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The five hindrances to meditative stabilization

The five hindrances to meditative stabilization

The text turns to training the mind on the stages of the path of advanced level practitioners. Part of a series of teachings on the Gomchen Lamrim by Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa. Visit Gomchen Lamrim Study Guide for a full list of contemplation points for the series.

  • The causes of and antidotes to lethargy and sleepiness
  • Overcoming agitation and regret
  • Recognizing and removing deluded doubt
  • Five methods to counteract the hindrances from the Pali tradition
  • An overview of the five faults and eight antidotes

Gomchen Lamrim 113: The five hindrances to meditative stabilization (download)

Contemplation points

  1. Consider the third of the five hindrances: lethargy and sleepiness. There are both mental and physical aspects to these. How have you seen lethargy and sleepiness operate in your own life, both on and off the cushion? Why is this such a hindrance to concentration? What are the antidotes you can apply to counter the mind of lethargy and sleepiness?
  2. Consider the fourth of the five hindrances: agitation and regret. What kinds of things do you feel anxious about or regret? What story do you tell yourself about events in your life that leads to anxiety or regret? Why are these such a hindrance to concentration? Nagarjuna implores us to put down what we have regretted and purified, to let it go. Why does making ourselves suffer from guilt not help us to grow and change? Do you find it difficult to put things down? What can you do to cultivate this skill? What other antidotes can you apply to counter this hindrance?
  3. Consider the fifth of the five hindrances: deluded doubt. Nagarjuna states that its like standing at a fork in the road and being so paralyzed by the decision, that we go nowhere. He says that it is the worst of the mental factors. Why do you think this is so? Venerable Chodron said that in choosing the path that is most beneficial, she asks herself how she can best keep her ethical conduct and to contemplate bodhicitta. Consider a decision you have made, or are in the process of making, in this light. Does shifting your mind in this way change the way you think about the choice? How might your decisions be different if you favor good ethical conduct and bodhicitta over what might bring you the most worldly happiness?
  4. Go over each of the five ways to oppose the hindrances: contemplate the opposite of what is distracting you, examine the disadvantage of that particular hindrance, don’t give attention to the thought, give attention to stilling the thought formation (investigate WHY you are thinking that thought, what conditions led up to having the thought, watch the thoughts from a detached viewpoint, etc), crush the non-virtuous mental state with a virtuous one. Spend some time on each of these. Have you employed these in your practice? If so, in what situations were they useful? What can you do to cultivate and strengthen them, using them more readily to overcome the hindrances both on and off the cushion?


Let’s come back to the motivation that makes our life highly meaningful and very worthwhile: the motivation to attain full awakening. We do this not because we want the highest, most exalted state for ourselves alone, but because at Buddhahood we’ll have all the qualities necessary so we can really benefit others.

We won’t be limited by fear, which sometimes makes us have a lack of compassion for others. Won’t be limited by ignorance, which doesn’t know what to do in order to benefit them. We won’t be limited by a lack of ability or lack of skill that doesn’t have the power to really carry out our altruistic intentions. Instead, spontaneously and effortlessly, benefit will flow from us. Needless to say, this is going to take a lot of time and a complete revamping of who we are, but it’s the most worthwhile thing we can do.


Last time we talked about the Forty Objects of Meditation in that Virata tradition, the Pali tradition. Then we started to talk about the five hindrances which are included in what is discussed in common in the Pali tradition, the Tibetan tradition, and in the Chinese tradition. These five hindrances are different from the five faults. The five faults are taught by Maitreya and Asanga in conjunction with the eight antidotes. There are different sets of five. There’s some relationship between the two but don’t confuse them.

These are five things that pretty much pop-up in our mind constantly during the day, and they are hindrances not only to generating concentration but also to keeping good ethical conduct and being productive even in a worldly way. I think last time we talked about the first two: sensual desire and malice. No one here has a problem with these, right? None of us have a problem with sensual desire. We have complete satisfaction with our clothes, our food, our residence, medicine, friends—everything. We’re 100% satisfied and content, right?

So, we don’t have that one. And we don’t have malice either. We don’t hold any grudges towards other living beings. No, we don’t want to retaliate for things that they’ve done to us. We don’t want to destroy their happiness or insult them or anything. It’s always other people who do that, right? They do that to us—unnecessarily. Okay, now that we got that cleared up. [laughter]

Lethargy and sleepiness

The third one is lethargy and sleepiness. Do you have that? You do? Oh my goodness gracious. So, let’s talk about lethargy and sleepiness. [Venerable Chodron yawns] If I can stay awake to do it. [laughter] Lethargy and sleepiness manifest both physically and mentally. Lethargy is a heaviness—a physical heaviness and a mental heaviness. Physically we kind of hang our head. Mentally we’re weak, spaced out. Yeah, you know it well. We don’t have any energy; we’re bored. We don’t want to exert any energy to be interested in anything. We’re just kind of sitting there waiting for something interesting to happen. 

