Taming Hindrances in Meditation

from Following in the Buddha’s Footsteps – New Book!
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Ven. Thubten Chodron

Although we may think that we are the only ones in the meditation hall who are distracted while everyone else abides in blissful samadhi, we are not alone in having difficulty concentrating. Everyone must deal with the same hindrances in meditation.

The hindrances may manifest as images in the mind, ruminating thoughts, or powerful emotions. When a hindrance is not so strong, simply returning the mind to the object of meditation and renewing our mindfulness is sufficient. But when it is strong, we must temporarily leave the object of meditation and reflect on another topic to counteract the hindrance and bring the mind back to a balanced state.

In the Discourse on the Removal of Distracting Thoughts (Majjhima Nikaya 20), the Buddha taught five methods for doing this. In sequence they are:

1. Pay attention to a virtuous object. Precisely contemplate the opposite of the distracting thought or emotion.

  • For attachment to material possessions, contemplate impermanence.
  • For sexual desire, contemplate the parts of the body.
  • For anger, hatred, and resentment toward sentient beings, contemplate love.
  • For anger at inanimate things, analyze their components—the four elements (earth, water, fire, and wind).
  • For aversion to situations, contemplate that they are the result of your previous karma and of circumstances that you do not have control over in this life (such as other people’s actions, the weather, and so on).
  • For intellectual doubt, study the teachings.
  • For emotional doubt, contemplate the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

2. Examine the danger and disadvantages of those distracting thoughts:

  • They cause your own and others’ suffering now and in the future.
  • They obstruct wisdom, cause difficulties on the path, and lead you away from nirvana.
  • Like the carcass of a snake, dog, or human being hanging around your neck, they weigh you down.

3. Do not give attention to those thoughts; ignore them. This resembles turning our head away from something that we do not want to see. In the break time between sessions, engage in an activity that does not allow your attention to go to these thoughts: take a walk, clean the room, paint the figure of the Buddha.

4. Examine the formation of those thoughts. For example:

  • Ask yourself, Why am I thinking this? What are the factors that led to this thought or emotion coming into my mind?
  • From a detached perspective, watch the thoughts flow by until gradually the flow of thoughts quiets down.

5. “Crush mind with mind”—that is, crush the nonvirtuous mental state with a virtuous one.

 When we repeatedly apply these counterforces to the hindrances and train the mind in serenity meditation over time, nonvirtuous thoughts will decrease and the mind will become quiet, single-pointed, and concentrated. We will become the master of our own thoughts and will not be subjected to disturbing thoughts. This occurs not through unhealthy psychological repression of thoughts but by learning to work with the mind in a constructive way.

By employing these five techniques in the proper circumstances and proper manner, with practice we will be able to redirect the mind in order to attain the “higher minds”—the four dhyānas and four formless absorptions.


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