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The End of Suffering
Day 3: Obstacles to Meditation
(Thursday, October 7th 1999)
The Five Obstacles
Godwin: This is the third talk in the series, and the subjects of these talks have all been suggested to me. I have been told that these questions or these themes come up very often in meditation circles, and questions relating to these themes are often raised. As you know, the subject of this evening's talk is 'obstacles to meditation' and a very useful little booklet has been translated into Chinese in relation to this subject.
The translation of the Pali term for this is sometimes rendered as the five obstacles, five hindrances, five enemies but I feel that these translations have a rather negative connotation. What the Pali word means, at least one of its meanings, is that it obscures, it prevents clarity. So I will go through the five obscurities.
So the first one is having very strong sensual pleasures, a strong identification with pleasures; and the second one is having strong hatred; and the third one is restlessness and worry; and the fourth one is feeling drowsy, feeling sleepy; and the fifth one is having doubt.
I'd like to start the discussion with the first two obscurities. I would prefer to call them having very strong likes; and the second one is having very strong dislikes. So let us see how these two factors affect us in meditation and how they also affect us in our daily life.
What happens in our meditation is that we like and want only pleasant, positive experiences and then we start disliking, resisting what we consider as unpleasant experiences. So these two are reactions and these reactions can create suffering in meditation. Because when we want only pleasant experiences, positive experiences in our practice, then when we have unpleasant and negative experiences, we don't like them. So I feel that in our practice, in meditation, it is extremely important to relate to experiences which we consider both pleasant and unpleasant.
I feel that actually we can learn a great deal from what we consider as unpleasant experiences. So in meditation, if we can learn to relate to these unpleasant experiences in a positive way, then in everyday life we can learn to relate to unpleasant situations in whatever form they arise. Because it is natural that in our daily life, in everyday situations, unpleasant experiences will arise just as in our meditation. So in everyday life, if we can see such experiences also as objects of meditation, then we can really learn something very important, how to handle these unpleasant situations in everyday life, especially learning to relate to unpleasant emotions. It can be fear, it can be anger, it can be sadness, it can be guilt; in whatever way they arise, I feel that it is very important for us to learn how to handle them.
And again both in meditation and everyday life, when we have pleasant experiences, when we have positive experiences, we like those experiences to continue. Here again, we have no control and if we identify ourselves with only pleasant experiences, calm experiences, when they change what happens is that we suffer in reacting to such situations.
And in our relationships in everyday life, we also relate in two different ways to these pleasant and unpleasant experiences. When we like someone we really don't see that person just as he or she is. We will be seeing mostly only the positive and pleasant aspects of that person. And if we don't like someone, then again we'll be seeing mostly the negative in that person and we will not see the positive in such a person.
There is a very interesting statement by the Buddha in this connection. Some monks told him that there were people who were criticizing his teaching. Then the Buddha said something very fascinating. He told them that when you hear someone criticizing my teaching, if you don't like that, if you resist that, you will not really hear what is being said. And when you hear someone praising my teachings, if you are very happy and elated by that, you will not be able to really hear what is being said. So it shows very clearly, both in our meditation and in our everyday life, how these strong likes and strong dislikes can distort the picture.
Now let me make some observations about two other obscurities - feeling restless, feeling agitated and also feeling sleepy, drowsy, not having energy for the practice. Now this can be related to the question of effort in relation to the practice. If you try too hard in your practice and if you have very strong expectations, then when you don't like what is happening in your meditation, this can create a lot of restlessness, a lot of agitation, a lot of tension. And if you are not trying at all, very easily you can feel sleepy and drowsy.
I have noticed over the years that sometimes in trying too hard or not trying at all there is a cultural factor. Most of the Westerners whom I meet I find are trying too hard, because in their culture you are asked to try hard, to achieve goals and realize expectations. And most of the Sri Lankans I meet, generally speaking, they don't try at all. I am curious to know in this culture, in life here whether you try very hard or whether you are not trying at all. Can I hear some thoughts about it? In your life, do you normally try very hard to achieve things, wanting to be perfect? This is the feeling I have.