Sometimes it feels like we’re in a mental fog. We can’t concentrate—or we don’t even want to concentrate, actually. Sometimes this can happen because our mind is very stuck in negativity and being discontent. When we have a lot of malice and a complaining mind, our mind can get very dull like that. Sleepiness is drowsiness on the way to sleep, and sometimes we may even get into that state where you’re kind of starting to fall asleep and dreaming a little bit. We get like that in meditation, and then we think, “Oh, this is kind of nice and blissful, and look at all these kinds of dreams that I’m having. It must be some realization in my mind.” [laughter]

This sleepiness is not related usually to lack of sleep. It’s like an obscuration, and it’s not usually related to physical tiredness. It more of a karmic obscuration. Sometimes I think it’s as if we’ve stepped over Dharma books or disrespected Dharma items or statues or something similar in a previous life so then our mind becomes very obscure in this life. If we oversleep our mind can be very dull when we try to sit down and meditate, so we have to really invigorate the body and mind. Even though sleep and lethargy are distinct mental factors, they’re explained here together because they have the same cause; they function in a similar way; and they have the same antidote. 

They both arise from eating too much, sleeping too much, having an unhappy mind, and being mentally depressed, too. They function to make the mind dull and unwieldy. We can’t do anything with a lethargic or a sleepy mind. But sometimes we can do physical activities to disperse them. That’s why I think it’s very good to do a lot of prostrations. If you’re having a lot of trouble with sleepiness then before your session do the Thirty-five Buddhas. That will usually wake you up, plus it’s purifying the negative karma that causes the dullness and heaviness. Also, make sure that you’re sitting up straight and don’t be too warm. Sometimes we like to bundle up as some people are very cold, but other people like to bundle up and be kind of toasty, and that will make you sleepy and lethargic in meditation. It’s better to be a little bit cool.

And then you might want to turn up the lights, or go outside before you sit and look at the sky to expand your mind to see something very big. When you are meditating, you can visualize lights. If you’re visualizing the Buddha, make the Buddha very bright. If you’re doing the breathing meditation, imagine that you’re inhaling light that fills your entire body and you’re exhaling dark smoke that completely disappears when it leaves you.

I wanted to read you the verses from Nagarjuna’s commentary on wisdom. This is in the Chinese canon. I can’t remember if I read this to you during the concentration retreat, but if I can’t remember, maybe you can’t either, so it’s good to read it again. Nagarjuna says:

You, get up. Don’t lie there hugging that stinking corpse. That is all sorts of impurities falsely designated as a person. It’s as if you’ve gotten a serious disease or been shot by an arrow with such an accumulation of suffering and pain. How can you sleep? You have five polluted aggregates—how can you sleep and just think that that’s fine? The entire world is burned-up by the fire of death. You should be seeking means of escape. How then can you sleep? You’re like a person in shackles being led to his execution. With disastrous harm so imminent, how can you sleep? With insurgent fetters not yet destroyed, and their harm not yet averted, it’s as if you were sleeping in a room with a venomous snake and as if you have met up with soldiers gleaming blades. At such a time, how could it be that you can still sleep? Sleep is a vast darkness in which nothing is visible. Every day it deceives and steals away your clarity. When sleep blankets the mind, you are not aware of anything. With such great faults as these, how can you sleep?

So, when Nagarjuna asks you a question like that, how are you going to answer?

Audience: I’m tired. [laughter]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): And what is Nagarjuna going to say?

Audience: Get up!

VTC: Yeah, that’s exactly what he’s going to say.

Actually, in Chinese monasteries they have “wake up devices.” One is a piece of wood that’s attached to the meditator’s ear with a string, and when he nods off it falls and pulls the ear. Another is a stick. We have one here. I haven’t seen it recently. Maybe we better get it out. It’s used to hit on the meditator’s back, and it makes a cracking sound on an acupressure point, and that arouses the mind and body. Often in Chan monasteries, if you’re falling asleep you’ll motion to the person who is supervising the meditation session that you want to be struck because you want to wake up. We don’t want to wake up. We hope there is nobody supervising and nobody looking as we fall asleep, but the Chan practitioners want to wake up, and so they make a motion and then somebody comes and whacks them.

What Nagarjuna says really makes sense because we’re going towards death, and at the time of death there’s no opportunity to say, “Gee, I wasted a whole lot of time nodding off and sleeping and ditching meditation sessions—not showing up. Now I want to go back and have that time again.” There’s no opportunity to do that at the time we’re dying.

Agitation and regret

The fourth of the five hindrances is again two things that are put together because they have some similarities—even though initially we may not see the similarities. These are agitation and regret. Agitation is sometimes translated as excitement by the Tibetan translators, and by the Theravada translators it’s often translated as restlessness. It’s a mind that can’t stay put and tends to go off towards desirable objects. Regret is a mind of remorse—feeling like we didn’t do what we should have done or we did do what we shouldn’t have done. It’s a feeling of uneasiness, wishing we had done something differently. 

