultivating spiritual happiness or contentment (I prefer the term “contentment” because it suggests peace more than giddiness). This approach fits well with my preferred method of practice: letting go, as opposed to directed effort. When we feel restlessness-and-worry, we have a choice to continue to find fault and problem solve, or to take a moment to appreciate ourselves and our lives just as they are. After all, no matter how much we think and worry, no matter how hard we work, there will always be problems and deficits in the world, our lives, and in ourselves. As responsible and compassionate people we’ll keep trying to improve things, but the spiritual question we face is this: Are we going to let our lives be ruled by our compulsion to avoid discomfort and dissatisfaction through frantic activity?

What does the practice of cultivating contentment involve, in the moment? After all, we’re facing a hindrance based on discontentment – our experience of dukkha, pervasive dissatisfaction. To some extent this is something we just have to keep working at, until we discover a way to let go of our fault-finding and problem-solving activities, at least for a few moments at a time. Perhaps this is why the traditional recommendations for working on the hindrance of uddhacca-kukkucca include more Dharma study; it’s beneficial for us to deepen our curiosity about, and faith in, Dharma practice. The Buddha, and teachers, and fellow practitioners, encourage us to let go of our discontentment with ourselves, our lives, and life in general, at least long enough to perceive the absolute aspect of reality – the way in which perfect peace of mind is available right here and now, or the way in which everyone and everything is luminous, precious, and whole just as they are. (See my Handy Chart of Absolute and Relative for more on this topic.)

The Hindrance of Uncertainty, or Skeptical Doubt

Finally, then, we come to the hindrance of uncertainty, or skeptical doubt: vicikicchā. I’ll let Bhikkhu Bodhi take care of the definition for us again:

“Doubt (vicikicchā): Doubt here signifies spiritual doubt, from a Buddhist perspective the inability to place confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, and the training. Its characteristic is doubting. Its function is to waver. It is manifested as indecisiveness and as taking various sides. Its proximate cause is unwise attention.”[viii]

As I discussed in the first episode on the hindrances, the hindrance of skeptical doubt is not the wholesome and responsible doubt we’re meant to bring to practice. The Buddha was clear that we’re supposed to investigate and question the teachings, and verify their efficacy and truth for ourselves. The hindrance of skeptical doubt arises when we can’t actually engage our practice at all because we’re so preoccupied with the questions of, “Is this the right path? Is this the fastest path? Is there something wrong with this teacher? Is there something wrong with this Sangha? Can I do this? I don’t understand everything yet, am I making the wrong choice getting involved in this? I’ve seen some shortcomings and flaws in the people doing this practice, and in the practice itself, does this mean the whole thing is a sham, or even harmful?”

There are certainly times to ask these kinds of questions. Blind faith, unfortunately, has led to many unethical and harmful actions being tolerated by people committed to some particular religion or spiritual practice. Fortunately, blind faith is not the antidote to the hindrance of skeptical doubt.

Perhaps the best way to distinguish reasonable and wise questioning from the hindrance of spiritual doubt is how repetitive, intrusive, and unquenchable the doubt is – even while the facts on the ground aren’t enough for us to actually abandon the spiritual path we’re on. In other words, at some level we’ve concluded our path is sufficient, at least for now. We’re not in the middle of a terrible, unethical, or fraudulent spiritual community or tradition. Even if our path and the people on it have flaws, we have no better alternative at the moment. So, we continue… but don’t make any progress because we keep rehashing the same doubts over and over. Sometimes the doubts are about the path, sometimes they’re about our own abilities, but they keep us standing on the edge of the pool, gingerly dipping our toe in the water but never able to jump in.

Abandoning the Hindrance of Skeptical Doubt

To gain some freedom from the hindrance of skeptical doubt, we first become mindful of it. Sometimes just recognizing what’s going on helps. For example, if you’re really able to see what’s going on for you in the terms I just described above, chances are good you’ll feel motivated to build up the courage to jump in the pool instead of lingering at the side, hedging your bets. A nutriment of skeptical doubt is staying focused on the subjects of your doubt instead of on your experience of the hindrance itself, so turning toward your doubt in an objective way is starting to extricate yourself from it. Follow that up with seeking noble friendship and suitable conversation, and you’re on your way to abandoning the hindrance of vicikicchā.

Ajahn Brahmavamso suggests postponing evaluation – of your practice, yourself, the path – until after meditation. I think this is a great suggestion. In other words, don’t try to shut down your faculty of critical thinking permanently (as if that were possible), just postpone evaluative thoughts until an appropriate time.