So if you have this tendency to try too hard, and along with that is the issue of being perfect, trying to do the right thing always, when such a person takes to meditation, they want to be the perfect meditator. So naturally there is tension, naturally there is stress, naturally there is agitation, naturally there is disappointment. So here again, the Buddha has advised us to discover the middle way between trying too hard and not trying at all. And this discovery you can only make by yourself, by seeing the results: restlessness, agitation, tension or whether you are feeling sleepy and drowsy.
And the last obscurity is having doubt, having no self-confidence, seeing yourself as a failure. So this can be something extremely negative. Whatever happens is not good enough, and so on; having no trust, no confidence in yourself. And this can be also related to the idea of being perfect, because when you try to be perfect, you cannot maintain that ideal of perfection. So then when you realize that you have failed, you have doubts about yourself, you are disappointed in yourself, you feel worthless in yourself.
When you reflect on these five obscurities or five obstacles, interesting theoretical questions can arise. One question that can arise is why there is no mention of guilt. I know that in this culture guilt is a very strong emotion. So why do you think that there is no reference to guilt in this list? Any suggestions? …. I would suggest that guilt can arise in relation to some of these obstacles that were mentioned. Take the first one, when you have strong likes and then with these strong likes you try to act in a particular way. Then if your action does not correspond to this idea of doing things right, guilt arises. Sometimes I have met meditators who when they are unable to be with the breath most of the time, they feel guilty. I know some meditators who when they get angry, they feel guilty about the anger, or angry about the anger.
So it is very interesting in the Buddhist psychology that in this list other related emotions are inherent, implied. Take another emotion, fear. Now why is fear not mentioned among these five obstacles? Here again, it is very simple to understand. When we have strong likes, when we have strong identifications, what happens? We fear to lose them; fear comes when our sense of ownership is threatened.
So in this way these five aspects are extremely interesting. They cover most of the emotions that bother us. Take another emotion, stress, which is a very, very common one in the modern world now. How does stress arise? Again, wanting things to happen according to your idea and fearing that you might make a mistake, this can create stress.
In the text where the five obstacles are mentioned, there is a beautiful simile that is used, and the simile is that when these obstacles become less or become absent, that state is compared to a very clear, still pool of water where you can see your own face, your own image very clearly. So yesterday I touched on some aspects of samadhi, meditation of calm, tranquility, and vipassana, insight meditation. In this simile they really come together in a very interesting way. Because when you see your image very clearly, it means that the mind is very calm, like a mirror reflecting things just as they are. So meditation of insight, of wisdom is having a mind like a mirror which reflects things just as they are.
So I'd like to briefly mention how a mirror-like mind functions, especially in our everyday life. Something that is considered beautiful comes before the mirror, and the mirror will reflect that object just as it is. Something that is considered ugly comes before the mirror and the mirror will reflect it just as it is. So in everyday life and also in meditation, when pleasant things arise, simply to reflect the pleasant thing just as it is, not to like it, not to give it a big plus. And if a very unpleasant emotion comes, whether in meditation or in everyday life, just reflect that emotion as it is without giving it a minus, without seeing it as a failure.
Maybe another aspect of a mirror-like mind is that it does not retain anything. What happens in our own experience, what happens in our everyday life? We retain in our memory certain experiences which have affected us. Someone has made us angry, hurt us and we are really holding onto this in our memory. This is what I call a wound. And sometimes we can retain these memories throughout our lives. And I would suggest that as we are still human, it is natural that we retain certain experiences which have happened to us. So what we can do in our practice is to realize that and sometimes to bring the memories up and try to heal them so that what we are retaining, what we are holding onto is released. Otherwise such wounds can affect us in many ways.
So I am afraid I have to stop at this stage and if you have any questions about the hindrances, about what we have been discussing, any practical aspects occurring either in meditation or in everyday life, please present the questions.
Retreatant: In our daily life we have hurt others either intentionally or unintentionally, and therefore we have guilt in our mind. During meditation we learn to forgive ourselves, forgive our mistakes. However the fact is that we have hurt that particular person, so when we meet that person during daily life, how do we face them?