Feeling that regret in some situations may even be virtuous, like when we regret our destructive actions. But in the context of trying to develop concentration and serenity, that kind of regret also becomes an obstacle because it takes us away from our object of meditation. So, agitation and regret share the same kind of factors. They both have inappropriate attention to relatives, land, health, previous pleasures, companions, and so on, and both of them lack the same feature, which is calmness and tranquility. That’s why they are put together. 

Agitation is a restlessness of the mind that includes anxiety, fear, apprehension, and worry. It’s very good to get to know the things we become anxious about and then trace it, become aware, thinking: “When am I anxious, what is it that triggered this anxiety?” and “What is the story that I’m telling myself that is fueling this anxiety?” We can get anxious over all sorts of thoughts: “I’m not good enough. They don’t like me. I don’t fit in. What’s going to happen in the future? I’m going to lose my job. I’m going to go broke. My relationship is going to fall apart. Nobody’s going to love me. I’m going to be on the streets.” We hallucinate all sorts of things that we get quite anxious about because we’re really concerned that they’re going to happen. 

None of this anxiety concerns other people’s suffering. It’s all involved in our own suffering or the suffering of somebody that we’re attached to. You might get anxious over your child’s welfare or your parent’s welfare or your dear friend’s welfare, but again, it’s because they’re attached to you in some way. And then our mind goes off.

We write all sorts of horror stories about our health, too. We get anxious about our health. We have the sniffles and we’re sure that we have lung cancer. We have some small itches, and we’re sure that it’s shingles. We have all sorts of little aches and pains and think, “For sure, I have cancer. I have kidney disease. I have all of them rolled up into one. I’m sure.” And then we become very, very anxious about our health. Of course, that anxiety makes us sick when we may not be. It’s so interesting to watch how the mind gets so anxious over the state of our body

Anybody have that problem? Oh, a few people do—interesting. We could spend a long time on anxiety, can’t we? We could spend a whole long time and go round, round, round, round with worry, fear, apprehension, planning: “What doctor am I going to go to? I better call tomorrow for an appointment. I better ask the Venerable Jigme what types of tests they’re going to do or how long do I have to live, because I’m sure that this is going to be bad. Am I going to be able to get an appointment for kidney dialysis. I’m sure I need dialysis.” We could go on and on and on. We drive ourselves crazy, and we drive other people crazy, and we use up our precious human life worrying about things that are usually not going to happen. But if they happen, then we’ll deal with them when they happen. 

We spend so much time worrying, and when we worry it drives the people near us crazy—says the daughter of a worrying mother. And the son of a worrying mother. It’s like, “Mom, relax—please.” It’s so stifling to have somebody worry about you like that. Again, we can’t settle down. There’s an incessant flow of thoughts. The mind’s just all over the place in the past, in the future. That’s restlessness—agitation, anxiety. 

So, agitation and regret are separate mental factors, but they’re put together because they have the same cause, the same function, and the same antidote. Both of them arise due to preoccupations with friends, relatives, amusements, good times, and so on. Both of them function to make the mind unsettled, and serenity is their antidote. Reflecting on impermanence and death is also very helpful if you don’t get anxious about those. 

Sometimes our remorse and our worry is about our meditation. “Will I ever be able to meditate properly? Will I ever gain serenity? Other people can do it better than I am. Why am I always the last one?” Okay, so you’ve got those two, right? Here’s what Nagarjuna says:

If a person is able to feel regret for an offense, having regretted it, you should then put it down and let it go.

Instead of over and over and over again: “Mea Culpa, mea culpa. Look what I did. Look what’s happening. This is terrible.” Instead, we should purify and put it down.

In this way, the mind abides peaceful and happy. You should not constantly remain attached to it in your thoughts.

Sometimes when we’ve done something that we really regret, we don’t actually let ourselves let it all go. That’s why at the end of the Vajrasattva practice we imagine Vajrasattva saying to us, “All your negativities have been purified.” It’s a way to try and convince us to release this.

If you possess the two kinds of remorse for not having done what you should have done or having done what you should not have done, because this remorse attaches to the mind, this then is the mark of a foolish person. It is not the case that on account of feeling guilty, you will somehow be able to do what you failed to do.

We think that, don’t we? “If I make myself feel bad enough then somehow I’m going to be able to atone for what I did and be able to do what I didn’t do before”—or something like that. “I’ll make myself suffer, and by making myself suffer, I will clear away the negativity.” That’s ridiculous.

All of the ill deeds that you have already committed cannot be caused to become undone.

Guilt doesn’t undo anything; you doing purification does.

Deluded doubt

The fifth hindrance is deluded doubt. Doubt is the mind of indecisiveness, and it can manifest in two ways in our meditation. One is having genuine questions about the meditation method or the path. We may not be sure how to do the meditation, or we may have had some experience and we need some clarification about it. These kinds of doubts can be clarified by consulting with our spiritual mentor or a good Dharma friend. 