Personally, I’ve wasted plenty of time on the meditation cushion – and off – pondering the efficacy of the practice I’ve chosen to do, or criticizing the teacher, the Sangha, Buddhist institutions, you name it. It’s difficult for many of us not to imagine there might be some perfect practice out there that would be easy for us to understand and master, and would quickly result in us becoming the saintly and contented person we know we could be. It’s difficult not to daydream about a practice community with a truly enlightened teacher with no shortcomings and a harmonious sangha composed of people more like us. And yet the Buddhist path of practice doesn’t depend on us finding these perfect situations (fortunately!). Instead, we’re being asked to drop all self-centered desire and fear, and recognize the perfection immanent in this moment, right here, right now.

When we recognize we’re being hindered by skeptical doubt, we can contemplate the implications of not abandoning that doubt. It means we’re unlikely to awaken in the way we want to.

Just for fun, I want to share a poem a wrote about this topic many years ago:

SKEPTIC – by Domyo Burk

You say: I cannot have faith until I have proof.
But you will never find the proof
until you have faith.
Question anything of real importance –
God, Enlightenment, Magic,
the fundamental Goodness of the human heart –
and the incontestable evidence
is invisible to the Skeptic.
You say: Then this “evidence” is merely delusion
conjured up by wishful thinking.
But those who have proven it to themselves
know this is not the case.
They dance with exuberance, free from doubt.
You say: They are dancing because
they have put blinders on, and ignore
the dismal and dreary truth.
But while they are dancing,
what are you doing?

Relying on the Teaching of the Five Hindrances

In conclusion, the Buddha’s teachings of the five hindrances are a helpful way to frame the ways we get stuck in practice – on the meditation cushion, and in the midst of our everyday lives. Whenever you notice your practice feels obstructed instead of flowing, one or more of these hindrances is present. One more piece from Ajahn Brahmavamso:

“I tell people, that when you’re meditating, if there is a blockage, if you can’t get further, it must be one of the five hindrances. Be methodical in the meditation practise, and so that you don’t waste so much time, discover which hindrance it is, then you can identify the problem, and you can find a solution.”[ix]

And in case you think the five hindrances are mostly about meditation, here’s something from Nyanaponika Thera:

“This widespread harmful influence of the five hindrances shows the urgent necessity of breaking down their power by constant effort. One should not believe it sufficient to turn one’s attention to the hindrances only at the moment when one sits down for meditation. Such last-minute effort in suppressing the hindrances will rarely be successful unless helped by previous endeavor during one’s ordinary life.”[x]

To rephrase Nyanaponika Thera’s recommendations in terms of “letting go” practice, I would say there’s an urgent necessity for us to recognize the five hindrances in our lives, and how we indulge them and cling to them. We should ask ourselves what we really want, and explore our experience intimately until we find a point of choice – a point where we can choose to deepen our awareness of dukkha and impermanence, release self-centered obsessions, awaken a passion for our lives and practice, cultivate contentment, and take the leap of faith necessary to move forward on our spiritual path.

 

Sources

Bodhi, Bhikkhu. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha (Vipassana Meditation and the Buddha’s Teachings). Pariyatti Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Brahmavamso, Ajahn. The Five Hindrances: A talk given by Ajahn Brahmavamso at Bodhinyana Monastery, 2001. http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books7/Ajahn_Brahm_Five_Hindrances.pdf
Buswell, Robert E. Jr., and Donald S. Lopez Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Fronsdal, Gil. The Dhammapada: A new translation of the Buddhist classic with annotations. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition, 2005.
Nyanaponika Thera. “The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest: Selected Texts from the Pali Canon and the Commentaries.” Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel026.html .
Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1997.
Thanissaro, Bhikku. The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon. Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1996. (Also available online: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/index.html.)

Endnotes

[i] Bhikkhu Bodhi, Location 2306
[ii] “Capala (Pacala) Sutta: Nodding” (AN 7.58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.058.than.html .
[iii] “Aggi Sutta: Fire” (SN 46.53), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn46/sn46.053.than.html .
[iv] Bhikkhu Bodhi, Location 2283
[v] Brahmavamso (see above)
[vi] Brahmavamso (see above)
[vii] Bhikkhu Bodhi, Location 1774
[viii] Bhikkhu Bodhi, Location 2312
[ix] Brahmavamso, pg 13.
[x] Nyanaponika Thera, see above.

 

93 - Buddha's Teachings 12: The Five Hindrances – Part 2
95 - Lineage in Buddhism: The Intersection Between the Individual and the Collective Tradition
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