Godwin: A very good, practical question; I think most of us can relate to that question. So if your wound has not been healed, what happens is that when you see that person, some reaction, some anger can arise. It shows you very clearly that the wound has not yet been healed. So it is good to realize in the first place how that wound has been created. If it is in relation to what the other person has done, the wound is created because we have an idea, a model, an image of how the other should behave.
So what we do in relationships is we put others on pedestals and when people fall from those pedestals, then we get hurt, we get disappointed, we get angry. And guilt arises when we have put ourselves on pedestals and then when we fall from that pedestal, we feel bad, we feel guilty. So the whole practice is to understand how these wounds have been created.
Maybe another point is that when you meet such a person, it's a very interesting opportunity; perhaps one can really play with it. Can you see that person who you are angry with as if for the first time, without the image you have been holding onto since you have been angry with them? It is very interesting how we relate to people through these old images that we have about ourselves and others. So we project these images onto others and this is how certain emotions can arise. As I said, it is a very interesting exercise to see if you can see such a person as if for the first time, then you realize you relate to him in an entirely different way.
Maybe another suggestion that comes to my mind is to try to see such people as our teachers, as spiritual friends, because they have enabled us through their behaviour to realize how wounds are created, and through that realization to learn to heal them. So if you can really feel grateful to such people, then again you will be relating to them in an entirely different way. They are our real gurus.
Retreatant: I would like to ask, some people have an obsession about hygiene. How do we face this situation?
Godwin: I used to meet people who have this problem and I have tried to help them through some aspects of meditation. So one thing is that because of this obsession they have certain emotions coming up. For example, if they think they are exposed to some situation where the hygienic conditions are not good, they feel anxious, they feel insecure, they feel stressed, they have tension. So one of the suggestions I give to them is to expose themselves to such situations, not to avoid such situations. And when these emotions that I mentioned come up, arise, then they can learn to relate to them differently. The phrase I often like to use is, "I don't feel okay, but it is okay not to feel okay". And then, at least with some people, I have realized that when they constantly expose themselves to such situations, they might have an experience where the exposure is there but the way it affects them becomes less. This can be a kind of breakthrough.
If they are afraid to confront such situations, another suggestion I offer them is to try consciously and deliberately to bring up memories of these situations. So you can just bring up those memories and observe your reactions and again, sometimes you might have an experience where the memories are brought up and there is no reaction. So what we do in life is we give such situations a lot of power and we become victims of that power. But by using some of these techniques, we take away the power and then the situation doesn't affect us as much.
Another important point is to develop self-confidence; if you can develop that confidence, then you can handle that situation. You may remember that the fifth obstacle is doubt, and calling that to mind can also be extremely helpful in working with such situations. They sound simple suggestions but I know that sometimes it's not so easy.
Retreatant: How to train in these techniques?
Godwin: So, by doing them.
Retreatant: I practice loving-kindness in the last ten minutes of my meditation sitting. Usually I practice meditation before I go to work, and maybe there is a worry that there won't be enough time, so I find that the practice of loving-kindness is not very effective. Therefore I began to practice loving-kindness in the middle of my meditation when my mind was calm and I wouldn't leave it until the last ten minutes. The effect is a little better than before, but still the effect is very minimal. Although I keep trying to practice loving-kindness during daily life as well, still I find the effect is minimal. So I don't know whether to continue to practice loving-kindness meditation or whether I should switch to something else.
Godwin: Anyway, I am happy to hear that you meditate in the morning before you go to work. It shows that if you have the motivation to meditate you can always find the time. So one suggestion I'd like to offer is that when you think that the meditation of loving-kindness is not happening in the way you believe it should happen, have loving-kindness to that. Because what happens is that if you don't like it, you resist it, and then you have an element of hatred within because your loving-kindness meditation is not happening in the way you want. But if you can say, it's not perfect but it is okay, then you'll be learning to make friends with such situations and that can be helpful.