The other kind of doubt is the useless spinning of thoughts. Often we have so many options to choose from in our life that we can’t decide what to do, and we doubt if we’re going to make the right decision. “I’m going to a retreat, but should I do a Tara retreat or should I do a serenity retreat? Or should I do a serenity retreat using Tara as the object of meditation? Or maybe I should meditate on tonglen—taking and giving—or maybe I should meditate on death and impermanence because they say that one is so essential for being motivated. I don’t know what kind of meditation to do in my retreat. Which one do I do? If I do that, then this. If I do this, then that.” You can spend your entire meditation session trying to figure out what kind of meditation you’re doing.

Or, you’re sitting there in meditation thinking, “Okay, I’m at this center doing this retreat. Where am I going to go after this retreat is over? There are still three months to the retreat, but I need to plan ahead. Where am I going to go? Let’s see, I could go to this Dharma center. I could go to that Dharma center. I could go to India. I could go to France. I could go to Sravasti Abbey. Which one should I do? But you know what? Maybe I need to try different Buddhist traditions, so maybe I should go to a Theravada monastery or a Zen monastery or a Chan monastery. Maybe I should just do mindfulness meditation and use an app. Everybody’s doing that nowadays, and I don’t have to pay for an air ticket that way. Which kind of meditation should I do? Where should I do it? What traditions should I follow? Who’s my teacher? I like that teacher, but sometimes they bug me. I like this teacher, but they also bug me. I like the other teacher, but they point out my faults. But I like this teacher, and they have a good sense of humor, but I don’t really resonate. And that teacher, I don’t know. And so, I don’t know who to choose for my teacher. I don’t know what practice to select. I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing. I have so many choices. I have freedom. I am free to choose what I can do in the supermarket of not just 32 flavors but 32 million flavors of Dharma, where I can go.” 

Anybody know that? We just spin with doubts. Or even while we’re doing the meditation, we might think: “Okay, I’m sitting here. I have a restless mind. Now, what’s the antidote for a restless mind? I’m not sure about what the meditation is on because if I meditate on impermanence and death, that’ll make me want to meditate more, but also it makes me lose energy, and they say when your mind’s depressed, you should do something that raises energy, so I don’t know. Should I meditate on impermanence and death, or should I meditate on the qualities of the Buddha in order to get rid of my slightly low energy mind? I really don’t know what I should do.” Anybody have that problem? 

We just stay totally stuck—again, whirling around. All these things are just distractions dreamed up by our self-centered mind to keep us from actually developing any spiritual abilities. They also say that this kind of deluded doubt is like having a needle with two points. How are you going to sew with a needle that has two points? As you start this way it gets stuck, and you put in the other point of the needle and it gets stuck that way, too. At the Abbey, we say it’s like being a turkey sitting on the fence when Thanksgiving is coming. The turkey doesn’t know what to do, so it sits on the fence exposed to everything, doubting what to do. We had a skit about that at one retreat. It was a very good skit actually. Some of the turkeys didn’t make it, though. [laughter]

Here’s what Nagarjuna says about doubt:

It’s just as when a person stands at a fork in the road and is so confused by doubt that he goes nowhere at all.

“Because I want to go this way, but if I go this way I can’t go that way. Maybe I should go that way. But if I go that way then I’m missing out on what’s over here. I don’t know which way to go because I don’t want to miss out on what I’m missing out on by not taking the other way.” So, you miss out on both things because you’re standing there the whole time.

In seeking realization of the true character of phenomena, doubt acts in just the same way.

You’re just standing there, not going anywhere at all. 

Because you remain doubtful, you don’t diligently seek to realize the true character of phenomena. This doubt comes forth from confusion or ignorance. Among all the detrimental mental factors, it is the worst. 

It’s interesting that he says, “It is the worst.” 

Although you may possess doubts while abiding in the world, you should still accord with the sublime and virtuous Dharma. Just as when you contemplate a fork in the road, you should follow the path which is most beneficial. 

Often when I have a decision to make and I’m in doubt about what to do, I ask myself, “Of the two or more choices, which situation will help me maintain good ethical conduct best?” Because one thing that’s very important to me is my ethical conduct, so which situation will help me maintain that? And which situation will be most beneficial for developing bodhicitta? That helps me to see more clearly what path to take. So, I do this instead of thinking about which one is going to make me happier. That’s when we get stuck: “If I do this, I won’t be happy. If I do that, will I be happy?” No, what matters is ethical conduct and bodhicitta.

The five hindrances sometimes can manifest as images in the mind, as ruminating thoughts, and as powerful emotions. 

Sometimes if the hindrance arises not so strongly, we can return our mind to our object of meditation and keep going. But sometimes when the hindrance is very strong, we must temporarily leave our object of meditation and reflect on another topic in order to actively counteract whatever affliction or hindrance is manifest, and to bring the mind to a more balanced state. 

This is why it’s very useful to have a lot of lamrim and thought training meditation under your belt before engaging in a lot of meditation to attain serenity. If you’ve done a lot of lamrim and thought training, you are developing the ability to work with your own mind. You know the antidotes. You have some habitual energy in applying the antidotes. You have some practice in identifying the affliction and knowing what to do. Having that kind of training beforehand makes doing concentration meditation much easier. If you don’t have that kind of training then when you sit down to meditate all sorts of things will come to mind, and you won’t know what to do with your mind. Your mind is just bouncing, and it’s all over the place, and you don’t know what to do. Sometimes you get so frustrated that you just get up and walk out.

I remember when I was first exploring different things, and I went to a meditation center. I don’t even know what the group was, but when you went into the hall, they didn’t want you to get up in the middle of the session and walk out because it was disruptive to people. But they gave no instruction about how to meditate. There was zero instruction. I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with my mind. I remember sitting there and just getting so frustrated. It was really dreadful. That’s why learning the Dharma and how to work with our mind before trying to develop strong concentration and receiving teachings on how to meditate is so important. It’s not just you close your eyes and then something happens, or you close your eyes and you let your imagination go wild.

Audience: How do you avoid getting stuck in applying the antidote and forgetting to come back to the object?

VTC: You apply the antidote and when your mind is balanced, you go back to the object. Let’s say the first hindrance—sensual desire, strong attachment—is coming up, and I can’t get my mind back by just turning it back to the object. Then temporarily, I might meditate on corpses or I might imagine the inside of the body. Then my mind kind of settles down, and it isn’t so attached to the body and getting distracted by it. Then I go back to my initial object of serenity.

Audience: Then you have to notice that your mind is settled. 

VTC: Yes. It’s not that you’re totally going to a different meditation altogether; you’re applying the antidote. It’s like when you get hurt—you put on a bandage and then you go back to what you were doing. You don’t sit there and keep putting on more and more bandages.

Audience: Is using sheer will to force yourself back to your object of meditation equitable to what you said before about ignoring all sensations of discomfort and not scratching a scratch and how that creates an imbalance of its own? You mentioned a while ago that if you sit absolutely still through sheer will even though you have an itch on your nose—or you said it in terms of sitting for hours on end when you’re not ready to sit for hours on end—is it the same thing, only mental not physical?

Audience: You shouldn’t push yourself in that way. You should use short sessions, not force yourself.

VTC: I never said sit there and force yourself through sheer will to do things that torture yourself.

Audience: You were specifically speaking against doing that? I’m wondering if the mental equivalent of that is not applying antidotes, but just willing yourself back to your object.

VTC: Okay, I think I understand now. For some people, sheer will works. For other people, it doesn’t work at all. Some teachers teach that you don’t move and you absolutely sit there. Other teachers say if it gets so bad that it’s disturbing your concentration, move your body. Different teachers have different styles. Personally, the way I was trained was you don’t scratch and do something the first time you get distracted, otherwise you never concentrate at all. Even with a mental distraction, you don’t immediately change and apply an antidote. You try to take your mind back to your object of meditation. But if the distraction, be it physical or mental, is so strong that it really becomes an interference in your meditation, then you move your leg or apply the antidote to the mental one.

Sheer will can mean so many different things to different people, and you don’t want to be thinking, “I am going to concentrate no matter what.” If you do that to your mind, your mind gets so tight that you’re going to have a lot of distractions. It’s a very delicate balance. You have to learn through trial-and-error how to work with your own mind. You have to learn when to nudge it and push it a little bit and when to say, “Okay, that’s enough.” The moment there’s a distraction we tend to either fall apart or we clench up, so I think you have to learn to be skillful. It’s very important. Otherwise, if you’re not skillful you get what the Tibetans call lung, which is an imbalance in your wind energies and your chi. It’s better to do lung prevention than lung remediation—when you can prevent it. It’s like anything.

Audience: I’m pretty sure you said that the antidote to doubt was to choose a decision that was ethically superior or that was cultivating bodhicitta.

VTC: That’s not exactly the remedy to doubt. I’m saying that when I have a decision to make, the two factors that help me make that decision are ethical conduct and bodhicitta. I ask myself which choice will foster those two better. The actual remedy to doubt can be breathing meditation. You need to do something to just settle the mind and stop the spinning. When your mind is just having a lot of doubt then just come back and watch your breath—let the mind settle down. 

Also, I think sometimes the mind gets so engaged in planning and doubt: “Should I do this? Should I do that?” We’re kind of thinking, “Right now I have to make the decision about what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” Then we get anxious about that, and we’re stuck in doubt. It’s helpful to remind ourselves that we don’t need to make a decision now. We don’t need to decide the rest of our lives right now. When the time is right, we can make a decision and then see how things go and evaluate later. And if that decision doesn’t work out we can change it, and we can do something else. In other words, we need to somehow stop the anxiety that comes with the doubt. Are you a candidate for the High Achievers Neurotics Society? [laughter] Okay, that’s too bad. Well, someday if you think you’re a candidate let us know. [laughter]

Counteracting hindrances

Here are some ways to counteract the hindrances. This is coming from the Pali sutra called The Sutra on the Removal of Distracting Thoughts. Here the Buddha teaches five methods for training the mind when it loses the meditation object. First, of course, we should try and return our attention to the meditation object and renew our mindfulness on that. If we’ve gotten distracted, it’s because our mindfulness has weakened. 