Perhaps you are having a very highly idealistic model of what should happen when you are doing loving-kindness meditation. So maybe that is causing this reaction to practising loving-kindness. One simple suggestion I'd like to offer is that when you do loving-kindness meditation, you might try to truly see yourself as your best friend. Just really feel that you are your best spiritual friend. That can be extremely helpful.
Another very useful practice of loving-kindness is sometimes to think of the kind acts that others have done for you. We normally remember the wrong things, bad things others have done, so it is something very positive, something very useful to remember, to recall all the kind things, the good things that others have done for you. And maybe one last suggestion is to really feel happy, to rejoice that every morning you are meditating; you deserve a big plus for that.
Retreatant: When we practice mindfulness and are with every present moment, moment to moment, that is already the practice of right mindfulness; and when we have right mindfulness, this loving-kindness will arise very naturally. So is it quite unnecessary to practice loving-kindness, because if we practice right mindfulness, loving-kindness would naturally arise. So although I have no objection to the practice of loving-kindness meditation, it seems that we only need to practice right mindfulness.
Godwin: In a way, when there is moment-to-moment awareness, ideally you will be in the present most of the time. But as I said earlier, what happens is that we hold onto our past experiences. But when with mindfulness you are in the present, all these past experiences don't have a chance to come up. So it is very important to heal these past wounds that we are carrying, which is a different practice from the practice of awareness.
In this connection, there is a very interesting quotation of the Buddha. He was addressing a group of monks. And he told them that if you can practice loving-kindness during the time it takes to snap your fingers, you are worthy of being monks. So it is very interesting that even if for a few minutes you can practice loving-kindness it is very good. This is very much emphasized by the Buddha.
Maybe another point is that we can practice moment-to-moment mindfulness but sometimes we may lack the feeling of being related to other people, or the ability to see the suffering of other people, or to feel happy when other people are happy. So to cultivate these qualities of the heart can also bring a lot of joy.
Retreatant: I don't know why I always get angry. I'm a very impatient person. I don't understand.
Godwin: Are you angry now? Are you angry with me? You said you're always angry. So your practice, maybe from later today and from tomorrow, should be just to be conscious of the times when you are not angry, then you'll be surprised what a good person you are. You'll be surprised there are many moments during the day when there is no anger. So please try that and you can come and tell me the results tomorrow.
It is really funny how we see only the negative in ourselves. So there are moments when these negative traits are absent but we hardly know that they are absent. And maybe one last point is that when you get angry, maybe tomorrow, don't be angry about the anger; just realize there is anger and make friends with that anger.
So again, I am very happy that you raised some very practical, useful questions relating to your practice and everyday life; I am really happy that you are making an effort to practice meditation in this way.
Now we will take a short break and during this break, please try to be in complete silence and also try to be mindful, just to be aware of what you are doing, when you walk or whatever you are doing. And also, as we have been practising loving-kindness, just see whether you can really radiate thoughts of loving-kindness to others in the room and also see yourself as your best friend. So silence, mindfulness and opening your heart to yourself and to others. And please come back after about five minutes.
So we will meditate now. For the meditation, we will try to work with some of the obstacles that we mentioned.
So can you allow any thought to arise, any emotion to arise, any sensation to arise in the body? And whatever arises can we relate to it just as it is, without liking, without disliking as far as possible?
Maybe we can also try to be alert, awake from moment to moment so we will not feel drowsy or sleepy.
Can you have confidence and trust in yourself that you can be open to both what we consider as pleasant and unpleasant experiences? Learning to see them just as they are. Just know that you're having pleasant experiences; only don't hold on to them. If you're having any unpleasant experience, just know it clearly and don't try to get rid of it. See both situations just as they are. And be gentle to whatever is happening to your mind and body from moment to moment.
Let us try to chant with the meditative mind that we are experiencing now.
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangham saranam gacchami
Thank you very much for coming; and thank you for creating a very peaceful, atmosphere; and thank you very much for the beautiful chanting.
So when you go to your homes, may you sleep peacefully and wake up peacefully.