So, there’s the first of the five: 

Pay attention to another object, such as a virtuous object.

More precisely, we contemplate the opposite of the thought or the emotion that’s distracting us. 

For attachment to material possessions, we contemplate impermanence [that they disappear]. For sexual desire, we contemplate the parts of the body. For anger and resentment and grudge-holding towards sentient beings, we contemplate love. For anger at inanimate things, we analyze them into the four elements [earth, water, fire, air]. For aversion to different situations, we contemplate that they are a result of our previous karma and of circumstances that we don’t have control over in this life [such as other people’s actions or the weather]. 

That helps us not have so much aversion to different situations. 

For intellectual doubt, we study the teachings. 

We doubt because we need more information, so we study. 

For emotional doubt, we contemplate the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

That’s the first method—to train the mind to give attention to another object. The second method is to examine the danger and the disadvantages of that particular hindrance. For example, think: “This hindrance causes my own and others’ suffering now and in the future.” So, you think of how malice or sensual desire or doubt or restlessness cause suffering to ourselves and others now and also in the future. Another thing you can contemplate in terms of the dangers and disadvantages is that they obstruct wisdom. They cause difficulties on the path, and they lead us away from liberation and awakening. Also, they’re like a carcass of a snake, a dog, or a human being hanging around our neck. Sometimes that image is enough to shock us, to tear our mind away from that particular hindrance—thinking of it as a carcass around your neck that stinks and smells and follows you everywhere and burdens you. It’s heavy to carry around.

The third technique is to not give attention to those thoughts, to just forget about them. This resembles turning our head away from something that we don’t want to see. In the break times, do something else so that your attention doesn’t go to these thoughts. If you’re stuck, if this particular hindrance is afflicting you in your meditation, then in the break time do something that completely takes your mind away from those kinds of thoughts. Wash some dishes, shovel some snow, roll some mantra, vacuum, go for a walk—do something that will take your attention away from those thoughts.

The fourth one is to give attention to stilling the thought formation of those thoughts. For example, ask yourself, “Why am I thinking this? What are all the factors that led to this thought or emotion coming into my mind?” This is very interesting because here you’re analyzing that thought. “What are the factors that caused this thought or this emotion to come into my mind? What are the factors that are sustaining it staying in my mind? What is the effect of holding on to these things?” Or it’s also good to analyze: “Where did these thoughts come from? Where were they before they came into my mind, and where do they disappear when they go out of my mind?” 

Another way to still the thought formation is to watch the thoughts flow by from a detached viewpoint. So, completely detach yourself and just watch the thoughts go by without jumping in and actively thinking about them and getting immersed in them. That can be very difficult to do, but it’s one of the techniques. The Buddha called the fifth one “crushing mind with mind.” That means to crush the nonvirtuous mental state with a virtuous one.

We have to learn how to apply these five properly—in different types of circumstances, in the proper way, and at the proper time. As we get some familiarity with this, it becomes easier to do, and doing it brings the results that we want. When I was in Thailand, the teacher at the wat where I was staying said that watching your breath and saying “boo doe”—“boo” when you inhale, “doe” when you exhale—is using the conceptual mind, because just repeating anything to yourself or saying a mantra is conceptual. But it’s a very good use of the conceptual mind to still the mental chatter. He also said to meditate on love and to think about the kindness of others. If you have a dull mind, visualize sunlight. In this way, using thought and visualization is very beneficial to rebalance the mind. 

This is very different from the kind of conceptualization that becomes an obstruction to meditation. When we’re anxious and there are all these concepts swirling around in our mind, that kind of conceptualization is a hindrance to concentration. But this other kind of conceptualization—when we’re thinking about the kindness of sentient beings or when we’re saying a mantra—can be very helpful in balancing the mind and taking it back so that we can return to our original object of concentration.

Relief from hindrances

There’s a very nice passage here where the Buddha gives several similes for the relief and freedom that one feels when the five hindrances have been subdued. Subduing all five is not going to happen by Thursday, but this is the kind of thing you feel when you’ve been able to do that. 

Suppose a person were afflicted, suffering and gravely ill, and his food would not agree with him, and his body had no strength, but later he would recover from the affliction and his food would agree with him and his body would regain strength. Then on considering this, he would be glad and full of joy. 

This is the kind of happiness you feel when the five hindrances have been subdued. 

Or suppose a person were a slave, not autonomous but dependent on others, unable to go where he wants. But later on he would be released from slavery, independent of others, a free person to go where he wants. 

It’s like freeing your mind so that you can do with your mind whatever you want instead of having it enslaved by the hindrances. 

Then on considering this, he would be glad and full of joy. 

Or suppose a person with wealth and property were to enter a road across the desert, but later on he would cross over the desert, safe and secure with no loss of his property. Then I’m considering this, he would be glad and full of joy. So, too, monastics, when these five hindrances are not abandoned in himself, a monastic sees them respectively as a debt, a disease, a prison, slavery, and a road across the desert. But when these five hindrances have been abandoned in himself, he sees that as freedom from debt, good health, released from prison, freedom from slavery, and a land of safety.

Here’s another quotation from the sutra that talks about the gradual process of purifying the mind. He uses the simile of a goldsmith that gradually purifies gold to illustrate this gradual process that’s not going to happen at once. 

He first washes the gold several times in order to separate the gold dust from the earth and the grit and the sand. He then puts it into a melting pot and repeatedly melts it to remove all the flaws, and only when the gold is pliant and workable and bright can the goldsmith make what he wishes with it. 

This is what we have to do with our mind. We have to get rid of all these impediments and impurities so that we can become the master of our mind instead of it being our master. Then we can use our mind for whatever we want to use it for. Here the Buddha explains the simile (this is, again, from Pali sutras):

It is similar, monastics, when a monastic devoted to the higher training and concentration, there are in him gross impurities, namely, bad conduct of the body, speech and mind. Such conduct an earnest, capable monastic abandons, dispels, eliminates and abolishes. 

So, you do that by keeping precepts—and using mindfulness and introspective awareness to keep your precepts

When he has abandoned these, there are still impurities of a moderate degree that cling to him, namely sensual thought, desire, thoughts of malice, and violent thoughts. Such thoughts an earnest, capable monastic abandons, dispels, eliminates and abolishes. When he has abandoned these, there are still some more subtle impurities that cling to him, namely thoughts about his relatives, his home country, his reputation. Such thoughts an earnest, capable monastic abandons, dispels, eliminates and abolishes. When he has abandoned these, there still remain thoughts about higher mental states experienced in meditation. That concentration is not yet peaceful and sublime. It is not yet attained to full serenity, nor has it achieved mental unification. It is maintained by strenuous suppression of the defilements. 

So, with concentration, you are suppressing the manifest defilements. This kind of suppression is not psychological suppression. Psychological suppression is unhealthy; this kind of suppression is elevating the mind to a certain level of concentration so that the five hindrances are temporarily suppressed. They haven’t been abandoned completely because you haven’t realized emptiness, but through the power of concentration, these things don’t plague your mind. 

But there still comes a time when his mind becomes inwardly steady, composed, unified and concentrated. This concentration is then calm and refined. It has attained to full serenity and achieved mental unification. It is not maintained by strenuous suppression of the defilement. 

At this point, the defilements are suppressed. You don’t have to keep applying the antidotes in a very conscious way. 

Then, to whatever mental state is realizable by direct knowledge, he directs his mind. He achieves the capacity of realizing that state. 

This means, for example, becoming an arhat—realizing emptiness like that. 

He achieves the capacity of realizing that state by direct knowledge whenever the necessary conditions occur. 

What that whole citation is telling us here is that the development of serenity happens gradually, and that things happen when the causes have been accumulated for them to happen. And they don’t happen until then.

Any questions so far?

Audience: I have a question regarding the object of meditation. If it’s more helpful for the concentration, can one use an image of words—like a letter or character, such as in calligraphy—as their object of meditation?

VTC: Yes, in some Buddhist meditations there is a letter, a seed syllable or something like that, you can use as your object of meditation.

Audience: I just wanted to make a comment that through all of my years of dealing with drowsiness and sleepiness, as I started to do more and more purification to remove that, I came to realize that all of my previous drug-taking and intoxicant-taking almost felt like it was getting stirred up to the surface. I had to really let go of all of the ways in which I numbed myself and the way in which I brought myself into some sort of semi-consciousness from all of the drugs and stuff. I was wondering if that also can be a cause for the sleepiness and the lethargy.

VTC: Oh yeah, for sure—this habit we have to self-medicate and to numb ourselves out instead of dealing with situations, using intoxicants to distract us, can sure make you drowsy.

Five faults and eight antidotes

Let’s start the next topic. We have the five faults and the eight antidotes. Here’s a quotation from Lama Atisha who advises us: 

Avoid all factors that hinder samadhi and cultivate conducive factors. Applying the eight forces for eliminating negativities, this is the rubbing stick, free from the moisture of attachment for igniting the fire of the spiritual path. Meditate in this way with intensity. 

If you have two moist sticks and rub them together, you’re not going to get fire. This is like rubbing a stick that’s free from the moisture of attachment, so when you rub it you can ignite the fire of the spiritual path. In that way, we figuratively burn up the negativities.

Now we’re going to go into the five faults and the eight antidotes. These are talked about in Maitreya’s Discrimination of the Middle Way, the Middle, and the Extremes. The first of these five faults is our favorite—laziness. Second is forgetting the instruction, which means forgetting the object of meditation. Third is agitation and laxity. Laxity is not the same as lethargy. It’s more subtle than lethargy, but these two are going together here as one. The fourth one is non-application of the antidotes. So, you should be applying an antidote, but you don’t. The second is over-application of the antidotes. So, you’ve applied the antidotes and solved the problem, but you keep applying the antidote. That’s kind of what you were asking earlier.

Then we have the eight factors that counteract these. Laziness has four factors for antidotes. The four other faults each have one each to make eight. The four for laziness are: First is confidence or faith (faith in the teachings and in the method that you’re learning); second is aspiration (aspiration to develop serenity); third is effort (based on having faith in the method, you aspire to attain it. Based on that aspiration, you put energy into doing it); then the fourth, the actual antidote that cures the laziness, is a mental factor called pliancy or flexibility. 

For the second hindrance—forgetting the object of meditation, which they call “forgetting the instruction”—the antidote is mindfulness. Here we really have to learn what mindfulness means in a Buddhist context. It’s not the mindfulness that they’re teaching you when you get an app. This is the mindfulness that helps you put your attention on the object of meditation in such a way that it doesn’t move off the object of meditation. This kind of mindfulness is really essential to developing serenity. It’s not mindfulness as it’s often used today, which means bare attention—just paying attention to whatever happens to arise in your mind. It’s not that. It’s having a specific object of meditation and anchoring your mind to that, being mindful of that object so that your mind doesn’t go off. That’s the antidote for forgetting the instruction. 

Then the antidote to agitation and laxity is introspective awareness, which is a mental factor that goes together with mindfulness. They’re usually talked about together. This is often translated as mental alertness, vigilance, introspection, clear awareness, or clear comprehension. It’s translated in a whole bunch of different ways, but it is a mental factor that monitors what’s going on in your mind, and if it sees that there’s agitation or laxity—or any other fault or hindrance—it rings the burglar alarm and gets you to apply the antidote. It’s the part of your mind that kind of surveys the situation to see if you’re still on your meditation object or not.

The fourth distraction was non-application of the antidotes, and that’s opposed by the seventh antidote, which is application of the antidotes. The fifth fault is over-application of the antidotes, and that’s opposed by the eighth antidote, which is equanimity—abiding in equanimity without keeping on applying the antidote. They often say that one is like having a kid that’s run away like your mind has run away to another object: when you get your child back, you don’t keep on saying, “Come here, come here,” because the child’s already back. Instead, you remain peaceful and equanimous and get on with what you need to do.

The next section goes into a lot of discussion about laziness. I’m thinking we should do that next time.

Audience: I’m getting pretty puzzled lately about the different kinds of equanimity we talked about. Could you review that quickly?

VTC: There are different kinds of equanimity. There’s one kind of equanimity where our mind is free of attachment, anger, and apathy toward sentient beings. That’s the equanimity that is preliminary to the seven-point instruction on cause and effect for developing bodhicitta. Then there’s the equanimity of the fourth dhyana. Once you attain serenity, after that there are the four dhyanas, and then after that there are the four formless absorptions. So, on the fourth dhyana they have freed their mind of rapture. They’ve freed their mind of bliss because those two things tend to be distracting. Instead they abide in equanimity, which is much more peaceful than either rapture or bliss, interestingly. So, that’s another type of equanimity. And then, I think this one here is the third kind of equanimity. The Tibetans usually talk about three kinds of equanimity. The Pali tradition talks about seven different kinds of equanimity, I think. It means different things in different situations.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yeah, this equanimity is stopping over-applying the antidotes.

Audience: Could you call concentration “continuous mindfulness?”

VTC: Concentration depends on continual mindfulness. When you study lorig—the mind and awareness—you see that concentration, mindfulness, and attention are different mental factors, but they all work together to help us focus the mind. But each one of them has a slightly different function.

Audience: What’s the best way to work through meditation becoming more and more challenging or difficult over time, feeling more restless, and feeling like it’s harder to concentrate than it was a few years ago?

VTC: Well, first of all, it could be that you’re more aware of what’s going on in your mind. Not that your mind is more restless, but that you’re just seeing it again. This sounds like a personal question, and it’s hard for me to give an answer to a personal question unless I have more information, so I’d really need to sit down and talk to this person to see. It may depend on other things that are going on in their life. It could depend on not knowing the way to meditate properly. I would need more information, so I can’t really give a very accurate answer online like this.

Audience: I was wondering if you’ve read where Bhikkhu Bodhi talks about the clear comprehension. He writes a lot about it being something that leads to wisdom. I’m wondering if that idea is in the Sanskrit tradition, if you’re aware of knowing about that?

VTC: Yeah, it isn’t described in that way, at least in the teachings on how to develop serenity. Maybe it’s described in that way in some other teachings that I haven’t heard. You do find that sometimes that the way different mental factors are described—even in different abhidharmas within the same tradition—is different, let alone between different traditions.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.